Monday, July 31, 2017

silence, summer, and accepting my own wounds like Jesus does...

In his little book, The Heart of L'Arche: a Spirituality for Every Day, Jean Vanier packs a lot of wisdom. I have highlighted over one hundred paragraphs in this slim 87 page gem - and hundreds of other sentences and phrases, too. One that particularly resonates appears close to the end:

It takes a long time to discover unity in ourselves so that we can be a source of unity for others; to welcome our wounds so that we can welcome those of others. It takes a long time to drop our masks and accept ourselves as we are with all our limitations, so that we can accept others. To carry on walking down this road, we need to be attentive to God's call and Jesus' promises, and to make choices that bring with them the acceptance of loss. (p. 81)

This summer is more than half over. Tomorrow is the first of August and Labor Day is just around the corner.  As I cut the grass this afternoon to get some perspective on my worship notes for this coming Sunday, I became aware of how ripe this season has become: The sweet corn is at its peak, the day lilies have come and gone, the golden rod is beginning to peek through the grape vines in the wetlands, and the sun is a bit lower in the evening sky. I cherish the bounty of summertime, but felt a stab of melancholia as well for soon the abundance will be over. Fall is sacred and glorious in its own way, and I revel in the colors, the pumpkins and the crisp air. But I was startled with sadness as I felt its coming loss. I think Parker Palmer got it right when he wrote:

Summer is the season when all the promissory notes of autumn, winter, and spring come due, and each year the debts are repaid with compound interest. In summer, it is hard to remember that we had ever doubted the natural process, had ever ceded death the last word, had ever lost faith in the powers of new life. Summer is a reminder that our faith is not nearly as strong as the things we profess to have faith in - a reminder that for this sing season, at least, we might cease our anxious machinations and give ourselves to the abiding and abundant grace of our common life.


Perhaps because I have been celebrating three spiritual prayer commitments as a way to grow closer to God's grace at the core of our summer worship, I am a little more aware of my inconsistencies today. If I hadn't known it before, it has become clear that when I skip two full days of quiet contemplation, I become snappish and a bit of a bore. That these traits pop up so quickly in my words and actions is humbling but equally frustrating. They have long been a part of my dreaded shadow self, but it is clear that Vanier is right: it takes a long time - and for my case apparently a life time - to welcome my wounds with enough tenderness that I can consistently honor another's. That I so quickly forget the peace that passes understanding when I stay grounded is equally appalling. And yet it happens over and over and over again.

In the gospel for Sunday, Jesus slips away from the crowds one night for some quiet contemplation only to be followed. When his quiet is violated, he looks upon his people, the text says, and he has compassion for them and heals their sicknesses. One of the prayer commitments we are practicing this summer is interrupting our day at least 3 or 4 times with a smart phone chime acting like a monastery's call to prayer. I make the sign of the Cross and say out loud: I am God's beloved for all time. Some days I actually feel that this is true. So once again I return into the silence to learn to accept my wounds the way Christ does - with compassion.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

nothing can separate us from the love of God...

Today I was truly satisfied with our time of worship: it was gentle and unforced, it was honest and informed by the appointed lessons, it was intimate and lively for the 50+ people who gathered, and it rang true for this moment in both the life of our faith community as well as our nation. At the core of the liturgy was St. Paul's affirmation that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. In Romans 8, he writes:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This confession is often spoken in a unison affirmation of faith during a funeral liturgy using the United Church of Christ Book of Worship. It has become one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Peterson's The Message renders it in an equally satisfying manner:

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

The Gospel parables from St. Matthew and the Hebrew Bible text about Jacob 
wrestling with an angel of the Lord underscore this affirmation. Jacob is asleep. There is nothing conscious or deliberate about his dream. He is not intentional nor in control. Yet when he awakes, he understands that, "Surely the Lord God was in this place and I, I did not know it." In the parables, a day laborer blindly discovers a cache of buried treasure while working a field; in secret he then sells everything he owns to purchase this field and make the treasure his own. Next, a business person notices a priceless pearl mixed in with worthless trinkets and uses his acumen to take possession of the precious gem. Both working people accidentally discover a blessing in the midst of their ordinary tasks and then give themselves over to intentionally taking "possession" of it with abandon.

What knocks me out is that whether we're conscious or not, whether we find a blessing accidentally or with great focus, God's love keeps coming to us over and over so that nothing can separates us from it.  I felt this resonate with the people gathered this morning as they shared a sign of Christ's peace. I felt it as they sang the hymns - especially "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant?" And it was palpable as they gathered afterwards for conversation and reconnection. Today our worship encounter was a living sacrament of God's amazing grace.

credit
Jan Richardson @ The Painted Prayerbook

Saturday, July 29, 2017

on laughter, tears and silence...

Humility, Compassion and Contemplation – July 29, 3017
Earlier today I shared my reflections at an interfaith gathering dedicated to building bridges for peace in a time of alienation and pain.

Introduction
Grace and peace to you all from within the heart of all that is sacred: these
words – grace and peace/ charis and shalom from Greek and Hebrew respectively - were often shared by St. Paul as he greeted new friends and allies of the Divine.  I use them today in the same spirit trusting that while there are many ways to live into and honor God’s love, there is truly only one source from whom we draw the sustenance to live and move and have our being.  To that end, let me suggest to you that from my Christian tradition there are three tributaries that flow into the River of Life simultaneously evoking faith, hope, love and solidarity as they refresh us.

