Friday, December 28, 2018

the sacred wisdom of our tears...

For the past week, this quote from Frederick Buechner has been popping in and out of my thoughts:


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. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. 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 to next.
- Originally published in Whistling in the Dark


For the longest time, my tears have been an authentic spiritual guide although it took me decades to trust them. My earliest recollection that something holy was happening came about in second grade during a music appreciation series.  Our music teacher would play an important classical composition each afternoon. Before and after each song, she would tell us some of the background and history, too. For the rest of the week we would listen to it after lunch break. This is where I was introduced to "The William Tell Overture," "Flight of the Bumblebee," "Moonlight Sonata," "Danse Macabre" and others. What I recall is that I was moved to tears of joy while hearing "Scheherazade" over the course of one week. With my head on my desk and my eyes closed, I was transported to another realm of beauty and gentleness that still seems to be wrapped in a veil of turquoise. Apparently I didn't realize I was weeping until one day my teacher put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Jimmy, is everything alright?" It took a few seconds to come down from this rapture and re-enter this world. Drifting back into the third grade I realized I was wiping tears away from my dream-like fog. I smiled up at her an nodded silently.

Something similar happened later that year while visiting my grandparents over spring break. Aunt Donna, a mere five years older than me, loved "American Bandstand." When "The Stroll" by The Diamonds came on, she taught me how to do it in their living room - and I was full to overflowing again. During that same visit she told me about racial segregation while traveling in the Deep South. "Do you know that Negroes can't drink from the same water fountain as white people in Oklahoma?" she asked one night when we were supposed to be asleep. I had no idea what she was talking about so she explained a bit of the early Civil Rights movement to me - American apartheid - although she didn't use those words. "Can you imagine what that might feel like?" she asked in the darkness - and I was crying again - this time tears of sadness. Whodathunk that Rimsky-Korsacov, Rosa Parks and Doo Wop line dancing would be portals to the sacred?

My maternal grandfather died the next year. My aunts and grandma gathered at our house through the night and I felt waves of sorrow wash over us all. I had no idea what was actually happening, just that a heavy stillness hung over everyone in the morning. I wanted to cry but didn't know why. My dad kept me home from school that day - and stayed home from work, too. After mom, grandma and my aunts left for the funeral parlor, we walked and walked through the afternoon and he told me a little about death. We both cried at different times. It was my first encounter with deep loss and it ached from the inside out. The finality of death hurt like hell. At the same time, my father shared a level of tenderness with me in those shared tears that has lasted beyond his own death. Indeed, despite all our future battles - and there were many - we struck a bond that day that continues to live beyond the grave.

Looking backwards, the list of holy tears includes: JFK's assassination; the first time I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan; listening to MLK on TV during the March on Washington; Peter, Paul and Mary's version of "Blowin' in the Wind;" playing "Gimme Shelter" with my high school band; falling in love; breaking up; seeing the funerals of MLK and RFK on television; getting married; getting divorced; the births of my daughters; the joy of new love and commitment; getting married again; the anguish of saying good bye to loved ones in death; watching my daughter dance to "Simple Gifts;" listening to my daughter play the viola in concerts; walking in the woods; playing with our dogs; worship at St. John the Divine; singing Christmas carols in St. Petersburg; my first Easter vigil; singing carols at midnight on Christmas; the birth of my grandchildren; and on and on and on. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that these tears flowed so often. Thankfully a retreat leader in Cleveland said to me, "You are full to over-flowing with joy and grief. Let them come, ok? They are God's gift to you." It took decades before I could let go of the shame of these tears but now know that they are one of my connections to the sacred.

This past week was filled with tears and I was so blessed by them all. Walking and wandering in Ottawa with Di in the snow on the Winter Solstice made the city streets holy ground. Singing Christmas carols in community with my friends at L'Arche Ottawa gave birth to Jesus again. Driving from Ottawa to Brooklyn with the car radio tuned to "the sounds of the holidays" brought on the water works when John Lennon sang, "So This Is Christmas/ War is Over." Sitting next to Louie at St. Paul's in NYC before the Christmas Eve liturgy overwhelmed me with gratitude as did walking with him on Boxing Day. And holding Anna. And feasting with our extended family. And even picking up our wacky dog, Lucie, last night at journey's end. Buechner was spot on when he observed:

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 to next. 

On this fourth day of Christmas I return thanks for the blessing of all these tears - and those still to come.

Christmas Pageant at L'Arche Ottawa

After wandering through Ottawa on the Winter Solstice

Christmas Eve pageant at St. Paul's NYC

Sunday, December 23, 2018

a very charlie brownish advent...

Last night Di asked, "How does it feel NOT to be leading Christmas celebrations this year?" That's a lively question - perfect for the closing this phase of our mini-Advent get away. (After the L'Arche Christmas pageant this afternoon we head back to the USA to join our extended family for the festivities.) Over the next 90 minutes at dinner we spoke together of our personal and public experiences with this holiday, how this year feels so very different for us both, and raises questions that we trust can be clarified as 2019 takes shape.

