Tuesday, November 24, 2020

the wexford carol and chicken soup...

I have been playing the "Wexford Carol" on my guitar over and over this past week. It is haunting and reassuring in ways that are still not entirely clear to me. This version with Yo-Yo Ma and Allison Krauss may be the sweetest thing I have heard in a LONG time.

Tonight, as we creep ever so slowly into the prayers of a Celtic Advent, I am cooking up left-over chicken, basmatti rice, and a simple salad. I am also boiling the remains of the roasted chicken to gather up the meat and bone broth in anticipation of another batch of chicken rice soup for the day after Thanksgiving (USA.) In this time of covid solitude, it is the small blessings that carry the day for me. How about you?

Monday, November 23, 2020

returning thanks...

So much is upside-down and out of whack this Thanksgiving that it feels right to celebrate all the things I am thankful for this year. Like everyone else has said: this has been a year like no other. For more than 30 years, when this season rolled around, we organized and celebrated a Festival of American Music. It was, of course, based on what Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie shared at Carnegie Hall on the Friday after Thanksgiving - with a bit of Bob Franke and Sally Rogers thrown in for good measure.
When my family was very young, and I was still in seminary in NYC, we had the privilege of heading over to Carnegie Hall for one of the Pete and Arlo shows - and that set in motion a commitment to do something like their gig wherever we were in ministry: Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, and Massachusetts. Sometimes it was small with just 2-3 musicians leading group singing and prayer. At other times it became more like a Prairie Home Companion with a cast of 25+ including poets, rock and rollers, folk singers and everybody in-between. Some 8 years ago, however, the tradition came to a close when a Nor'Easter shut everything down in our parts with a ton of snow. Afterwards, we found a few more opportunities to get some local musicians and poets together, but Thanksgiving Eve died a good and natural death. This year I find I am so grateful for all of that music made with all of those great musicians who became friends over the years. What a blessing. A lot of work but a GREAT blessing.

This year I am keenly aware of a whole truckload of other blessings, too - and it would be wrong not to note them:
(from our first TGE in Pittsfield)

 + I am loved by a precious partner and share an abiding, quiet respect for the life we have crafted together over the years. Through ups and downs, we have found a way to make it work. And I will never be able to express my gratitude for this love.

+ I continue to have a loving and meaningful relationship with the community of L'Arche in Ottawa thanks to the gift of Zoom.

+ I have the chance to continue my small spiritual direction practice, too - and have expanded this to include to a regular Sunday morning live-streaming time of reflection, prayer, and Eucharist @ 9:55 am on Face Book. For the dear friends who join with me: I give thanks to God for you!

+ I am healthy as I age and Di is reasonably healthy, too. Our children and our grandchildren are safe, strong, loving, employed, and filled with gratitude for the simple things of life. We get to see them from time to time - we just walked in the woods with the Brooklyn crew this past weekend - and we will Zoom with others on Friday. This is a joy and I consider it a great gift. My brother, my sisters and their families are all well, safe, and loving, too. 

+ Our old dog, Lucie, continues to be her stubborn, goofy and loving self even as she gets stiffer every year with arthritis. She brings smiles, laughs, and her own unique share of woes wherever she goes and keeps us on our toes.

+ Our home is safe, modestly warm, lovely and mostly quiet. We look out on a grand wetlands. And once the ticks are dormant we can hike in the wetlands and woods as we take in the quiet and freedom. I pray I never take this for granted.
+ We have a steady income and adequate health care. That is a blessing too few of my fellow Americans can share these days - and I am humbled that it is true for us. We live in a community with good doctors, decent stores and services and a high degree of physical safety. Again, not a fact of life for many but true in spades for us.  
(another TGE in Pittsfield)

+ Our car runs well. The heating bills are manageable. I have a bunch of guitars I can still play reasonably well - and tons of books and music, too. Every day I get to be chief cook and bottle washer learning to roast chickens and acorn squash with maple syrup, cook fresh trout at least once a week, bake bread, prepare shepherd's pie and drink some decent red wine from time to time, too.

