Friday, June 2, 2023

reflections on pentecost 2023

 The late Henri Nouwen, spiritual mentor to many and seeker of God’s grace within our age of anxiety, used to regularly ask himself:

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Say a word of healing? Make love flesh? These are the fundamental questions of faith, not doctrine or dogma, just incarnational peace-making in all its manifestations.

Nouwen’s questions ring true to my take on today’s Scripture, the appointed gospel for Pentecost, wherein Jesus returns to his frightened friends after the Crucifixion and offers them inner peace. They are hiding from the political and religious authorities of their day, imprisoned in angst, and frozen in feelings of helplessness. A witch hunt of sorts is taking place, you see; a well-coordinated campaign committed to eradicating the Jesus Movement from ancient Palestine and terrorizing its adherents into silent complacency.

· That’s what tyrants and bullies do when confronted by radical grace: they weaponize every-day life – including religion, intimacy, and information – so that we remain locked inside our homes instead of engaging our communities in acts of solidarity and compassion.

· It is my conviction that Pentecost is Christianity’s explicit challenge to society’s bullies – a clear alternative to fear and powerlessness personally and politically – but in a unique way. Jesus returns to his friends in their isolation to inwardly empower them to act outwardly by breathing the peace of the Holy Spirit upon them.

Victoria Lynn Garvey, bible scholar and Episcopal lay person writing in the most recent edition of the Christian Century, notes that breathing peace upon another is a singularly curious thing to do. “Breath as the simple process of inhale-exhale is one thing, if quite valuable. Breathing on someone takes a bit more effort and intention. This word breath on, emphusao, in both its Hebrew and Greek incarnations is used to describe the action of blowing on smoldering embers to coax a fire back to life generating sparks, heat, and roaring flames from faltering kindling.” Biblical interpreter, Brian Stoffregen, adds that:

This same word is used in Genesis 2 of the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek) where God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of the earth being who then becomes a living being and again in Ezekiel 37 where the breath breathes on the slain valley of dry bones so that they may live again as well.

St. John, you see, portrays Pentecost to be part of Jewish history where the steadfast love of the Lord that endures forever brings order to the chaos, liberates Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt, shares Torah with Moses on Mt. Sinai, and inspirationally raises up the valley of dry bones. Garvey adds that the early Jewish disciples of Jesus would have known all of this.

They would recall the significance of being breathed upon. This breath now would take them way back to the “then” of creation when God also breathed purposefully… causing the first human to become a living being and suggesting that right now this breath might be generative again.

These ancient stories are retold today to remind us how the old can become new: how trust can replace terror, the personal can take on political or public consequences, and both community and courage can be restored. In this Pentecost is re-interpreted in our tradition to be a RE-creation story, always connected to its origins in Judaism, but sacramentally distinctive because OUR Pentecost begins inwardly. This isn’t better or worse than “the ancient Jewish pilgrimage festival of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks celebrated 50 days after Passover” by the community as the close of the grain harvest, it’s just different. The SALT Project scholars write:

For the ancient Israelites, this festival was an explicitly diverse, inclusive harvest celebration for the whole community – it was tied to the seasons, the wisdom of the land, as well as the story of liberation – and over time came to mark the reception of Torah itself given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

· At first, the Jewish Pentecost was a spring feast: it began as barley was harvested, increment-ally became the Festival of Unleavened Bread at Passover, and concluded when the first crop of wheat was gathered up some fifty days later. Both crops are planted in the fall, but barley matures faster. As is often the case in spiritual traditions, our own as well as the festival of Norouz we recently shared with our Afghani friends, Mother Earth teaches us how to live into the rhythms of the sacred. The Hebrew wisdom says: “To everything there is a season, right? A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…” and all the rest.

· Eventually, a religious ritual emerged setting aside the first fruits of the grain harvest to be a thanksgiving offering to God: primal piety intuitively recognizes that giving gratitude to the source of life before baking bread for the community’s consumption is both respectful and re-sponsible. Consequently, Passover came to initiate the blessings of the spring harvest while Pentecost crowned the festival with a concluding feast. By linking the physical bounty of the grain harvest to the spiritual nourishment of Torah that Moses received on Mt. Sinai Jewish tradition sacramentally showed that beyond the official 10 Commandments of Torah, all 613 guidelines for personal and public life extracted from the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were food for the soul and ethical wisdom for the faithful.

This is the context into which a uniquely Christian Pentecost came into being. OUR
story stipulates that after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus, the same Holy Spirit who brought order out of the chaos at the beginning of creation and inspired the ancient prophets of Israel to advocate for justice and mercy rather than mere religious rituals and sacrificial blood offerings, this same Spirit – Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek both meaning the Spirit or Breath of the Lord – THIS same Spirit was breathed upon the first disciples of by Jesus himself.

· Jesus wasn’t discarding his tradition, mind you – there’s NO supercessionism in authentic Christianity – for Jesus and his first disciples were ALWAYS Jews. Like the ancient prophets and rabbis before him, Jesus simply adapted and reinterpreted the symbols and practices of his heritage. By breathing the Spirit upon his bewildered and anxious disciples, he inwardly filled them with the same peace that passes understanding that historically fortified God’s people in ancient Israel.

· In a way that historically and mystically connects heart and head to flesh and conscience, Jesus offered his frightened friends soul food that empowered them to leave their fears be-hind and live into the love of God out loud and in public much like Moses empowered the enslaved serfs during the exodus from Egypt. THAT’S what our text grafts on to the ancient legends of the Hebrew people: Jesus brings healing to his emotionally wounded friends by breathing the spirit of inspiration upon them like Ezekiel did in the valley of dry bones: Peace be with you – MY peace be yours – not as the world gives it but as the Lord our God has shared it with us since before the beginning of time.

· Are you with me on this? Is the connection between the events and mythology of ancient Israel clear in the reinterpretation Jesus evokes on Pentecost? Christianity claims continuity with the Holy Spirit who brings the same reassurance, solidarity, peace, and forgiveness to THIS era as she birthed in times past. Additionally, we link our prayers during the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot – or Easter and Pentecost – to the prayers Judaism offers.

In the fourth book of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, we read that after marking each of the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot with prayers of gratitude for the liberating blessings of Torah AND the Exodus, the first disciples of Jesus joined the rest of faithful Judaism from all over the region by going to the Temple to express their joy over God’s benevolence. Chapter two of Acts says there were Jews from all over the known world in Jerusalem: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia (in modern day Turkey); believers from Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, as well as Egypt, the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, Jews as well as Gentile proselytes from Crete and Arabia. The harvests were complete. Seven weeks of prayer were over. So, now it was time for a feast – and what a feast it turned out to be – a feast of forgiveness, a feast of peace, a feast of solidarity and compassion all expressed and experienced out loud and in public!