Clearly, I do not miss leading public worship this year. I thought I would as it has been central to my theological and personal observance of this season. But for now: no. I am at peace mostly resting in this season. Both of us look forward to being in worship as grandparents with our children and grandchildren on Christmas Eve. I have no desire to critique the preacher's Christmas message or carp about the flow (or lack thereof) of the liturgy. I have not prepared a stealth Christmas homily to share with the guests at Tuesday's feast. Nor have I any real desire to do anything but quietly soak up the blessings however they may arrive. Now I simply want to sit with our grand babies and sing carols with them - not at them - side by side. I want to help with caring for the little ones while momma and poppa set the table. i want to pick up the trash after the gifts are open and simply soak up the whole experience as thoroughly sacred knowing it will never come again. 

In many ways, this is the first year I have been free to practice what I once preached for decades: watch, wait, listen and receive the blessings that are sure to come in surprising and hidden ways. God is being born where we least expect to find the holy. In the past, there were rehearsals to organize, liturgies to write, trees to buy, meals to plan, pastoral emergencies to honor and so much more. Not so right now. And that is how Advent has unfolded for me: quietly, privately and with almost no expectations. To be totally honest, without the weight of my expectations and those of others, I feel rested and free. Like the late Henri Nouwen wrote:

Where is God? God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need.

This year, more than in year's past, I am finally trusting this to be true. Another change that is rising to the surface this year has to do with how we mark the festival. In the past, the ritual of decorating the house has been important to our family. Not only do we all enjoy creating beautiful and warm environments for guests and family, but after so many years our decorations are ripe with history. There are sentimental memories, to be sure, as well as important family stories worth telling and retelling as ornaments are unwrapped and added to this year's tree. As I realized during last night's conversation, my theology of this holy season has not changed much - maybe gone a little deeper - but what I don't yet know is how to practice it. What is my older, retired, grandfather spirituality of this season that used to be so public and is now profoundly private? That's still to be revealed. I am rather moved by Robert Bly's oblique insight on this in his poem, "Think in ways you've never thought before."

Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.


Next year? It will likely all be different. Less travel for sure. More time with the family, too. Maybe even a new home? Lots of changes are on the horizon. One constant that kept popping up this Advent was my old friend Vince Guaraldi: at home on the CD player, in clubs, on the street, in shops and on the guitars of holiday buskers at the market everyone was playing tunes from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." And mostly "O Christmas Tree," too. Whatever else that music means for others, its feels slightly blue to me. Not sad and certainly not despairing. But indigo. A little bit playful with the tradition, a little be weary of how little time remains. Very Charlie Brownish - humble, alone, tender and looking for deeper connections.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

advent wandering feeds my soul...

In so many ways this year's observance of Advent has been different from year's past. Beyond the obvious absence of opting-out of a worship community, we are in a genuinely stripped-down mode. Much of the last calendar year was shaped by de-accessorizing. Small wonder the minimalist mode has continued into our spiritual practices: candles, fairy lights and chant seems to rule the day.

In many ways, this is as it should be: having stepped back from public ministry in most of its forms, this is our unique time for being intentionally small, quiet and hidden. Di has been working vigorously since August at her on-line teaching gig. Since November she's been dealing with the return of chronic back pain, too. There has been precious little opportunity for us to be still together. Alone, yes, but not together to reflect on the blessings and challenges of this year. Or simply share our thoughts and feelings as we move through these strange, perplexing, broken but joyful times. 

That's probably why last August we intuitively set aside a few unstructured days to wander without commitment in the mid-winter beauty of Ottawa. Of course we wanted to celebrate the Lord's birth at the L'Arche Christmas Pageant. These dear friends have become a part of my heart. And now that our grandchildren are getting older, the time is right for us to travel to them and join our extended family in Brooklyn for feasting on Christmas Day. This year, you see, there is no longer any external pressure for us to be engaged or connected - and for two introverts this is a gift, indeed! Not that I would trade welcoming the Christ Child as we did for decades in church for anything. It was a privilege to lead Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Eucharist and I cherished it all. 

But that was then and this is now - and the stillness feels right. Yesterday we walked and walked, stopping in little shops from time to time to find gifts for our children and grandkids, before heading back into the mist for more exploring. It was the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year in our parts, so as the dark descended we found an appropriately Celtic pub and hoisted a pint in honor of the coming light. Then retired to listen to carols from Brittany and Ireland. I suspect that today will be
much the same.

Back in our days of public ministry, we would take similar wee trips every 8 weeks or so just to get away from the demands of being on. And while those days are over, Di said, "I felt a weight lift as soon as we crossed the New York border." She was right. One of the truths we'e discerned in this year of beholding what God is already bringing into our lives is that as much as we love our little house in the Berkshires, its time to move on. Where, exactly, is not yet clear, but one chapter is over even as a new one is unfolding. It will likely become a complete surprise, too.

