Monday, May 20, 2019

the all vulnerable God rings true...

For the past 40 years, an incremental exploration of theological images for God has been taking shape and form throughout the West. As Richard Rohr recently wrote: "I think we are in the beginnings of a Trinitarian Revolution. History has so long operated with a static and imperial image of God—as a Supreme Monarch and Critical Spectator living in splendid isolation from what he (and God is exclusively envisioned as male in this model) created. His love is perceived as unstable, whimsical, and preferential." This is not new to Christianity as Frederick Buechner's The Faces of Jesus should make that clear. This brilliant and accessible visual testimony documents the way our understanding of the one we call Christ has changed.

What is new is the creative depth and breadth of the movement to ground the gentleness of Jesus as the most authentic living icon of God. Let me suggest that this movement includes: the post WWII work of German theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Dorothee Soelle; the intuitive albeit it heavy-handed insights of the "God is dead" writers; the playful but profound words of Matthew Fox; much of the feminist/womanist schools; the best from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan; the confessional theology of Barbara Brown Taylor, Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris; much of Henri Nouwen's writing; the life and writing of Jean Vanier; Rene Girard; as well as Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. All of these writers and schools of thought - and more - have been struggling to do three things simultaneously: a) link the mystical tradition of Christianity to contemporary living; b) construct and articulate an understanding of the holy that bears witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and c) dismantle the violent legacy of empire that has shaped so much of Christian history and experience and replace it with Christ's tenderness. Rohr put it like this:  

Humans become like the God we worship. So it’s important that our God is good and life-giving. That’s why we desperately need a worldwide paradigm shift in Christian consciousness regarding how we perceive and relate to God. This shift has been subtly yet profoundly underway for some time, hiding in plain sight. In order to come together in politics and religion, to take seriously new scientific findings in biology and quantum physics, and for our species and our planet to even survive we must reclaim Relationship as the foundation and ground of everything.

Specifically, we must reclaim communion with Christianity's earliest wisdom that confesses that: "God’s power comes through powerlessness and humility. The Christian God is much more properly called all-vulnerable than almighty, which we should have suspected and intuited by the shocking metaphor “Lamb of God” found throughout the New Testament." Indeed, the work of RenĂ© Girard re: the revelation that Jesus as the Lamb of God exposes what history looks like from the perspective of the scape goat - a challenge to claim solidarity and salvation from the experience of the vanquished rather than the victors - is essential for a new ethics let alone the well-being of creation. (For more insights, please see: http://www.imitatio. org/brief-intro)

Poets, of course, have long claimed the freedom to cherish the tender God that Jesus reveals. I think particularly of Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, Denise Levertov. Pam McAllister, Scott Cairns and Carrie Newcomer. Musicians like Newcomer, Springsteen and Bruce Coburn do similar creative work. And now there is vigorous theological energy for tenderness:

When you experience God as all-vulnerable, then perhaps God stands in solidarity with all pain and suffering in the universe, allowing us to be participants in our own healing. This does not make sense to the logical mind, but to the awakened soul it somehow does. (Rohr) It certainly does for me...

The Gift - Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

while scrubbing the floor...

Funny day today turned out to be: unexpected hassles and blessings. I did a lot of interior cleaning in anticipation of some spiritual direction appointments next week and then the arrival of the Brooklyn gang for Memorial Day. There was lots of vacuuming Lucie hair as it infects the whole house in relentless and even unimaginable ways. When I got to the kitchen floor, after one serious scrubbing there were white, blotchy spots all over the wood. After another remedial wash I searched for a scrub brush and a plastic scouring pad - and used my thumb nail - for the three hours. Eventually, most of the spots were taken up. It seems that something I used to wash the wood recently left a filmy residue. I am clueless what caused the problem. But after a few hours of elbow grease, the natural wood had been liberated - even if it will need to be refinished this summer. 

Ordinarily I wouldn't bore you with such quotidian concerns, but while working to get things clean, two thoughts kept swimming around my heart. First, I had set this whole day aside for chores. I have always known that surprises happen, but for most of my life I haven't planned for them. For the past few years that is different. Whether baking bread, doing yard/garden work or cleaning the house I set my schedule up to allow for a full day. That gives me space and permission to fix the problems without feeling frazzled. Or anxious. Or resentful. That is crucial for me, allowing time for surprises be they delightful or challenging, so that I don't feel pressured to react. Rather, I can simply be, dealing with what is real, and carefully taking care of business. Unplugging from compound demands or multi-tasking lets me be gentle and tender in many trying moments. Not always - and not consistently - but with greater frequency. And from where I live, tenderness seems to be in short supply these days.

That was the second thought that kept popping up while working on the floor: the call to tenderness. Pope Francis said that the late Jean Vanier was a disciple of revolutionary tenderness - and that spoke to my heart, mind, body and soul. For many years, I believed the story and witness of Jesus as it was taught by the empire. To be sure, mine was a liberal take on religion, but still I built both my public and private life around winning. Acquiring power of different sorts. Even in pursuit of justice, winning was essential. Yes, it often felt like a dead-end. And more often than not left me feeling empty even in the various victories. But power is how I learned about God - God the Almighty - and the gods we worship shape our ethics, politics and habits.

Maybe twenty years ago, I sensed that the dominant paradigm for the holy was not only worn-out, but wrong. I didn't know an alternative, however, so like Luther under siege, I chose to trust that as one baptized into the grace of Jesus a new vision would be revealed at the right time. Even at his lowest, Luther would confess: "I have been baptized." During my sabbatical from pastoral ministry, two additional pieces of the puzzle were revealed. First, I was truly done doing ministry in the traditional manner. Second, I found that I was powerfully attracted to the Taize practice and theology of horizontal worship. Sitting on the floor as equals energized me. Inspired me. Lifted my heart. At the same time that I was moved to tears of joy while sitting on the floor in Taize worship in Montreal, I began to read Jean Vanier. His words about the tenderness of Jesus connected my feelings with a new/old theology that gave me hope. 