You may recall from last week’s Ascension Sunday message that I see the Ascension of Jesus to be an invitation for us to give up fundamentalism so that we might cultivate a spirituality of poetry and mystical, metaphorical wisdom. The brilliant novelist, Madeleine L'engle, liked to say: “Ours is an irrational spirituality where love blooms bright and wild (in the desert.) Had Mary been filled with reason, there'd have been no room for her child.” St. Paul said much the same thing noting that ours is the assurance of faith NOT the false certainties of Biblical literalism. That’s why we mark Pentecost as the BIRTH Day of the church: it was when the inner peace of spiritual grace embraced the outward fears of empire with concrete expressions of solidarity and compassion in public.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I sense this contextual background about Pentecost to be vital for us for two reasons: first, given the worldwide epidemic of virulent antisemitism and violence being waged against our Jewish sisters and brothers, the more WE mark, honor, cherish, and celebrate our spiritual and familial connections to Judaism, the more likely we’ll be able to own how OUR own well-being is eternally linked with theirs: Whatsoever you do unto the LEAST of these, my sisters and brothers, Jesus taught in Matthew 25, you do unto me. Historically Christianity seems addicted to repeatedly violating this foundational tenet in the ghastliest ways. Think the witch-hunts of Europe and the US, our genocide against first nations people, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Irish Magdalene laundries, 250 years of slavery and another 200 of Jim Crow. Our current crop of-so-called Christian nationalist vigilantes are sadly nothing new making the words of Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirator against the Nazis, Lutheran pastor Martin Neimoller, instructive:

First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me

Did you read the recent NY Times OP ED column by Wyoming Republican Susan Stubson who confessionally described the fear, hatred, violence, and terror so-called followers of Jesus are perpetrating in her great Western state even as we worship today? It’s chilling, sobering, and sadly a portent of things to come. When prominent Christian leaders and politicians invoke the name of Jesus to promote slander, murder, race hatred, and antisemitism, other people of faith must link arms and stand as one another’s protectors in public. How did MLK put it?

Those who passively accept evil are as much involved in it as those who help to perpetrate it. The one who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. That is why
when evil souls plot, honest people must plan. When evil burns and bombs, we must build and bind. When evil men, women, and children shout ugly words of hatred, we must commit ourselves to the glories of love.

This is how we become people of Pentecost – souls bound together by grace, love, history, and shalom – who at our best SEE and feel our connection to one another trusting that whatsoever is done to the least of our sisters and brothers in all of creation is done to Christ Jesus and all of us as well. And now that we are finally putting limits upon Cartesian wisdom and gaining a greater perspective into what’s being called an ecological civilization, we can hear what indigenous people have known for millennia and our best ecologists and scientists have been telling us since the 70’s: that we’re ALL linked together – humans, animals, plants, wind, water, soil, and fire – and what injures ONE wounds us all.

Standing in solidarity against antisemitism – and ALL forms of social hatred including Black Lives Matter and the redressing of our origins – is faithfully receiving the sacred breath of peace Jesus breathed upon us at Pentecost. It is NOT coincidental that earlier this week not only did the Biden-Harris administration announce the first ever US Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, but our courts sentenced the founder of the Oath Keepers, Stuart Rhodes, to 18 years in prison for sedition. If you recall the chilling images from January 6th and Charlottesville that looked to Kristallnacht 2.0 you will give thanks to God. Renewing our solidarity with our Jewish spiritual cousins at Pentecost this Memorial Day weekend is the first reason for my overview.

The second is the unique interpretation Jesus adds to our Pentecost tradition: for
all intents and purposes, he reminds us today that we can’t give to others what we don’t have ourselves. We used to say if you don’t walk the walk, baby, you can’t talk the talk. So, notice that in this story Jesus returns to his friends after the resurrection to reassure them – to share his presence with them in their darkest hour – because presence matters. Sometimes we ALL need a shoulder to cry on, a lov-ing non-judgmental friend to listen to us or sit with us in the hospital when we’re enveloped in fear, or know that another living soul is available to share our joys and sorrows generosity and with pro-found attentiveness. Being present to one another is, you see, ONE of the ways the Holy Spirit becomes flesh within as its breathed upon us. So, too, inner peace: if serenity is foreign to our souls – if our insides are a sea of chaos rather than a harbor of tranquility – if we have NOT befriended silence and solitude and do not know how to cultivate being a non-anxious presence in our current chaos: then we really don’t have much to offer this wounded world. Thomas Merton put it well when he wisely wrote:

Inner serenity is a spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant source. (It is) above all, awareness of the reality of that source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and simple faith…It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts…

It is intimacy with and trust of God’s grace from the inside out and is key for authentic, transformative social action to spread the love of Jesus in public. In the words of today’s gospel, it is letting the peace of forgiveness that refuses to bind ourselves and others to sin ripen and mature within. The text tells us that when Jesus returned to this small, bewildered, confused, and frightened commun-ity of faith after the Cross, he didn’t scold them. He didn’t drag up their previous abandonment or betrayals nor sully them with shame.

Rather he set them free by consciously choosing to welcome them with reassurance, helping them reclaim their trust in God’s grace; and then, based upon their inner peace, going out into the world to share the acts of solidarity born of forgiveness wherever they went. Do unto others, he told them again, as I have just done unto you. Jesus did not breathe the peace of forgiveness upon them so that they would stay behind locked doors. It was given so that they might be in the world as he was once in the world – setting all types of people free.

And THAT, dear friends, is how WE are to confront the hatred of Christian nationalism in this era. NOT with shame. NOT with self-righteousness. NOT as bullies nor those ignorant of grace. So often we well-intentioned liberals get caught in the hurry up and DO something trap. Our hearts are in the right place, but unless we’ve been nourished at the contemplative feast of peace, we may do more harm than good. If we’re not certain that God is at work within and among us even in those events and people beyond our control – if we’ve not practiced cultivating discernment but give ourselves over to reacting with just out feelings that are NEVER the whole story – we’re adding insult to injury.

What’s more, and this is as true of conservative activists as well as liberals, in our rush to do something, we can easily guilt-trip one another – use shame to push our agenda – which only breeds greater resentment and eventually more passivity. I’ve done it – sadly – you may have, too. It’s how we’re trained in this culture. And it’s the exact OPPOSITE of how Jesus asks us to incarnate love, mercy, trust, peace-making, and activism in the world: we are to show others an alternative to the shame-based status quo by living into an inward serenity so that we can outwardly practice a radical and cleansing forgiveness with others. That’s what the sacramental and liturgical calendar of our tradition aspires to teach us, you know?

Have you noticed that the first half of the Christian year – starting in November and going through April – is ALL about discernment and contemplation; while the second half is all about action in the world? Talk about to everything there is a season, right? That’s roughly six months of inner work (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide), and six months of outward engagement in Ordinary Time using the ordinal numerals to count the weeks after Pentecost as a season ordered for action. “Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or a pair of lungs breathing in and out, the church alter-nates between these two modes every year: we have high holidays, and everyday life. The joys of celebration, and the grunt work of growth.”

Pentecost asks us to get honest about the health of our soul: it’s a holy invitation to become fully alive, fully gracious, and fully engaged as co-creators with the Creator. It also asks us to be certain to do our own inner work so that we don’t project our junk on others. More than many, St. Wendell Berry of Kentucky knows how these two truths are entwined and shares them with us in ways that we can hear – and love – and maybe even trust. In the “Peace of Wild Things,” he frames Pentecost like this:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Lord, may it be so among us. Amen.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

reflections on ascension sunday 2023

To reflect on Ascension Sunday this year, I've juxtaposed two New Testament readings together – one from the farewell discourse of St. John’s gospel, the other from the close of St. Luke’s good news about the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus – in order to evoke both the paradox and the blessing of this unique day.

+John 17: 1-11: After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

+ Luke 24: 36-52: Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Yet for all their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering, and he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.