That's another blessing. Having these two days alone lets conversations bubble

up and then go deep. Little by little the mystery of this new life is taking shape. There is much more to be revealed - and that cannot be hurried - so here's to more wandering, yes? It feels a bit a pilgrimage where the journey is every bit as valuable as the destination. We came upon this giant Christmas tree last night as we stumbled upon a new street we'd never traveled. I know from my past life that this wandering doesn't make sense to some friends: "make a plan and do it" they would demand! But the holy doesn't speak to either of us on command. I don't think she ever does. The Russian poet, Anna Ahkmatova, got it right in "I Taught Myself to Live Simply."

I taught myself to live simply and wisely,
to look at the sky and pray to God,
and to wander long before evening
to tire my superfluous worries.
When the burdocks rustle in the ravine
and the yellow-red rowanberry cluster droops
I compose happy verses
about life's decay, decay and beauty.
I come back. The fluffy cat
licks my palm, purrs so sweetly
and the fire flares bright
on the saw-mill turret by the lake.
Only the cry of a stork landing on the roof
occasionally breaks the silence.
If you knock on my door
I may not even hear.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

what is being born within me this advent...

This year, for about 20 dollars and some attentive shopping at second hand stores, I was able to find four Advent music CDs for Dianne. The sounds of this season have always been as important to how we enter this sacred time as the sights and smells. Maybe more so as a few candles and a little evergreen are enough decorations if the right music is playing. My gifts included a collection of French carols, the tunes of Advent/Christmas in Celtic Brittany and The Virgin's Lament from the Glenstal Abbey in Ireland. Yes, we have a few popular culture holiday albums and CDs, too - my favorite being Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas that I have played relentlessly this year, but there's also Amy Grant, Bing Crosby, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall and more than a few of the Windham Hill collections but mostly its the medieval chants or those using the instruments of the Gaelic world that capture our attention.

As everything about this year has shifted given my retirement and Di's work with on-line teaching, we chose to make our Advent/Christmas celebrations different, too. No Christmas tree for us because we're going to Brooklyn for the feast of the Nativity. We'll worship on Christmas Eve with Louie and his momma at Trinity/St. Paul's in Manhattan and then feast with their clan. We'' visit with the Massachusetts folk on the Feast of the Epiphany at the end of this season's cycle. And we're heading up to Ottawa tomorrow to be with our L'Arche friends and their Christmas pageant. We'll take in a craft fair or two, get a few simple gifts, stop by our favorite pub, walk in a nature reserve, and celebrate the Christmas story in community. 

This Advent, like every year, has been pregnant with its own charism. At first I couldn't grasp what was striving to be born within me. I knew it was dark. And quiet. And stripped down. That's probably why I kept playing the opening cut from Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas over and over. It is his jazz trio's take on O Tannenbaum - wistful, creative and rhythmic without ever becoming sentimental - a song rooted in tradition but made completely new through their careful improvisation. I think that's what is taking shape in my heart: a gentle playfulness with my spiritual tradition that seeks to let go of sentimentality. 

In Gertrud Mueller-Nelson's To Dance with God, a text I have referred to often this Advent, she writes:

Sentimentality is the emotion we feel when we scoop off a part of the truth, that part which we are willing to accept, and slather it like syrup to cover what we do not want to see. Usually what we don't want to see is our own responsibility to the remaining truth. A half-truth is a very dangerous thing, because it is a lie... 

Advent/Christmas has long been filled with unrealistic expectations for me as a parent, a spouse, a pastor. Now I can let go of those half-truths and demands. Now I can be as tender and quiet as I have ached to be for decades. Now I can rest in the dark, simple silence of this song and let the Spirit speak to me as she will. That's what it feels like is being born within me this Advent: the freedom to follow the Spirit more simply, more playfully, more honestly even through the darkness. This poem, "Adult Advent Announcement" by David Redding, gets close to what it stirring as we move closer to Christmas.

O Lord,
Let Advent begin again
In us,
Not merely in commercials;
For that first Christmas was not
Simply for children,
But for the
Wise and the strong.
It was
Crowded around that cradle,
With kings kneeling.
Speak to us
Who seek an adult seat this year.
Help us to realize,
As we fill stockings,
Christmas is mainly
For the old folks —
Bent backs
And tired eyes
Need relief and light
A little more.
No wonder
It was grown-ups
Who were the first
To notice
Such a star.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

finding my true self in little, hidden prayers of silence...

The Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill, certainly had a way with words. One Christmas observation cuts to the chase: 

Human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
 
Who could question her blunt clarity this year as so-called people of faith bray-on about a non-existent "war on Christmas," spend enormous amounts of money and time on holiday gifts meant to honor the babe in the manger while living children are abused, ridiculed and left to die of dehydration along our southern border with Mexico?  Sometimes, indeed, we Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty and self-abandonment to God. Perhaps it is always true in our world that there is an abundance of cruel darkness and only a tiny light.

