Friday, September 21, 2018

returning thanks to God for Henri Nouwen on the 22nd anniversary of his death...

Today is International Peace Day: September 21, 2018. Of the many prayers raised throughout the world, this one captured my attention:

        Grant us peace that will
BREAK our silence in the midst of violence
that prophetic voices shall resonate.

Grant us peace that will
PULL US DOWN from the steeple of our pride
so we'll learn to wash each other's feet.

Grant us peace that will
EMPTY us of hate and intolerance
that we'll turn guns into guitars and sing.

Grant us peace that will
SHUT our mouths up when we speak too much
that we'll learn to listen and understand what others are saying.

Grant us peace that will 
DISTURB us in our apathy
so we'll dance together under the sun.

Grant us peace that will
BURN our lethargic hearts
so we'll endure burning and let love and justice glow.

It is also the anniversary of Henri Nouwen's death. Twenty-two years ago, while serving an urban congregation in Cleveland, OH, my spiritual director told me of Nouwen's passing. In much the same way that St. Lou Reed's death five years ago knocked me on my ass, awakening me to my own mortality, so Nouwen's death rattled me to my core. In many ways, Nouwen had become a role model for me: an enthusiastic man of prayer who loved the Eucharist, engaged the pain of the world with compassion, faced his own demons vigorously, and ached for the peace of God to heal creation. I first read With Open Hands in 1980 and soon devoured both The Wounded Healer and Out of Solitude. Three other texts touched my heart, too and gave shape and form to much of my ministry: Reaching Out, The Way of the Heart, and Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.

As my life ripened through times of brokenness as well as joy, Nouwen became a passive spiritual director. The vulnerability expressed in The Inner Voice of Love gave me courage to do likewise. His experiment in sharing spiritual depth with those outside of the Christian tradition - The Life of the Beloved - gave me a tool for doing likewise. Both of his prayer journals, The Genesee Diary and Gracias, showed me that the ups, and more importantly the downs, of a life of prayer were holy and essential. And his clarifying interpretation of a Christian classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son, opened my heart to grace at a time I felt lost. Currently I am slow reading three posthumous books re: spiritual direction, discernment, and spiritual formation. Further, Nouwen's time at Daybreak - L'Arche Toronto - was one of the reasons I made my way into towards the community in Ottawa - so I give thanks to Henri for this life changing "heads up!"

Two thoughts about Brother Henri strike me as important on this day of my remembrance. The first is one of those upside-down truths that makes no linear sense, but is soul-saving: when Nouwen's heart was broken open in unrequited love, an agony causing him to collapse emotionally and physically and necessitating intensive therapy and rest, he finally owned the magnitude of his inner pain. He had danced around it for decades, flirting with honesty, but rarely going into his own darkness with abandon. As is so often the case, however, we can avoid our fears and shadows for a long time. But if we want to move towards true wholeness in this realm, we have to let the inevitable crisis in our lives lead us through the darkness and into the light. On the other side of his break down, after extensive therapy and prayer, both Nouwen's writing and personal engagement with others became truly tender. He was a consciously "wounded healer" now, filled with hope born of humility. His battles with self, and his journey into and through his fears, helped me do likewise at a time when I would have rather run even as I knew that I could not hide.

The second thought is this: Nouwen showed me a way into a sacramental spirituality. I was raised in the Reformed tradition. Congregationalism. The radically non-conformist wing of Calvinist Christianity. In this part of the family, the emphasis tends towards pastoral care and intellectual preaching. Both have value, to be sure; and I have been blessed by them, too. What I found missing - and what Nouwen helped me discover - was how to see real life as a form of the holy. Mystical and sacramental spirituality seeks to discern the "eagle within the egg" as well as the Word within the Flesh. It was not, as my world had been, all about good works and the primacy of solid doctrine. Rather, the way of Nouwen was connected to God in nature, in love, in acts of compassion and justice, as well as worship. Eucharist was essential for Henri. Me, too. Through Nouwen I discovered a path towards the holy that was as earthy and gritty as my own soul.  Sacramental spirituality gave me permission to enter music as communion with God. Or bread-baking as a contemplative practice. Or loving my children as the core of my calling.

In a way, Nouwen saved my life by giving me words to express what I did not know how to say. And, by sharing his own journey into fear and doubt that let me descend fully into my own so that I might learn the wisdom of our wounds. I still miss Nouwen all these years later. And find I read him more often than any other writer. I am going to bake some more bread today in homage to Henri's  spirit - and as it is rising, I'll read a little Nouwen, too. Today I give thanks to the Lord for Henri Nouwen. "In the end, a life of prayer is a life with open hands where we are not ashamed of our weakness, but realize that it is more perfect for us to be led by the other, than to try to hold everything in our own hands." (With Open Hands)

(Here's a picture I took one afternoon in Brooklyn waiting for my grandson to get finished with pre-school. The whole thing captures the gifts Henri shared with me...)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

to stand beneath the cross like mary...

