Wednesday, October 17, 2018

the Buddha or the Boss I don't care: sorting through MORE stuff

The penultimate sorting in our basement took place today - and in the process I discovered that its far harder for me to throw away my decades of music on cassette tapes than it was 40 years of sermons. I have four boxes of cassettes that I haven't listened to in at lease 15 years. I smiled quietly looking at the U2 tapes my daughters made for one another back in the 80s and early 90s. I looked upon the bootleg live Springsteen shows from the Cleveland Agora and San Francisco's Winterland with affection. Courting tapes to and from Dianne, too. There's even a wedding mix my brother sent all these years ago...

... and I couldn't throw them away. Ok, I couldn't let go of Das Kapital Vol I that I purchased on my first trip to Soviet Russia nor Michael Harrington's brilliant synthesis of theoretical Marxism, Socialism, either. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series and the Gamache books by Louise Penny are still keepers as well. Virginia Woolf, Richard Brautigan and Richard Farina still have a place of honor on our remaining one shelf of fiction in the basement. But that's it. Why are these cassettes so hard to give up? Two weeks ago I gladly gave away hundreds of Biblical commentaries and works of theology. (To be honest, when I realized that ALL of my Biblical commentaries were on their way to the public library, I quickly ran downstairs and retrieved three New Testament works plus Robert Alter's brilliant commentary on the Psalms.) Most of my formative musical anthologies used in writing my dissertation are gone now as well as many of our art history texts. And still the cassettes remain.  

Akiko Busch wrote an essay in 2012 entitled "The Art of Shedding Possession" where she suggests that some possessions we outgrow, others evoke our history and some are just clutter. Still, she wonders as do I,   

But how to start weeding through this overcrowded museum of domestic life? Things come into our lives for any number of reasons: need, desire, taste, inheritance or simply the human impulse to fill some space in our lives that has been left empty. And if “curation” plays a part in acquisition, such selectivity necessarily involves some convergence of knowledge, discernment and diligence. All of which, I find, are every bit as vital in de-accessioning.There are many factors ruling our choices about what to surrender. A force equal and opposite to the impulse buy is the precipitous urge to give something up, which can spring from some combination of regret, disenchantment, a sense of failure, even fatigue. 

But beyond such hasty and impetuous housecleaning are the simple facts that we outgrow things, our tastes change, and, maybe most of all, our desire for material belongings wanes. Parting with them may only be a matter of recognizing that we need to end certain relationships and understand how the physical objects around us have served as their emotional accomplices. I have found that what I am ready to relinquish generally falls into one of two categories: things that resonate with past experience and those that hold out promise for a future enterprise that is unlikely to materialize. Which is to say, the stuff can be purely evocative or insanely aspirational.

I've read the pop literature on de-cluttering like the Seana Method. We've added them all to our toss-it pile already. One friend reframed the challenge saying, "Don't look for what to give away, but rather to keep." And that has its own wisdom that I've used in sifting through my books. (With more to come!) I like what Priscilla Stucky wrote on her blog:

I now understand in a deeper way why shedding things is the first recommended step on many spiritual paths. The more we are attached to things—focused on gathering and keeping them—the harder it is to hear the still small voice of spirit. “Sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” Jesus advises the rich young politician, “and then come follow me.” (Shedding our things is also) a brief—if gentle—visit to the Underworld. It does remind us of dying, as if we’re settling our estate ahead of time. And it’s a little bit scary. It strips away a little cushion between us and reality.

That certainly rings true for me: sorting and tossing has made me keenly aware both of my mortality and of the journey that has carried me thus far. It has evoked gratitude I never imagined. Some tears and regrets, as well, but mostly serious celebration for the blessings I have been given over all these years. Perhaps that's why I am reluctant right now to let go of that music. I have hundreds of CDs to sort that I don't care much about. Maybe I've outgrown them. But those cassettes...? They remain a mystery. So I'm not going to try to figure it out today. Or any time soon. I am just going to clean them up, bring them upstairs and give them a listen; trusting that when the time is right, the Buddha will appear. Or at the very least the Boss.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

this is the season for remembering...

Today we walked into the brisk autumn wind of October. There was the hint of winter in the air and it was simultaneously stimulating and sobering. Winter lasts a long time here. In a few weeks, it will be dark at 4 pm. Often there is snow in April. And it seems as if the sun disappears for almost six months, too with only periodic teasers until Easter. Old man winter won't really descend on us for another few weeks, but there was a preview of what's coming for those with eyes to see this afternoon. 

I have embraced the hardiness of this realm and have come to love it. There is nothing quite like the silence that fills the air during a vibrant snow fall. The only thing comparable that I have known is hiking in the Sonoran desert. It, too, can be completely empty of sound for a spell. Just without the snow. So, for me right now, before we get to winter we must transition into darkness. The poet, Jane Tyson Clement, describes it as "the season for what is over and done with" in her "Autumn Sketch."

The wind in the dry standing corn is the sound of many waters.
     (This is the season for remembering,
     for gathering in memories like flowers before frost.)
Over the mountains the dark clouds of birds wheel and vanish
and the air stills slowly with the beat of wings
in the light no longer.
     (This is the season for what is over and done with, finished.
     Hold no promise in your hands. Look to the earth no longer,
     nor tho the sky, for the snows gather.)
The wind through the standing corn is the murmur of many waters;
look for frost on the hillside and milkweed pods
smoking along the roads.
     (This is the season for remembering;
     blow on your hearth’s embers, and ask for a little while
     no new springing.)

