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.

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.

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?

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

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