Today is a cool, gray day in the Berkshires: autumn has truly arrived. The reds and yellows are popping ever more vibrantly in the wetlands and the pumpkins are ripening on the vine. Every morning I behold this beauty and try to hold it alongside whatever vicious, ugly or mean-spirited reality has currently risen to the surface of this regime's reign of shame. 

Woman-hating mixed with willful stupidity, addiction to the tyranny of the normal, and a celebration of brutality now rules the day. The charade "hearings" taking place in Washington, DC mock the word justice. The Republican majority is drunk with male power, determined to force their brutish authority down our collective throats before the American public can weigh-in at the November midterm elections. Yes, strong women and citizens of conscience are calling out these bullies. Political and ethical challengers to the status quo are emboldened and unafraid to speak truth to power. Further, the loyal opposition is rallying the clout of organized people of compassion to shut down the power of organized money. Anxiety is palpable throughout the republic. The Rev. Dr. William Barber reminds us that if the current political majority forces through the Kavanaugh nomination, it would be the fourth time in our generation that two presidents who were not elected by the American majority added rigid ideologues to the bench of the Supreme Court. 

The late Henri Nouwen once wrote about times these - in our generation as well as times past - and his wisdom demands a hearing. He told us that "mature people in faith stand erect in the face of world calamities."

The facts of everyday life are a rich source for doomsday thinking and feeling. But it is possible for us to resist this temptation and to stand with self-confidence in this world, never losing our spiritual ground, always aware that "sky and earth will pass away" but the words of Jesus will never pass away (see Luke 21:33). Let us be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood under the cross, trusting in God's faithfulness notwithstanding the death of his beloved Child.

To be able to do this consistently and with conviction, Richard Rohr reminds us that: 

This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. No longer focused on our own individual private perfection—or what Merton called “our personal salvation project”—we become fully human... by opening our hearts to God.

I love Nouwen's image of living like Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing under the cross. She is honest, compassionate, heart-broken and trusting all at the same time. She didn't hide in fear, but made her love public and visible. She didn't curse or condemn, but stayed the course even in the most agonizing moment of her life. She held the promise of God's grace in tension with the brutality of the regime trusting that God's love is greater than human evil. 

One of my commitments in these later days is to support younger activists for compassion, truth and hope. Some are clergy, a few are musicians and others are simply young adults who want their lives to make a difference. My counsel is simple: like Gandhi said, we must become the change we desire. We must do our inner work, tapping into God's grace with such authenticity that we are able to take on the outward work of soothing another's pain and righting wrongs. If we don't know our shadows - if we believe that all the evil is out there and not also within - we'll give up the ghost in cynicism or despair. 

That is why I keep returning to Mary under the shadow of the Cross. Lord, may she be our guide and a presence within and among us, for your mercy's sake. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

reclaiming my bread baking chops...

I am baking bread today. I gave it a shot yesterday, too but the second rising did not work out. They were tasty, but more like cement than the staff of life. I'll be adding adequate unbleached flour today and giving the rising as much time as it needs. This is, after all, an exercise in patience and beauty, right?

When I was five, I loved spending time with my Grandma Nick making fresh yeasted rolls. There was nothing better than preparing the dough standing by her side on a stool, swapping stories during the baking, smelling the goodness just before they popped out of the oven. And then, slathering them with butter, we laughed like holy fools and devoured as many as we shared. For a few golden years, we were kitchen conspirators of earthly delights. 

One of my favorite bread books, One Loaf by Joy Mead, contains this poem:

Because bread won't be hurfied
we have to learn to let it be,
to do nothing, to be patient,
to wait for the proving.
Because bread won't be hurried
and is a life and death process,
we find out in its making
that time in not a line
but a cycle of ends and beginnings
rhythms and seasons,
growth and death,
celebration and mourning,
work and rest,
eating and fasting,
because bread won't be hurried.

In a pyramid in Egypt
a few grains of wheat
lay surrounded by death 
- dormant for thousands of years.
They waited quietly
until the time was right,
until the life impulse
was awakened by the good earth,
warmed by the sun
and ready to dance
in the bread of tomorrow.
There's no way my bread could be as heavenly as hers. Last night I realized that I have not given much time to baking in 30+ years. There was a time when my daughters were small that baking became a family ritual - all types of fresh bread - from yeasted whole wheat loaves to Irish Soda Bread or Navajo fry bread. As St. Joni used to sing, "there's something's lost but something's gained in living every day" and my bread was lost as other blessings arrived. But now I want to get back my bread baking chops. Mostly because I am smitten by the smell, but also because bread is something I can share with those I love. 

Another treasure from my shrinking personal library, Feasting with God by Holly W. Whitcomb, puts it like this:

Through the ritual of a shared meal, hospitality is extended and acquaintances become friends and companions. The word companion comes from the Latin: cum, meaning "with,"and panis, meaning "bread." Our companions are those with whom we share meals... and break bread... In his book, Sacramental Magic in a Small Town Cafe, Brother Peter Reinhart reminds us that 'each of us unknowingly years for a communion experience every time we eat." The word sacrament itself is derived from root words means "mystery" and "sacred feast." Sharing food is one of life's most primal and bonding experiences - and eating together creates community.