I have been letting the old notions of the empire's God slip away for the past four years. More and more, I have trusted the witness of Jesus as expressed by Vanier and L'Arche. So as this day became one of scrubbing the floor, there was time to reflect on how Archbishop Pierre d'Ornellas of Rennes put it during Jean Vanier's funeral mass: 

Bending down to wash his disciples' feet, Jesus makes himself weak before us, To touch our hearts and heal them he uses no other means than presenting himself as weak, as the least of the servants. And through his weakness, he washes our hearts, which are hardened by pride and barricaded in power, security and the certainty of being right, He is 'master and lord, but he lowered himself out of love. He is 'master' because of his tenderness and unending forgiveness, which raises us up and sets us back on our feet with trust and joy.

On that same day, Richard Rohr had written that a new and liberating theology of the Trinity was arising that teaches that: "God is all-vulnerable... (and when this is our foundation) then perhaps God stands in solidarity with all pain and suffering in the universe, allowing us to be participants in our own healing." I believe in paying attention to the connections. So, as old friend in Tucson used to say, "THAT dog hunts!" That understanding of God rings true. That way of being with Christ opens my heart and sets me free. 

Thinking of Jean's funeral while scouring my kitchen floor - and the call to real revolutionary tenderness unplugged from the empire - filled my heart. It was a small thing, those three hours on my hands and knees, but it was holy time for reflection and gratitude. At the end of the day, my mind went to this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called "Shadows."

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.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

returning thanks through jean vanier's funeral...

Like many whose life has been changed by Jean Vanier and the communities of L'Arche around the world, I watched his funeral from Trosly this morning. Like so many others, I prayed - and wept - and listened as Jean's life was celebrated and honored. And when it was complete, I was moved as people who loved him stood to bless Jean Vanier in preparation for his burial. 

The liturgy was infused with Jean Vanier's charism: the first reading came from the prophet Isaiah; the second lesson was St. Paul's confession that God is hidden but revealed to us through what the powerful consider foolish, weak and small; and then St. John's gospel where Jesus not only washes the feet of his friends, but demonstrates a new commandment with his body by loving one another in tender humility just as he has loved us. The homily was clear and faithful. It rang true and could not have been otherwise. The chapel resonated with chants from Taize. The wider community was given shape and form through personal reflections as well as those who carried symbols of Jean's life. And all were enveloped in grace as the Eucharist was celebrated. Perhaps the three most moving moments for me included:

+  Jean's helper and long time home companion who told us how he grew ever more weak during the last months of his life - unable to speak - but sharing with his hands. And then only his breath.

+ the prayers of blessing the community leader of Trosly offered while young people shared symbols of what each blessing meant to Jean.

+ and finally the song leader's invitation to sing "Jesus We Adore You" which Jean regularly shared with those who visited with him towards the end of his life.  

I woke early today and lit my own candles - inviting communion with the body in Trosly but also Ottawa - and felt gently surrounded by love. The liturgy closed with friends, family, core members and assistants stepping to the casket and sprinkling it with water as a final blessing - and my heart went to the Prayer of L'Arche... 
Father, through Jesus our Lord and our brother, we ask you to bless us.
Grant that L'Arche be a true home, where everyone may find life, 
where those of us who suffer may find hope.
Keep in your loving care all those who come.
Spirit of God, give us greatness of heart 
that we may welcome all those you send.
Make us compassionate that we may heal and bring peace.
Help us to see, to serve and to love.
O Lord, through the hands of each other, bless us; through the eyes of each other, smile on us.
O Lord, grant freedom, fellowship and unity to all your people 
and welcome everyone into your kingdom.
AMEN

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

unexpected tears for jean...

Last night, I began to weep over Jean Vanier's death. Everyone even remotely connected to L'Arche knew it was coming, perhaps Jean himself being the most aware. On the occasion of his 90th birthday last year, he posted "Ten Rules for Life." It was shared for the community but also for the world. I watched it when it was first made public and then again last night.

I never met Jean Vanier, but felt close to him nevertheless. Especially since I started visiting/volunteering with the L'Arche Ottawa community. After reading his books on a regular basis, I needed to know and experience more. By the grace of God I was led to the community of L'Arche in Ottawa, CA. Here my new friends welcomed me, invited me to make connections, taught me about love and forgiveness and humility, shared supper and hospitality with me, teased me when I took myself too seriously, laughed and prayed with me - and invited me to go deeper. The more I visited - the more I listened - the more I loved. I came to know and love Jean through L'Arche Ottawa. Of course, I knew I would never have the honor of meeting Jean in this life time; but growing closer in love to those in community impelled me to make a commitment a few years ago. I felt called to live into the L'Arche spirituality of embodied tenderness as a way of being real and whole in a broken and overly busy world. 