I know in advance that MOST of us haven’t spent a lot of time considering the value of Ascension Sunday – if we even KNOW of its purpose in the liturgical calendar – for our Reformed and non-conformist tradition was never BIG into sacramental spirituality. To be honest, I had never heard of Ascension Sunday until my third year in seminary when, under the leadership of the granddaddy of urban ministry in the Presbyterian church, Ray Swartzback, he called our attention to it as a way embracing metaphorical interpretation of the Bible as one of four time-tested tools.

St. Augustine of Hippo, Bishop of North Africa during the early 5th century, taught that there were four key ways to make sense of our ancient spiritual texts: some passages required a literal interpretation, others offered a moral perspective, some were clearly allegorical, while still others asked for anagogical or metaphorical eyes to further our understanding. He was clear that whenever the Bible contradicted science, facts must trump fundamentalism every time. Such was the commonsense sophistication of historic Christianity until the late 19th century when anxious Protestants gave birth to the heresy of fundamentalism.

The Ascension of Jesus, described in our second reading, falls into this later anagogical category – a theological poem, if you will – about how we might live faithfully even with doubts and questions. Reading number one finds Jesus offering his worried friends comfort and consolation as they con-sider life without him – the Passion and the Cross loom heavily in their hearts – while reading number two imaginatively describes the spiritual departure of Jesus as a stage in spiritual maturation: living the questions as Rilke put it in Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And therein lies the paradox: maturing in faith, growing deeper into gravitas and trust, demands making peace with uncertainty. Thinking sacramentally helps us discern mystical wisdom from our senses – we see the cycle of life built into the pulse of creation and the seasons – and extrapolate that there is an order to God’s grace. This is the BEST of the Via Positiva. Thinking metaphorically and/or paradoxically, however, is the soul of the Via Negativa where we make peace with what we cannot or do not comprehend. My doctoral advisor said it was learning to accept what gaps in my understanding I could live with. Or as St. Paul said: now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face: so we walk by faith not always by sight.

The late Reverend Dr. James Fowler of Emory University, founder of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development, called this the universalist stage of faith development. Influenced and guided by the rigorous acumen of Erik Ericson, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, and Paul Tillich, Fowler discerned seven key stages of faith:

· Undifferentiated Faith is given to children in the first years of their lives by loving caregivers who evoke trust, courage, and love; this stage is essentially trust as part of the bonds of a healthy family.

· Projective Faith occurs in pre-school children who are unable to think scientifically but claim impressions of the holy as their family involves them in the rituals and rites of religion.

· Mythic/Literal Faith is stage three among pre-adolescent children who are starting to figure out what is fact or speculation. They are growing beyond the influence of their parents as they interact with teachers and worship leaders; it is still experiential but with nuance.

· Conventional Faith is stage number four: it begins about 13 years of age and usually concludes at 18 but some stay in this phase all their lives. Conventional faith affirms the rules and authority of tradition and finds a measure of certainty in conformity.

· Individuated or Reflective Faith is rebellious: it drives many young adults as assumptions and convention are questioned, challenged, and often discarded in pursuit of truth. As Fowler liked to say: maturity is gained by rejecting some parts of our faith while affirming other parts; it is how a person starts to take greater ownership of his/her own faith journey.

· Conjunctive Faith is the sixth stage of faith that comes into play in our early 30s. We’ve made some peace with our questions, given more of our attention to becoming successful in our public lives, and seek the assurance of community. Kierkegaard used to say that rebels often come back to church at this stage – especially if they have children.

Fowler concluded that most people end their faith journeys in either stage five or six: one remains obsessed with questioning authority while the other values community life more than certainty. But one last stage remains: universalizing faith. Fowler describes people at this stage as having "a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us." 

People at this stage can become important religious teachers because they have the ability to relate to anyone at any stage and from any faith. They can relate without condescension but at the same time are able to challenge the assumptions that those of other stages might have. People at this stage cherish life but also do not hold on to life too tightly. They put their faith in action, challenging the status quo and working to create justice in the world.

Ascension Sunday is the institutional church’s way of encouraging us to keep moving towards this universalist stage of faith that celebrates a both/and perspective – a trust in the Via Positiva and Negativa simultaneously – along with a few clues about how to get there. The calculated cruelty of the current crop of Christian Nationalists in the US but all over Europe and South American as well shows why the journey of faith towards maturity is vital to our personal and collective well-being. The assault on trans-people could be a case study of why this matters: according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation sixteen stages have already passed laws or policies banning gender affirming care for people under 18 – and seven other states are considering doing so, too. 

At this moment more than 300,000 high school transgender youth are seeking information, counseling, and guidance about how to live healthy and I submit to you HOLY lives – and 44 % of those teens now find themselves in states that have already passed discriminatory laws. The Human Rights Campaign is clear:

By preventing doctors from providing this care – or threatening to take children away from parents who support their child in their transition – these bills prevent transgender youth from accessing medically necessary, safe health care backed by decades of research and supported by every major medical association representing over 1.3 million US doctors.

Encouraging maturity and ripening in our spiritual journeys is a matter of life and death – and it carries economic concerns with it, too. You may have read that the Disney Corporation just pull-ed the plug on an expansion project in Orlando, FLA that would have resulted in another 2,000 well-paying jobs and over one billion in building expenses because the states governor is using his fundamentalist faith to create a punitive theocracy. So, let’s be clear: faith development is NOT just a personal matter – it carries with it wonderful or worrisome consequences.

The censorship campaigns currently cascading through the realm of public school text-books is yet another place where banning words, books, and poems is training a new generation in bottom line, literal and conventional thinking when what this era cries for is metaphorical imagination. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, purveyors of the mythopoetic movement among men seeking maturity, wrote this in the introduction to their brilliant anthology: The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. “How does the work of men moving into maturity connect to poetry? We cannot explain their attention in terms of literacy or electricity – most of the men of the world can’t read OR watch television.”

The relationship of poetry to culture has been debated as far back as Plato’s attach on Homer, through the Renaissance and the Puritan’s Reformation, and continuing with the Romantic Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and today’s arguments for a core curriculum of great books. While our European-American tradition questions and argues – and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes – other cultures speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up INSIDE poems, drenched with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite. By drawing this SHARP contrast with other cultures we are pointing to a defect in ours. We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation… and with-out the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, our emotions and imagination flattens out into a lack of spirit and loss of vision.

They conclude – and I concur – that reclaiming the heart and soul of poetry is both a way into the healing of our brokenness AND an essential ingredient in spiritual maturity. At this stage of our common lives: poetry is also at the core of resistance to the fascism of fundamentalism and a way to renew our souls. It is, I have come to believe, the essence of the Ascension which is PURE metaphor.

Now, as I’ve intimated before, I’m often late to the party. I usually get there, but I’m rarely in the vanguard – and this is as true emotionally and politically as it is poetically and spiritually. There’s a REASON why I love the song, “It’s been a long time coming – going to be a long time, long time gone!” Apparently, that’s just the way I was made and it doesn’t matter HOW hard I fight it: I move at the speed of discernment. For decades I didn’t read or listen to poetry – I was down with music and lyrics but followed the groove, melody, and beat more than the lyrics. Then, one cold, rainy, grey night in a Borders Bookstore outside of Cleveland, I stumbled upon this poem by Rilke – and I dissolved into tears:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper and walks outdoors
And keeps walking because of a church that stands somewhere in the East. And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house, dies there –
Inside the dishes and the glasses, so that his children have to go out into the world on their own toward that same church which he forgot.