·   Specifically I’m thinking how laughter, tears and silence –or humility, compassion and contemplation in tradition-al spiritual parlance – serve as tools for peace-making.  Each is pregnant with potential as an antidote to alienation and each is practiced from within our discrete religious backgrounds.

·   These earthy resources allow us maximum creative expression in diversity for they are soulfully free from dogma or doctrine.  In my theological lexicon they elevate ortho-praxis – right living – above ortho-doxos – right belief – so that our quest is fundamentally about joy, love and integrity. 

For most of Western Christianity, however, the spiritual disciplines of mystical laughter, sacred weeping and resting within the stillness of the Sacred have long been forgotten.  Since the influence of St. Augustine in the 5th century of the Common Era for Roman Catholics, or the doctrinal demands of John Calvin and the Reformed Tradition that grew up around him in the 16th century, my religion has been obsessed with testing the intellectual assent of individuals to the creedal formula of our particular sect:  we have fetishized orthodoxy – right belief – and forgotten the joy of ortho-praxis – right living. 

Small wonder that few Christians remember that when Jesus was asked in the gospel of St. John to define his ministry, he replied: I have come so that your joy may be full.  I speak to you of laughter, tears and silence because in an era like our own spiritual self-determination is crucial for our personal and collective well-being. We rightfully mistrust most authority after decades of institutional betrayal. And we intuitively understand our self-interest to be suspicious of anything that smacks of one size fits all.  We don’t eat that way, we don’t love that way, we don’t vote that way so why should we try to live in peace as God’s beloved in that way, right? The Hebrew prophet Micah cuts to the chase:  the path of holiness is fundamentally about loving kindness, doing justice and walking with humility.  Laughter, tears and silence is just another way of restating tradition for our generation.

Insights
In my take on Christian spirituality, I look at the stories in our Scripture for clues about life-giving practices rather than the creeds or doctrines. And right out of the gate we find the matriarch Sarah laughing with incredulity over God’s outrageous assurance that even in her old age she will yet bear a child. Later, there is the dancing celebration of Miriam and her tambourine over the defeat of Israel’s oppressors in Egypt.

There is the prophet Isaiah proclaiming to those in exile that: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off.” As well as the Psalmist promising those who sow in tears shall reap in laughter.

And then Jesus, raised with these stories, who found himself condemned because he wanted to feast rather than fast: he turned water into wine so that the wedding party might not collapse, spoke of himself as the bread of life and the living wine of God’s festival of reconciliation, and told some of the weirdest, upside down stories of forgiveness, hope and radical reversal in his parables with what I sense to be a perpetual twinkle in his eye.

Feasting, joy and friendship shape so many of the stories of Christ’s context that I can’t help but summarize them as the sacrament of laughter. Ernest Kurtz in his little book, A Spirituality of Imperfection, puts it like this: “The words human, humor and humility all have the same root – the ancient Indo-European ghum that is best translated humus.” And humus is described as “a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant or animal matter.” If you see where I’m going with this, it means we can only really know the truth if we accept we are a crazy, mixed up and messy combination of matter, spirit and a whole lot of garbage – most of which we can’t even separate out.

Over the years I have come to trust that the gentlest form of embracing this truth – what I call acquiring humility – comes through self-deprecating humor and laughter. “Humility," Kurtz writes, “involves learning how to live with – and even rejoice in – reality which is all mixed up and messy, never fully saint or sinner, but always both beast and angel, often at the same time. Living fully into our humanity is never about absolutes (orthodoxos) but rather in the incongruous juxtaposition of the holy and the human all mixed up with creation’s BS.”

I think for ample that my favorite way to practice stop taking myself so seriously and laugh at my mess – like Jesus – takes place at family gatherings with my children, their loved ones and our grandchildren. When they start telling stories about what they remember of growing up – and the goofy things I once held as important – I can see part of my own shadow and welcome it with a bit of tenderness. Not teasing or carping, but simply celebrating the goofy mess that is me. The poet Yeats said much the same thing in his “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”

I met the Bishop on the road and much said he and I.
"Those breasts are flat and fallen now, those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion, not in some foul sty.'

Fair and foul are near of kin, and fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness and in the heart's pride.
A woman can be proud and stiff when on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole that has not itself been rent.


Second I lift up the sacrament of tears: Jesus wept – it’s the Bible’s shortest sentence – but so did Jeremiah and David and Rachel and Mary the mother of our Lord and the woman from the streets who poured burial oil on Christ’s feet and caressed them with her hair – and then there is the Psalmist. The lead singer of U2, Bono, claims that the Psalmist was the original Jewish blues man who ached and sang and played the harp just like the best in BB King’s band. One of my spiritual mentors, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, a nonviolent movement to share love with the world’s most despised because of their intellectual challenges or physical brokenness says that we only weep when there’s a chance we will be heard. Weeping – tears – are sighs too deep for human words that anticipate compassion.

Another of my mentors in sacramental living, Frederick Buechner of Vermont, urges us to pay attention to the times when tears appear: 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…. 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 next.

+  It used to be that men had their tears beaten out of them by industry and war so that the only acceptable feeling we knew how to express was anger. For millennia women lived our emotional lives for us and we hid our tears in drink and tobacco.

