Heart man...

Sometime during my second year at Union Theological Seminary in NYC (I am thinking it was fall of 1980) Professor of Homelitics, James Forbes, asked to see me in his office. To say that I was in awe of his preaching skill, wit and compassion would be an understatement. So I approached our conversation with fear and trembling.

After a bit of small talk, he cut to the chase: why don't you take a break from your strident activism during seminary? After all, he smiled, even Gandhi took time off from his campaigns for justice to periodically get centered. Why not use what time remains inside the safety and encouragement of the seminary community to both rest and reflect deeply? This is a sacred gift, so why not use it wisely? He paused for a moment before closing: "Besides you'll have plenty of time to get yourself killed after graduation."

I left his office confused. My calling to ministry came in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination in 1968. Since that time I had become a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam (never called up for alternative service), worked in Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers movement, dedicated myself to the practices of ethical vegetarianism a la Frances Moore Lappe, renewed my conviction to urban ministry and aligned myself politically with both NAM (New American Movement) and DSOC (Democratic Socialists of America.) What was Dr. Forbes, a passionate person of faith and justice, asking of me?

In retrospect - with lots of missteps in between - it is clear that this was an invitation to learn about balance - what Elizabeth O'Connor calls the inward and outward journey and Fr. Richard Rohr knows as the work of action and contemplation. But I didn't know that then and sadly I mostly ignored the kind wisdom of my mentor. Not intentionally nor in rebellion, but rather because I knew next to nothing about the contemplative tradition. Of course I knew that the Beatles had given themselves to transcendental meditation for awhile. My brother had done time with the TM camp, too. But my world of social and political activism rarely spoke about balance or the integration of action with contemplation. All the organizers I knew were agents for social change 24/7 - and the ones who were not were burn outs. "So what can a poor boy do," asked the Rolling Stones, "cept to sing in a rock and roll band cuz in sleepy London Town there ain't no place for a street fighting man!"
Today my thoughts go back to that afternoon conversation in Dr. Forbes' office because, on this stunning Sabbath morning in the Berkshires, it is time for my annual vacation reflection on ministry. We do a professional evaluation at church at the end of each year - and that has value and merit - but I have discerned that I need something deeper if I am to keep on keeping on. And it only becomes clear after a time away from everything related to ministry. That is one reason why we head-out to the Montreal Jazz Festival each year: in a place that is saturated in French, I have to listen more than speak. It is a gentle way of stepping back from the busyness of ministry for a measure of solitude and even silence.

To date, two insights have been bubbling up over the past 10 days:

The first has to do with the inter-section of ministry and the creative arts. I bought three books while in Montreal and have three more on my night stand to read for work. Just as I can learn what is going on in my heart and soul by paying attention to the music I am listening to, so too with the books I buy. 

+ JONI by Katherine Monk explores the "creative odyssey of Joni Mitchell" including the philosophers and artists who have shaped her work.

+ The Conductor by Sarah Quigley is a work of fiction set in Leningrad 1941 and reflects on the "life-saving properties of music, creativity and hope."

+ Fridays at Enrico's by Don Carpenter is the unfinished novel by a mentor to the Beat poets/writers set in North Beach - a meditation on being a serious writer in North America - and his homage to Richard Brautigan.

+ Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann is subtitled "saying NO to the culture of NOW."

+ Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison is a reflection on being deliberate and contemplative in a bottom-line 21st culture. 

+ And A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer explores "the journey toward an undivided life in a wounded world."

Detect a theme? Am I ready for my sabbatical? I'm still revisiting the wisdom Dr. Forbes suggested 34 years ago, right? Only now I have some experience and understanding about how to nourish the action/contemplation balance. And even when I completely screw it up, I am more grounded in grace so fret much less than before. Last year was filled with demands both personal and professional - from births and deaths to anniversaries and grant applications - and it was exhausting. Creative and satisfying, but exhausting. This year will be given over to preparing for the sabbatical and will require being very careful about laying the groundwork so that both the congregation and I get the most out of this creative time away.

In a penetrating essay, "Hearing the Cries of the World," Mark Nepo writes:

Each of us must make our peace with suffering and especially unnecessary suffering, which doesn't mean our resignation to a violent world. For the fully engaged heart is the antibody for the infection of violence. As our heart breaks with compassion, it strengthens itself and all of humanity. Can I prove this? No. Am I certain of it? Yes. We are still here. Immediately, someone says, “Barely.” But we are still here: more alive than dead, more vulnerable than callous, more kind than cruel— though we each carry the lot of it.

That we go numb along the way is to be expected. Even the bravest among us, who give their lives to care for others, go numb with fatigue, when the heart can take in no more, when we need time to digest all we meet. Overloaded and overwhelmed, we start to pull back from the world, so we can internalize what the world keeps giving us. Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they've closed, to open our souls once they've shied away, to soften our minds once they've been hardened by the storms of our day.

Always, on the inside of our hardness and shyness and numbness is the face of compassion through which we can reclaim our humanity. Our compassion waits there to revive us. When opened, our heart can touch the Oneness of things we are all a part of. Then, we can stand firmly in our being like a windmill of spirit: letting the cries of the world turn us over and over, until our turning generates a power and energy that can be of use in the world.
(read the whole essay here: http://www.parabola.org/index.php?option=com_ easyblog&view=entry&id=47&Itemid=268  

The second theme that has bubbled up in my vacation reflection on ministry is an increased desire for focus. In music, I want to deepen my skills and ability in jazz. In worship, I want to create more space for quiet contemplation AND open dialogue. In justice work, I want to strengthen our emerging inter-faith network. In community relations, I want to make a vigorous commitment between a local synagogue and our congregation. And within the life of the church, I want to strengthen our adult formation ministries. 

Doing all of that AND preparing for my sabbatical will be more than enough for 2015. And it will require of me making certain I say NO at least as much as I say yes. And that means also practicing better self-care physically, spiritually and emotionally. I like the way Luka Bloom puts it in the song "Heart Man."

So as the rest of this beautiful day unfolds, I'm going to clean my study and cut the grass and take the dog for a walk. And as I do, more thoughts about the past year will become clear. Thanks be to God.


ddl said…
‘Give a little thanks to enemies
They teach me
How to let go
How to be free
How to find
The better side of me’

I love this part of the song Heartman. You sound like you have a wonderful stirring for Sabbatical time. Jealous, I am, but of course I've been trying not to covet here :)
But seriously, the books look interesting too. Maybe when I get done reading my book stack here.

Worship went better today for me...looser...I think I know why. Thank you for the blessing, breathing room.

RJ said…
:-) you bet... glad to hear it was good. Lots of prayers, my friend.
Lawson English said…
You mention TranscendentL Meditation in passing...

Are you familiar with the work of Gabriel Mejia of Colombia?

These videos give a feel for Father Gabriel's work.

Excertp of documentary by The David Lynch Foundation on Father Mejia's work in Colombia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4sS3tHvQRQ

Talk gave by Father Mejia: http://www.consciousnesstalks.org/love-and-transcendence-the-secrets-of-lasting-rehabilitation/

Q&A from that talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqJJzgWTbkc

interview with South-South about the issues faced in Latin America with respect to poverty and violence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qteyzHrkcH8

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