+ This Thursday I will be able to spend time with my L'Arche Ottawa colleagues on a Zoom meeting concerning how to rebuild/renew this movement after the Vanier violations were revealed. Later, we'll zoom with the grandchildren. And then feast together in quiet solitude.

We have a lot of profoundly important blessings to return thanks for this year, joys and gifts that I may have once thought small, but now treasure. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

celtic advent two: the canticle of mary...

A cold and beautiful late autumn day in the Berkshires.
After an engaging and satisfying morning of live-streaming for the second Sunday of the Celtic Advent pilgrimage: we ate a late breakfast, schlepped with Lucie out in the wetlands for a bit, and then constructed our own version of an inuksuk. Now I am preparing roast chicken with rosemary and maple, acorn squash, and mashed potatoes while I sort through our Advent/Christmas CDs. For some reason we've accumulated some "soft jazz" and/or once interesting Windham Hill pseudo-Celtic CDs. They just have NO juice any more so they're heading to the great recycling dump. Here some of my favorite weekend photos - and a link to the FB live-streaming gig.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

embracing the heretical imperative...

For my own soul, as well as for those who have joined me on a 40 day exploration
of Celtic spirituality for Advent, I have been saturated in study. One of the current texts that I am reading is Celtic Daily Prayer from the Community of Northumbria. They articulate their Community Rule in a way that delights every part of my being. To the question, "How, then, shall we live?" they ask community members to:

+ Say YES to availability and vulnerability. "This involves availability to God and to others - expressed in a commitment to being alone with God in the cell of our own heart and to being available for hospitality, intercession and mission. Intentional vulnerability is expressed through being teachable in the discipline of prayer, saturation in the Scriptures and being accountable to one another through soul friendships." (Anam cara.)

+ And to embrace the heretical imperative. We must challenge assumed truth, be receptive to constructive criticism, affirm that relationships matter more than reputation, and live openly in the world among people as a "church without walls." Such a way of being is NOT something to be entered into lightly!

Last night, as we finally found the time and space to light the candle on our six week Advent wreath, sing and pray together out loud, and talk about how needing one another's presence and help is complicated but vital, I was grateful for this quiet ritual. Our days for the past nine months have been given over to our respective morning work: we rise and I get prepare a simple breakfast as she gets ready to teach; then Di teaches and I study/write/and do house work. We take time midday to eat together, sometimes take a short walk and often a nap, before returning to our discrete afternoon tasks: she to more teaching and editing, and me to writing, yard work, preparing supper, practicing my music, and playing with Lucie. (BTW Lucille is reasonably well. She is aging with arthritis in her hips and probably some tumors in her aging body, too. But she loves winter and we were out running in the wetlands today so she is thrilled. And now she's conked out on my bed.) 

For the next 35 days, we will add quiet Advent evening prayer into quasi-monastic mix before our evening meal. This Advent seems to be beckoning me into deeper into contemplation. Even while I distract myself with extraneous tasks and denials I know that you can run but you can't hide. As we pranced and shuffled with Lucie in the wetlands this afternoon, I took a few pictures of a land that articulates what I am feeling.

Monday, November 16, 2020

and the madness and contagion rage on...

This is just a short, stream-of-consciousness reflection concerning denial: how did we ever get to the point where wearing a mask or practicing simple acts of public health safety for the common good became reasons for violence, insurrection, or hatred? Is white insecurity SO out of control that we will willingly kill one another rather than than go the extra mile to keep one another safe? As President Elect Biden said earlier today: The current resident of the White House's behavior is embarrassing. It is also deadly, selfish, and mean-spirited. So, too, his seemingly callous and ignorant minions. I never thought I would live to see such cold-hearted stupidity. I am encouraged by the race for a vaccine: what usually takes eight years has almost been accomplished in 11 months. And STILL the madness anc contagion rages on without any sign of abating...