+  But in my tradition the paradox of the holy being incarnated in human form gives me permission to rediscover my tears and honor them as sacred. Tillich used to say that the sight of Jesus on the Cross represents God becoming small and vulnerable so that we would honor our small and vulnerable lives.

And you know who helps me weep better than anyone? St. Leonard Cohen – his songs open my heart to sorrow and solidarity, lament and healing compassion in ways like no other. He is freakin’ brilliant – and not just his GREAT tunes like “Hallelujah” or “Anthem” or “Suzanne” but his little songs like “Slow” or “Heart with No Companion.” Let me play a portion of that for you…

Now I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair,
With a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain whose ship has not been built,
For the mother in confusion, her cradle still unfilled.
For the heart with no companion, for the soul without a king.
For the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything.

Through the days of shame that are coming, 
Through the nights of wild distress,
Though your promise counts for nothing, 
You must keep it nonetheless…

So the sacraments of laughter and tears – the spiritual practices of humility and compassion – are forged, shaped and refined in silence – what is traditionally known as contemplation. In the Christian tradition this is spoken of as either the inward/outward journey, or, “taking a long, loving look at reality.” It is neither quietism nor navel-gazing, it is not escapism not a spirituality for the self-centered. Rather it is mostly listening and learning how to hear the wisdom of our wounds.

In the gospels Jesus is often found sneaking away from his friends and his outward ministry to walk in the mountains in silence. He’s listening for what is true and what is illusion. For what is loving and what is self-serving. The whole desert sequence of fasting and prayer – what has become our foundation for the rhythm of Lent – is a paradigm for this practice.

The late Fr. Ed Hays of the Shantivanum House of Peace in Lawrence, KS used to teach that only through silence and contemplation can we learn the wisdom of our wounds. We’re all wounded – broken – and this brokenness can be a gift for peace-making if we are paying careful attention. In a word, the wisdom of our wounds born of silence is this: our unredeemed feelings and emotions tell us to do one thing when our healing requires the opposite. When I am angry, I feel like I want to lash out and beat my opponent down before they can hurt me; that’s my wound speaking. And if I just go with my impulse, I perpetuate the anger. But if I listen to the wisdom of that wound in silence, I can learn to be still – and NOT lash out. I can learn to stay engaged when I want to run away. I can practice sharing when I feel stingy. I can even speak in love when all I really feel like doing is running away and hiding. Are you with me?

Conclusion
So that’s enough from me, ok? Sacramental laughter, tears and silence – the spiritual practices of humility, compassion and contemplation – are how I make sense of my confusing, paradoxical, messed-up and messy Christian heritage AND how I see it contributing to rebuilding community in a time that has become dysfunctional, cruel and ugly. Let me leave you with this prayer from St. Francis...


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life

Friday, July 28, 2017

gratitude...

One of my deepest joys is spending any amount of time with this little man: Louie. He is the source of my heart's healing and hope. I rejoice that we could spend the last three days together and look forward to our next encounter.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

prayer, protest and sustaining revolutionary love in a time of despair...

NOTE: Yesterday's acerbic post about living beyond bourgeois privilege apparently struck a nerve. I keep reading how so many of my white liberal friends are exhausted, reeling in shock, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges confronting civil society. But rather than return yet again to the weariness of our social advantage, isn't this the moment for revolutionary love? Both William Barber and Valerie Kaur call this the moment when our true America is waiting to be born:

Yes the future is dark... So the mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.

For people of faith, let's get over our lack of discipline and self-pity and look to the core of our tradition for clues about living into revolutionary love. Here is my take on what we are called by God to incarnate.

There is an embodied “wisdom from below” gestating within many Americans who have sensed a sacred call to resistance given the rise of the Trump regime. Signs of a civic renaissance abound from rallies of solidarity for science, immigrants and women’s health to creative legal challenges to the Muslim ban. What is less clear is the continued viability of this movement. Both Malcolm X and MLK noted during the last mass surge of American moral activism that unless citizens seize the day - and sustain it with disciplined public practices - the prospect of carrying the Beloved Community to term was not encouraging.

One of the great tragedies of life is that (we) seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds! We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time assiduously prepare for war. (MLK, Strength to Love)

Already I hear white liberals talking about their numbness while living in an exhausted state of anxiety. Let me suggest that our sudden shock is everyday reality for people of color, many women, immigrants, those outside the Christian establishment and the entire queer community. So rather than give ourselves an emotional pass – as people of privilege are want to do – I believe we must embrace a spiritual corrective that could fortify our generation’s ability to bring lasting social change to birth shaped by the wisdom of three moral activists:

· Pastoral theologian, Henri Nouwen, taught that “discipline, practice and accountability” are essential for spiritual formation which he describes as “an ever increasing capacity to live from within our heart.” (Spiritual Direction)

· Dietrich Bonhoeffer, soul of Germany’s resistance to the Nazis, insisted that authentic life is “existing for others… challenging the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil… (Reclaiming) moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)

· And Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar, explains how we can best move through our current dislocation – a 21st century encounter with social, political, cultural and moral exile – by reclaiming practices that renewed ancient Israel. “(Only) when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, does it have ways of speaking, knowing and imagin-ing that can successfully address our cultural malaise.”