Henri Nouwen confessed that he, too, like me, "keeps expecting loud and impressive events" to arrive in bold ways to redress injustice and usher in the realm of comfort and joy. Yet over and again, "our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness." As the prophet Isaiah wrote: A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him. (Isaiah 11: 1-2)

Advent encourages me to  reclaim, however haltingly, the practice of inner silence. As Fr. Richard Rohr writes in his daily reflections: cultivating contemplation keeps our unrealistic expectations in check. It nourishes balance rather than feeding despair. And invites us to see the blessings in the small and often hidden presence of the holy.

I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom instead of the top, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do—and what is not yours to do—almost naturally.

Rohr quotes the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, concerning the importance for those who engage in social justice to also bathe their hearts in silent contemplation. As one of my mentors used to say: Contemplation is NOT navel gazing, but rather taking a long, loving look at what is real.

[Contemplation] is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom—freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that come from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative prayer is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter. (http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/2DDB91A
4DE6041972540EF23F30FEDED/1FA396565E084E10A10BC276F201ED4B)

With candles and Advent music my practice has been simple: I sit in the dark stillness, breathing in, breathing out. "Come, Lord Jesus" breathing in; "Have mercy on me" breathing out. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated. More often than not, my monkey-mind leads me into places I didn't know existed. I wish after all these years I was better at this. But as the masters of Centering Prayer suggest, when I realize I have wandered, its time to return to my breathing prayers. No scolding or shame allowed, just a gentle return to God's quiet blessing. This tenderness links me to the prayers of Jesus. Nouwen wrote:  

The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he (is the one who) asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.

+ Allendale UMC
+ Me

Monday, December 17, 2018

now I know why I travel to L'Arche Ottawa...

On the Henri Nouwen Society's Advent site, he reflects on Psalm 126:5 like this:

Keep your eyes on the prince of peace, the one who doesn't cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights and rule with great power; the one who says, "Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness" (see Matt. 5:3-11); the one who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; the one who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; the one who dies alone, rejected and despised. Keep your eyes on him who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and who is rejected with the rejected. He is the source of all peace. Where is this peace to be found? The answer is clear. In weakness. First of all, in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken, most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. Why there? Because there, our familiar ways of controlling our world are being stripped away; there we are called to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying on our self-sufficiency. Right there where we are weakest the peace which is not of this world is hidden.

It has taken me most of my life to trust that this is true. I have always believed that I must be in control in order to be at rest. Safe. At peace. Some 18 years ago, however, I melted down. Striving to stay in control led me to a breakdown of sorts where the only peace I could imagine involved running away. Thanks be to God there was a wise and clear-headed spiritual director in my life at that time who helped me stay put. Wander in the wilderness, he encouraged me, let it hurt and force you to your knees. Feel it all. And then, maybe if you're lucky, your grief and shame will help you trust God. 

In time, it did. Not easily. Not quickly. But authentically. "Right there where we are weakest, the peace which is not of this world, is hidden." It took me about twenty years to hit bottom. I am a very slow learner. Stubborn and arrogant, too. I don't bring my wounds to the surface very easily and can distract myself with good things for decades. I thought of that today when finally, after 4+ years of sitting in my basement, we finally found a resting place for my father's antique deacon's bench.

It was always my favorite piece of furniture in my grandmother's house and then when it joined my family. And when my dad came to the realization that he could no longer live by himself, he asked if I would keep it in the family. My sisters had already done herculean work in cleaning, sorting, handling the sale of the property and getting him relocated. They had taken a lot of the things that were not put in the estate sale, too. But no one had room for this old bench that had been in my grandparent's parsonage during the Great Depression. It was a joy to drive down to Maryland and bring it back to Massachusetts. My dad died just six months later.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons I couldn't bring it upstairs: it takes me a long, long time to welcome my wounds. I didn't grieve for him in any obvious way for three years. It took me almost seven years to acknowledge feelings of loss after my mom died. In the peace of this weakness, however, I've come to trust that God's timetable is perfect. Three years. Seven years. Immediately. However it ripens, that's what is best. I know it took Nouwen decades to truly trust that the grace of God - and the Lord's healing peace - could be his, too. He had to crash and burn before he was ready to relinquish trying to be in charge, too.

Since my crashing and burning time, however, I have worked at practicing waiting on the Lord. Not perfectly at all and often haltingly and reluctantly. I think that's what practice is: getting it wrong over and over on the path to getting it right. Not long ago the importance of such waiting came to me while I was sharing a homily at the close of a L'Arche Ottawa retreat. Since starting to volunteer and visit, people have asked me, "Why do you drive 6+ hours each way to come here?" As one of the border patrol officers on the US side asked, "Isn't there someplace closer for you to go?" Well, sure, but those who trust the Spirit of the Lord know that proximity is not always where we're called to be, right? St. Paul had to make extensive trips beyond his comfort zone. Many of the other early followers of Jesus did, too. My answer to those who want a clear, logical and linear reply never seems satisfying: "I go to Ottawa because that's where I feel God wants me." 