After serving God as a public person of faith and church pastor for 40 years, you see, my heart told me it was was time for a change. My soul knew that my days of public engagement was over. That era had its own measure of meaning and value, of course, and I would never want to exchange any of the profound pastoral connections I made in the four local congregations I served. Still, I was now fraught with anxiety, felt the chill of emptiness within, and knew the sacred was calling me into a new way of being faithful. As Jean himself had to learn - and Fr. Richard Rohr made so clear to those of us in the second half of life - it was now time for me to make peace with my weaknesses and fears before I could authentically share more of Christ's love. “All of us have a secret desire to be seen as saints, heroes, martyrs," Vanier wrote in Community and Growth, "We are afraid to be children, to be ourselves... and true growth only starts when we begin to accept our own weaknesses." In fits and starts that still continue, I found this to be true; and began to slowly reorder how I used my time, gifts, resources and prayer to live into the truth of this insight as faithfully as I could: 

Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.... To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance. (Vanier, Community and Growth)

When news of Jean's death came across the Internet, I was in San Francisco. I had been blessed when one of my oldest friends invited me to be the celebrant at his wedding. It was a festival of joy and commitment and I was filled full to overflowing with love. Being on the West Coast also gave me the chance to see my younger brother, Phil, and his wife, Julie. That, too, was grace upon grace.

And then the news of Jean's death came. I sat quietly backing my suitcase. I held complex feelings of loss and sorrow within even as a few tears snuck out. For the next seven days I sat with these feelings; they did not rise to the surface nor did I know what to do with them. I was grateful that for Jean all suffering and pain was over. I trust the truth of Christ's life, death and resurrection that we will all be made whole in a life beyond life and death by God's grace. Like St. Paul said: "we do not grieve as those who have no hope." And that is true.

Then, without warning, silent tears burned my eyes. I ached to be in community with my friends in Ottawa even as I knew that was impossible. I found myself praying to the Lord about how sad Jean's death felt to me - and more than me for all those who knew and cherished him for decades - for the L'Arche communities across the world. For the Pope. For the Archbishop of Canterbury. For core members of every faith, race, gender, culture and class. So much sorrow. Such a vivid emptiness. Long ago, having read these words from Frederick Beuchner, I embraced their prophetic wisdom:

YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

Tomorrow, in solidarity and faith, joy and sorrow, I will take part in Jean's funeral on-line with thousands of others across the world. I will have my candles lit especially for my friends in Ottawa as they weep and rejoice. And I will give thanks to God for the life, witness, teaching, death and new life given to the Lord's servant, Jean Vanier, by the grace of God.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

centering prayer, cynthia bourgeault and jean vanier...

"Let yourself become useless," wrote the late Henri Nouwen about the heart of prayer. "Prayer is not a way of being busy with God instead of with people. In fact, it unmasks the illusion of busyness, usefulness, and indispensability. It is a way of being empty and useless in the presence of God and so of proclaiming our basic belief that all is grace and nothing is simply the result of hard work." (Nouwen Society Daily Meditation, 5/13/19) I read much the same thing last night in Cynthia Bourgeault's book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. In addition to articulating how to practice centering prayer, she offers readers both a concise history of Christian contemplative spirituality as well as a theology of this practice. At the theological core of Centering Prayer are two key Biblical texts from the New Testament. 

The first is found in St. Matthew's gospel, chapter 16, verse 25: "Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will find it." Bourgeault makes the point that living into the way of Jesus is a commitment to dying to ourselves - and by ourselves she means our false, broken and/or wounded realities. 

In classic Christian moral theology, dying to self is generally interpreted as dying to self-will. In other words, we all have our wants, needs, preferences, opinions, and agendas, some of which may be authentic expressions of our being, but many of which are motivated (or at least aggravated)by fear and self-importance. Dying to self means being willing to let go of what I want (or think I want) in order to create space for God to direct, lead, and guide me into a truer way of being.

Traditionally, this is expressed in the prayer, "Thy will - not my will - be done." It certainly has a time-tested place in the life of faith. But those nurturing prayers from the center of our being suggest another perspective: that of joining Jesus in his death. "The practice of meditation is indeed an authentic experience of dying to self - not at the level of the will, however, but at the level of something even more fundamental: our core identity and egoic processing methods that keep it in place."

When we enter meditation, it is like a "mini-death," at least from the perspective of the ego (which is why it can initially feels so scary...) We simply entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness, gently pulling the plug on that tendency of the mind to want to check in with itself all the time ... In this sense, meditation is a mini-rehearsal for the hour of our own death, in which the same thing will happen. There comes a moment when the ego is no longer able to hold us together, and our identity is cast to the mercy of Being itself... (In this) we not only participate in the death of Christ, we also participate in his resurrection. At the end of those twenty minutes of sitting, when the bell is rung, we are still here! Something has held us and carried us. And this same something, we gradually come to trust, will hold and carry us at the hour of our death. To know this - really know this - is the beginning of a resurrection life.
(Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pp.80-81)

As many of you know, Jean Vanier passed from this life into life eternal on Tuesday of last week. I have been praying for and with him almost daily since that time - and for my dear friends at L'Arche Ottawa, too. Jean clearly died a good death. He trusted in his heart, soul and body that God's love would continue after life in this realm was over. He went gently - saturated in grace - into a life beyond life. As the United Church of Canada puts it an their faith affirmation: In life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone. Jean Vanier knew that on this side of eternity and trusted it as he crossed over. For me, his witness continues beyond the grave. (For those interested in joining Jean's funeral on Thursday, please go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload= 9&v= hUM3P61neXU&feature=youtu.be at 8:00 am EST.) 
The second New Testament passage that gives shape and form to Centering Prayer comes from St. Paul in Philippians 2: 5-11. It is a hymn that affirms and confirms the downward path of Christ's spirituality.

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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.


Christian theologians speak of this as kenosis - self-emptying - and it is often attributed to Christ's divine nature. Bourgault writes, "Eros (human love) is our way to God; agape (divine love) is God's way to us. Human love (traditionally) goes up, divine love comes down... But what if these two types of love are two pathways to the same love: two operational modes withing the cosmos with equally legitimate but very different purposes?"