Besides making music, playing with my grandchildren, walking in the woods with Di, and celebrating Eucharist, it is the sharing of fresh bread at family meals that brings me the deepest joy and hope for the journey. "Because bread is the very opposite of fast food," writes Donna Sinclair in The Spirituality of Bread, " it demands peace."

You cannot grow grain in a battlefield. Bread also demands justice; cheap bread that results from the loss of the family farm is too bitter to eat... Nothing is easy... in a postmodern age when we question all our assumptions and struggle with climate change and belligerent politicians, the commonwealth of peace seems far away. But making bread gives us meaning. And that, above all, is why bread baking is a spiritual task. It helps us trust that the world will survive, that we are loved, and that the kitchen where we work is holy ground.

I have started rereading these three treasured books (and also a biography of Rumi, too.) I am returning to my bread-baking roots. And I am recommitting my heart to the practice of gathering simple, wholesome ingredients, combining them in time-tested and traditional ways, and trusting that the waiting will bring a small measure of joy. (The sponge is now rising - and I couldn't resist adding this tune to the mix.)

Monday, September 17, 2018

adventure, risk, simplicity and compassion: listening for God's desire in my heart

He (or she) who clutches desperately to security, to every day habits, work, organization, friends, family, no longer lives. More than security, life needs adventure, risk, dynamic activity, self-giving, presence to others.  Jean Vanier, Tears of Silence.

This quote showed up for me at just the right time - and spoke to my heart like water to a parched plant. Di and I are entering a new encounter with simple living: for the past year we have been physically and emotionally letting go of things, memories and activities that do not strengthen our commitment to compassion. We have been on this journey together for nearly 25 years. And once again, we sense a need to go deeper. Retirement, obviously, is one manifestation of this; but the sacred invitation to live beyond the "tyranny of the normal" is at the core.

The Jesuit priest, James Martin, articulates this longing as sacred desire. Writing in the journal, America, Martin notes that sometimes our prayers evoke a strong sense of yearning within our hearts.

For example, you might be praying about a Gospel passage and suddenly feel an urge to follow Jesus more closely. That is, while praying you may experience a powerful attraction to the person of Jesus. You want to know more about him, read more about him, and spend more time praying about him. Where do these desires come from? From God. Not every desire that arises in prayer is from God. You have to discern, too, to see what makes sense and what fits in terms of what you know about God. But something like a desire to follow Christ is clearly coming from God. 

The Franciscan, Richard Rohr, suggests that a desire to live into the holy is born through silence: "Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, (encouraging us) to choose gratitude until we are grateful and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise." We are fundamentally uncertain of sacred desires when we are too busy, too tired, too anxious, too noisy, and too self-absorbed. In a recent reflection Rohr wrote:

We don’t come to the monastery (or to prayer or contemplation) to get away from suffering; we come to hold the suffering of all the world.” [Thomas Merton] This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. No longer focused on our own individual private perfection—or what Merton called “our personal salvation project”—we become fully human... by opening our hearts to God.

Right after Easter 2018, Di and I went to the Eastern Townships of Quebec for a few days of solitude. We needed to be quiet together. To walk in the woods. To listen to our hearts as well as the yearning God was sharing with us for deeper acts of compassion. We came away with a commitment to "beholding" - let this be a year of embracing what God was already revealing to us - a time of discernment rather than rushed action. A time to honor, listen to, and trust the risky desires revealed to our hearts. I have used this icon since that retreat as it captures the essence of beholding...

Little by little - and I have come to trust that most of God's blessings come in the small, hidden and often obscure realities of real life - our commitment to beholding is bringing clarity. We have more work to do in paring down what is unessential. We have more listening and trusting to discern, too. But just the other day, one of my oldest and dearest friends and mentors sent me this photo - and it too arrived at just the right time. The short version in English reads something like: I don't know what to pray, I don't know what to say, I don't have a lot of time. So... the candle I light is my small offering of goodness, time and self. I place it before the Lord and the Blessed Virgin... may this candle symbolize my prayer with all my being.
While cutting back the relentless wild bramble in our backyard wetlands today, I heard nature speak to me: without repeated times of quiet listening, the weeds will overwhelm the beauty. More and more I am coming to trust that the holy revealed in reality is a reliable mentor. It made me think of altering the ancient admonition, "be still... and know that I am God" to, "be still... to know that I am God."

Sunday, September 16, 2018

sign o the times, aching for balance, lady wisdom and the autumnal equinox.....

One of my favorite Prince songs is "Sign O the Times." Everything about it cooks from the opening percussion groove and bass riff to lyrics shared in passionate lament. The brokenness of our human community weeps through the voice of Prince as he catalogs the consequences of ignoring Lady Wisdom.