Two inter-related thoughts:  first, on Saturday I got my flu and pneumonia vaccines - and by Sunday afternoon I was achy and wiped-out. Head-achy and exhausted today until I took some pain meds. I kept thinking: this is a mess but imagine what Covid-19 feels like - at least I'm not dying alone as I suffocate in isolation. Bile and anger are swirling around within me even as I pray to the Lord for perspective. And second, this morning Di an I put the contagion in the context of our region: Berkshire County has about 130,000 people - half of those already dead from the virus - add in Hampshire County, another 160,000 - and all of Western Massachusetts would be gone. No exceptions.

Later this the morning, we got this Thanksgiving card from our loved ones in
Brooklyn. I added it to the growing display of their cards by our breakfast table, returning thanks for having played virtual chess with Louie yesterday while Di read Anna a picture book story. On the flip side was Joy Harjo's hauntingly beautiful poem, "Perhaps the World Ends Here."

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

celtic advent: first sunday

Today marks the start of the ancient Celtic Advent. To be sure, knowledge is limited about the fullness of this tradition- and too much has been cloaked in an annoying sentimentality - but what IS known is intriguing and valuable. Given the necessity of redoubling our solitude given the ravages of the contagion, it felt like a good time to go deeper into a full 40 days of Advent. My hope is that those who join me on this virtual pilgrimage will want to join me in practicing contemplative/centering prayer. And short daily inward reflections, too. (If you would like my unfolding Celtic Advent resource including a daily calendar, please drop me a note.

Please check out this link to this morning's reflection: 

Friday, November 13, 2020

clothe yourself in compassion... and patience

Our weekly Friday prayer and community gathering via Zoom at L'Arche Ottawa just ended. From time to time I have the privilege of leading a few community songs as well as sharing a brief homily concerning community building. One of our key joys today was celebrating the 39th anniversary of Jules in community. He is a loving, friendly man who continues to move through life with a joy and depth that humbles and encourages me. Here is a screen shot for today's gathering.

My reflection, which Danielle dutifully translates and shares in French for this bi-lingual community, was taken from the community's call to live with a transformed heart. St. Paul offers a measure of insight in Colossians 3:

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

REFLECTION: When we choose to live in loving friendship with one another, when we learn to listen to the guidance of God’s sacred Spirit within, we are living with a transformed heart. We think before we speak. We try to feel how our words and actions might affect those we care for before acting. We evaluate our thoughts, words, and deeds through the lens of compassion, kindness, humility, and patience. St. Paul is telling us what he himself learned: we must practice living in a new way – the way of tenderness and trust – because strengthening our transformed hearts does not happen automatically or by magic. It takes individual initiative and regular times of quiet prayer to listen to what we’re thinking and feeling. Some prayer asks God for an answer; but prayers that nourish our hearts are mostly silent. For as we do this, the Spirit of love quietly teaches us what words, actions, and feelings enrich love, and, what hurts it, too.

One time-tested way to evaluate whether you are nourishing a transformed heart or weakening it is to notice how you are feeling. If we trust that God’s word becomes flesh within us, then our body can help us figure out what God asks of us in any situation. One spiritual guide puts it like this: “Either you will harden and resist, or, you will soften, open, and yield.” You can feel what the Spirit is saying in your body. If you harden, you will always push God’s spirit away and weaken love. If you choose to follow the path of tenderness, no matter what else is happening, you will strengthen your connection to God and help your heart to mature in love. The test is simple: either you are bracing, or you are opening physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When you choose to let go and let God, the Spirit of the Lord ripens within you and your friendships become healthier. This is one of the simple spiritual secrets of a transformed heart. It can make all the difference in the world – so keep on practicing.