You know the old aphorism: when the student is ready, the Buddha appears? Man this student was FINALLY ready – and the Buddha CLEARLY appeared. I’ve indicated that there’ve been a few times my life was in the dumper – and that was one of them. I was ready to chuck my ministry, get as far away from popular culture as possible, get on a motorcycle and head to New Mexico to train as a massage therapist. I was sick inside and out and was caught in grief and fear.

And then Brother Rilke showed up as a bookstore Buddha telling me that it was ESSENTIAL to walk out of mediocrity, conformity, and bourgeois values and get DOWN to it. Down to the soul of being, down to the depths of my angst, down to my passions and deepest love. It was, if you will, a come to Jesus moment where the Spirit pushed me into poetry and the power of symbols and metaphor. Isn’t THAT what’s being advocated in the second reading from St. Luke? I find two clues in St. Luke’s text:

· The first is what Jesus says to his friends after LIVING with them for three intense years and then spiritually guiding them for seven weeks of resurrection. “Everything I have told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.” So, he went on to open their under-standing of the Word of God by showing them how to read their Bibles this way.

· Ok, that’s Eugene Peterson’s reworking and paraphrase of Luke 24 but it still rings true: you would’ve thought that by now the disciples would have sorted this all out and started to engage the scriptures creatively like Jesus – but that’s apparently not the case. They’re still confused and mixed up and doubtful — joyful, yes, but “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” So, even here, in his very last moments with them before his ascension, Jesus is still their teacher: Let’s go over this one more time… as he opens their minds to understanding the scriptures” — which is to say, prior to even this eleventh-hour moment, even after all they’d been through, the minds of the disciples were still closed. (SALT Project) In Fowler’s paradigm, they’re still thinking like adolescents or children.

Learning to think, see, speak, and trust sacred metaphor is what takes us all deeper – beyond the obvious – into the doubts and darkness we need to ripen. The Quaker educator and activist, Parker Palmer who often works with singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer, just this past week wrote that as he celebrated his 81st birthday the importance of poetic metaphor brought him this blessing as he pondered his own mortality:

I woke up with a line running thru my head, a line that seemed to want to go somewhere: “Everything falls away.” As I tracked those words in my journal, and then into a poem, I learned that they are not words of despair. As things fall away, other things, important things, are revealed—including the fact that we are not separate beings who can or must go it alone. Our fates are for-ever threaded together with all beings in the intricate tapestry of life. When we pretend we can live heedless of one another, we make a deadly mistake. But when our lives honor our inter-dependence with each other and the earth, we live in what William Blake called “eternity’s sunrise. To which he then crafted this poem:

Sooner or later, everything falls away. You, the work you’ve done, your successes, large and small, your failures, too. Those moments when you were light, alongside the times you became one with the night. The friends, the people you loved, who loved you, those who might have wished you ill, none of this is forever. All of it is soon to go, or going, or long gone. Everything – you see – falls away, except the thread you’ve followed throughout your life. This thread strings together all you’ve been and done, the thread you didn’t know you were tracking until, toward the end, you see that the tread is what stays as everything else falls away.
For those who remain I say: follow that thread as far as you can and you’ll find that it does not end, but weaves into the unimaginable vastness of life. Your life never was the solo turn it seemed to be. It was always part of the great weave of nature and humanity, an immensity we come to know only as we follow our own small threads to the place where they merge with the boundless whole. Each of our threads runs its course, then joins in life together. This magnificent tapestry – this masterpiece in which we live forever.

I see this at work as I prepare my gardens for seedlings. I see it within me as I age, ripen, and relinquish some of the fears, distractions, addictions, and traps that I once relied upon in my youth. I see it in our political chaos as ONE way of being the US of A dies on the vine while competing visions rise-up and struggle for dominance. This falling away is akin to acceptance – the key to serenity – which doesn’t happen automatically but is built into the fabric and pulse of creation starting with the Big Bang and continuing today personally, collectively, artistically, spiritually, and politically. Let-ting part of life fall away – accepting it as part of God’s sacred order – is what Jesus is trying to communicate to his friends by teaching them a new way to interpret scripture.

· The other clue takes place just after they experience the departure of Jesus. In what we know as chapter two of St. Luke’s gospel – the Acts of the Apostles – while the disciples are standing there awe-struck and looking up to heaven, a messenger – an angel? – appears and says: dear people why are you stuck here with your heads in the clouds? Jesus is NOT here any more so get back to basics and start living his love as he just told you.

· I think Salman Rushdie is right when he told us: art is not entertainment – it is revolution. “All art began as sacred art, all painting began as religious painting and all writing began as sacred poems.” Our culture – our politics – our religions and economies need a revolution – a revolution of trust and nuance, the abandonment of fundamentalism in ALL its forms – and the resurrections and even ascension of mystery, metaphor, and poetry. I believe that’s a key com-ponent for the redemption of our American soul – and the jury is still out whether or not we’re up to the challenge. To which Jesus replied: well, get your heads out of the clouds, get down to reclaiming poetry as part of your spiritual journey, and I will be with you always. One of the implications of living by faith is trusting God beyond the evidence – not stupidly – but as those informed by grace which shows up in the most unexpected ways. Poet Jane Kenyon hit a home run when she penned, “Happiness” which closes today’s reflection.

There’s just no accounting for happiness, or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away. And how can you not forgive? You make a feast in honor of what was lost, and take from its place the finest garment, which you saved for an occasion you could not imagine, and you weep night and day to know that you were not abandoned, that happiness saved its most extreme form for you alone. No, happiness is the uncle you never knew about, who flies a single-engine plane onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes into town, and inquires at every door until he finds you asleep midafternoon, as you so often are during the unmerciful hours of your despair. It comes to the monk in his cell. It comes to the woman sweeping the street with a birch broom, to the child whose mother has passed out from drink. It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker, and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots in the night. It even comes to the boulder in the perpetual shade of pine barrens, to rain falling on the open sea, to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Lord, may it be so among us, as well.

Monday, May 22, 2023

an experiment in music as love...

Last night we played a "barn gig" - both a fundraiser for Kids 4 Harmony and a spring music party - that was a gas. Over the course of two hours about 40+ people not counting the 8 person band and sound engineer took in some of the groove. As the pandemic ebbed and flowed, I found myself aching for ways to bring people together in a chill environment: I wanted it to be built on music, driven by a band's love for one another, set in easy-going locales, and angst-free. That is to say FREE for all intents and purposes. The more I talked about this with loved ones, the more it felt like a pre-figurative act of solidarity. A bit idealistic given my predisposition to the aesthetics of the 60's, to be sure, but as another once told us: "you can say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."  I also wanted to bring together musicians I'd worked with over the years who knew how to check their egos at the door, leave most of their personal drama at home, open their hearts in a spiritual but not religious style, knew how to play a wide range of songs, and loved to laugh.