Lady Wisdom speaks one of the lectionary readings for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian tradition::

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster."

Like Prince and Lady Wisdom, many of us see the consequences of consistently
ignoring living in harmony with truth, compassion and humility. Read Linda Bloodworth Thomason's recent jeremiad in the Hollywood Reporter for starters.
com/news/designing-women-creator-les-moonves-not-all-harassment-is-sexual-1142448) Or try on Ben Fountain's thoughts in today's Guardian. (
/us-news /2018/sep/16/beautiful-country-burn-again-review-ben-fountain-trump-2016) Or consider the internment camps we have created for migrant children. Or maybe just watch a few episodes of the Netflix series, Bloodline, as a reminder of what happens to ordinary people when fear and revenge fuel family dynamics . Think Cain and Abel in the Florida Keys. ( com/title/80010655)

Taking this moment in time seriously, Lady Wisdom brings to my mind some other voices from my Scriptures - three are worth mentioning:

1) St. Luke gives us these words of Jesus in chapter 12Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops....(Consider this) When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

2) St. Paul in Romans 1:  The wrath (that is the absence) of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

3) Micah 6:8: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; for what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Each Biblical text is informed by the presence of Lady Wisdom in real life as well as the teaching of Lady Wisdom in our tradition. Jesus scolds those who pretend ignorance of God's loving grace to neighbors and earth alike by pointing out how nature teaches us to pay attention - and act accordingly. Paul tells us that we know what God's wrath - meaning God's absence from our experience - looks like simply by watching Mother Earth. When we live in balance and generosity, there is peace; when we become self-absorbed and rash, everything collapses. In a word, we discard community and become bestial just to survive. And the words of the prophet Micah from ancient Israel are clear: everything in creation calls us to be just, compassionate and humble. For this is what the Lord requires - a balance - but justice, compassion and humility are so far from the core of contemporary living that we should not be shocked that communities are crumbling all around us.

The feminine charisms of Mother Earth - and the historic personification of God's balance as Lady Wisdom - offer us correctives IF we have eyes to see and ears to hear. In the Northern Hemisphere we are close to the autumnal equinox, a day that returns every fall to preach an existential sermon about balance as day light and night time become equals. 

This signals the need to balance light and darkness within us. Far too often, we fear the dark and adore only the light. Joyce Rupp, a Catholic writer and poet who is one of our Living Spiritual Teachers, challenges us in Little Pieces of Light to befriend our inner darkness: "I gratefully acknowledge how darkness has become less of an enemy for me and more of a place of silent nurturance, where the slow, steady gestation needed for my soul's growth can occur. Not only is light a welcomed part of my life, but I am also developing a greater understanding of how much I need to befriend my inner darkness."

And what is true within is true without - right relations between neighbors as well as creation cries out for balance - as the signs o the times make clear. Former President Obama put it like this:

In everything I see, hear, feel, taste and touch, the testimony of Lady Wisdom is calling to us:

"Give heed to my reproof and I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. But because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you... like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you... Because you hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, you have none of my counsel... therefore you shall eat the fruit of you way and be sated with your own devices. Your waywardness kills the simple, the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster."

Saturday, September 15, 2018

now sorrow and joy embrace, today melancholia and trust kiss deeply....

We, in these Northern environs, are racing towards the autumnal equinox. Each morning yields an expanding sea of gold, brown and red in our woods and backyard wetlands; each afternoon brings us deepening shadows; and each evening arrives noticeably sooner. "Today brought a loss of three minutes of sunshine" chants the local NPR meteorologist. Change is clearly in the air - and for me it evokes melancholia and trust simultaneously.

The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
And reaching into the cold heavens.
In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!

My last walk in the trees has come. At dawn
I must return to the trapped fields,
To the obedient earth.
The trees shall be reaching all the winter.

It is a joy to walk in the bare woods.
The moonlight is not broken by the heavy leaves.
The leaves are down, and touching the soaked earth,
Giving off the odor that partridges love.

(Solitude Late at Night in the Woods, Robert Bly)

So much of this life is beyond our control. Wind and rain is currently pounding the Carolinas into submission. Indonesia and Japan, too. Friends and loved ones send notes subtly suggesting sickness. Vulnerability seems to rise to the surface of each day as the leaves change and fall to the ground. Why am I surprised? Startled? Offended? Writers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat teach that autumn can remind us" that nature's cycles are mirrored in our lives," but we have to be paying attention.
Autumn is a time for letting go and releasing things that have been a burden. All the religious traditions pay tribute to such acts of relinquish-
ment. Fall is the right time to practice getting out of the way and letting Spirit take charge of our lives... (It also reminds us) of the impermanence of everything. We have experienced the budding of life in spring and the flowerings and profusions of summer. Now the leaves fall and bare branches remind us of the fleeting nature of all things (

I know that a quiet, aching sadness has always ambushed me each fall since I was young. Like St. Paul, I didn't know what to do with it for "when I was a child I spoke like a child and acted like a child and thought like a child." (I Corinthians 13) As my sorrow returns, however, it now brings a renewed invitation to trust. The Sufi mystical poet, Rumi, got it right in Coleman Barks translation of "Love Dogs."