Upon signing-off, I read that our local schools will be locking down for only virtual education starting next week for at least three weeks. Local eateries will only be able to serve take away menus, too. (see the Berkshire Eagle @ https://www.
berkshireeagle.com/news/local/pittsfield-schools-suspend-in-person-learning-amid-covid-19-spike-restaurants-limited-to-takeout/article_b9e915fc-251a-11eb-97bd-db889d63d1fe.html) All across the US, and in many parts of Canada, too, the contagion is spiking. Yesterday alone there were close to 150,000 new cases of infection reported in the USA. We have also hit about 250,000 covid deaths with that number likely to double by year's end. Staggering. A new wave of grief washed over me last night as a respected public health doc spoke of our needing to live in this manner of isolation, masks, social distancing, and periodic lock downs for at least another full year. That took my breath away. Not because it is impossible; for us, it is not and we will manage reasonably well. Without vigorous government support, however, the economic toll will be catastrophic. 

What wounded me, however, was missing the company of those I cherish: our children and grandchildren. A few beloved friends. And my dear ones at L'Arche Ottawa. It feels incomprehensible to imagine this isolation for another 365 days. And yet that is likely our new reality - with only modest modifications - until 50+ percent of us are vaccinated. All the more reason to rejoice at today's Zoom prayer time. And our Sunday visits with the Brooklyn crew. This Sunday Louie and I will play some virtual chess after we sing and chat with Anna. Virtual gatherings are not the same thing as holding one another close, but they are a miracle and a blessing. St. Paul was so right: C
lothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 

Take a deep breath, dear friends, keep your mask close by, and clothe yourself with compassion and patience. We can do this hard thing but need one another's help.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

a celtic advent calendar and pilgrimage

 A Celtic Advent: Wandering, Wonder, and Witnessing the Presence of Christ

I am collecting, editing, writing, and renewing a 40 day Celtic Advent calendar informed by the research of David Cole, Christine Valters-Paintner, assorted works from the communities of Iona, Corrymeela and Northumbria, as well as John O’Donohue and The Carmina Gadelica. Those who have been a part of the on-going “Small is Holy” Sunday morning live-streaming on Face Book know that I have been at work on this project for a few weeks – or a whole lifetime. Between Sunday, November 15 and Thursday, December 24 we will share weekly and daily practices to help us open our hearts to the Christ Child in deeper ways. Letting go, emptying, relinquishing, wandering, silence, and trusting God’s grace will guide our individual and shared commitments. 

+  We will prepare together for a Holy Advent on Sunday, November 15th as we consider the prophetic invitation to “prepare a way for the Lord.” We will ponder how the wandering of Abraham and Sarah might serve as guides in this season and what our own spiritual lineage might be telling us, too. 

+  For the next 30 days we’ll take time to reconsider the Incarnation and the coming of the Christ Child, the ways we have personally encountered the love of Christ, and finally what we might learn from the Cosmic Christ. 

+  Our shared Advent will close with the O Antiphons and ways to live into silence, compassion, and peace-making in our ordinary lives that are currently being shaped by contagion, political turmoil, and the struggle to uproot systemic American racism.

If you would like to be a part of this journey – and receive part one of our Advent Calendar (with updates being shared periodically) - please drop me a note on either email: northernjames66@gmail.com or on Face Book (Be Still and Know @ https://www.facebook.com/Be-Still-and-Know-913217865701531/) Please make certain to include an email where I can send the calendar and updates. I look forward to wandering, listening, and learning with you during this season. The Irish sage, John O’Donohue, put it like this:

May all that is unforgiven in you be released.

May you fears yield their deepest tranquilities.

And may all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

live-streaming: preparing for the Christ child in celtic advent...

Live-streaming Reflection: The Way of Wisdom and the Coming of Christ

I Corinthians 4: 10-13:
We’re the Messiah’s misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we’re mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don’t have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, “God bless you.” When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We’re treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture’s kitchen. And it’s not getting any better because we’ve become fools for Christ.

Psalm: 78:1-7: Hear my teaching, O my people; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare the mysteries of ancient times. That which we have heard and known and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works he has done. God gave his decrees to Jacob and established a law for Israel, which he commanded them to teach their children; That the generations to come might know, and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God but keep his commandments.

Matthew 25:1-13: Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

For the word of God in scripture, for the word of God within us, for the word of God among us: Thanks be to God!