At first, it felt like house church, but I'm pretty averse these days to institutional religion of all types. How did St. Lou Reed put it? "Stick a fork in them, their done!" (NOTE: there are clearly exceptions, to be sure, and the community I am participating in right now is one. But broadly speaking: I want to stay as far away from formal religion as I can!) In fact, I believe there are better and more satisfying ways to incarnate and strengthen the spirituality of Jesus. Hell, playing good music in a dive bar is often more satisfying to me - and certainly more life-giving - than what happens on many Sunday mornings. So, after opening this door with a host of former colleagues, we began to craft a music making party on our back porch - and it worked. At first about 20 people came. Then 35. And while we took a break from playing in puble when the weather grew cold, we kept practicing. And listening. And laughing and even praying. Yesterday we harvested some of the fruit of our labors and it was all so very sweet. In a note to my music mates I put it like this: 

What we're doing is a counter-cultural act that is ALL about being together: call it solidarity, culture change, or even resistance to the status quo but it is an embodied act of sharing love and beauty in real time. We're not the only ones doing it, of course; but what we offer is unique. I can't tell you how many folk thanked me/us for creating the safe space to simply celebrate that "life can be ecstasy, you and me endlessly... groovin!" Our eclectic choice of songs, our willingness to hang our egos at the door, our commitment to bringing out the best in one another for the common good - or even healing our souls - was pure holy ground. Further the way we're putting these events together is also counter-cultural. Sure, I do a LOT of organizing (really a LOT - and make some on the spot changes) but we all weigh-in on ways to do a tune, we each bring our own gifts both to the songs and to the song selection. And, we laugh and care for one another while doing all of this. I can't tell you how prayerful that feels to me: more sacred than a LOT of church, for sure.

I am curious to see how this commitment will ripen as spring become summer in these gentle hills. We're just now starting to build a music party calendar to be augmented by other music gatherings, too - and perhaps even a few paid gigs. One participant said to me as we were packing up last night: "Our world needs more of this love. How can we bring more people into the groove?" A young, married couple heard the music while working in their garden next door and wandered into the groove. Sharing personal invites matters. Word of mouth certainly spreads some the fun, too. And making it clear that we're doing it to support the wider community is critical: we were able to raise $600 for young musicians in the making. Each of those ingredients - trust, commitment, beauty, laughter, prayer, solidarity, and spreading the word - will keep this experiment small. And grounded - and that's as it should be. Bigger clearly is NOT better. Staying connected is vital. Radical hospitality essential. I think we'll find a few other musical guests to bring into the fold; not the core band, but allies in pursuit of joy. 

As we approach the celebration of Pentecost, it's time to see what else the Spirit has in store for us. I'll keep you posted trusting as the late David Crosby put it: "music is love."

Monday, May 1, 2023

good shepherd sunday: reflections on contemplation and letting go

This was a surprisingly good news week for those of us considering today’s
appointed passage from the gospel according to St. John – especially if you hear it from Peterson’s reworking of the text in The Message:

Let me set this before you as plainly as I can: If a person climbs over or through the fence of a sheep pen instead of going through the gate, you know that person is up to no good—a sheep rustler! So, watch out for thieves, wolves, and other fakes who are out to steal, kill, and destroy you!

· Tucker Carlson – that sheep rustler is OUT! Fox News after their settlement with Dominion – those fakers are OUT $787 million dollars. Even CNN’s Don Lemon was taken OUT after shoot-ing off his once well-respected mouth in a sexist jab at Nikki Hailey’s age. Talk about wolves in sheep clothing, hucksters, con-artists, and thieves!

· The fourth Sunday after Easter has historically been set aside as Good Shepherd Sunday – a time to investigate both what it means for Jesus to identify himself as God’s good shepherd and what that means for us personally and in community. It is NOT an idyllic, sentimental cliche slathered in banal pastels but a poetic invitation to live more deeply into the presence of the Living God.

That’s the promise of the 23rd Psalm, you know: Because the Lord is my shepherd – NOT Fox News, MSNBC, the Pentagon, or my needy ego – I need not want, worry, or fret. When God leadeth me, I can lie down to rest in green pastures, pause beside still waters as the Lord restoreth my soul. Even in the presence of mine enemies or the valley of the shadow of death, I am filled with peace. Now this may not be obvious at first with today’s reading because 21st century North American culture is light years from the realities of 1st century Palestine in the Common Era. But the mystical spirituality of Jesus as described in St. John’s gospel promises that the path of Jesus – his spiritual practices and prayers as the Good Shepherd – are a portal into grace. Jesus is NOT a gate KEEPER, mind you, but a threshold into a way of being that’s saturated in the sacred.

You may recall that Jesus told us that his way was light, easy, never an ill-fitting or burdensome yoke, but a counter-cultural set of practices that result in… what? Do you remember? REST! Come unto me ALL ye who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you… REST. My favorite rendering says: Come away with me, trust and follow my lead, and I will show you how to live into the un-forced rhythms of grace. It’s a summons to turn off the news, step away from work and worries for a spell, and practice connecting with God’s eternal, ever-present, silent and inobtrusive love. It is, if you will, honoring the Sabbath by carrying it with you wherever you go. St. John is telling us this to-day by using three mystical terms that made once sense in ancient Israel – the sheepfold, the gate, and abundant life – but sound like antiquated gibberish now. My hunch is that this is why the litur-gical tradition of Western Christianity at its best sets aside the seven weeks between Easter and Pentecost for contemplation.

The first three weeks of Eastertide shows us some of the ways our wounds can keep us from recognizing the Risen Jesus when he shows up right beside us and we’re grieving, ashamed, or disappointed. The next four weeks push us to practice a counter-cultural contemplation of the abundant life that Jesus promises leads us into rest, renewal, and even resurrection. The heart of Jesus, you see, is NOT so much concerned with life after death, but the possibilities of abundant joy, integrity, and gravitas BEFORE our passing. Some of the poetry of the 15th century Muslim mystic Kabir grasps the wisdom of Jesus with sparkling clarity:

Friend, hope for the holy while you are alive. Jump into the experience while you’re still breathing. Think – and think some more – while you’re still alive – For what you call salvation belongs to the time before death. If you don’t break your ropes now while you are alive: do you think a ghost will do it after? The idea that the soul will join the ecstatic just because the body is rotten – that is fantasy! What is found NOW, is found THEN! If you find NOTHING now, you’ll simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death. But if you make love with the divine NOW, in the next life you’ll have the face of satisfied desire. So, plunge into the truth of life NOW and let the heart of the sacred embrace and carry you.

Jesus tells us this, too but to appreciate his wisdom we must first recall the context of today’s pass-age as a part of on-going quarrel between Jesus and the Pharisees. This argument is often obscured because the arc of the story has been broken into chapters when in fact chapter ten of St. John’s gospel is a continuation of the quarrel that began in chapter nine. Je-sus has just healed a man blind since birth who rejoices at this blessing only to be confronted and interrogated by the so-called shepherds of Israel, the Pharisees, and eventually expelled from life in community. Bible scholar, Elizabeth Johnson, says that “Those who were called to care for, protect, and nourish the people… choose to banish this healed blind man from their community, refusing to believe that Jesus and his healing work come from God. They are more concerned about guarding their own power, authority, and prestige than the well-being of the people.” (Working Preacher)

· Sounds like the Montana House of Representatives expulsion of the duly elected legislator, Zoey Zephyr, to me. For a week, this transgender Democrat from Missoula tried to get the Republican majority to acknowledge that they would have “blood on their hands” if they banned gender affirming medical procedures for transgender youth.

· Eventually, the gallery of protestors shouted: LET HER SPEAK, LET HER SPEAK
while Ms. Zep-hyr simply sat at her desk holding a microphone above her head. THIS was the so-called eg-regious violation of decorum that tarnished, “the rules, collective rights, safety, dignity, and integrity of the House of Representatives.” NOT the proposed law that threatens the life of young transgender youth, just Zephyr’s attempt to “amplify the voices of those who elected her to challenge legislation that will not only harm the community but will get some of them killed.” Hear what I’m trying to say? The forces of insanity, fear, and prejudice regul-arly resort to expulsion, silencing, and often violence – then – as well as now.