Western Christian spirituality has favored hierarchy: ladders, stairways, and the journey of ascent. Many believe the Beatitudes as articulated by Jesus in St. Matthew 5 are discrete steps towards spiritual maturity: after achieving one level, we move on to the next, acquiring more wisdom and serenity in stages. But as Jean Vanier documented with his life - and Cynthia Bourgeault (and Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating) articulate in their articulation of Centering Prayer - while "the vast majority of meditation methods are built on the model of 'storing' or 'attaining' - where one concentrates so as to attain clear mind..."

Centering prayer aims to attain nothing: not clear mind, steady-state consciousness, or unitive seeing. It is a prayer that simply exercises "self-emptying," (trusting) a love made full in the act of giving itself away.

Centering Prayer strikes me as the way of Jesus, who emptied himself in love by being present, alive and attentive in real life to the world. Jesus took time away from the busyness of life to rest in God's grace. He then returned, not to acquire power or status, but to be present in love with those who are often forgotten or marginalized. The path of Jesus is downward. The way of Jesus is small. The soul of Jesus is letting go in generosity and trust.

More than in any other place, L'Arche Ottawa has shown me what the love of Jesus looks like in real life. As I have visited and shared music, supper and chores with the community, I have encountered a love that is generous, small, and honest. By listening to the stories of others - and by being present in community from time to time - I have started to trust that Jean's wisdom is my path into holiness:  "Sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” As he was fond of saying, we must not talk about love, we must do it! More than ever before, I believe that the combination of trusting community - and entering trust of God through Centering Prayer - is essential for my loving presence to ripen in this strange, often cruel but profoundly beautiful moment in time. I am not very good at being in either community or prayer, but trust by trusting grace it will slowly take root within. And for this, I am grateful.

Friday, May 10, 2019

gratitude...

With a head cold and sore throat after a full and satisfying trip to Northern California, I'm not quite able to work on the reflection I wanted to share. if it comes to birth, wonderful. If not, that's fine, too. Besides, this picture by Dianne De Mott and poem by Barbara Crooker probably say it better anyhow...

GRATITUDE

This week, the news of the world is bleak, another war
grinding on, and all these friends down with cancer,
or worse, a little something long term that they won’t die of
for twenty or thirty miserable years—
And here I live in a house of weathered brick, where a man
with silver hair still thinks I’m beautiful. How many times
have I forgotten to give thanks? The late day sun shines
through the pink wisteria with its green and white leaves
as if it were stained glass, there’s an old cherry tree
that one lucky Sunday bloomed with a rainbow:
cardinals, orioles, goldfinches, blue jays, indigo buntings,
and my garden has tiny lettuces just coming up,
so perfect they could make you cry: Green Towers,
Red Sails, Oak Leaf. For this is May, and the whole world
sings, gleams, as if it were basted in butter, and the air’s
sweet enough to send a diabetic into shock—
And at least today, all the parts of my body are working,
the sky’s clear as a china bowl, leaves murmur their leafy chatter,
finches percolate along. I’m doodling around this page,
know sorrow’s somewhere beyond the horizon, but still, I’m riffing
on the warm air, the wingbeats of my lungs that can take this all in,
flush the heart’s red peony, then send it back without effort or thought.
And the trees breathe in what we exhale, clap their green hands
in gratitude, bend to the sky


picture by Dianne De Mott: Greenwich Street, San Francisco

Thursday, May 9, 2019

chaos, fear, death and a new beginning...

A creative confluence of ideas, feelings, prayers, texts, images, insights, songs, poems, and events seems to be taking form within me of late. Or maybe I am just letting the influences in my soul connect. Whatever is going on, I felt my inner fog start to burn off last week while talking with my brother. As we entered City Lights Bookstore in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, he was telling me about the birthday party for the City's Poet Laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who just celebrated 100 years of life "He's still got it," Phil said robustly, "and he's still talking about the dream." I was browsing through a graphic novel based on the life and wisdom of Herbert Marcuse - already a trip as a graphic novel, right!?! - when my brother's enthusiasm for Ferlinghetti's new book, Little Boy, and the German philosopher's commitment to a revolution of joy became one. Brother Lawrence put it like this in his free verse jeremiad, "I Am Waiting." 

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder.

Brother Herbert was more didactic, but no less passionate when he wrote:

Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle...The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. 

Later that afternoon, sitting outside Cafe Trieste sipping caffeinated brews, we pondered the fate of North Beach. Once the heart of the Beat Generation, a bastion of free thinkers exploring what it means to know that "the best minds of our generation have been destroyed by madness" and can only be healed by beauty and love, the hood is now awash with ahistorical young techy hipsters who became millionaires at 24 and raised the rent for everyone else. My mind went to T Bone Burnett's keynote address at SXSW. A music industry insider, Burnett sounded like a 21st century Ferlinghetti or Marcuse albeit with a 21st century awareness that in our technocratic age, our emotions and ethics are manipulated by social media. Our politics, culture and economics have been reduced to the lowest common denominator that can turn a fast buck, too:     

I am going to begin today with a quote from Marshall McLuhan from his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy“Instead of tending toward a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.” I would like to come to you today with a message of unity and love and peace, and I will try to get there by the end, but I have to begin by stating a fact that must be becoming obvious to most people by now - the fact that we are in a battle, a battle for the survival of our species, and our enemy, is within... and artists are our only hope for salvation. (check it out en toto @ https://livemusicblog .com/news/watch-t-bone-burnett-keynote-speech-sxsw-2019/

When I returned to City Lights to get a t-shirt, I read the opening quote in the recent edition of ADBUSTERS. It is taken from the March 2019 book, The Second Coming, by Italian neo-Marxist, Franco Berardi, who writes:

We have entered the gates to the apocalypse. This theological concept is the best metaphor to describe the world in which we are already living. Chaos is all around us: political folly, economic delirium ecological catastrophe, intellectual cynics, technological simulation of life. One century after the Communist revolution, the very idea that the world could be changed for the better seems dead once and for all. Every time a new change occurs nowadays, it seems a change for the worse. But the fact that nothing can save us anymore shouldn't be seen as a form of surrender or fatalism. On the contrary, if our world is dead, then the space is open for another to appear: a world where the apocalypse can shake us out of our contemporary zombie-like existence.