So, I was reflecting on the peculiarity of my situation in this homily, and linking it to the experience of both the core members of L'Arche as well as the many young assistants who come from all over the world to experience L'Arche. In one of the homes where I have shared meals there is a house leader from India, an assistant from Kenya, another from Jamaica and another from Japan. In the first home I started to connect with the house leader had taught in the States, one of the assistants was a lawyer from Paris, another a woman from Mexico, an other a woman from Uganda as well as a man from Germany. True, they are in residence and I have been driving up for the past three years, but still these are souls who are trusting the wisdom and timing of the Spirit.

In the middle of my homily the significance of this truth hit me: back when I was very young, most likely about fourth grade, my grandmother and I were talking about religion. She was the spouse of a Unitarian minister and I told her I didn't really like going to their Sunday School. The more we talked, the more clearly I realized that I was searching for an encounter with the holy. "I want to see the face of God!" I announced during this talk. Grandma Deanne was clearly uncomfortable with my piety and brought the conversation quickly to and end. But my passion for the sacred wasn't over.

That's when it all clicked and I said to my friends gathered for Eucharist. "I have been waiting for nearly 55 years for an experience with God's face. And just now it hit me that you, L'Arche Ottawa, you are the answer to my quest. You show me the face of the Lord Jesus the way he taught us in Matthew 25: "Whatsoever you do unto the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do unto me." Now I know the reason why I drive 6+ hours each way to be with you: you are the answer to my prayer. I've been waiting a long, long time to see the face of the Lord - and now I have." There was a brief silence before one of the core members smiled at me and said softly, "Yes... we are Jesus in a wheel chair."

More and more I know that those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, indeed. I am not in control of God's time table. I often resist and misunderstand. But the peace that passes understanding is waiting there for me in my weakness - and it is the best peace of all.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

in defense of cherishing the virgin mary...

NOTE: This is a bit of a rant so be forewarned.

Yesterday I read what often strikes me as an annoying, post-modern, humanist assessment of ancient Christian doctrine concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary. Let me state at the outset that many such articles seem well-intentioned yet intellectually incomplete to me. They tend to strike me as theologically adolescent, too. That is, long on passion but short on historical and spiritual depth. To be sure, I acknowledge and openly confess my spirituality is decidedly mystical. I resonate more with the apophatic wisdom of Eastern Orthodoxy than rational Reformed theology. I am more at home in the poetry, liturgy, music, smells and bells, and mystery of high church worship than the accessible sermons of self-help Protestantism and its praise and worship hymnody. And I cherish icons, incense and silence more than Western demythologizing or the sanitized sanctuaries of my Congregational heritage. (Just listen, if you can, to what is arguably the most stunning musical composition in all of Christian liturgy: Rejoice, O Virgin, Theotokos by Rachmaninoff.)

Such liturgical aesthetics alongside my mytho-poetic theological sensibilities, therefore, makes it tough to grasp why anyone would spend their time dumbing down the subtle yet robust paradoxes of our tradition. To suggest, for example, that we simply give up talking about the virginity of Mary because: 1) it doesn't make sense to modern people; 2) it violates the integrity of contemporary science; and 3) it might contradict a simplistic notion of Christ's incarnation for some reduces God talk to bottom-line utilitarianism. I am all for tossing our superstition into the dustbin of history. I celebrate rigorous reflection on the sacred mysteries of our faith that always vex novices. But to boldly posit that human life will be better when the outmoded doctrinal poetry of our past is relinquished and buried as intellectual detritus is misguided at best. There is no empirical evidence to support such specious and simplistic speculation. Nor is there any popular clamoring for demythologizing Christianity. Or Judaism. Or Islam. Or Buddhism for that matter. (see "Eight Things We Gain When We Lose the Virgin Birth" https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematic theology/


T.S. Eliot, of course, prefigured this argument when he wrote "The Rock" in 1934 (as did Orwell in 1984, Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale, and Huxley in Brave New World.)

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.


There is simply no evidence that demythologizing reductionism gives birth to a wiser, happier, healthier or more peaceful people. Better than most. C.G. Jung grasped that "since the beginning of time, humankind has centered and located itself in the sacred." (Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, To Dance with God, p. 11) When we deconstruct the sacred from our habits, removing mystery, poetry and awe from world view with mere utility, human beings create pathological practices that replace our religious rituals. Instead of living into the rhythm of creation with holy days of feasting and fasting, we have 24/7 dieting and excessive eating disorders. Where once we honored the wisdom of Sabbath rest, now we are addicted to stimulants so that we can work well into the darkness every day of the week.