This week has been complicated for me – maybe for you, too – complicated yet clarifying. Earlier this week I wrote that: “Awaiting election updates from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, reminded of what it felt like to sit anxiously in a hospital waiting room as loved ones kept it together anticipating word from their attending surgeon.”

As the emptiness drags on after opening embraces and prayers, the shared silences that started naturally soon turned awkward. Even oppressive. So, like mist on a cold, country field, random stories of the heart would start to rise from often the most unlikely member of the family. A tenderness would be spoken. Real albeit incongruous laughs would erupt, too breaking down the tension in the room. And, in the Spirit's own mysterious time, what began as brittle became incrementally more supple. A few hours in, some would even fall asleep. Others drummed and paced - especially men used to "fixing" a problem that was now beyond control - while the unofficial mother hen slipped away quietly to bring back baked goods and coffee. Over and over, I saw this rhythm ripple through waiting rooms all across America until the facts on the ground were disclosed, owned, and digested. Then a whole new cycle of uncertainty moving towards trust would show up and capture us as we tentatively worked at finding our new place of balance once again.

I continued to observe that: Late on November 3rd Joe Biden came on TV to urge patience and trust while Donald Trump threw emotional gasoline upon our worst fears and prejudices. Both candidates continued to embody their pre-election dispositions: one was inclusive and calm, the other unhinged and mean-spirited. The Trump camp insisted - especially as votes rolled in from key battle ground states - that the election was being stolen by fraud as votes were manufactured in the dead of night and manipulated by partisan poll workers. As the anxiety and anticipation ground on, America continued to resemble that surgical waiting room after the doc has spoken to the family about a prognosis. Personally and professionally, when this happens, I’ve seen some of the family become unmoored – the ones who are addicted to drama and need all things to be about them – would dominate the room with their wailing. Others would hunker down in quiet discomfort, trying to grasp what the consequences might mean in both the short and long term. But most would simply stand in front of the surgeon like a deer in the headlights, hearing part of what was being said, but still fundamentally confused. After the doc left, these precious souls would turn to one another and cry, "What did she say? What did he mean? Is this good or bad?" I am of the opinion that there's no interrupting this essential dance with uncertainty and grief. It must be incarnated - and only later can we unpack what is real and what is not.

And that’s where things stood for three long days. In my household, we regularly checked CNN to get updates, parsing each notification for hidden clues as to the eventual outcome, and prayerfully steeling our hearts for still more uncertainty. John King and his Magic Board became my new hero. Updates flashed on my smart phone from the NY Times 8 or 10 times each hour. And an odd, inner stillness took hold that lasted until the President spoke at 6:30 pm on Thursday night. In what was his most horrifying, shameful, and incendiary speech among too many others, he rambled and lied. With every sentence he told a nervous nation that our democratic institutions were being manipulated by malicious, marauding political partisans hellbent on stealing his victory by manufacturing Biden votes, destroying Republican ballots, and counting dead bodies as live voters. Without ONCE offering any factual evidence – because there IS none – he smeared the integrity of public servants risking their lives to count tens of thousands of our legal mail-in ballots during what has become the worst phase of the contagion.

Lashing out at his political opponents in a dispirited rant, the President of the United States spewed hatred alongside of a dark and ugly fear that can only be described as Shakespearean manner. In 35 seconds, some of the major television networks unplugged this craven monologue, ironically choosing to air the game show Jeopardy rather than broadcast more deceit. Cable news covered the bombast until it closed – and then zeroed in on a tragic man slinking silently out of the White House briefing room. Like many others, I was aghast. Stunned and sickened before realizing I was sobbing. The television screen became silent for a few seconds. And then CNN news anchor, Jake Tapper, refocused the nation’s still reeling attention after this vulgar verbal assault saying:

What a sad night for the United States of America to hear their president say that, to falsely accuse people of trying to steal the election, to try to attack democracy that way with his feast of falsehoods. Lie after lie after lie about the election being stolen… it's time for some Republican lawmakers to find their spine and talk to the president about what he needs to do for the good of the country.