And later that night while reading the novel, Goulash by Brian Kimberling, about an American ex-pat teaching English in Prague, these words popped up before I went to sleep:

America (had become a nation of) guns, Republicans, megachurches, personal injury lawyers and five square meters of television screen per household, headache-inducing beer, and far, far too much space that was relentlessly paved. It had laws determined by pressure groups, a language debased by idiots, and a mythology based on subliterate kids chasing cattle.

Juxtapose the collapse of this era and the challenge and chaos of our current context with the joy of the wedding I presided over last weekend and the truly good, noble, hope-filled and holy death of Jean Vanier the founder of L'Arche. Such wildly different values were at work in these later events, yes? At the wedding, we paid homage to the unexpected and undeserved gift of love and grace that has come upon two old friends living into the second half of life. It was a festival of tenderness, of living into the risk of vulnerability, and stepping up to the ever-changing dance of intimacy. It was beautiful - and my heart was full to overflowing for both my dear friends and all who gathered. For a moment in time, we were all on holy ground.

And Brother Jean's death? While sad, to be sure, and not unexpected, his last message to the L'Arche community cuts to the chase: 
The cycle of God's presence continues: new life erupts from death beyond our wildest imaginations. A new world is being crafted by those willing to climb down the social ladder rather than just scrambling up to get ahead. New hearts are being healed by those living into their fears with the trust that God's love is greater than all our stumbling blocks - including death. New music, poetry, art, and movies are popping up through the cracks of the old order offering us a vision of beauty and awe beyond the carnage. And I have encountered new souls being reborn as we learn to experience and trust the first word of God - creation - rather than relying solely upon technology, stress or cash. After working in our yard and garden yesterday and today, I am certain of it.
Interestingly, the last page in the ADBUSTERS journal dedicated to "a new mythology" quotes the late Mary Oliver's poem, "When Death Comes" as part of our new consciousness:

When it's over, I want to say:
     all my life
I was a bride married to 
     amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking
     the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to
     wonder
if I have made of my life
     something particular, and
     real.
I don't want to find myself
     sighing and frightened
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply
     having visited this world.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

the holy ground of quiet presence....

On Monday of this week, I had the privilege of playing DJ as some truly talented and brave poets gathered for the monthly "Word X Word Poetry Reading." About 55+ people gathered at the Berkshire Museum for an hour of poems, sharing, community building and being together with complicated differences, truths and insights. There was laughter and awe, tears and silence. We were old and young and in-between. We were women, men, bi and gender fluid individuals as well as rich, poor and working people who were open to trusting the spirit of truth and beauty together - at least for an hour. I had fun mixing songs between the poems and setting the groove before the reading opened. I can't wait to do it again next month.

After wards, a young man stopped me and asked, "Didn't you used to be the pastor of First Church right across the street?" I smiled and said, "Yes, it was my privilege to serve that community for 10 years." He paused and then smiled shyly adding, "I have wanted to stop over and tell you something that happened years and years ago... but I never got around to it. One morning, I woke up and just felt like I needed to go to church. I was raised in the church but was never particularly religious. But my girl friend and I had just gone through a horrible time. She was hurting and in grief. And my world felt upside down and ripped apart. So we just went. And wound up at your church." I nodded silently as he continued: "What I wanted to tell you is that just being there was so healing. And calming. The people were kind and open. And the music lifted me in just the right way. I am so glad I saw you tonight so that I could tell you how much being there meant to me."

Creating safe space - like at church or the poetry reading - is crucial when individuals find themselves aching and alone. To gather together with music, art, silence and gentle words in a non-judgmental setting can be life saving. I know it is life altering. In this too fast, too full, too demanding culture, this is quiet work - a ministry of presence - that goes on in good times and bad. I know that sometimes when I was doing ministry full time, I failed to appreciate the significance of just sharing a quiet presence. But over the years I cam to cherish it. I left the poetry reading on Monday returning thanks to God for the importance of sharing a quiet presence. I also thanked God for the poetry, community and music that was shared. It was holy ground.  

Thursday, April 25, 2019

beyond our differences in the resurrection...

I like the work Fr. Richard Rohr and others are doing re: the universal wisdom and presence of Jesus. Rohr recently posted this - and it rings true to me. He is talking about spiritual formation and notes that in our era, for a variety of good and often complicated reasons, "most folks do not seem to think they need (a road) map, especially when they are young." The Jesuit priest, James Martin, writes much the same thing in his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. There are solid intellectual reasons for resisting traditional spiritual formation as well as valid cultural, emotional, historical and psychological ones, too. At the same time, both Martin and Rohr suggest that without focus, direction, training and interaction with a faith community, most of us will remain spiritually immature - or stagnant.