Remembering, letting go, taking stock of the stark beauty and transitioning into darkness is the work of my autumn transition. It asks me to honor what is vital and essential and let the rest become dust in the wind. When I placed a bound book entitled, "My Pastoral Ministry" into the trash today - a volume I started in seminary back in 1979 but quit updating sometime in 1983 - my breath caught for a moment. In that instant I was a young, hot-headed idealist again with two small children living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. 

I looked through this book before putting it into the trash bin with reverence. There were funeral notices next to eight page lists of sermon titles. What a surprise: for an instant I was sitting in the Quad at Union Seminary. Or in the Sanctuary of  First Church in Saginaw. Or walking the neighborhood of Trinity United Church of Christ. I felt grateful for everything that had taken place over these forty years. Grateful and keenly aware that something entirely new is now taking root. "This is," as the poet says, "the season for remembering." And getting ready for something entirely new.

Monday, October 15, 2018

all hallows eve...

As autumn matures, my heart is moved by the hint of All Saints and All Souls Day. Once widely celebrated in sacred and secular circles, these two mystical liturgies are now all but forgotten in contemporary culture. The only remnant, of course, is Halloween. "Technically speaking, Halloween is the vigil of All Hallows Eve," writes Christopher Hill in Holidays and Holy Nights.

Halloween (has become) a big event for children and has grown bigger in the course of this century. But not much reflection is generally given to the relationship between Halloween and the Church feasts that are its origin... Technically speaking, Halloween is the vigil of All Hallows Eve. Vigils are the night face of the church. The practice of keeping vigils owes something to the old way of reckoning the day from sunset to sunset... In the two archetypal Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas, it is still the vigil that contains the actual transformative event - the movement of the Resurrection at Easter and of Christ's birth at Christmas. The theurgy - the sacred work - takes place at the middle of the night when the way is open between eternity and this world.
(pp. 46-47)

The popularity of our sanitized Halloween reminds us that folk traditions are deeply embedded in our collective unconscious. "Before the Protestant Reformation, all over Europe the feasts of the Church Year had been rich with popular customs. The Christian vision was incarnated up and down the scale of culture, from scholars creating great structures of intellect and theology, down to the places in the common heart where people dreamed, played and sang." (Hill, p. 47) We don't fully know how the Celtic rituals of Samhain (and other late autumn feasts) were observed except to say "some things stand out by their persistence in tradition: fire - bonfires especially - played a part. Divinization, telling the future, did too. Feasting and merrymaking took place, along with mumming (going from dwelling to dwelling in some kind of costume, along with ritualized begging and sometimes the enactment of simple drama.) (Hill, p. 52) 

What is clear is that by the Middle Ages, All Hallows Eve had become a magnificent festival of "somberness, delicious fear and firelit festivity." (p. 53) The best analysis suggests that rather than trying to replace or supplant the feast of Samhain, the Church chose to honor the truths of the pagan tradition, linking it with the doctrine of the communion of all believers. In this, folk tradition and superstition were sacralized and honored. Christine Valters Painter notes that all over Northern Europe this season is known as "the time of the ancestors." (Abbey of the Arts) As the calendar year ends with a gathering of crops and a growing darkness, our ancestors looked backwards in remembrance and gratitude. The German practice of Totenfest mirrors the Celtic All Hallows Eve as our faithful dead are remembered with thanksgiving, stories and feasts. Same goes for the Day of the Dead festivities in the Latinix world. Painters confesses that October is her favorite month both because of the invitation to honor our ancestors and: "...because of the quality of evening light which shimmers golden and radiant as each day comes to a close. I love the autumn for its call to release what does not serve but also to celebrate the harvest of my life."  Then she asks: what are we harvesting right now? What are we letting go of, and, what are we holding close in gratitude? This is one of the gifts I cherish in both All Souls and All Saints Day.

The other is the recognition these holy days afford me to nourish my yearning for mystery. Our whole culture feels this aching for an encounter with truths greater than mere facts. But we're now uncertain how to proceed. Halloween offers a sanitized version with scary stories and goblins. The chiller movies so popular at this time of year are another part of this longing. "We want mystery more than anything," Hill posits, "but we're thrown off balance" by our yearning.

The imagination falls short in imagining or describing the sacred thing it is approaching, and so we settle for making it scary - but the spook is simply a stand in (for something more profound...) the night side of God.

Once upon a time, the Church nourished mystery. We were intimately connected to the earth and its rhythms. Since the 60s, however, we have "ceded mystery to the arts, folklore and popular culture... (elevating) rational theology, ethics, charity, and social outreach" to the core. (Hill, p. 50) Consequently, many of us are driven elsewhere to taste the cool and refreshing waters of the unknown. That is part of what our sanitized Halloween has become: a playful ritual of
scary stories, costumes, goblins, and moonlight that merely hints at a deeper longing. Today trick-or-treat has become the "secularized vigil of All Saints and All Hollows Eve... acting like an impish little brother to the great vigils of the past, a small echo of their world transforming mysteries."

So, what to do? I am starting to collect photographs of my faithful dead to post on a homemade altar. I want to pray for my beloved dead - as well as those with whom I am still at odds. I also want to add images to my family altar of those in the realm of the arts who have shaped my soul. Saints like Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen have opened my heart and mind as much as many in my blood line. And I'll sit with them by candle light this year to see what their wisdom and memory holds for me. These words from the Book of Common Prayer are a starting point.