Now, in very recent history, we have created as wholly a secular or desacralized world as there has ever been. We have evolved a new, non-religious society where we think ourselves to be free and unencumbered by taboo and by the irrational, a world where we think that we can create ourselves. To see evidence of this progression, one need only look at the medieval cathedral in the center of the square, with the rest of the city oriented around it. Move over sea and time and see the little white churches at the heart of the New England village. And then go west, to California, where the restless freeways are strung along the coast, punctuated periodically with food-shop-and-rest stops. Along the old road, the early missions are now engulfed by urban sprawl. (Mueller-Nelson, p. 11)

This is not to romanticize the brutality of our collective past. Rather, as the Hopi people of the desert Southwest confess, the way of contemporary culture has become koyanisqatsi - life out of balance. Not life in harmony with the holy as it was created. Climate change and the fires, floods, and droughts we have seen over the past five years alone should stand as warning. The rational way alone is incomplete. It evokes for me the furor of an adolescent who knows part of the truth and sees it as universal. Think "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" in Disney's Fantasia. Or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein. Or any of the dystopian films of the past 50 years. "Without a way to consciously feed and express our naturally religious nature, we create a vacuum, a void which is quickly filled in with its unconscious counterparts. Our religious hunger is not passing away; rather, our loss of a religious nurturance only makes us more aware of our hunger. We want meaning, fulfillment and wholeness." (Mueller-Nelson, p. 12)

Please remember that the rise of Maryology did not occur from the top down. It has never been a doctrine to control the masses or subvert science. Instead it has been the popular Christian expression of our intimacy with the holy feminine. Think the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Americas. Or the Theotokos of Eastern Orthodoxy. Or the Black Virgins of Montserrat, Barcelona and CzÄ™stochowa. Look at the most recent visual protests against the Trump regime's cruelty at the US/Mexico border, too for signs of the Virgin's vitality and value. To be sure, the various creeds of Christianity contain references to the Virgin Mary - the Apostle's Creed being the earliest - yet all do so only to confirm the holy/human paradoxical nature of Jesus. Besides, as Karen Armstrong writes in her insightful book, A History of God, at their core the creeds are brilliant, spiritual poems using simulacrum to evoke mysteries that will always be too great for explanation. 

Why not give up our Western obsession with dualism and embrace the Virgin in all of her wisdom and worth? The Spanish mystical genius of the 16th century, St. John of the Cross, gets it right in ways we need today:

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the Holy and say, “I need shelter for the night. Please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.” Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us. Yes, there, under the dome of your being, does creation come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim, the sacred womb of your soul, as God grasps our arms for help: for each of us is His beloved servant never far. If you want, the virgin will come walking down the street, pregnant with Light, and sing.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

a gift from a friend before Advent III

An old and beloved friend forwarded this to me via Facebook earlier today - and it hit a place deep within me. As some of us prepare to enter the Third Sunday of Advent tomorrow, a Sunday of rejoicing in the Holy Virgin's presence rather than quiet reflection, maybe this will speak to you, too.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the Holy and say, “I need shelter for the night. Please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.” Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime intimacy, the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever, as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us. Yes, there, under the dome of your being, does creation come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim, the sacred womb of your soul, as God grasps our arms for help: for each of us is His beloved servant never far. If you want, the virgin will come walking down the street, pregnant with Light, and sing. -St. John of the Cross

Friday, December 14, 2018

part three of waiting in advent: grief, lament and hope

In my previous posts I have shared two distinctive aspects of Advent waiting: a spirituality of simmering, fermenting, listening, percolating, nourishing; and, a restless patience shaped by prophetic imagination. The first, as articulated by Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, challenges contemporary culture's obsession with bottom lines and hurry. She writes: "We equate waiting with wasting... and the more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry. The tempo of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life - it has more to do with our being unable to wait." The heart of this winter spirituality is stated with poetic clarity in To Dance with God as the author evokes the Virgin Mary:

As in pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a life of value. (p. 62)

The second path of waiting in Advent is informed by the exilic prophets of ancient Israel. In the Western Christian tradition this wisdom finds expression in the art and music of this season. Think "O come, o come Emmanuel," "Comfort, comfort ye my people," "Of the Parent's Heart Begotten," or "Now Bless the God of Israel." Think II Isaiah's insistence that the God of the exodus will not abandon Israel forever. Think Ezekiel's vision from the valley of dry bones or Daniel's insistence that the powers of empire will not survive the justice of the Lord. The efficacy of God's shalom in human history endures from everlasting to everlasting. To trust this truth beyond the obvious, however requires regular restatements of the Holy One's presence in our corporate and personal worship, prayer and song. Henri Nouwen writes that this is how holy anticipation feeds the soul:

To the deepest longings of the human heart and point to the truth waiting to be revealed beyond all lies and deceptions. These visions nurture our souls and strengthen our hearts. They offer us hope when we are close to despair, courage when we are tempted to give up on life, and trust when suspicion seems the more logical attitude. Without these visions our deepest aspirations, which give us the energy to overcome great obstacles and painful setbacks, will be dulled and our lives will become flat, boring, and finally destructive. Our visions enable us to live the full life.