When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair. When thinking about dislocations, an Old Testament teacher moves by "dynamic analogy" to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Hebrew Scriptures. By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighborliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E. In that year Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. It was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric
. (Conversations Among Exiles, Christian Century, July 1997)

To do this requires retooling three, time-tested spiritual formation practices for new a century people. At the end of Bonhoeffer’s life he insisted upon birthing a “religionless Christianity” that would simultaneously disqualify the rhetoric of traditional Christian piety, meta-physics and sentimentality as socially irrelevant – and destructive to the common good – while empowering a diverse cadre of people of good will with the tools to live sacrificially and prayerfully in a wounded world. Now is our hour to advance this commitment to the work of solidarity with discipline, practice and accountability.

First, the practice of honest humility: not pious or anti-corporeal self-abasement, but rather a conscious commitment to listening to the stories of another’s heart. Honest humility, rooted in the word humus – that gritty mélange of garbage and earth that affords us the foundation of new life – includes radical social analysis, story-telling in community, and contemplation as defined as “taking a long, loving look at what is real.” Nurturing honest humility for resistance is how we move beyond the walls of our various segregations. Brueggemann writes that “The Old Testament stories of exile might be a resource that can move us from denial and despair to possibility.”

Ancient Israel understood that unless loss is examined and understood, newness will not come. The traditions of exile suggest ways of speech and faithful imagination that (we) can practice and offer as antidotes to denial and despair… (beginning with) the expression of sadness, rage, anger and loss. (Brueggemann, ibid)

Without a safe and responsible forum for listening to one another in communities of accountability our country will continue its descent into cruel nativism. How many of us living in our liberal, moderate, conservative or alienated bubbles failed to accept the near inevitability that Donald Trump – or someone very much like him - would become the 45th President of the United States? Given the vulgarity of our culture, our creative surrender to the bottom line logic of the market place, and the ethical relativism of 21st century society, why did we expect otherwise? Mr. Trump personifies our nation’s dominant practices yet 50+% of us are still react with shock.

Such denial calls to mind the scandalizing commentary Malcolm X shared after the assassination of JFK: “The chickens were coming home to roost. As I saw it… the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley) ” A 12 Steps aphorism offers a measure of humor, but tells us the same truth: “If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get, what you’ve always got.” Part of a deep resistance that changes culture begins by listening to the heart stories of those we rarely know and accepting truths we cannot yet imagine.

Second, the practice of grief work: some speak of self-emptying; others prefer an acceptance of what can and cannot be changed
. However it is described, grieving engages and embodies the anguish of reality. No abstractions are allowed in incarnational resistance. “You have no right to sing Gregorian chant,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his allies “unless you are standing up for the Jews.” Grief is fundamentally about loss and solidarity: we feel the agony of the abused; we own our own complicity; we acknowledge the suffering of our own lives and consciously choose to trust that “the arc of the moral universe tilts ever so slightly towards justice.” Brueggemann notes that ancient Israel systematically revisited their wounds in a public and orderly fashion to awaken moral imagination and celebrate compassionate behavior.

At the time of the exile, some believed that life in Jerusalem had been trivialized and emptied of meaning. All parts of life, including God, self and neighbor, had been reduced to managed "things." The sacramental voice of the priests (identified in scholarship as "the priestly tradition")—a kind of language markedly absent in our shrill moralisms—insists that when old patterns of meaning are destroyed, one may find refuge in liturgic construals of ordered holiness. People like us shy away from holiness, worried about ostentatiousness or self-righteous punctiliousness. But in that urgent situation, the priests did not flinch. Without embarrassment, they proclaimed God’s call: "I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy. You shall not defile yourselves. ... You shall be holy for I am holy"
(Lev. 11:44-45). (ibid)

This is resistance out loud and in public. No individual can enter the full grief of this moment in our culture – the promise or the pain – in solitude. We have neither the stamina nor the insight to practice in private the depth or honesty that freedom requires. That is why we need both the well-timed public marches and rallies calling out this regime’s greed and cruelty, as well as carefully crafted cultural events like “Songs of Solidarity” or the recent coordinated showings of “1984” or “I Am Not Your Negro.” Further, an essential for moral revival is consistent participation in a support community of faith and/or shared values. For close to 100 years, religion in middle class America has not practiced the inward journey of prayer. As has been documented by Joseph Driskill of the Pacific School of Religion, since the Scopes Monkey Trails progressive and moderate Christians have abandoned the tools of piety - prayer - in order to escape the brain dead, pseudo-sciences of the evangelical realm. Indeed, we have only intentionally turned to God when our health is threatened or when we must write a social justice resolution for our denomination. But without intimate inspiration from the Divine, we are left to our own energies and insights. And all have fallen short of the glory of God and sinned - and I mean all. Prayer, protest and communities of creativity are key to sustaining a revolution of love.


Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to flee the hard task of community formation for the sake of private well-being. This is all too evident in our own society, where public responsibility is on the wane and the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate… or the self-preoccupied individualism in the greed that our society calls "opportunity.” The Deuteronomic tradition, however, presents society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and policies that enhance neighborliness… it insists that economic life must be organized to ensure the well-being of widows, orphans and immigrants. This response insists that maintaining a public economy of compassion and justice is a way to move beyond despair.

Third, the practice of revolutionary patience: grief work must drain us utterly so that inspiration and creativity has room to bloom. Brueggemann writes: “The exiles in Babylon faced an empire that seemed to circumscribe and dictate everything, just as the military-industrial complex seems to circumscribe our lives. Ancient Israel came within a whisker of being able to imagine its future only in the terms permitted and sanctioned by Babylon.”