(In the semi-darkness we pray...)

Light and peace, in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Thanks be to God. Let us pray:

“Lord Christ, your saints have been the lights of the world in every generation: Grant that we who follow in their footsteps may be made worthy to enter with them into that heavenly country where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen” (Book of Common Prayer. p. 111). 

Candles are lit as "O Gracious Light" is sung:

O holy radiance, joyous light, O splendid glory shining bright,
Immortal Father, heavenly One, O blessed Jesus Christ, the Sun.
We see the sunshine fade to night, and welcoming the evening light,
To Father, Son and Spirit raise our hymns of wonder, love and praise.
Unceasingly our tongues shall laud your worth, Begotten One of God,
O Breath of life: let all proclaim the glory of your wondrous name.
(Phos Hilaron, New Century Hymnal, Tallis' Canon)

Scripture readings for All Hallows’ Eve include:

+ “The Witch of Endor,” 1 Samuel 28:3-25; 
+ “The Vision of Eliphaz the Temanite,” Job 4:12-21; 
+ “The Valley of Dry Bones,” Ezekiel 37:1-14; 
+ “The War in Heaven,” Revelation 12:(1-6)7-12. 

Let us pray...

“Almighty and everliving God, you have made all things in your wisdom and established the boundaries of life and death: Grant that we may obey your voice in this world, and in the world to come may enjoy that rest and peace which you have appointed for your people; through Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen” (“Book of Occasional Services,” p. 108). “

"You, O Lord, have made us from the dust of the earth and to dust our bodies shall return; yet you have also breathed your Spirit upon us and called us to new life in you: Have mercy upon us, now and at the hour of our death; through Jesus Christ, our mediator and advocate. Amen” (“Book of Occasional Services,” p. 109). 

“O God, you have called your people to your service from age to age. Do not give us over to death, but raise us up to serve you, to praise you, and to glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (“Book of Occasional Services,” p. 109). 

Personal prayers and remembrances. Blessing followed by festivities:
The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance up0on  you and give you peace. Amen.

+ my photo

Saturday, October 13, 2018

moving towards all hallow's eve...

This morning at breakfast we spoke of our favorite seasons - in creation and the church - discovering that we love different times of the year for similar reasons. For both, Advent into Christmas wins hands down with its mystical liturgies, sounds and candles. (A close second would the Easter Vigil for similar reasons.) But I yearn for autumn while she moves towards spring. I ache to follow the light into the darkness whereas she travels through shadows in pursuit of the glow. Both respect the obscure as well as the luminous, both celebrate each in creation and ceremony. Yet one is lured onto the path of unknowing even as the other dances towards the mysteries of revelation. Jane Hirschfield evokes some of these nuances in her oblique but satisfying poem she calls, "The Heat of Autumn." 

The heat of autumn
is different from the heat of summer.
One ripens apples, the other turns them to cider.
One is a dock you walk out on,
the other the spine of a thin swimming horse
and the river each day a full measure colder.
A man with cancer leaves his wife for his lover.
Before he goes she straightens his belts in the closet,
rearranges the socks and sweaters inside the dresser
by color. That’s autumn heat:
her hand placing silver buckles with silver,
gold buckles with gold, setting each
on the hook it belongs on in a closet soon to be empty,
and calling it pleasure.

As October matures into the stark clarity of November, trees in these parts stand naked and green fields become brown. I find my heart leaning into the promise of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. At this time of year I feel the "thin" places between now and then that connect the living with the faithful departed. Writing in his Holiday and Holy Nights, Christopher Hill, notes that these feasts are our special recognition of life beyond our control.

These feasts remind us that the roots and branches of Christianity are in the unseen, and that the trunk passes for only the shortest while through this daylight world of time and the five sense. (These feasts) remedy our unease with the unseen, teach us to get along with mystery. They are the answer to our primitive assumption that what is out there in the dark is hostile or evil. They show that something very strange can mean us very well.

I am in the process of discerning what an All Saints/All Souls memory altar for our house might look like - and include. For reasons beyond my understanding, this year I am profoundly aware of those who have gone before me into life eternal. The cycle of life in nature is moving towards death and I feel a yearning to remember and honor those who have given my life meaning. There's more to write about this longing in the days to come, but for now this will suffice. This year I want to join Louie for trick or treating - our secular connection to the ancient rite - then say prayers of gratitude for my beloved dead. I am starting to gather picture now for my Day of the Dead altar.
Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family; 
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death 
took away from our home. 
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us. Amen.

Friday, October 12, 2018

unless ye become as a child...

If it happens enough, with regularity and intentionality, maybe I should pay attention: do you think? I'm talking about the on-again/off-again request for what some call spiritual direction but which I choose to think of as spiritual accompaniment. John O'Donohue's term, Anam Cara (Gaelic for Soul Friend) rings true for me, too. In a culture that is too fast and too shallow; in an era of too many words without adequate space for listening or silence; in a high-tech milieu that forsakes and forgets high-touch human relationships that move only at the speed of the soul: my sense is that all types of people are aching to be loved. Taken seriously. Valued and cherished rather than used and discarded. Jean Vanier teaches that the essence of the human condition is a yearning to belong - and I think he's right.

There isn't a week that races by that I don't encounter some person who is hungry to be heard. It could be standing in line at Wal-Mart. Or the clerk at the grocery store. Sometimes its at the library or in my favorite coffee shop. All it takes is a quiet smile or the tip of my head and people start telling me their stories. Or their fears. Or their worries. Vanier has discerned that within us all is a lonely and insecure child aching to be loved.

Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.

No wonder Jesus told us that unless we become like a little child, the realm of God's grace and love will elude us. Owning our wounds, our vulnerabilities, reconnects us to living like a child in the world. The liturgy I often use at a baptism tells of a time when people were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. Thinking the Lord ought not be bothered with little ones, the disciples rebuked the parents and their children - which angered Jesus. "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you: whoever does not receive the realm of God like a child shall not enter it." (Luke 18: 17) 

Another passage from Mark 9 has Jesus saying: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." And my favorite from Matthew 11 is where Jesus returns prayers of thanksgiving to God for the trust of little one: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will...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.”

Vanier notes that when we open our hearts to God and one another, we become

as a little child - and this is how we move towards healing. For a long time, I resisted returning to the metaphor of childhood as a spiritual practice. While in Tucson a woman said to me, "You know what I really want? To become an adult of God, not a child. I am grown and want to know more about being an adult of the Lord." That made sense to me then and in some ways still does: none of us want to be diminished by a religious hierarchy or infantilized by a spirituality of control. Oppression and the call to autonomy is what shaped the contemporary women's movement to reject the word "surrender" in the 12 Step process. Surrender is about losing - being forced into submission by an overwhelming power - and there are just too many problems with such imagery. Some of us have now prefer the word relinquished as it honors autonomy while recognizing the need to let go, too. These days, however, I find myself returning to the childhood metaphor as a way of understanding my own spiritual ripening. It evokes tenderness and unknowing as much as needing guidance and love. Vanier puts it like this:

A tiny child needs not only food and shelter but something more… much more… a feeling of love, that someone cares for him, ready to die for her, that she is really loved, that he is important… precious. And so (that child) begins to live and begins to sense the value of his/her being. And so it is that life rises in this child so that she grows in confidence and in the possibilities of life and of creation.

Using the imagery of childhood development keeps my life grounded in small realities. "Let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.” (Vanier) We can do little things - do few things but do them well sings St. Francis - take your time go slowly. Very childlike. Not childish, mind you, but like a child, one step at a time.

Those words, "one step at a time," keep popping up the more I sit and listen to others. Yesterday, I spent four hours with a young clergy person discerning crucial next steps. Today I was in the hospital for prayer with a young family needing to take one step at a time. "Now we see as through a glass darkly," kept running through my mind. "Later we shall see face to face." Now we take one step at a time; later we can run with perseverance the race set before us. Now we live and move and have our being as God's tender and vulnerable children. Later... well, as Revelation 21 puts it, later we shall see:

... a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among us. God dwells with and within them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; wiping every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away. Then one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

In a new/old way I am realizing once again that part of my calling in retirement is to be available for spiritual accompaniment like a new/old child. Anam Cara. Listening carefully and sharing small acts of love, tenderness, and welcome one heart at a time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

ah i was so much older then...

As I look backwards on my life, one thing is clear: I now value unknowing more than certainty. Its not that a don't crave clarity, I do; but at a deeper level I am aware that knowing is not the same as understanding. Like Fr. Richard Rohr says: 

When I am faithful to meditation, I quickly overcome the illusion that my correct thinking, or thinking more about something, can ever get me there. If that were so, every good PhD would be a saint! You see, information is not the same as transformation. Even good and correct thinking is trapped inside my little mind, my particular culture, my form of education, my parental conditioning—all of which are good and all of which are bad. Great mysteries are naturally experienced and known within our small and limited contexts, so we should be much more humble about our own opinions and thoughts. How could the Infinite ever be fully or rightly received by the mere finite?

One of the under-appreciated blessings of failure is discovering how much we don't understand: wisdom is not guaranteed with age, yet longevity offers us the possibility of acquiring humility if we are willing to learn from our mistakes. Such openness not only makes room for authentic insight beyond our opinions, but also creates the possibility for holding different perspectives together at the same time with the awareness that they all can be true. Some call it paradox, others say trust, but whatever your description non-binary living embraces truths more profound than mere data. Karen Armstrong is helpful when she writes: 

One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence. . . . Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness. “It is decisively the fact that language does have frontiers,” explains the British critic George Steiner, “that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvellously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours.” 

She goes on to observe that many in the West lost the ability to trust unknowing given the modern quest for certainty. Born of the marriage of science and industry, our perspective shrank to include only factual, quantifiable truth. We call it bottom-line thinking and it has its place - no one wants an engineer working on a bridge to rely only on intuition - but its dominance has caused our imaginations and souls to atrophy. The fundamentalism in religion and politics that so drive contemporary life is rooted in binary vision. Armstrong continues:

We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing [and unsaying]. We can never re-create the past, but we can learn from its mistakes and insights. There is a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe... One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of. (In the 21st century, we) may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to new insight.

My spiritual tradition speaks of this as "dying to self." Both Jesus and St. Paul taught that "when I was young I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and acted like a child; now that I have matured, the time has come to put childish things away... for now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." The 12th chapter of St. John's gospel is illustrative: it begins with Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus with precious perfumed oil in anticipation of his death - a death that will usher in resurrection. Next we read of a plot by those who hate Jesus that is designed to re-kill the resurrected Lazarus in order to kill the Jesus movement with fear. 

Finally Jesus tells his disciples a truth about death that is greater than death: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor." Jean Vanier has learned that one of the ways we die to self involves acquiring wisdom through humility.