The third practice called forth in the spirituality of Advent waiting is embodied in grief and lament. Walter Breuggemann in his book Reality, Grief and Hope posits that the task of ancient Israel's prophets is truth telling. They must name reality in all its brokenness in order for God's people to both grieve and repent. For when the faithful empty themselves of pride, hubris and ideology then, and only then, are their imaginations open enough to hear the still small voice of the Holy One calling creation into wholeness. Brueggemann puts it like this a summary of his text (see https://eerdword.com/2015/06/08 /three-urgent-prophetic-tasks-walter-brueggemann-on-reality-grief-hope/)

+ First, the prophet bursts the bubble of ideology: this is the naming of truth and reality within a social context

I take “ideology” to mean a passionate commitment to a view of social reality, even if available data tells to the contrary. In our case that dominant ideology is consumer capitalism that eventuates in systemic greed that sets neighbor against neighbor in pursuit of the same goods. The result is that social goods are privatized to individual interest according to power and wealth, and the common good is largely neglected. That ideology, voiced in endless propaganda and advertising, commends a system of private gratification at the expense of the common good. But in fact that system of fearful greed does not work and does not make anyone happy. It is a fraudulent theory of social relationships.

+ Second, the prophet invites God's people to own their loss: grief and lament are the holy alternatives to anxiety and fear.

(The second) prophetic task to break that denial, and that can only be done by honest, public acknowledgement that takes the form of grief for what was that is being lost. Ours is a society of great loss; that loss, moreover, generates fear and anxiety. But until the denial is broken by the public acknowledgement of grief, we are unable to come to terms with the reality of our social condition. Old patterns of privilege and entitlement cannot be sustained any longer!

+ And third the prophet invites God's peace and steadfast love as an alternative to despair: the prophetic imagination becomes the path to hope.

Despair is countered in prophetic parlance, by acts of vigorous hope. The prophets articulate what God has yet promised on which the faithful rely. Such hope is voiced, for example, by Martin Luther King in his mantra, “I have a dream.” The dream he dreams is the promise of God; such prophetic hope insists that the circumstance of social failure has not defeated God’s capacity to generate new social possibility.

Brueggemann concludes - and I concur - that we cannot imagine alternatives to our brokenness while maintaining the lies of ideology. Neither can we find the wisdom or energy to sing "new songs" while in the throes of grief or despair. When these trials are over, however, when they have been fulfilled, when we have hit bottom and realized that we cannot create blessings by our own hand, then and only then are we empty enough to creatively imagine new ways of being. This is how the gifts of prophetic imagination - the Word of the Lord - become flesh in our era..

Psalm 130 gives shape and form to waiting shaped by lament. It begins with the anguish of brokenness:  Out of the depths I cried to YHWH. It concludes with a patience that anticipates God's nature as revealed in history: 

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord,
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

The Hebrew verb yachal translated here as hope stands in relationship to the verb qavah rendered as wait. Elsewhere qavah becomes hope in English (as in Job 6:11 or Psalm 33) while yachal becomes wait (see Job 30 or Psalm 119.) To wait within this hope is to be free from ideological illusions, empty of denial and open to the legacy of God's grace and justice in history. Psalm 130 closes with words repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible: in the Lord there is steadfast love. This love in all its manifestations invites us into the practice Advent waiting for this is a love which endures forever.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

a passion of patience: advent waiting part two

A gentle but persistent snow has been falling this afternoon, blanketing the Berkshires in a feathery coat of white. Life becomes a bit quieter when this happens - almost serene - and certainly subdued. In Holidays and Holy Nights Christopher Hill writes of walking his dog early on a Saturday morning much like this during Advent.

A dusting of snow blew back and forth across the sidewalk... as we came out of the woods into a clearing by a gully, the woods were completely quiet. Even the crows were quiet. The only sound was the creaking of the trees in the wind... The sense of waiting was thick. Something enormous was developing. The stillness was not an absence of activity; it was taut. The woods were holding themselves still, in a "passion of patience," as Charles Williams said. They felt like an empty room waiting for someone to come in. I don't think the woods always felt that way at this time of year. I think that all the Advents that people had ever experienced were working together to create that moment, to wear away a weak spot in time. ( p. 66)

This waiting, tightly drawn and pregnant with anticipation, is another way of entering the spirituality of Advent. The exilic words of ancient Israel's poet and prophet Isaiah speaks of those who "wait upon the Lord" only to find that their once sapped strength has now been renewed (40:31.) Some scholars have said that the primitive form of the Hebrew verb qavah begins with the tension of a rope's twisted cords. It is, therefore, an active waiting, an endurance fortified by a vision of God's steadfast love that endures forever. In this setting, "waiting means a longing for the fulfillment of the promise by faith... it is a longing or looking for that is characterized by confident expectation" in God's justice and peace. (Allan Ross, Professor of Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School.) This is a restless patience that fortifies the heart by reclaiming the story of the God who sets the captives free. It is neither idealistic nor sentimental but cultivated by an encounter with the Lord's presence in human history. Small wonder that this waiting is sometimes translated as hope in English Bibles - for it is both.