One night a man was crying, Allah! Allah! His lips grew sweet with the praising, until a cynic said, "So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?" The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He then dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a thick, green foliage. "Why did you stop praising?" "Because I've never heard
anything back." "This longing you express is the return message."

The grief you cry out from (you see) draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of. Give your life to be one of them.”

The constancy of my grief at this time of year is also the prayer of my heart. Its
return lures me towards trust. If, like seeing the falling leaves, I am paying attention. Such is the via negativa: the mystical and experiential path of loving God and living as a precious child of the Beloved. This trust must be nourished. Honored. Explored. For while this spiritual encounter is palpable, our minds only see "as through a glass darkly." The author, Christopher Hill, has noted much like Harvey Cox in The Feast of Fools that: "The Church is the great repository of mystery, but for the last century or so, the face of the mainstream churches have been pretty much the rational, main-street, daylight face of God — theology, ethics, charity and social outreach. Paul would have called it law and works,"

The sixties awakened a thirst for a face of God that the churches had long since ceded to the arts, folklore, and popular culture — the night side of God. When we're cut off from the moon, the night, and the waters of mystery, the spiritual world is blinding and blisteringly arid. Mystery refreshes us. Mystery is a cool dark underground stream, a tributary of living water that bubbled up into that well in a dusty Middle-Eastern village where Jesus stopped at midday and spoke to a Samaritan woman. When our roots are sunk into mystery, we flourish like trees planted by a stream. (
Celtic spirituality takes the dark seasons seriously. Indeed, their New Year begins with what we know as Halloween and All Saints/All Souls Day. It is often the start of Advent, too. That organically rings true to me: embracing loss on multiple levels so that we might celebrate the bounty and beauty of life whenever and wherever we find it. To paraphrase Psalm 85, "Now sorrow and joy embrace, today melancholia and trust kiss deeply."

continued later in the day (after house cleaning)...

Part of the trusting that nourishes me arises intuitively through the annual return of the blues. But the via negativa is not the whole show. When autumn arrives I also get to celebrate the birthdays of my daughter and grandson. Their presence fills me full to overflowing with gratitude. As October dawns, we get to spend time together playing, feasting and remembering the blessings come into creation simply by their being. And this year we'll add icing to the cake by taking-in a local pumpkin festival! 

My heart sees pumpkins sacramentally: as earthy ambassadors of Mother Nature, these big, odd, beautiful, and often gnarled symbols speak to me of God's constancy. Breaking through the brown earth with bold colors when everything else has been harvested, pumpkins proclaim that God hasn't given up on us yet. They come in all sizes. Some people eat them, others carve them, many of us bake them into pies. And a few like me just gaze upon them with gratitude. Birthdays and the equinox, the blues and pumpkins fill me with awe as autumn ripens. Thanks be to God.

Friday, September 14, 2018

looking back to how my heart was opened to L'Arche...

This was a day for yard work in anticipation of autumn. Being outside during this season often evokes reflection - and today was no exception. I pondered the spirituality programming we crafted earlier this week at L'Arche Ottawa. The words Jean Vanier shared on the occasion of his 90th birthday - challenge the "tyranny of the normal" - kept returning while I cut the grass. Vanier insists that confronting our fears and sharing our stories are earthy spiritual disciplines. He also urges us to listen carefully to the wisdom of the most vulnerable among us and trust God in all things, too. This is one of the blessings I experience being at L'Arche: my heart is regularly opened to both the joy and sorrow of love.

Let me note that I know that my encounters are privileged, however, because I am a volunteer. My world is not saturated in the gritty particularities of laundry, bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning and being the constant companion of a core member. I come and go. I move into conversation and then return to solitude. And while I strive to share my gifts fully whenever I am engaged, I also know that at this moment in my life when I am much closer to the end than the beginning, the rhythm of my limitation is right. I mostly deal in music, words, poetry, and prayer these days. They are what I have to share. Once upon a time though, I spent 18 months working as an aide to 35 boys in a private residential home for intellectually disabled youth. 

It was forty-six years ago - after successfully achieving Conscientious Objector status from my draft board during the end of the Vietnam War. As fate would have it, I was never called into alternative service. So, I left New England, wandered to the Midwest, and eventually got myself hired as a custodial caretaker in a residential institution. One of three adults per shift, we were charged with waking, washing, dressing, shepherding, entertaining, medicating, and helping each student eat breakfast, lunch or dinner before their respective classes after a grand total of two hours of "training." Each day included nap time and recess; every night included additional baths followed by story time and lights out. A small night crew presided over the roughly 100+ youth between 10 pm and 6 am. 