To grow (to ripen or mature) is to learn to die. Is this not the ultimate meaning of our lives? As we grow we leave behind us many things. If we spend time weeping over the past we become imprisoned in that past. We must certainly grieve what we have lost, but we must live freely the new realities of the present and we must wait in hope for new life. And so each one of us will makes the final passage of death, waiting for that new gift which we shall welcome; the embrace of the eternal.

Having discarded 40+ years of written sermon material this past week, and taken the time to read through samples from each of the decades, I was reminded of how just how much I thought I knew when I started ministry. All these years later, I suspect that St. Bob Dylan got it right when he sang, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that know." In any event, such is my prayer for the time that remains.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

i want to be sub-human...

The Gratefulness Network recently published a poem by Francine Marie Toft 
that spoke to me on many levels. In so many ways it resonates with how I regularly recognize the still small voice of the holy in my ordinary experiences. 

I will praise my failures. I will praise
What I have not accomplished and do not possess
Because it has led to this moment
At ten in the morning on a smoky October day,
Sitting on the bedroom floor in my bathrobe,
Treated to a rectangle of overcast sky
And a poplar whose yellow leaves,
Half blown away, are as artfully arranged
As the characters in a haiku.

I will praise my too-small apartment
With its cheap kitchen cabinets
And mismatched furniture, its jumbo litter box
Stealing half the front closet whose carpet
Is covered with pebbles. I will praise
The dun-colored carpet itself, gayer for wine stains,
And my cardboard box of a desk.
Because I have sat cross-legged there
And felt ideas alight on my shoulder like cardinals.
And my home was a mansion then,
A paradise of the new, which it is for the cats anyway
As they sleep under spider plants
In rich strips of sun.

I will praise my body whose middle-aged belly
Protrudes and whose knees have grown knobby,
This foolish animal shape who guilelessly
Stared back at me from the full-length mirror
Of a doctor’s office two days ago.
Because it is still rain- and sun-loving matter,
the same that splashed lake water as a child
And rolled like a colt in June grass.
And I am never more satisfied than when I am
Walking or pushing or lifting with it,
Loving even the ache that follows,
That assurance I am rooted with earth.

And I will praise my manila folders of failed
And abandoned poems, poems that will never be
Published or read by anyone except me.
Because not one was not perfect when first
Budding, not one did not leave the fragrance
Of possibility between these walls
Or deepen what decency I share
With damp soil and oak trees and the geese
Honking high above clouds just now,
Esteemed messengers I can hear but not see
As I sit drinking coffee, amazed
The ungainliness of my life should coalesce
Into something so sleek, so elegant,
As this sudden happiness.
(Francine Marie Tolf from Rain, Lilies, Luck © 2010 North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota)

I was equally moved by this cartoon...

Maybe they speak to you, too.

Monday, October 8, 2018

becoming friends with time...

This weekend I walked within my family's three generations keenly aware of my age. I wasn't at my prime. My back ached and I was still recovering from a bout of vertigo. Not that these things were grievous or debilitating, far from it. I still pulled grandson Louie through the fields in a pumpkin wagon. And knelt with him as he milked the model cow or played fetch with our dog Lucie. We even got to ride behind the tractor on a tour of Ioka Valley Farms. It was a grand birthday celebration. I simply had to take more time being a part of it and make peace with my low grade aches. An insight based upon Jean Vanier's book, Becoming Human, came to mind as I sat down to pray and write this morning. 

For me (there) is another profound truth: understanding, as well as truth, comes not only from the intellect but also from the body. When we begin to listen to our bodies, we begin to listen to reality through our own experiences; we begin to trust our intuition, our hearts. The truth is also in the “earth” of our own bodies. So it is a question of moving from theories we have learned to listening to the reality that is in and around us. Truth flows from the earth. This is not to deny the truth that flows from teachers, from books, from tradition, from our ancestors, and from religious faith. But the two must come together. Truth from the sky must be confirmed and strengthened by truth from the earth. We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

Autumn is in full swing in these parts. The trees are rapidly turning bright red and orange. Our backyard wetlands is now a festival of deep browns, scarlet grape vines and various shades of gold. The earth is telling us about transitions and in my own season of contemplation I hear her wisdom loud and clear in my flesh. "Slow down you movin' too fast," sang Paul Simon, "you got to make the morning last." I had to pull the plug on a trip to Ottawa tomorrow because I knew six hours one way would be more than I needed to encounter right now. I hate missing my connection with L'Arche - and I'll be able to partially participate in our meeting electronically - but as Vanier notes, "truth from the sky must be confirmed and strengthened by truth from the earth." So, I'll take it slow and let time work its healing. In Community and Growth, his master work, Vanier writes:

Members of a community have to be friends of time. They have to learn that many things will resolve themselves if they are given enough time. It can be a great mistake to want, in the name of clarity and truth, to push things too quickly to a resolution. Some people enjoy confrontation and highlighting divisions. This is not always healthy. It is better to be a friend of time.

I like those words: "become a friend of time." Very counter-cultural. They suggest trust and tenderness. Vanier, of course, writes from what he has learned experientially. He knows it has taken a life-time of ripening to be patient and open. He candidly confesses how his own inner wounds and weaknesses only became a source of wisdom when he owned them in humble acceptance. "It is a long haul to transform our emotional makeup so that we can really start loving our enemy." 