This isn't to denigrate a faith journey - shaming through theological arrogance has no place in the community of Christ's compassion. In true tenderness and vulnerability, it remains true that no one matures and ripens without guidance. St. Paul put it poetically: when I was a child, I thought, spoke and acted like a child; but now that I have matured I must put childish things away. (I Corinthians 13) James Fowler, using a broad outline suggested by Erik Erickson's stages of psychological development and amplified by Piaget, posits a comparable overview in his Stages of Faith

To be sure, Fowler's overview has been used mechanically by some in a manner much like the rigidly linear applications some have applied to the stages of grief first articulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross - causing unnecessary stress, pain and judgment - but I believe that there is still wisdom to be mined from Fowler's work. If nothing else, it clarifies the need for creative spiritual formation. (For more information, please go to: http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html)



Consider what Rohr posted about Easter: "Nowadays most folks do not seem to think they need that map, especially when they are young. But the vagaries and disappointments of life’s journey eventually make us long for some overall direction, purpose, or goal beyond getting through another day."

All who hold any kind of unexplainable hope believe in resurrection, whether they are formal Christians or not, and even if they don’t believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead. I have met such people from all kinds of backgrounds, religious and nonreligious. Personally, I do believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus because it affirms what the whole physical and biological universe is also saying—and grounds it in one personality. Resurrection must also be fully practical and material. If matter is inhabited by God, then matter is somehow eternal, and when the creed says, we believe in the “resurrection of the body,” it means our bodies too, not just Jesus’ body! As in him, so also in all of us. As in all of us, so also in him. So I am quite conservative and orthodox by most standards on this important issue, although I also realize it seems to be a very different kind of embodiment post-resurrection as suggested by the Gospel accounts.

James Martin, writing in the Jesuit magazine, America, stated something similar in his post-Easter reflection. "I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter Sunday. I do not see that as any sort of parable or metaphor. This is, frankly, the very heart of my faith."

Theological approaches differ, but, in essence, some theologians offer the story of how, as the disciples came to reflect on the life and death of Jesus Christ, he became “present” to them in a new way, through the Spirit. This, in turn, empowered them to proclaim the good news of his Gospel. Some theologians offer this as a more credible or contemporary way of understanding the “resurrection.” But there is a problem with this idea of the resurrection as the after-effects of a “shared memory.” ... Only something as vivid, dramatic and, in a word, real as the multiple appearances by the risen Christ could have moved the disciples from abject fear (cowering behind closed doors) to being willing to give their lives for Jesus. Nothing else can credibly account for the transformation of terrified disciples into willing martyrs. (America, https://www.
americamagazine.org/faith/2019/04/23/literal-flesh-and-blood-resurrection-heart-my-faith)

Personally, my faith has been shaped and refined by my trust in the mystical and physical resurrection of Jesus. Like Martin and Rohr I trust - but cannot explain - that the glorified body of Jesus was one of "radical newness, a complete novelty, the unrepeatable quality of what the disciples were experiencing (was a revelation.) As the glorified body is something no one had encountered before—or has since." At the same time I hold the paradoxical belief that other encounters and understandings of Christ's resurrection are valid, too. I know that I do not have a monopoly upon wisdom. Neither do the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed or Evangelical faith traditions. "Now we see as through a glass darkly," said St. Paul, "later we shall see face to face." And how many times have I had to learn this truth!?!

It is, for me, much like the various tradition's competing understandings of Eucharist: consubstantiation, transubstantiation, memorial meal, ordinance, commandment or mystical encounter beyond the limits of time and space? My hunch is that Eucharist is all of the above - and more - turning our limited truths into complimentary poems rather than competing doctrines. All I know is that whenever people of good will of any tradition - or none at all - come to receive something of Christ's body and blood at Holy Communion, they come in awe, reverence and openness. This experience leads me to apply the same generous mystery to Christ's resurrection.  Rohr adds:

In the resurrection, the single physical body of Jesus moved beyond all limits of space and time into a new notion of physicality and light—which includes all of us in its embodiment. Christians called this the “glorified body,” and it is similar to what Hindus and Buddhists sometimes call the “subtle body.” This is pictured by a halo or aura, which Catholics placed around “saints” to show that they already participated in the one shared Light. This is for me a very helpful meaning for the resurrection of Jesus, which might be better described as Jesus’ “universalization,” a warping of time and space, if you will. Jesus was always objectively the Universal Christ, but his significance for humanity and for us was made ubiquitous, personal, and attractive for those willing to meet Reality through him. Many do meet Divine Reality without this “shortcut,” and we must be honest about that. Only “by the fruits will you know” (Matthew 7:16–20). People who are properly aligned with Love and Light—“enlightened”—will always see in holistic ways, regardless of their denomination or religion.


Now it is time to get back to my garden. It is one of my learning places these days - a quiet center of holy renewal - that speaks to me of love, beauty and trust beyond all words. Yesterday, while taking down dead branches, I noticed a few hyacinths were in blossom And today the once shy daffodils are sharing their beauty throughout the yard. All shall be revealed at the right time, right?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

i need the symbols of this season to reset my heart: easter reflections

Christ is risen - he is risen indeed! We are home in the quiet solitude of the rolling Berkshire hills. Spring is truly making her appearance known as I uncover more and more tiny blue flowers called "glory of the snow." After a full and joy-filled Holy Week in the city, caring and being cared for by loved ones in Brooklyn including feasting with our family and the intensity of worship within the cycle of the Triduum, it is time for reflection.