The late Henri Nouwen reminds Christians during Advent of Israel's steadfast trust that manifested itself in acts of active and hope-filled patience. 

The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.

Our Advent rituals link us to "the great visions of peace among all people... and harmony with all creation." They show us the consequences of shallow and immature patience and invite us to nourish a revolutionary love born of God's abiding grace. Nouwen writes that the Christmas vision corresponds:  

To the deepest longings of the human heart and point to the truth waiting to be revealed beyond all lies and deceptions. These visions nurture our souls and strengthen our hearts. They offer us hope when we are close to despair, courage when we are tempted to give up on life, and trust when suspicion seems the more logical attitude. Without these visions our deepest aspirations, which give us the energy to overcome great obstacles and painful setbacks, will be dulled and our lives will become flat, boring, and finally destructive. Our visions enable us to live the full life.

First, there is the simmering and ripening feminine wisdom of waiting that Advent asks us to nourish in the darkness of winter. Second, there is the active and restless patience of revolutionary love fortified by our sacred stories and prophetic visions; this, too, is part of our Advent spirituality. In part three yet another layer of Advent waiting takes shape in the lament of Psalm 130: "I cried out to you, O Lord, from my depths... my soul waits for you." The South African freedom theologian, Alan Boesak, brings all three layers of waiting together in his brilliant poem: An Advent Credo.  

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.

It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

different types of advent waiting: part I

Every year I learn a little bit more about Advent waiting. When I first started to live into the spirituality of this liturgical season, I was tutored by the brilliant Christian formation writer, Gertrude Mueller-Nelson, in her book: To Dance with God. She writes: "The Church cycle flows into the natural rhythm of the season as we enter the dormant, waiting time of winter." She emphasizes the feminine wisdom of waiting as in pregnancy, fermentation, simmer and baking.

Like the receptive fields, we lie fallow and waiting. The dark, feminine, elusive quality of our receptivity is not helpless passivity. We are willing to receive the Spirit. We wait to be impregnated. "Drop down dew, O heavens, from above. Let the clouds rain forth the Just One. Let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior."

Mueller-Nelson suggests that waiting can be a burden, or, it can become a work of art. It will always be a part of our lives, so it is up to us to make the choice. Thomas Keating observes that we practice opening our hearts in silence so that God's gracious silence might envelop us in love. One begets the other. Advent gives us rituals and symbols to help us mature into creative and artful waiters: using the Advent wreath and calendar, "inching up on Christmas by preparing our homes, keeping its secrets, watching for signs" are time-tested ceremonies that train us in anticipation. Modern Advent, therefore, is not penitential but exuberant albeit quiet. In our household we have long lit lots of small candles as we play chant and ancient liturgical music during the the four weeks of Advent rather than just Christmas carols. As Ms. Mueller-Nelson writes, this type of waiting reorients our hearts towards the lost art of delayed gratification.

It is important not to use the disciplines of waiting as a moralistic or manipulative tool as so many adults have experienced it in their own growing up. It is actually a tool meant to enhance life's choices where you learn to "pay now and play later." You take the cake out of the oven when it is fully baked and not, simply, because you feel impatient, when it is still runny in the center. Waiting for the right moment is certain to produce a more delicious cake. Waiting is the ingredient necessary to a life of quality.

As I ripen into the wisdom of Advent spirituality, I believe this type of waiting is exactly the right starting point. It is the foundation upon which the rest of Advent is built. But it is not the only type of waiting. As I reflect on the Scripture lessons for this season - particularly those selected from the prophet Isaiah - two other levels of waiting are given as ways of maturing in love. Isaiah 40 speaks speaks of "those who wait upon the Lord" as an active searching while Psalm 130 speaks of "waiting for the Lord" as expectant trust

In part two of this reflection, I would like to consider what these other types of waiting might mean for those who cherish the coming birth of Christ. I sense they, too are essential for an adult Advent. But I must stop now as I am baking bread and need to give it my undivided attention. (Last week I didn't and made two stellar loaves - but forgot to add the salt!) Melissa Shaw-Smith evokes the beauty and promise of a nuanced Advent waiting in her poem, "Presence."

The year has rocked this world to its roots.
What if for one day each being put down
their burdens, their words of hate, their inhumanity
and breathed in the presence?
Stopped fighting for history, for fears, hopes, dreams
and stood facing the morning sun
letting the warmth of the moment
and the next, the next, accumulate like dust at their feet
Listened instead of spoke, acknowledged truth,
embraced silence.

What if for one day each being acknowledged the fear
and let it go? Suspended beliefs
opened their arms, drew strength
through earth, grass, rock, sand
Found the sparrow singing from a lone bush
the small heart-shaped cloud
Felt the currents of air wash of them, mingle
with the breath, and let the seams unravel
borders blend, walls dissolve
and be
one.




as the sun goes down...

Today was spent quietly cleaning our house: washing floors and clothes, wiping down counters and toilets, vacuuming, dusting and all the r...