Into this scene stepped the prophet Isaiah, the most vigorous, daring and imaginative of all the voices of faith during the exile. In the midst of the suffering and despair of his people, Isaiah (sensed) a radical new possibility. He dared to say defiantly, in the face of imperial power, “the time of suffering is ending. You shall go out in joy, you shall be led back in peace (55:12).”

After being emptied – after sitting by the waters of Babylon, weeping as priests and scholars and politicians, women and men and children, rich and poor united into a community of sorrow – after waiting with revolutionary not passive patience – ancient Israel was visited by a surge of unexpected creative hope that answered the question: “Can these dry bones live?” Bonheoffer is instructive: besides a dogged vigilance to resistance, he actively listened to the creative imagination of artists, prophets and poets outside of the church, as well as secular leaders being anointed as new bearers of hope. Religionless Christianity was never about abandoning God, but discerning the movement of the holy beyond the confines of piety. It was the path of orthopraxis over orthodoxy.

In 2017, careful attention – revolutionary patience – is required to grasp both the tender and bold ways the sacred is at work breaking down barriers to birthing the Beloved Community. Already labor is reaching out to Queer allies; Christian gospel choirs are joining Muslim imams alongside sassy poets of color; and scientists have left their laboratories for the streets to share not just analysis and outrage, but a new vision of compassion and justice. St. Paul grasped how this came to pass when he proclaimed poetically:

Now we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… and hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5)

History has called us into a disciplined resistance of moral courage and artistic creativity. Let us seize not only this day, but use the tools that can sustain our calling on behalf of all of God’s creation.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

a confession: america never was america to me

Every day for the past six months I have found myself stunned by the way the current president of the United States finds new ways to degrade his office and dismay people of good will all over the world. His words, tweets and policies are an affront to the ideals of our democracy while his demeanor celebrates ignorance, belligerence and buffoonery. And just when it seems he can't stoop any lower, he crawls through the muck on his belly like a reptile, appearing to rejoice in that which is base and mean-spirited. When he isn't divisive, he is intellectually incoherent and morally bankrupt. 

It is my conviction to avoid ad hominem attacks on those whose positions or acts I oppose. In a free society, this is part of the bargain: we can disagree without being disagreeable. Ethically, too I understand that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." What I am beginning to realize, however, is that my revulsion for our sitting President is one of the last vestiges of my allegiance to American exceptionalism. My agony and disgust has to do with seeing the shadow reality of my white privilege and the result of the mythology of my class and gender. For as Langston Hughes wrote in 1935: "America never was America to me." 

I used to read his poem out loud on the Fourth of July as a sacred vow to do my part as a citizen on behalf of our deepest ideals. I prayed that our better angels would triumph over time and give new shape and form to authentic equal opportunity in my generation  But this patriot's dream rings hollow to me tonight. It has been betrayed and soiled for so long, sold off to the highest bidder, discarded like used toilet paper and violated repeatedly by racist and sexist violence, that Mr. Trump simply appears to be the natural consequence of our collective history. There are exceptions, to be sure. There are always challengers, too. But let's be honest:  45 only seems scandalous to those among us who, because of the relative safety of our status or a colossal denial of our complicity, have been able to hold on to a sanitized and sentimental romanticism re: America.

Let America be America again. 
Let it be the dream it used to be. 
Let it be the pioneer on the plain 
Seeking a home where he himself is free. 

(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— 
Let it be that great strong land of love 
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme 
That any man be crushed by one above. 

(It never was America to me.) 

O, let my land be a land where 
Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, 
But opportunity is real, and life is free, 
Equality is in the air we breathe. 

(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

My prayer now is to live tenderly with open eyes. There's no room for illusion. The current political, social and spiritual travesty in Washington, DC is killing off my once cherished fantasies - and the funeral is long over due. Enough with the teary grieving and broken hearts; no more shocked indignation. Niebuhr used to teach that until the children of light become as serious and strategic in the quest for compassion and justice as the children of darkness are in maintaining a vile status quo, solidarity will remain cheap rhetoric. Dorothee Soelle was more blunt: to be an ally in the quest for the beloved community many of us must commit race, gender and class suicide. What the current regime documents is that this time has now come.

The author, Diana Butler Bass, put it like this tonight - and her words ring more true to me than ever before:

Tonight, someone crying. She is sitting by the bedside of her lifelong love. He is dying of brain cancer. They have no insurance.

Tonight, someone is crying. He is holding the hand of his best friend, just diagnosed with brain cancer. There is no way to pay the doctor.

Tonight, someone is crying. She is having dizzying spells. She is too scared to find out if she has brain cancer because she has no money, no way to pay for insurance. She would rather not know.

Tonight, someone is crying.

Tonight, thousands are crying.

And John McCain is praised for standing on principles. He will die in comfort. But there are people crying all over America tonight because he put his principles over their humanity. And because of a "base." And Mike Pence. And the Koch brothers. And Donald Trump. None of them are crying. They are happy. They won.

But the sick, the hopeless, the dying. They are crying.

And so is anyone with a heart.

Jesus challenged his opponents saying: "You can read the signs in the heavens... but you cannot - or will not - read the signs of the times."