So, notice how Jesus responds to this because it’s ALL about abundant life. First, he welcomes the excluded one into HIS alternative inclusive community. “Having al-ready restored the sight of the man, Jesus seeks him out again after his expulsion from the synagogue and brings him into the community of his followers. For the blind man, salvation is not only receiving his physical sight but also spiritual sight, recognizing who Jesus is, believing in him, and becoming part of his alternative community. He followed the voice of Jesus before he could see him, and it led to new life. Now his days of isolation are over as he knows himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for, included, and protected.” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 5/7/17)

Second, after embracing the healed but rejected man, Jesus challenges the credibility of his accusers by first obliquely appealing to the poetic tradition of the prophets, and then directly calling out the Pharisees as wolves, liars, and sheep rustlers: Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

In ancient Israel and Palestine, you see, the sheepfold was a safe space where vulnerable flocks re-tired to when it grew dark: it was a place of protection against predators and shelter from the storm. By analogy, Jesus connects HIS alternative, inclusive community with the sheepfold: a place of refuge for the wounded, a place of nourishment for the hungry, a place of rest, renewal, and I want to say resurrection. Communities of judgment, by contrast, are guided by prejudice and fear and have NOTHING to do with the abundant life God provides within the true sheepfold.

Could St. John be any clearer concerning what our churches and faith communities are to be about whether in the 1st or 21st century? With 20/20 hindsight, WE can see this now, but apparently this analogy was too obscure for both the Pharisees and the disciples. So, the text tells us Jesus amplified his poetic imagery, shifted gears, and proclaimed: I am the gate for the sheep. The symbolism of the gate may have been confusing, but everyone in that conversation would’ve know what Jesus was proclaiming with his I AM reference, right?

Back in Exodus, when Moses asked God for a name at the burning bush, the One who is holy replied: I am who I am, right? In ancient Hebrew, I AM was written as YHWH, the sacred name that sounds like we’re inhaling the breath of life. Jesus is directly coupling his healing and inclusive com-munity with the abundant life promised by YHWH to those fleeing exile two thousand years before he was born. He’s also reminding his allies and opponents that their own tradition celebrates radical hospitality, a fact first articulated by Moses in the Exodus stories and later advanced by the ancient prophetic poets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. After being exiled in Babylon for 70 years, God tells the people through Isaiah that there will soon come a time when God’s people will learn to rebuild the ancient ruins and renew the places of devastation by practicing compassion. Isaiah 58:

Is not THIS the fast that I choose? To loose the bonds of wickedness and let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, bring shelter to the homeless poor, cover the naked and open your hearts to the ones who are wounded? Do THIS and your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily. Take away the pointing fingers, the wicked tongues and pour yourself out for the hungry and afflicted and the Lord shall be with you to lead you into abundant life forever!

I am the gate into the sheepfold, Jesus announces, welcoming the vulnerable into safe space just as God helped your ancestors passed from bondage into freedom through the Red Sea. "This passage way offers safety at night and nourishment by day. It is NOT a metaphor of “exclusion nor a license to think of ourselves as the true sheep of the Lord.” (SALT Project)

If we use it that way, we become like the Pharisees who expelled the blind man from their com-munity. No, the purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. As says in verse 16 of this chapter: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. And I must bring them in also so that they will listen to my voice. And then there will be one flock and one shepherd.” The purpose of the gate is to protect and guard the vulnerable against all that threatens the well-being of the flock — especially thieves, bandits, and wolves. (Johnson, Working Preacher)

· That’s why I poked Tucker Carlson and the rest who are finally getting their come-up pence: we know that there has always been predators – wolves dressed in sheep’s clothes – con artists preying upon the trusting – religious leaders who lie and manipulate our wounds to line their own pockets or pump up their puny egos. And we know that honestly, there always will be. Remember that Jesus once told his friends to become wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Savvy but not cynical; tender-hearted without giving in to despair or stupidity.

· Today, using mystical rhetoric and poetry, he says the same thing with: I am the good shepherd who knows how to lead you through the gate of God’s love into abundant life. I like how preacher and teacher Sarah Dylan interprets this:

Shepherds had a hard life and faced ALL of the hardships of the hostile landscape through which they herded their sheep. Being with the flock, they faced all of the dangers and difficulties that the flock faced and were just as vulnerable to heat in the day, cold at night, and all the human and animal predators all around them. They slept with their flocks when there were few enough predators for them to sleep; they were seen as poor prospects as husbands and fathers since they had to leave their families alone and vulnerable at night as well. And that's the life Jesus lives for and with us. Jesus journeys with the most vulnerable and takes on all of their vulnerability. He knows what it's like to be out in the cold. He knows what he's saying when he calls people to leave their homes and villages, and even their families, since he had done the same himself. He knows what it's like to have people think that you're crazy or irresponsible because of what you leave behind and let go of, because people said the same things about him. And he knows something else, too: this crazy life he lived, and calls us to live, is abundant life It's THE abundant life, to be precise.

Abundant life – eternal life – is practicing the hard but liberating, counter-cultural inclusivity and compassion of Jesus. That’s how God’s grace becomes flesh within and among us – the unforced rhythms of grace may be free but carry a cost. How does the old movement song put it: let there be peace on earth and let it begin with… who? ME. Let it begin with ME. That’s a call to contemplation: an invitation to practice resting in grace and trusting that being God’s love can ground us even in the cruel absurdities that currently envelope our culture. Recently Maria Popova wrote:

We spend our lives trying to anchor our transience in some illusion of permanence and stability. We lay plans, we make vows, we backbone the flow of uncertainty with habits and routines that lull us with the comforting dream of predictability and control, only to find ourselves again and again bent at the knees with surrender to forces and events vastly larger than us. In those moments, kneeling in a pool of the unknown, the heart breaks open and allows life — life itself, not the simulacrum of life that comes from control — to rush in.


ONCE, POET STEPHEN LEVINE WAS ASKED THAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE TO WHICH HE REPLIED: I think the meaning of life is to let your heart be broken.” COMPOSER TINA Davidson ADDS: Let your heart be broken. Allow, expect, look forward to. The life that you have so carefully protected and cared for. Broken, cracked, rent in two. Heartbreakingly, your heart breaks, and in the two halves, rocking on the table, is revealed rich earth. Moist, dark soil, ready for new life to begin.

Over the next three weeks I’m going to offer you three resources or tools to help you practice simple, tender, effective contemplative prayer that leads towards the unforced rhythms of grace. You know, I’ve been with you for about two and a half months now and have about that much more time to walk with you. And I simply CAN’T leave without at least offering you – IN WORSHIP – some of the time-tested practices that can help nourish peace inwardly, outwardly and every way in-between. And the first one I want to share is so simple you’ll think I’ve flipped. It might help if you know it comes from the Quaker artist and singer, Carrie Newcomer, who got it from the late Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace activist. She writes:

Breathe in Peace (Take a deep slow breath in) Breathe out a Smile (and remember to actually smile, large or small, toothy or Mona Lisa amused). Repeat. That’s it. I use it when standing in line at a grocery store or airport cue, driving or walking down a street, anytime I catch myself doom scrolling or thinking “Holy crap, this world is such a mess.” There’s actually brain science behind this practice. When we contract the muscles that allow us to smile, it sends signals to our brain causing it to release tiny molecules called neuropeptides that help alleviate stress. It also re-leases other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins acting as a pain reliever and antidepressant. When we smile, we actually, physically feel better. But I also think the act of smiling (for oneself and toward others) is an act of welcome and graciousness. It is a gift we give, a spooled-out thread of connection between me and thee, if even for the briefest moment.