It goes without saying that this was trial by fire. I knew about bathing babies and changing diapers because I am the oldest son of six children. But I had no experience in washing an almost adult male covered in feces who was afraid of water. Sometimes two or three times a day. There were a ton of other things that bewildered me, too. Like the fact that it took a few exhausting weeks to gain control of my gag reflex. And another few to find efficient and tender ways to bathe a stranger's body with dignity. But by the time my evaluation came up, I had learned the basics and loved being a part of the team. This is where I learned to wash and mop dormitory floors. Clean and disinfect 10 toilets as well as a rack of showers, too. It is where I learned to sing lullabies to boys who regularly cried themselves to sleep. Or smeared excrement on the wall after a bad day. Or wet themselves in excitement. It is where I began to learn how to listen to what was being said in the silence of another's eyes. It is also where I learned something about crying myself to sleep sometimes over my inability to make things better.

After about a year, a team was selected to work with "special education" instructors from the University of Illinois. This was our first serious training besides the solidarity of comrade in arms story-telling at the close of each shift. I learned so much. In time our team began to realize that the staff-to-student ratio at our "school" was dangerously low. It also became clear in those dark days right after Willowbrook in the US, that the regular use of restraints and other acts of behavior modification were punitive rather than therapeutic. In consultation with our educational advisors, my colleagues and I lobbied the administration for change. The leadership was sympathetic but driven by an economic bottom line and conditions did not improve. More organizing among the staff took place in cooperation with the University advisors. In fact, most of the planning and strategy meetings for trying to change this institution took place in my St. Louis apartment.

As our small cadre of advocates grew more certain that radical changes needed to take place, a colleague told me he was being evicted from his home and needed a place to crash. I was young, single with an extra bedroom so he moved in with me. I was glad for the company. This co-worker was not actively involved in our organizing for change, but he seemed sympathetic. To make a painful story short, one day we agitators-for-change planned a work action to force into the open a conversation about the dangerously low staff-to-student ratio. Unbeknownst to me, however, it turned out my new roommate was a mole - a spy for the institution - and when we custodial aides arrived that morning, we were escorted out by the police. We were summarily fired and paid on the spot. To make matters worse, when I finally got home that sad night, my roommate was gone and he apparently took all of our organizing notes and plans with him.

Today, at age 66, I often confess that I have to learn things the hard way - and that was my first bitter lesson in betrayal and the tyranny of the normal! Ratted-out and fired on the same day. Without any chance to say good-bye to the boys I had come to love. St. Paul liked to say, "Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." Back in the day, I was pretty green. I had to learn about human nature. About my own naiveté. About what is possible at any given one moment in time. And about how large institutions are ill-equipped in caring for people with intellectual disabilities - even when their hearts are in the right places. 

My heartbreak sent me back to college. Then into organizing with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. Then back to college for a BA in political science before seminary, ordination, 40 years of urban ministry all over the USA, as well as travel to Russia, Central America, Eastern Europe and the UK, marriage, children, divorce, failure and new love. In ministry, wise teachers led me into training re: addiction, 12 step recovery, hospice and spiritual direction. When my secretary in Cleveland was dying of cancer and had no family and no insurance, we were able to organize a lay team to stay with her around the clock in her apartment so she would not die alone. I learned how to clean-out a reverse colostomy wound, too when a member found himself alone, abandoned
and without family after surgery. Most of all, I learned that living with a tender and open heart is simultaneously agonizing and exhilarating - and fills me with gratitude.

And now I am sitting in my study watching a young deer eat raspberry leaves in the wetlands of our backyard. I am no longer physically able to do the work I once did 46 years ago. My life has become more reflective. Like the scripture teaches, "To everything there is a season." But this is a wonderful season to be alive. I have the opportunity to make creative new music. I have been given the privilege of meeting the young assistants at L'Arche who share their energy and love with their core member friends. I have grown to cherish many of the core members, house leaders and leadership team at L'Arche Ottawa and hold them close to my heart. And I rediscovered the wisdom of Jean Vanier. His witness shows me the way of Christ beyond the tyranny of the normal. And this is blessing upon blessing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

l'arche breaks down barriers with love and humility...

This morning Di is teaching Japanese students English via Skype and the Internet. Amazing, yes? I am sipping hot tea in another room, listening to Jean Vanier on Youtube and thinking about something I experienced at L'Arche Ottawa over the past few days. It began at Saturday's anniversary: a birthday party for the community. One core member, Louise, has been present since the start some 46 years ago. The community's first leader, Mary, was present, too along with three other past leaders - Donna, John and Raphael - as well as the current shepherd, Daniella. A great cloud of living witnesses.

What hit me as I took it all in is that each person was present simply to be there! Not to make speeches. Or be recognized. Not to do anything extraordinary except enjoy the party and return thanks to God. Of course,there were words of gratitude. And lots of hugs. A community birthday cake, songs and simple decorations, too. But the heart of the party had to do with just being together. It was a festival of tender belonging and honest humility.