We have to be patient with our feelings and fears; we have to be merciful to ourselves. If we are to make the passage to acceptance and love of the other - all the others - we must start very simply, by recognizing our own blocks, jealousies, ways of comparing ourselves to others, prejudices and hatreds. We have to recognize that we are poor creatures, that we are what we are. And we have to ask our Father to forgive and purify us. It is good, then, to speak to a spiritual guide, who perhaps can help us to understand what is happening, strengthen us in our efforts and help us discover God's pardon.

Experience and confession, patience and grace, trust and honesty, becoming a friend of time and seeking love. Like the Psalmist once sang in ancient Israel:"Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky." (Psalm 85) Playing with my grandson this weekend, listening to his wild and woolly stories, having him climb into my lap and say "I don't want to leave here ever," or simply take my hand for a long walk through fields of corn and pumpkin, put me in touch with the importance of being patient with my aging self. Or the wisdom shared in autumn. This is a time for being slow - for listening more and talking less - or being present without any other goal except to be fully present in love. Vanier writes that "old age is the most precious time in life" because it is the one nearest eternity. That is brilliant and encouraging. It is now my deepest prayer.

Old age is the most precious time of life, the one nearest eternity. There are two ways of growing old. There are old people who are anxious and bitter, living in the past and illusion, who criticize everything that goes on around them. Young people are repulsed by them; they are shut away in their sadness and loneliness, shriveled up in themselves. But there are also old people with a child's heart, who have used their freedom from function and responsibility to find a new youth. They have the wonder of a child, but the wisdom of maturity as well. They have integrated their years of activity and so can live without being attached to power. Their freedom of heart and their acceptance of their limitations and weakness makes them people whose radiance illuminates the whole community. They are gentle and merciful, symbols of compassion and forgiveness. They become a community's hidden treasures, sources of unity and life. They are true contemplatives at the heart of community.

This weekend I consciously feasted upon the blessings of this glorious season of life even when I had to savor them ever more slowly.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

do few things but do them well...

This week has become a humbling swirl of challenges and affirmations: the showdown on Kavanaugh, slipping on a wet porch and bruising my back, my beloved grandson's fifth birthday, awakening one day to a draining encounter with vertigo, baking bread that never quite rose. In the midst of it all was the Feast Day of St. Francis and I found myself listening to this prayer/song over and over...

If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well, heartfelt work grows purely
If you want to live life free, take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well, heartfelt work grows purely
Day by day, stone by stone, build your secret slowly
Day by day, you'll grow too, you'll know heaven's glory
If you want to live life free, take your time go slowly
If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly...

The whole mix of my joys and sorrows, the celebration and lament as well as the physical pain and anxiety, took on a new level of insight when I went back to these words from Jean Vanier. He was speaking with Krista Tippett in an interview from 2013: 

We are very fragile in front of the future. Accidents and sicknesses is the reality. We are born in extreme weakness and our life will end in extreme weakness. So this, people don't want to hold on to that. They want to prove something. They want security. They want to have big bank accounts and all that sort of stuff. But then also, (they) hold lots of fears within us.

For me, certainly, and perhaps for our fragile and frightened culture, too this is a season for going slowly. I want to do a few things - love those who are closest to me, bake bread and share its earthy goodness, play some music that's encouraging and true - and I want to do these few things well. With tenderness and integrity, with beauty and commitment. No more trying to multi-task for me. I need to watch my step and pay attention so I don't fall again. Like Ram Dass told us back in the day, "Be here now!" Perhaps that's the charism of growing old: I no longer need to prove anything to myself or others. I can rest into the mystery of loving relationships.

And in relationships, its the small things done well, that matter. Listening. Being present. Taking the other seriously and without judgment. Nourishing trust. In this same interview, Vanier discloses another mystery revealed in L'Arche: small and slow is how we stay compassionate for small and slow is how God is revealed to the world in Jesus. He puts it like this: people and truths we can touch keep us grounded in the blessing and sacrifice of love. In our techno-culture that is so fast and massive, we see all the problems around the world but we can't touch them:

So you look at that Iraqi child (for example) and you were wounded and wanted to do something, yet, you were confronted by your incapacity because the child was not in front of you. If that child was in front of you, you could have taken the child in your arms. So we're going into a world where the imagination, the virtual, the long distance, see things far away, they appear as close. But you can't touch them. They're close to the imagination, but they're not close to the body. So let's come back to the reality of the small. There, we can touch them, we can be with them. The difficulty with L'Arche, which is also a beauty — I say it's our difficulty, it's our beauty - is that it's small and it's just very little.

Vanier goes on to say that L'Arche must stay small and slow to give shape and form to the counter cultural love of God. "The reality of every day is sometimes quite painful in this smallness (because we live) in a world where people are being pushed to pretend that they're big." (Read more of the interview here @

Today my body hurts - not terribly - but honestly. I'll get over it in a week or so, but I'm limping a bit and my head still feels a bit woozy and nauseous. That means I have to go slowly and do small things - even on this feast day of my grandson's fifth birthday. I want to go to the pumpkin fest with him tomorrow, too. But I'll have to take it slowly. Small, I continue to learn, is holy. It is where I can touch another - and make a difference. It is where my limitations have a place, too. A place that is safe for me and those I love. This week I began to own something else Vanier said: "I'm human - and I have my weakliness." 