Try it with me? Breathe in: PEACE (inhale) Breathe out… a smile (and actually smile.) These are crazy times, my friends, and they’ll likely become a lot crazier, too. But we’re not without resources, possibilities, and options. Give it a shot, for God’s sake and your own, trusting that the mystical un-forced rhythms of grace can bring you and others a measure of deep, deep rest and abundant life. And maybe try praying with me as we close by singing: 

You may say I ‘m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join you’ll join us, and the world…will live as one.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

i believe house cleaning is embodied prayer...

Our "warm" spell in these old hills has come and gone so it now looks, feels, and smells like April in the Berkshires. That's as it should be with mud to be dealt with, leaves to be raked, daffodils to adore, and seedlings to get into their wee planters. I've finished my Sunday worship work for this week (sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug, right?) so I spent a few hours down in the basement clutter. Besides a mountain of boxes, not much has happened down there since before Christmas so it's fair to say it was a mess. But not any more - and that helps me chill a bit.

Those who know me well understand that I genuinely love to clean the house. Work in the garden and yard, too. Not only can I see and experience the fruit of my labor, but it feels like an embodied prayer for those I cherish. Same goes for setting a lovely table or cooking a tasty meal. Once again, I resonate with the simple, direct, and sacramental spirituality of Carrie Newcomer. Her poem, "Kindness," is talking to me today.

Kindness is human size,
Hones and doable, 
Softening even the hardest of days,
The country cousin to love,
And daily,
And completely possible,
It takes out its earbuds
And listens to your story.
It gives up its seat on the bus
And hums in the kitchen,
Washing dishes when nobody asked it to.

And more often than not,
If I start with a little kindness
Love is usually following
Just a few steps behind,
Nodding and smiling
And saying,
"That's the way it's done.
"Yes, honey,
That's the way it is done."

After an afternoon break I'll head to the grocery store to pick up a few things for tonight's band practice. Our drummer celebrates a birthday today and he' such a precious friend. We'll rock out - but not until we honor a big hearted brother. One more Carrie Newcomer gift comes to mind...

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

peter learns that if you always do what you've always done...

When I was a young preacher back in Michigan and Ohio, I went through a phase of LOVING the liturgical songs of John Michael Talbot. He was once a Midwest rock’n’roller who gave up that dissolute life for the rigors of a Franciscan monastery. He still played the guitar, but now his music was all about welcoming others into a life of prayer and service. One of his song cycles was shaped by the “I AM” statements of Jesus: I am the light of the world, I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection and four others. I’ll say a word about these I AM confessions in a moment as they’re central to the insights of St. John’s gospel, but for now let me simply note that Talbot’s tunes became my prayers for a few years. They’re very easy to sing and helped me memorize portions of scripture. One of my favorites goes like this:

I am the bread of life – all who eat this bread shall never die.
I am God’s love revealed – I am broken that… you may be healed.

Simple, gentle melodies saturated in Scripture, yes? As both time and I ripened, my way of prayer-ing changed and I put John’s songs away. I now value the deeper wisdom of silence but from time to time still find myself singing some of his choruses: they ground me in the gentleness of grace, they open my heart when I’m feeling alienated, and they lure me towards the paradox of Christ’s love that takes me deeper within so that I might be more compassionate and real in public.

I am the bread of life – all who eat this bread shall never die.
I am God’s loved revealed – I am broken that… you may be healed.

That couplet synthesizes what I call sensual sacramental spirituality: seeing the obvious or pre-senting truth while trusting that just below the surface exists a deeper insight or blessing. Sr. Joan Chittister suggests that sensual sacramental spirituality can see the “eagle within the egg and knows that there is a spiritual child waiting to be born again within every adult.”

+ The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace: our tradition sees only two sacraments – baptism and eucharist – while our Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers name seven including baptism, eucharist, confirmation of baptism, confession, last rites, marriage, and holy orders. These older spiritual traditions consciously claim the symbolic patterns in Scripture and ordinary life and carefully construct words to help believers connect their experiences with the presence of the sacred. They even name three categories for the seven sacraments to reflect both the Blessed Three-in-One nature of God as Trinity as well as the sacred rest of the Sabbath that comes after God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested upon the seventh.

+ As you may have already guessed, my evolving spirituality tends to trust the older tradition’s broad inclusivity of seven sacraments as superior to our paltry two – but I don’t think even that tradition goes far enough. No, sensual sacramental spirituality must be wildly more generous so that we can begin to cherish the rhythm of God’s grace in all of creation, poetry, art, politics, sexuality – even the act of breathing.

A sacramental spirituality, for example, hears the sacred in the songs that ring true in culture: Ten years ago, Lady Gaga’s monster hit, Born This Way, treated sexuality in a sacramental way when she sang:

My mama told me when I was young, "We are all born superstars"
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir
"There's nothing wrong with loving who you are ‘
cause God made you perfect, babe
So hold your head up, girl, and you'll go far and listen to me when I say:
You’re on the right track, baby, you were born this way.
No matter gay, straight, or bi', lesbian, transgender life
I'm on the right track, baby, I was born to survive
No matter Black, white or beige, chola, or Orient' made
I'm on the right track, baby, I was born to be brave
I'm beautiful in my way 'cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way
Don't hide yourself in regret, just love yourself, and you're set
You’re on the right track, baby, you were born this way, yeah

I hear Ms. Gaga unpacking a core blessing from our creation stories in Genesis 1 where God pauses, looks at all that has been created and says: ooh this is good – very, very good – and takes a rest on the seventh day and called it a Sabbath. Gaga doesn’t overtly use Biblical language, but the mess-age is the same. I tested my working hypothesis of God’s still speaking nature again this week by randomly looking at the Top Ten songs only to find Taylor Swift channeling St. Paul in Romans 7 as she sings: “Anti-Hero.”

I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser 
midnights become my afternoons
When my depression works the graveyard shift
All the people I've ghosted stand there in the room
I should not be left to my own devices they come with prices and vices
I end up in crisis (tale as old as time) - 
I wake up screaming fromdreaming
One day I'll watch as you're leaving cuz you got tired of my scheming
It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me at teatime, everybody agrees
I'll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror
It’s so exhausting always being for
 the anti-hero

Practitioners of a sensual sacramental spirituality celebrate the way Ms. Swift
reframes St. Paul in Romans 7:

Maybe this is your experience? I’m full of myself… but what I don’t understand about is why I decide to act one way, but then act another, doing things I absolutely despise. If I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and do it, it’s obvious that God’s love is necessary…. But even when I know that love is real in my head, I still can’t keep trusting it for the power of sin keeps sabotaging my best intentions. I realize that I don’t have what it takes: I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good and not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. And it happens so regularly that it’s predictable.

Our tradition used to celebrate a still speaking God; that’s our 21st century paraphrase of what the Reverend John Robinson’s said to those boarding the Mayflower in 1620: I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word. A sacramental spirituality searches for how God’s grace is being enfleshed within and among us. The ancient Celtic and Orthodox traditions speak of this as deification.