So I've been walking around with that truth and letting it swim through my consciousness over the weekend. As an intellectual I often strive to see reality through the lens of theology. That exercise has its place, to be sure, but it is also self-limiting - and incomplete. At last night's community meeting - the monthly gathering where prayers are shared, songs offered, core members and assistants visit with one another, and personal anniversaries and birthdays are celebrated - I had an epiphany. This community has learned how to discard the false distinctions between the sacred and the secular. They are fully incarnational! (for some important theological reflection, please see Fr. Richard Rohr's recent series re: the early Church @

That's my theological techno-speak for how L'Arche loves the real person just as they are, and, honors whatever brings joy, hope and integrity. At last night's gathering one woman, Chastity, was celebrated on her 19th anniversary of living in community. She was given a handmade stole with pictures of her favorite blues artist! The look of unbridled ecstasy on her face - and the laughter and joy among all the people - was holy ground. Another celebration for 8 years in community included a stole with pictures of the person's favorite drink. Other anniversaries were marked with similar stoles - symbols of the towel Jesus wore while kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples as a servant with love - each followed by a song: Thank you, Lord, for giving us (name) right where we are... Alleluia, praise the Lord..."

Incarnational is when the Word (or idea) of God becomes flesh. Dismantling all false distinctions between the sacred and secular means being fully present in the moment and recognizing what is real. Not the ideal. Not the perfect. But the human. L'Arche often helps me know that while I have a ton of theological education - and 40 years of pastoral experience - I am still an infant when it comes to making the words of my faith flesh. Like St. Paul wrote: "Though I speak with the tongues of humanity and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."

On the occasion of his 90th birthday yesterday, L'Arche founder, Jean Vanier, shared his 10 Rules for Life on Youtube. They, too, are simple expressions of the ways he has learned to make the love of Jesus real in his lifetime. Note there is no theological jargon in this list. No abstractions either.

1. Accept the reality of your body.

2. Talk about your emotional/physical difficulties: being human is to love reality.

3. Don’t be afraid of failure: fear of weakness.

4. Take time to ask: how are you – avoid the tyranny of normality.

5. Put your phone down and be present.

6. Ask another: what’s YOUR story?

7. Know your OWN story – you are precious – so what are you afraid of? 

8. Overcome prejudice by meeting others; this is how peace happens.

9. Listen to your deepest desire and follow it.

10. Remember that one day you will die.

Clear, humble words. Clear, simple practices that distill the essence of the inward and outward journey. People matter. Listening is the way to practice loving. Meeting others carries us beyond fear and the tyranny of normalcy. And knowing that we will die is simple humility. You can watch Vanier here:

Early on I recognized that my affinity with L'Arche Ottawa is just as much about my vulnerability and inner healing as it is being present with others. I am so grateful.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

all in your good time...

Today was a slow one. Yesterday was filled with L'Arche celebrations - but we were fighting nasty colds - so when the party was over, we crashed. And we had traveled six hours the day before, too. For two introverts - with head colds - it was enough. We had to lay low today, mostly silent, and regroup. In time, we walked in the late autumn sun by the canal for a spell. And finally I feel my wearies lifting. Tomorrow will be time enough to reconnect. I missed seeing friends today, but it had to be.

Two insights from other writers spoke to me as I rested. The first is from Rabbi Jill Zimmerman in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah which begins tonight. It tells the universal truth that each branch of creation's spirituality teaches in their own liturgical tongue: our wisdom words are not chronological nor always literal; rather, they are evocative and shared so that that when we enter these places, we know how our elders traversed trying times. And maybe we can use their experience to enlighten our own - if it is the right time.

The design of this season compels us to forgive,
to open our hearts, and sometimes to re-experience wounds.
Some of us have suffered profound trauma,
at the hand of parents, partners, or friends,
They might be fresh bruises
or from many years ago
They bubble below the surface, having been pushed away,
but now re-emerge,
in the quiet or the music or the prayers.

Amidst the urgent pleadings of these days,
to wipe the slate clean and start anew,
some of us are not sure of the path forward.
To the woman who has been violated
and to the man whose spirit has been beaten down,
And to anyone with a broken heart or a crushed soul
who might not be quite ready to forgive:
It’s ok.
Take your time.
Sometimes the timetable of these holy days
doesn’t match the rhythm of your heart and soul.
Sometimes our devoted prayers get intermingled with inner voices not quite resolved:
“maybe it wasn’t all that bad”
“just let go”
“let bygones be bygones”
“be the bigger person” or
“maybe I’m being too sensitive.”

This year,
love yourself enough
to trust
your own timing.
Be patient enough to
stay in the place of
“not yet.”
Trust that you will find your way,
that you will come to a time
where holding on
hurts more than letting go.
Forgive yourself for not being ready – yet.
Give yourself the time and space
to go at your own pace,
to love yourself right where you are and as you are.
From that place of acceptance,

May you have faith that the path forward will open up.