O, yes, I say it plain, 
America never was America to me, 
And yet I swear this oath— 
America will be! 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, 
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, 
We, the people, must redeem 
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. 
The mountains and the endless plain—
 All, all the stretch of these great green states— 

And make America again!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

at the close of the day...

My day began here and comes to a close here, too: looking at the emerging garden. Worship was simple and full for me, tender-hearted and casual even as we talked about practicing living as God's beloved. There were old friends and new in the Sanctuary, the morning felt grounded in grace. Then, people went their separate ways to help one another. Some cleaned and prayed over a friend's home. Others visited folks who have long been alone. I had the chance to bring Eucharist to dear friends beginning yet another round in the journey of healing. This short quote from Jean Vanier brings it all together for me:

Little did I know that I was on the road to an amazing discovery, a gold mine of truth, where the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor would be brought together in community and find peace, where those who were rejected could heal and transform those who rejected them.

This next week will be full:  children and grandchildren arrive, pastoral visits abound, songs will be sung in support of justice and I will be a part of an interfaith conversation about peace-making and unity. Before the new work begins, I want to return thanks for this day.

Friday, July 21, 2017

on yard work, dreams and affirmations...

Today I woke up remembering last night's dream about prayer and presence: I entered a hospital room where an old woman I didn't know was descending into death. Her body what frail and diminished. She was returning to a fetal position in a hospital bed that was to become her final home. Members of her family gathered around their dying matriarch to whisper words of love. I felt awkward and unnecessary within this intimate circle of caring. After standing in silence with them for what seemed like half an hour, I reached out my hand and placed it on the dying woman's brow for prayer. "Lord, in your mercy," I began, "bring your servant into your everlasting peace. Be her comfort now as she enters the arms of your grace..." Before I could continue (in my dream) someone from her family placed a hand upon my head and spoke: "Lord." And as soon as this happened, a chill swept through my body - a feeling of sacred presence - and I awoke knowing this was a holy affirmation to honor what Jean Vanier calls our "second calling."

While cutting the grass yesterday I found myself praying, "Lord, give me the words to grasp what my second calling is all about." Last night I read more of Vanier's description of the spirituality of L'Arche community.

Jesus' identification with the poor remains one of the greatest and most incompre-hensible mysteries of the gospels. How can God, who is all powerful, all beautiful and all glorious, become so powerless, so little, so weak? The logic of love is different from the logic of reason and power. When you love someone, you use her language to be close to her. When you love a child, you speak and play with him as a child. That is how God relates to us. God becomes little so that we will not be frightened of (God), so that we might enter into a heart -t-heart relationship of love and communion ... The mystery is that our God is a hidden God. Our God is not a God of rules, regulations and obligation, or a master teacher who wants to impose a path of salvation. Our God is a God of love and communion; a heart yearning to communicate to another heart the joy and ecstasy of love and communion that exist between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

My dream was an answer to prayer.  It affirms for me that the way of this "second calling" is saturated in compassion and dedicated to being rather than doing. "Lord" was all that was spoken - and Lord is apparently all that I need. Can I see the Lord in other people's pain, embrace the Lord in my own wounds; trust the Lord to be my guide in all matters of my life, and rest in the Lord's love for me and all of creation as the foundation of my still unfolding ministry?  Vanier adds: 

By identifying with the poor and the weak, Jesus reminds us that he identifies with all that is poor and weak in each of us. We are called to become more open, trusting, child-like and filled with wonder. Each of us is sacred, no matter what his or her culture, religion, challenge or fragility. Each person is created in God's image; each one has a heart with a capacity to love and to be loved.


This morning feels as if a sacred gestalt is coming into focus from within my favorite Scriptures giving me the elusive words from six clearly inter-related texts:

+ I Corinthians 1: 27-28:  God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,

+ Isaiah 55
: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live...Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near... For my thoughts are not your thoughts,nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts
... For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

+ Psalm 131: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me

+ Matthew 11: 28-30
:  Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

+ Philippians 2: 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.

+ Psalm 37: Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil.

Now it is time for more gardening: weeding and reclaiming the long neglected raised beds so that flowers and herbs might prosper. I wonder what will be revealed in this? 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

listening with the heart...

Today was all about yard work - and listening. The neighbor's yard man stopped to chat with me while I was cutting the front yard with the manual, rotary mower. "That's the best way to care for your lawn," he smiled. "The old way." This led us into a 20 minute conversation about the state of the world, learning to pray, prayers for his dear friend Michelle and so much more. Funny what can happen if I simply take the time to stop and pay attention with my heart to those who move through my day, yes?

Jean Vanier suggests that the most important need all people have is a sense of belonging. Not power or wealth, not status or even self-esteem. Belonging: the experience of knowing you are treasured. I have been "listening" to that wisdom for the past few days every time my "smart" phone chimes:  "You are God's beloved forever" is the message that accompanies this call to prayer. I say these words to my self, listen to the bells and make the sign of the Cross. I belong and have been cherished by the Lord since before the beginning of time. In his spirituality of the L'Arche community, Vanier writes:

People suffering from intellectual disabilities do not know God in an intellectual, abstract way, but they can sense when they are loved. When children know that they are loved, they are peaceful. When they feel unwanted, they are in pain. They learn through contact with their hearts, their bodies and their senses. Isn't that the same for all of us? ... The most important knowledge is the knowledge that comes directly from a heart-to-heart relationship with Jesus in which (we) sense how much (we) are loved and are called to grow in love.