I have my fragility, physical ailments of the heart, I have to take things quietly. And intellectually, I get tired much more quickly. So it's just the acceptance of reality. And you see, the big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be to this reality, and somewhere to love reality and then discover that God is present in the reality. That doesn't mean to say that we're just to be passive to welcome reality, because we also have to know how to react in front of reality. Reality is a beautiful reality, but how to just live that reality and live it with my own body, my own weaknesses, my own need for greater sleep, to get to sleep after lunch and all the rest of — this is my reality... I mean I am somebody who's moving towards that ultimate reality, which is much closer, which is death. 

Earlier, when one of my colleagues suggested that I consult with my local council on aging to learn new ways of taking care of myself, I was embarrassed. Then annoyed. I'm not old I said to myself. But that's not true. I'm not yet powerless, but I get tired easily and need a nap. My balance is more wobbly that I like. My eyes are weaker and my hearing diminished. Hell, my hair is white and I'm ready to call it a day by 10 pm! This is reality and it is beautiful albeit small. In ways that I needed to embrace, this week told me it is time, "not to live in the imagination... or in what or might have been," but to live in the truth of what I can touch right now. Namely, my loved ones, my friends in community at L'Arche Ottawa, my partners in music making. Clearly, I was not able to do much to stop the runaway train in the US Senate. That angers and worries me but it, too, is now a reality and I need to slowly see what this will mean.

Mostly, I think it means that I can live in my small, slow way as an alternative to the cruelty and lies. So, after my nap, that's what we'll do as we gather at the kids farm house to open gifts, eat chocolate birthday cake and feast together with love and trust. Next week I'll be with my community again in Ottawa. I'll bake another batch of bread soon, too. And then, God willing, in the middle of the month, we'll make some sweet music at another farmers market.

If you want to live life free, take your time, go slowly
Do few things but do them well, heartfelt work grows purely
Day by day, stone by stone, build your secret slowly
Day by day, you'll grow too, you'll know heaven's glory
If you want to live life free, take your time go slowly
If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly...

Friday, October 5, 2018

baking bread, trusting God and grieving over the Kavanaugh vote...

The US Senate has now voted 51-49 to move forward with a vote on Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to our Supreme Court. After watching the vote and taking it in, I chose to start cleaning the house in anticipation of our family's arrival later tonight from Brooklyn. Cleaning, dusting and baking more bread makes sense to me right now. Not only are we out of bread, but I need to learn from my mistakes on the last batch. That is one of the gifts of bread baking: it affords a hearty taste of self-reliance, creativity and generosity in an era saturated with cynicism and despair. My two loaves will not the revolution make. Nor will they change much in this broken culture. But kneading and waiting are essential ingredients for my staying grounded for the long haul. And I know how much I need to nourish hope in myself.

This morning, in my small prayer book of gratitude, there is a quote from Billie Jean King: "For me losing isn't failure. It's research." That is certainly true for my current baking endeavors - my first shot at each new recipe tanked - telling me that I needed to go back and do it over until a satisfying loaf arrived. After a few tries, the whole wheat recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book worked. Today I am involved in the reprise of a simple white loaf from The Spirituality of Bread book. Failure, research and practice is essential for making beautiful music. And, in the Christianity of the Eastern Church, failure is built into human nature. It is a call to repentance - an invitation to learn from our mistakes by changing our direction - and grow closer to God. Richard Rohr regularly writes about what the mystics of Orthodoxy know as divinization. Two observations are illustrative:
From March 4, 2016
By God’s divine power, God has given us all the things we need for life and for true devotion that allow us to know God, who has called us by God’s own glory and goodness. In this gift, God has given us a guarantee of something very great and wonderful. Through this gift, you are sharers in the divine nature itself. —2 Peter 1:3-4

Spirituality is primarily about human transformation in this life, not just salvation in a future realm. While Western Christianity lost much of this emphasis, and became rather practical and often superficial, the Eastern church taught theosis or divinization as the very real process of growing in union and likeness with God in this world. [1] This is one of the many losses Christianity experienced in the Great Schism of 1054, when the popes of East and West mutually excommunicated one another. The later Protestant Reformation, while needed, did not reclaim this wisdom and further split the church, each side losing something of value..

From September 12, 2018The Orthodox teaching of divinization, or theosis, according to Pope John Paul II, is perhaps the greatest gift of the Eastern Church to the West, but one that has largely been ignored or even denied. [1] The Eastern fathers of the Church believed that we could experience real and transformative union with God. This is in fact the supreme goal of human life and the very meaning of salvation—not only later, but now, too. Theosis refers to the shared deification or divinization of creation, particularly with the human soul where it can happen consciously and lovingly.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (330–390) emphasized that deification does not mean we become God, but that we do objectively participate in God’s nature. We are created to share in the life-flow of Trinity. Salvation isn’t about replacing our human nature with a fully divine nature but growing within our very earthiness and embodiedness to live more and more in the ways of love and grace, so that it comes “naturally” to us and is our deepest nature. This does not mean we are humanly or perfectly whole or psychologically unwounded, but it has to do with an objective identity in God that we can always call upon and return to without fail. A doctrine of divinization is the basis for hope and growth. Divinized people live in a grateful state of awareness, recognizing their undeserved union with God, but that does not always mean their stage of human development is without very real limits and faults. This is a distinction that the West, with its dualistic mind, seemed unable to make.