The other is from Rilke, a poem he called "Autumn Day." It, too, rings true to me at this moment in time:

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense. Lay your shadow on the sundials and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days, press them to ripeness, and chase the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long
time, will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

It feels like it is time to take stock of what is essential -  to cherish it and honor it too - for now the leaves are about to start blowing.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

practicing waiting in trust...

Like most of us, the late Henri Nouwen learned the lessons of tenderness the hard way. He was vulnerable and anxious, often lonely and insecure, and in that state found himself saying words he later regretted. Ever been there? I have all too many times. As the Eastern mystical tradition of Christianity asserts, each of us was created incomplete; through our mistakes and sins we acquire wisdom and experience that draws us closer to God. Over time, if we pay attention to the wisdom of our wounds, we can become more Christ-like. By grace, practice and wise counsel, our brokenness makes us whole. Applying this truth to his own life, Nouwen wrote:

Words are very important. When we say to someone: "You are an ugly, useless, despicable person," we might have ruined the possibility for a relationship with that person for life. Words can continue to do harm for many years. It is so important to choose our words wisely. When we are boiling with anger and eager to throw bitter words at our opponents, it is better to remain silent. Words spoken in rage will make reconciliation very hard. Choosing life and not death, blessings and not curses often starts by choosing to remain silent or choosing carefully the words that open the way to healing.

(The same is true) when you write a very angry letter to a friend who has hurt you deeply: don't send it! Let the letter sit on your table for a few days and read it over a number of times. Then ask yourself: "Will this letter bring life to me and my friend? Will it bring healing, will it bring a blessing?" You don't have to ignore the fact that you are deeply hurt. You don't have to hide from your friend that you feel offended. But you can respond in a way that makes healing and forgiveness possible and opens the door for new life. Rewrite the letter if you think it does not bring life, and send it with a prayer for your friend. (

The founder of L'Arche, Jean Vanier - anam cara (soul friend) to Nouwen and many others - puts it like this:

Genuine healing happens here (in the stability of ordinary life) not in miraculous cures, but through mutual respect, care, and love. Paradoxically, (our) vulnerability becomes a source of strength and wholeness, a place of reconciliation and communion with others. (

Recently I was in conversation with a friend about knowing the difference between waiting in silence and indecision. As we spoke - and listened - I was reminded of something Fr. Jim O'Donnell told me during the time I was in spiritual direction with him. It was the start of Lent and I announced some grandiose plan to pray, fast and sharing time in a local halfway house. He listened patiently and replied, "Just try to be quiet for a few minutes each day and light a candle. Just light a candle, man. Anything else will go up in smoke because you need to practice small acts of devotion." I was a bit embarrassed
but knew he was right - and wasn't always successful that Lent even lighting a daily candle.

My insight to my friend was comparable: we learn to know the difference by practicing. Start small. Stay in your body not just your mind. And begin to feel what draws you towards life. Light a candle, man. Over time, you will grow a little bit clearer and your discernment will become stronger. But go slow. Stay small. Keep it simple. I love the way Vanier puts it in Community and Growth:

The ideal doesn't exist. The personal equilibrium and the harmony people dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and them only as flashes of grace and peace. Peace is the fruit of love and service to others. I'd like to tell the people in communities, "Stop looking for peace. Give yourselves where you are. Stop looking at yourselves, look instead at your brothers and sisters in need. Ask how you can better love your brothers and sisters. Then you will find peace."

Here's a song we'll be using this year as we celebrate the 46th anniversary of L'Arche Ottawa. I think she gets it right...


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

the journey of a man's heart...

For well over 30 years I have known that mentoring men is crucial in our sick, overly competitive, work-addicted, flesh-hating, misogynist, shame-filled, anti-intellectual, and bottom line culture. And, from time to time while I was in pastoral ministry, informal opportunities to do so arrived. By mentoring please know that I do NOT mean traditional spiritual direction. But rather something more like what John O'Donohue suggested with the Celtic term anam cara: soul friend. 

One of the tasks of true friendship is to listen compassionately and creatively to the hidden silences. Often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people.

Older men with a modicum of wisdom and a bit of time-tested humility have something to share in reclaiming the role of elder. We need some quiet shamans and story-tellers who have spent time in the ashes helping our young men find their place in the 21st century wilderness. I was kidding Dianne earlier that I need to add "committed elder" to my Facebook "job description." It is every bit as important as musician, writer and Gwad (my grandson Louie's first scrambled attempt at "grand dad.") There is so much to say about this calling - so much joy and so many tears, too - but the hour is late and I am worn out. For the young and middle-aged men I love and have befriended perhaps this poem by O'Donohue's poem is all this night requires.

Beannacht / Blessing"

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

returning thanks to God for Henri Nouwen on the 22nd anniversary of his death...

Today is International Peace Day: September 21, 2018. Of the many prayers raised throughout the world, this one captured my attention:  ...