The experience of sensing Christ's love for me personally - and sharing that love with other lonely people over the course of my ministry - has unequivocally been the best part of the past 40 years for me.  "Some people find it difficult to believe in the value of heart-to-heart love," Vanier continues, "it seems too childish or sentimental." It has been a constant blessing to me but I sometimes forget this truth. St. Paul describes it as the mystery of the Cross where "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world" to show us the way of trust and heart-to-heart love. As I listened to this truth in my heart today while cutting the grass, I got a clue for one of the ways I want to live into whatever public ministry remains: encouraging heart-to-heart connections with Christ's love and strengthening heart-to-heart love within our community.

As I sat with this insight, my wacky dog, Lucie, jumped up on the bed and fell fast asleep. She had been outside most of the day with me and was worn out. When I awoke from my nap she was still zonked out so I read quietly. About 10 minutes later she got up, stretched her big old body and came to snuggle in my arms. She looked up at me with eyes that said, "All I need is a hug." When she is loved and treated with quiet respect, she rests deeply. When others are around who are unknown to her - or when she has to venture into places that are outside her comfort zone - she frets, worries and becomes terrified. Resting in my arms on my bed confirmed my hunch for the next phase of ministry. 

The words of the Blessed Virgin as she sings to God in gratitude before Christ's birth ring so true: "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

returning to all things cohen...

Like Leonard Cohen intones on "Slow," the opening cut on his 2014 masterpiece, Popular Problems: "I'm slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast; you want to get there soon, I wan to get there last. It's not because I'm old, it's not the life I led, I always liked it slow that's what my momma said." God, I love that song - it speaks to how I am choosing to explore the mystical and majestic music of Leonard Cohen's sensual spirituality. It also encapsulates everything that fascinates me with this creative genius: the poetry and humor, the humility and bravado, the humanity and imagination spent reworking tradition in service to wisdom and compassion, the boldly incarnational theology celebrating ancient Judaism as embraced by Zen meditation, and let's not forget the sexy blurred lines that unites Cohen's ironic theology with overt passion.

While in Montreal after Easter, I started wandering the cold, empty streets of Cohen's old neighborhood to get a feel for the vibe that shaped his quotidian experience. Over and over, I found myself drawn back to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in the Old Port. This is "our Lady of the Harbor" that shapes so much of Cohen's break out song, "Suzanne." I haunted used book stores and music shops, too in search of poetry collections and biographies. For three full weeks I was en pèlerinage à toutes choses Cohen. Upon returning to Montreal in June, the quest matured and I was able to add more CDs to an expanding collection. Yesterday, after listening straight through to Popular Problems again for the first time in three years, I must confess to be a willing supplicant in service to this shaman's magic.  Three songs stand out for me:

+ First, "Slow," a laid-back blues shuffle built on a rock solid electric piano groove, punctuated with periodic punches from a horn section and Hammond B-3. It is swampy and sassy, spiritual and sensual, personal and political all mixed up together like real life. (Hence the album's title, Popular Problems, yes?)  The opening stanza evokes the wisdom of one who has learned that "the first shall be last" or what some speak of as the great reversal of ego and power:  those in a hurry to win will be brought low. It sounds sexual when Cohen moans his lyrics, but this verse cuts beyond the obvious:

 I'm slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast.
You want to get there soon, 
I want to get there last 

In various positions, Cohen plays with this tension confessing:  "I'm lacing up my shoe but I don't want to run; I'll get there when I do, don't need no starting gun. It's not because I'm old, it's not what dying does, I always liked it slow, slow is in my blood." The horns punch out their riff, the organ interrupts our concentration and then the maestro returns. "So baby let me go, you're wanted back in town; in case they want to know I'm trying to slow it down." This is how Cohen opens the curtain on this album: both the feel and the flow of "Slow" weave throughout Popular Problems, sometimes taking on a country incarnation, other times a New Age funk sound. But each song is constructed on the same foundation.

+ The second tune that tears me apart is "Nevermind." If "Slow" is playful, :"Nevermind" is grim. Both truths are never far apart in Cohen's world. "The war was lost, the treaty signed, I was not caught, I crossed the line. I was not caught though many tried, I live among you, well disguised." A synthesized dance club riff over a drum machine drives the song deeper, insisting in a relentless way that the story of suffering and betrayal is told over and again "with facts and lies... there's a truth that lives and a truth that dies; I don't know which so never mind." Is this about war? Is this about love? Is this about the brutal cycle of birth and death that Quooleth laments at the start of Ecclesiastes? Or the tragic whispers of a defeated idealist beaten into submission and now living underground?

All of this indifference some call fate
Be we had names more intimate
Names so deep and names so true
They're blood to me
They're dust to you...


Adding to the troubling allure of "Nevermind" is the voice of a woman chanting "Salaam" in Arabic at weird intervals. Cohen heaps stark and challenging couplets one upon the next - "this was your heart, this swarm of flies, this was once your mouth this bowl of lies" - his female back-up singers sweetly urge the song forward with oohs and ahhs - when seemingly out of no where comes a plaintive prayer for peace punctuated with a soulful horn section and Middle Eastern hand drums. A genius at disarming us, Cohen offers a disturbing and heart-breaking composition that is laced with prayer. Brilliant.