Our becoming ever more comfortable in our own skin and humanity in the spirit of Jesus. They reject, as do I, the notion that we were born into sin. They advocate original blessing rather than original sin: this path never denies human brokenness but insists that as we learn from our mis-takes we can grow in humility and wisdom just as God intended. This spirituality simultaneously re-jects sentimentality AND cynicism – with a long albeit it obscure legacy starting with St. Irenaeus in the 2nd CE, Pelagius in the 3rd, John Scotus Eriugena in the 8th CE, both St. Francis and St. Bonaventure said it in the 12th and 13th centuries respectively, George MacLeod of Iona in the 20th, and Cynthia Bourgeault, Matthew Fox, and Richard Rohr today. All claim that our faith starts with a loving God who creates ALL life – ourselves included – imbuing the totality of creation with a grace deep within. We can tarnish and reject our original blessing, we can ignore it and trash it, too but we can not destroy it. How did Thomas Merton put it?

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is God’s name written in us. It’s like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It’s in everybody, and if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish. I have no program for this realizing this. I only know it is real and shows me that the gate of heaven is everywhere.

+ Are you still with me? I know that’s a bit over the top and arcane; maybe I should have simply said sensual sacramental spirituality seeks grace in ALL things and trusts that love trumps karma always.

+ It’s an alternative orthodoxy – a generous orthodoxy – that posits acts of love over abstract doctrine; orthopraxis – right living – over orthodoxy – right belief. It’s how St. John talks about Jesus in the fourth gospel – sacramentally – noting that there are no parables of God’s kingdom in this gospel; rather, Jesus tells us HE is what kingdom living looks like: I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection, I am the way, the truth and life. Same for the deeds of Jesus. Fr. Raymond Brown, master scholar of St. John, writes that the so-called “signs” that Jesus shares have an obvious meaning as well as a deeper truth:

A figure today who could physically give the blind sight and restore to life the recently dead would be hailed not only medically but spiritually. John's Jesus has a totally different outlook. He does supply earthly bread to a crowd that hungers; but that’s not the real marvel, for they will hunger again and so are not permanently better. The real marvel is that Jesus can give a bread from heaven that obviates spiritual hunger. Likewise Jesus gives a blind man sight, but such a gift simply makes the man no more disadvantaged than the rest of humanity that has sight but can-not see God. The real marvel is that Jesus as the light come into the world can lead the blind man to a believing sight that will enable him to see God wherever he looks. Jesus restores physical life to Lazarus, too but does that make Lazarus better off than he was before he died? The real marvel is not simply that Jesus can restore the dead to life but that he can give a life impervious to death. Lazarus comes forth from the tomb in his burial garments because he will need them again when he dies a second time. His being raised is a sign pointing to the resurrection of Jesus who will leave his burial garments behind in the tomb, never to be needed again.

Like I said at the outset: sensual sacramental spirituality sees creation as
saturated in grace whether we have eyes to see or not. One of the blessings of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Je-sus is that Jesus gives shape and form to what grace looks like. That’s why I’ve come to see Jesus himself as a sacrament – and this is crucial for today’s text about Peter’s betrayal becoming a portal away from shame and into a new and more consistent compassion. If you know Peter’s story, you see how incrementally he becomes more of his best self after encountering the love of God made flesh in the resurrected Christ.

+ We meet Peter as a hard-working fisherman: what the text DOESN’T tell us, but what would have been widely know back in the day, is that under the bootheel of Roman occupation, most of those occupied in the fishing industry essentially worked for the Empire. They were not quaint, craftspeople sharing their wares in a rustic setting. They were more like today’s farm workers laboring in the sun for corporate agribusiness. Small wonder Peter and Andrew drop everything to follow Jesus when the invitation is offered, right? They were escaping the rigors of feeding the occupying army of the Roman Empire.

+ Once Peter gives up his fishing nets to spend with Jesus before the Cross, he’s learning how to balance his enthusiasm with responsible accountability. Jesus gives him the nickname Petras, the Rock, because Peter gets carried away like a bolder crashing out of control down a mountainside.

You may recall that early on Peter discerns the unique charisms of Jesus and confesses him to be the Christ – the Anointed One – but in the next breath begs Jesus NOT to live into his ministry which prompts the Master to bark: Get thee behind me, Satan. Later, Peter awakens in a boat crossing the sea of Galilee and sees Jesus walking towards him on the water; in a fit of enthusiasm, he jumps ov-erboard only to sink when his faith fades. Get the picture: he’s up and down and all over the place.

The arc of Peter’s story throughout the gospels shows a passionate devotee who is hard headed and in need of discernment – a reality that plays itself out in spades when, at the Last Supper, Peter first argues with Jesus about getting his feet washed then begs to be washed all over before prom-ising NEVER to leave Jesus only to deny him three times in betrayal hours later. Peter flees the scene in fear and shame – and at least in St. John’s iteration returns to his old ways as a fisherman again.

And right THERE is a key clue about why living sacramentally matters: Left to his own de-vices, Peter returns to his old ways. Now play that out with me, ok? I know people who fall off the wagon and return to their old addictions when overwhelmed by fear or shame. I know good souls who crash and burn when their expectations of what a lover should be goes up in smoke. I know precious people trapped in grief after losing a loved parent, spouse, sib-ling, or friend. So, this aspect of the story is not JUST about Peter’s collapse: it’s a paradigm for what often happens when we can no longer see the eagle within the egg. When life’s pain pushes us back into our old ways. How do my buddies in AA put it?


· Think of this within our body politic…

· Or in the life of our church…

Sacramental spirituality shows us that even our failures and wounds can serve a greater good IF we’re willing to be open to the love of God. That’s what the conclusion of today’s lesson is all about: after encouraging Peter to own his shame and his suffering – that’s what the three love questions are about – accountability for betrayal: three times Peter denies Jesus and three times Jesus pointedly asks: Peter, do you LOVE me? They say confession is good for the soul, but only if it helps us get off the dime of shame and into taking responsibility for our actions – which is precisely what happens next.

+ Jesus tells Peter: look, man, when you were young and impetuous, you lived for yourself and did what you wanted, when you wanted, however you wanted. But now that you are older – and more humble – it’s time you let someone else gird your loins and lead you into those places you do NOT want to go.

+ Sounds like therapy, yes? Could’ve been Carl Gustav Jung speaking: to become whole and deepen God’s love in your life you’re going to have to into those places, feelings, events, and activities that you do NOT want to explore.

Culturally, politically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually that’s where we are right now: trembling before those places we do NOT want to go into. Authentic racial and gender equality. REAL and consistent reproductive rights for all women not just those with enough money and clout. Partner-ing with Mother Nature to heal our precious earth. Finding a way through the blood and morass of political stagnation to come to terms with gun violence and our historic addiction to it. Need I go on? When we were younger, we did as we pleased and went where we wanted. But now, guided by love and accountability, we must let another lead us into those places we DON’T want to enter – but must.

It’s hard – it’s costly – and it will hurt. But the good news is that as Peter honored this call to let another lead him into a new way of being, he grew in courage and conviction. His story becomes much less brash after Easter: he shepherds his brothers and sisters with compassion rather than hu-bris. He reaches out beyond his prejudice and fear to welcome Gentiles into the fold. And at least apocryphally if not accurately, when Rome chose to put him to death by crucifixion, he insisted on being crucified upside down to symbolically show us he knew he wasn’t Christ’s equal but a servant of the Lord. If Peter can change, not perfectly but profoundly, so can we – and THAT is how the word becomes flesh in our generation. So, let those with ears to hear, hear.

check it out the small is holy video here:

reflections on pentecost 2023

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