Built into our call into unity with the holy is our capacity for failure. Mistakes are part of a holy healing that takes place throughout our lives. The pain of failure is real. The consequences of sin and alienation are agonizing. And, they need not be the end of the story. The story of God's love made flesh in Jesus tells us that even the Cross in all of its injustice, cruelty and death is not the end of God's love for each and all of us. There is resurrection born of grace that surprises a broken heart or a wounded nation. There is repentance and renewal. There is wisdom born of failure.

Most days I trust this in my heart. Some days I need help. Every day I need to find ways to practice this so that my trust deepens. I am angry, but not surprised, by the Senate's vote. And, sadly, I suspect that Kavanaugh will be voted in tomorrow morning. There will be long-term consequences to this act of naked political power devoid of compassion. We will become more frightened, angry and cruel to one another. Having just finished one of James Carroll's novels about the clash between Germans, Russians and Americans who lived through WWII as the Iron Wall was erected, I am keenly aware of just how depraved human politics can be. I fear this will be true for many of us in the USA in the years to come. And...

...I offer this addendum with fear, trembling and genuine humility, and this
is not the end of the story. In 1961 no one could have anticipated that in 2018 Germany would become the conscience of the West. Nor could we have foreseen the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Poland, Hungary and eventually the physical dismantling of the Berlin Wall itself. Even in our life time, some of us have witnessed the partial redemption of history and human nature by a love greater than ourselves. I trust by faith that this love is stronger than the fear and hatred currently driving our politics. My head tells me that things are going to get much worse in the US, Canada and Western Europe before they get better. My heart fears this reality. And, at the same time, the light within the darkness of my soul reminds me that God's love has not given up on creation. It is God's nature to bring us healing out of our failures. 

The late Henri Nouwen taught American Protestants something vital: Eucharistic spirituality. This gift helped many of us reclaim sacramental wisdom as we lived into the actions of the Eucharist. Nouwen was clear: like the bread of the feast first we are taken or called, then we are blessed so that we may be broken and shared for the healing of the earth. Taken, blessed, broken and shared is another gift from the bread - and more than any other time in my memory, I sense it is this gift that must drive my living.

So, for the time being, I need to get back to my bread.

Ok, I have to own it when I blow it: my next batch of simple white bread was a bomb! It didn't rise. At all. I could blame it on the yeast, but that would be a lie. I wasn't paying enough attention to the recipe thinking, "I know how to bake bread. I've been doing it for 50 years." 

Truth is, I used to know how to bake bread, but then I quit. Forgot. Got out of practice. So now I NEED the recipes - I NEED to follow the right order - because adding salt before mixing the yeast with the honey kills the yeast. There are consequences for getting this wrong. Waste of resources, waste of time, waste of money. In the beginning, you see, it is crucial to go slow. Yesterday I posted a prayer/song from the "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" film that needs to become my new mantra. It encapsulates the methodology of St. Francis as he started to rebuild the church in San Damiano. It applies to bread, political revolutions, life in general and authenticity.
If you want your dream to be, take your time, go slowly
Do few things, but do them well: Heartfelt work grows purely;
Day by day, stone by stone, build your secret slowly
Day by day, you'll grow too, 
You'll know heaven's glory

When it became clear that these loaves were a bust, my mind went to the early work of Gandhi in India. After returning from South Africa, and learning both the possibilities and limitations of fighting for justice from within the system of apartheid, he took time off to think, walk, rest and talk with people all over the nation. Then, in a totally counter-cultural move, he started weaving on a small hand spindle. Weaving his own cloth rather than buying imported British goods that fed the Empire. Everywhere he went, he sat down, talked to people in simple terms and kept on weaving. He taught them to weave, too.

My bread baking - and that of countless others all across the US right now - is connected to Gandhi's commitment to nonviolent resistance and radical self-reliance. If I can learn to get this loaf right, owning my mistakes and learning from them so that I can share my bread with loved ones and others; maybe, just maybe, I can acquire the patience and grace to engage the horrific politics of this moment with equanimity, clarity and soul. 

I hate everything about the capitulation of senators who are convinced by the political equation of raw power or else their acquiescence to what seems to be the lesser evil. Susan Collins' speech today was a casebook exercise in ethical bait and switch: she pleaded for the sanctity of "presumed innocence," using lofty and noble words to hide her callous calculations of what she needs to do to stay in office and maintain the semblance of integrity within her party. At some level, she most likely believes her own rhetoric, too. Look, as a Niebuhrian, I understand that the exercise of power is sometimes a vulgar compromise between naked self-interest and the common good. Been there, done that as an elected official in Cleveland as well as a community organizer in three metro areas. 

But this is a kairos moment - a time when the forces of compassion and greed are in mortal combat - and self-serving appeals to a presumption of innocence don't cut it. This is a time for creative and humble acts of sacrifice not self-interest. Sadly, many of us have lost touch with our creative selves. We have become accustomed to an instant economy in the land of high speed consumerism. Like Neil Postman predicted, we have entertained ourselves to the point of stupor and don't really know how to regain our balance. 

That's why I am making a new batch of bread right now. I need to relearn how to take this life slowly. To follow directions carefully. To listen and watch and share and love the simple things that remain. I've remade my bread and am waiting for it to rise. Then, I'll cook the lump that didn't rise along with the good loaves to learn from my mistake. Maybe I can make croƻtons. We'll see. And then, maybe too, when the time is right beyond the baking, I'll know how to do a few other things that strengthen life well and with patience.

the Buddha or the Boss I don't care: sorting through MORE stuff

The penultimate sorting in our basement took place today - and in the process I discovered that its far harder for me to throw away my dec...