The season of Easter is all about searching for and celebrating life in all its wonder. In my small part of creation, the daffodils are aching for a little more sun before they share their glory. Soon their vibrant shades of yellow will bless us, banishing the grays of winter for a season followed by tulips, lilies, and lilacs. The Easter proclamation of my tradition, "Christ is risen," is not triumphal, but rather an invitation to honor all the places where life is breaking through the tombs of cynicism and despair. Easter asks us: where do we see love and creativity bringing hope to birth? In this culture? In our body? In each moment?  Fr. Richard Rohr recently put it like this:

Easter isn’t celebrating a one-time miracle as if it only happened in the body of Jesus and we’re all here to cheer for Jesus... but it is the message most Western Christians have been told. When Christianity split into East and West in 1054, both sides lost a piece of the puzzle... (with Western Christianity celebrating) Jesus walking alone out of the tomb carrying a white flag, as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” (Our) theology) declared “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual... The Eastern Church saw the resurrection in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ... (In the mystical Orthodox tradition) Jesus pulls Adam and Eve, symbols of all humanity, out of hell... (which is) a hopeful message that is not only about Jesus but about society, humanity, and history itself. Brothers and sisters, if we don’t believe that every crucifixion - war, poverty, torture, hunger - can somehow be redeemed, who of us would not be angry, cynical, hopeless? No wonder Western culture seems so skeptical today. It all doesn't mean anything, it’s not going anywhere, because we (don't have a) wider and cosmic vision of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter is not just the final chapter of Jesus’ life, but the final chapter of history. Death does not have the last word. For Christ is not just pulling Adam and Eve out of hell. He’s pulling creation out of hell. (https://cac.org/the-death-of-death-2019-04-21/)

In many cases, new life appears in fragility. It is small and vulnerable. Like the crocuses in my garden, the new life of Easter needs time and nourishment to mature. That is why the liturgical season of Eastertide is fifty days. We need time to practice and enter the mystery. It is far easier to notice only the gray, mottled leaves of winter still covering parts of the garden. For years I was too distracted by chores, tasks, and my various obsessions and addictions to pay attention to what lies just below the surface. Without the
 time, space, and desire necessary for real contemplation, I missed the subtle presence of the new life all around me. I suspect I am not unique in this: feeling overwhelmed, responsible, cynical, and exhausted blinds us to the cosmic renewal inaugurated at Easter. That is why I find the worship cycle of the Triduum restorative: it brings silence, critical reflection, confession, absolution, and grace into my heart. And as Henri Nouwen has written: "Purity of heart allows us to see more clearly, not only our own needy, distorted, and anxious self but also the caring face of our compassionate God." 

In our milieu the word heart has become a soft word. It refers to the seat of a sentimental life. Expressions such as “heartbroken” and “heartfelt” show that we often think of the heart as the warm place where the emotions are located in contrast to the cool intellect where our thoughts find their home. But the word heart in the Jewish and Christian tradition refers to the source of all physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional, and moral energies. From the heart arise unknowable impulses as well as conscious feelings, moods, and wishes. The heart, too, has its reasons and is the center of perception and understanding. Finally, the heart is the seat of the will: it makes plans and comes to good decisions. Thus the heart is the central and unifying organ of our personal life. Our heart determines our personality, and is, therefore, not only the place where God dwells but also the place to which Satan directs his fiercest attacks. It is this heart that is the place of prayer. The prayer of the heart is a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of the person and thus affects the whole of our humanness. The prayer of the heart... gives us eyes to see the reality of our existence. This purity of heart allows us to see more clearly, not only our own needy, distorted, and anxious self but also the caring face of our compassionate God. When that vision remains clear and sharp, it will be possible to move into the midst of a tumultuous world with a heart at rest. It is this restful heart that will attract those who are groping to find their way through life. When we have found our rest in God we can do nothing other than minister. God’s rest will be visible wherever we go and to whomever we meet. And before we speak any words, the Spirit of God, praying in us, will make his presence known and gather people into a new body, the body of Christ himself.

Nouwen's words, "it is a restful heart that will attract those who are groping to find their way through life" rings true for me. Not only have I been attracted to those who are grounded in grace, especially when I have been at loose ends, but I have found that when I, too am grounded, people find me. Not because they want to be proselytized or converted, but rather because they seek a moment of shelter from the storm. A chance to explore with another person new options without judgment. A living being with whom to share some of their story in safety. To be listened to and heard is a great blessing at any time, but it is especially sacred when our hearts are unsettled and we feel beaten down by our hyper-productive, noisy, intrusive and judgmental culture. 

The Triduum - the worship cycle during the three days before Easter - helps me reset my heart. In the poetry, music, silence, activity, and metaphors of these gatherings, I find a way to clear away the inner clutter. These gatherings facilitate spiritual spring cleaning for my soul. And what fascinates me is how the images, symbols, metaphors, music, and prayers of these ancient liturgies take on new and more satisfying meanings the longer I open myself to them. They are not stagnant. They, too experience new life on the journey from Lent into Easter, Pentecost and the Ascension.

+ Maundy Thursday: Can there be a better embodied example of what the upside down kingdom of God means in real life than foot washing? Bourgeois believers resist the humility and vulnerability of this liturgy, but I know of no better way of opening the heart to the essence of Jesus' love than trusting another to wash my feet. Chanting "Ubi Caritas," the ancient affirmation that when love and charity are present, God is surely among us, clarifies the whole tradition. Candle light, Eucharist and the stripping of the altar/communion table sets the stage for a time of solemn stillness. Maundy Thursday clears away all the clutter and asks me to get honest with myself and God.  

+ Good Friday: the only worship gathering where Eucharist is not celebrated. Nor is the Resurrection present. But this is not a "funeral service for Jesus," but rather a sober meditation upon the Cross and all of its various meanings. My grandson, Louie, asked me what does the Cross symbolize? So we talked about the pain many people experience, poverty, war, hatred: that is part of what the Cross means. It also is the place where Jesus died and prayed to God that all people be forgiven. And, given Easter, we know that the empty Cross reminds us that God's love was stronger than death. So the Cross means a lot of complicated things all at once. "Oh," he paused, "like a combination." Exactly like a combination - and then he said, "So there is bad and good happening on the Cross and God makes goodness out of what is bad." Hearing the Passion of St. John's gospel chanted this year - and moving to kneel and touch the cross in my own time of prayer - helped me let go of the sins that clings so closely and trust that God will make good what has been bad. Leaving in emptiness gave me time to let the whole encounter sink deeper.