+ I cherish the country ballads on this album and love the laments of love, too.  His tribute to his Jewish roots took 40 years to complete and "Born in Chains" is worth the wait. But my third stand out song on Popular Problems has to be "Almost Like the Blues."  Not only is this vintage Cohen clarity, it is a sorrowful elegy for the human condition. 21st century people may believe that there is more human suffering in the human family than ever before, but Cohen reminds us that agony is timeless. We sense that there is more cruelty but we only see what has always been given our technology.

"There is no G-d in heaven, there is no Hell below
So says the great professor of all there is to know
But I've had the invitation that a sinner can't refuse
It's almost like salvation, it's almost like the blues...


The blues - cries of anguish that liberate, songs that evoke joy from our sorrow and inspire us to shake our booty in the face of what cannot be changed - all at the same time. Pure Cohen genius.  There is humility being expressed here because Cohen will not engage in crass cultural appropriation. The blues begins and ends in the African American experience. Yet as BB Kind has said there is also a universality to suffering that responds to the blues. Bone once said of King David's psalms in the Bible: David wrote the first sacred blues and played the first blues harp. Cohen knows this truth in his soul and keeps telling us that whether its gypsies or Jews, people starving or trying to escape oppression, life is often like acid in its tragic proportions:  indeed, it is almost like the blues.


In a 2002 interview with Spin,Cohen spoke of an insight he learned during his years studying Zen. 


Roshi said something nice to me one time. He said that the older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero that you're trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life—this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero. You're exerting a tremendous maintenance to keep this heroic stance available to you, and the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. And they're not heroic defeats; they're ignoble defeats. Finally, one day you say, 'Let him die—I can't invest any more in this heroic position.'

The universality of letting go of illusions and unhealthy expectations fills Popular Problems
with powerful alternatives to both sentimentality and cynicism. The hymn-like qualities of these compositions give this song cycle a timeless quality too. Once, when asked if he was religious, Cohen replied:  "I am in the sense that I know the difference between guilt and grace." This distinction is exposed in spades on this recording. Check it out!

Monday, July 17, 2017

wisdom of our wounds redux...

Yesterday I posted these two pictures on my Face Book page with the comment: Kinda fun to see what 40 years looks like side by side. 

 

A few people noted that the guy on the right looks happier than the other chap - and I know this to be true. It was also said that the "fun guy with the impish rascal smile" was always inside the other but now he's been set free. Is it equally true that the serious and sensitive follow on left is still a part of the old guy, too but maybe in better balance? Time will tell.

It is not coincidence, however, that I am currently reading a few books by Jean Vanier of the spirituality of the L'Arche community as well as a lovely novel, The Second Calling by Hans S. Reinders. His fictional accounting of the L'Arche story is designed for a popular audience and is clarifying in many ways. Before I went to sleep last night, I marked these words from the "Jean Vanier" character who is encouraging a young community assistant to be clear about his motives: "I am not asking what your problem is. You may tell me if you want, but that is not the point. The point for you is to find out what it is so that you can solve it. Or if that is impossible, to accept it and be in peace with yourself. I hope you will."

When I woke up the next day, I finally had some words for what I have been learning over the course of my 35+ years of ministry. I feel like I am making peace within my soul, too. Not thoroughly, of course, and not evenly, but sincerely and with a measure of understanding and acceptance that feels healthy. My first clue came during our Montreal sabbatical when I experienced a deep physical, spiritual and emotional rest. It was holy ground for me, unlike anything I had known as an adult And for the better part of the past two years, I have been wondering, "Why?" this was so.

One emerging clue has to do with the strain between my inner desire to serve God in a "ministry of presence" and the outward realities of the four churches I have pastored. By nature I am fundamentally a mystical contemplative (who loves a good party) yet all of my professional work has been as a change agent: renewing trust in Michigan, reviving hope in Ohio, restoring peace and perspective in Arizona, and reclaiming vision in Massachusetts. Small wonder I have felt tired and even weary at times, yes?  I have been at war with myself especially with my expectations of how I might best serve the Lord? And unless I really miss the mark, it is time for a truce at the very least. Each of these congregations have held their challenges, to be sure, but they have also been genuinely blessed places of faith and love
So what I am going to do as this summer continues to ripen is practice honoring all the times I hit the mark in this ministry rather than obsess on what I sometimes perceive as my catastrophic failings  As I remind our faith community in Sunday worship: everything starts with grace and gratitude. Trouble is, of course, I don't always grasp that for myself.

One of the wounds within that haunts me is evaluating my life through the lens of business metrics. Like St. Paul in Romans 7, I HATE this, but still do it. I rail against the oppressive and cruel judgments of bottom line experts only to discover I have surrendered to their verdicts in my heart of heart yet again. It seems as if coming to a sense of acceptance let alone peace with this is going to take me a life time. It has already taken 35+ years and I am only scratching the surface. But as the late Ann Landers asked a 50 year old woman who wanted to go to law school but hesitated because of her middle age, "Well how old would you be if you didn't go to law school?" same is true for me. It is time to listen to the old apostle one more time:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

So the journey into the wisdom of my wounds continues. Be careful what you pray for, right? I asked for insight and humility in my days of semi-retirement... and so it goes. Even my old buddy Bruce Cockburn is going for it, too!

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...