+ Easter Vigil and Sunday morning: the Easter Vigil starts in darkness, moves into the light of a new flame, passes this light to all who gather with candles and then sings its way to the proclamation that God's love is greater than death. Eucharist returns. Baptisms take place. Light and instrumental music return to the community. And celebration is the rule of the day. Flowers adorn the Cross as the community confesses: "Christ is risen. He has risen indeed. Alleluia!" All the imagery, music and symbols point us in the direction of new life: where is God bringing new life from within the tombs of our world? 


There is precious little fundamentalism in the gospel stories of the resurrection: all we can say for certain is that Jesus was raised in a spiritual body and no longer resided in the tomb. Now he is strengthening his friends to live in the world as he did. Jean Vanier of L'Arche notes in his commentary on St. John's gospel that after Christ's death on the Cross, Jesus' encounters with his friends are not dramatic. First he comes to Mary Magdalene in the morning and simply calls her by name. "Go back and tell the brothers I will meet them." In this, she becomes the first evangelist. Two truths arise: First, Jesus doesn't speak of the disciples as "those who betrayed and deserted me;" he simply calls them the brothers. And second, the brothers do not take Mary seriously. Once again, the one who is faithful and small has been given the evangel, but it is ignored by those who think of themselves as strong, wise and in control. Small wonder that when Jesus reconnects with the brothers later in the day, they are terrified. Their brokenness is all too real to them.

Notice what the Easter gospel takes pain to clarify: when Jesus appears to the disciples - including Thomas - he does so to show them that even one who is wounded can be resurrected. Weakness, pain, suffering and confusion will not keep God's love away from those whom God loves. There are NO barriers to this love: not gender, race, class, ethnicity, walls, tombs, broken hearts, confused minds, sinful souls. God's love in the Easter story moves through all barriers to strengthen love and compassion. And when the story is over, we are invited to go out into our lives and share some of the love we have received.

Over the years I have needed to update how I understand these symbols. I have incrementally let go of literalism and let the metaphors mature and ripen in my heart. And somewhere in this journey I always find myself weeping - for myself, for my family, for my sins, for the state of the world and for the amazing tenderness of God who still shares Jesus with me. This year I wept as my grandson, Louie, sang about God's love that raises Jesus beyond the tomb. As is often the case, Richard Rohr's words bring it all back home:

I’ve often said that great love and great suffering (both healing and woundedness) are the universal, always available paths of transformation because they are the only things strong enough to take away the ego’s protections and pretensions. Great love and great suffering bring us back to God, and I believe this is how Jesus himself walked humanity back to God. It is not just a path of resurrection rewards but a path that now includes death and woundedness. Or as I teach our Living School students, the sequence goes order —> disorder —> reorder!

Jesus the Christ, in his crucifixion and resurrection, “summed up all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of universal suffering. He allowed it to change him (“resurrection”) and, it is to be hoped, us, so that we would be freed from the endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside of it. This is the fully resurrected life, the only way to be happy, free, loving, and therefore “saved.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “If I can trust it, you can too.” We are indeed saved by the cross—more than we realize. The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

it can feel schizophrenic, yes?

From time to time, my friend Pam evokes the words of Dickens when reflecting upon the state of the world: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." (Tale of Two Cities) I often feel much the same way - especially after reading through my morning news resources. For Lent I turned off TV news for good - including PBS - because it has become a vulgar exercise in manipulation and sensationalism. Today, however, there is such a melange of discrete and troubling updates that I feel compelled to restate the apocalyptic insight Frida Ghitis posted on CNN after the Notre Dame fire: it feels as if:

... We were watching a metaphor, a prelude, a warning... Our times feel so fraught, as if through our animosity and divisions we are destroying the foundations of civilization.

At the same time - in the very same moment - I am preparing to be with my precious family for the finale of Holy Week. My grandson, Louie, will be singing with his children's choir on Easter Sunday. My grand daughter, Anna, is running and spreading joy wherever her feisty 18 month body will carry her. We will feast with those who fill our hearts with love and hope. I am also engaged with a cadre of musical soul warriors who are committed to bringing light into the darkness - and after yesterday's rehearsal I feel invigorated. And soon I will have the chance to celebrate the marriage of two of my oldest friends as we travel into the sunshine of a California spring. It can feel schizophrenic, yes?

On the third day of Holy Week, this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye speaks to me:

We Did Not Have Drinking Water in the Middle of the Ocean

Essentially, that would be the metaphor for my entire life.
I immigrated to the land of the free,
but my people weren't free.
Tried to speak up, little droplets of words,
to a tidal wave powering over me.
Homeland trampled, ripped in pieces,
often by people who weren't there.
How dare they?
They had their own interests.
They couldn't see us.
We were tiny as pebbles to them
that you push with the toe of your shoe. What kind of people
do that? I remember the ship I came to the New World on,
how rough it was, stormy sea and sky,
deck heaving, people sick on the floors at night,
but the size of our stupid hope some mornings
as we looked across calm water and thought,
Now it will be good
.

Tomorrow is Holy Thursday - there will be choir practice and foot washing - and then Good Friday, cross and the emptiness of the tomb.  It is the best and worst of times, indeed.

the all vulnerable God rings true...

For the past 40 years, an incremental exploration of theological images for God has been taking shape and form throughout the West. As Ric...