Like millions of others, I was rattled watching this display of treason, struggling to catch my breath, and trembling with tears. And this is where the complications of the week came clarifying for me. For even though there’s been NO vigorous Republican rebukes of this man’s degrading lies – NO plans to intervene for the sake of the nation or our emotionally crippled commander-in-chief – and NO signs that those living under the spell of Trump’s mania are willing or even able to consider claiming common ground after this melee eventually ends… I believe that God’s love commands us to find way to heal this breach. For as much as I mistrust and even fear many of those who voted for the most vile and dishonest leader I’ve known – 70 million people who have been willing to endorse, encourage, and entrust their futures to an autocrat with fascist inclinations – deep in my heart I believe that we must find ways NOT to demonize one another as we search in the wilderness TOGETHER for ways to repair and rebuild our failing state.

Before the election was called for President-Elect Biden, I read in The Atlantic words that made me hurt all over again. Tom Nichols wrote: “Nearly half of the voters in the USA have seen Trump in all of his splendor—his infantile tirades, his disastrous and lethal policies, his contempt for democracy in all its forms—and they decided that they wanted more of it.” I worry about this. I am bewildered by it as well. But I refuse to conclude that this is the end of the story. It is part of the truth, but not its totality as Nicholas would have us believe when he adds:

His voters can no longer hide behind excuses about the corruption of Hillary Clinton or their willingness to take a chance on an unproven political novice. They cannot feign ignorance about how Trump would rule. They know – and have embraced him. Sadly, the voters who said in 2016 that they chose Trump because they thought he was “just like them” turned out to be right. Now, by picking him again, those voters are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong. It’s clear now that far too many of these voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power. Although Trump appears to have received a small uptick in votes from Black men and Latinos, the overwhelming share of his supporters are white. The politics of cultural resentment, this obsession with white anxiety, are so intense that voters are determined not only to preserve minority rule but to leave a dangerous sociopath in the Oval Office. Even the candidacy of a man who was both a political centrist and a decent human being could not over-come this sullen commitment to authoritarianism.

Those words are too smug, too dismissive, too narrowly self-righteous to be useful at this moment in time. And yet I am glad I read them because they speak to the foolishness of the Christ I seek to serve. They remind me that there is NO escaping our shared hypocrisy when it comes to the way of Jesus and how we construct public policy or private discrimination.

Jesus is unambiguous in his call to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. So I think the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault gets it right when she writes, “We ALL live with this terrible, heart-breaking hypocrisy... We ALL wrestle with how to spiritually die to ourselves before we actually greet the grave. And we ALL wonder how to bridge the gap between what we believe and what we actually do?” (The Wisdom Jesus, p. 40) This disconnect is the reason we have prayers of individual and corporate confession. It is why we set aside liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent to help us come clean about the chasm between our belief and behavior. And it is the paradoxical key to opening our hearts to the grace of God that is stronger than our sins, mightier than our moral timidity, and foundational for healing the soul of individuals and a nation.

But there’s nothing automatic about this healing. That would be cheap grace. When we’re honest we know that left to ourselves we are unable to love or forgive those who have consciously conspired with destruction and evil. And if social justice is what grace looks like in public, as Cornel West likes to say, we also know we are clueless by ourselves when it comes to singing the Lord’s NEW song while we sit by the waters of Babylon and weep?

As I write this Franklyn Graham and his brand of Christian warriors are refusing to accept the irrefutable logic of mathematics. They prefer the animus of a holy war rather than the shared humility of God’s habitat for humanity. Van Jones broke down in tears of relief and gratitude to God on CNN Saturday morning feeling for the first time in years that “he might finally be able to freely breathe again as a Black American” even as those on the other side pumped out more conspiracy theories to fuel the fires of mistrust and FOX New forbade its personalities from using the words President elect in the same sentence as Joe Biden. The NY Times nailed it stating: “As the nation confronts a pandemic and an economic crisis, it’s also facing down a crisis of consensus.”

We know that 96% of those who voted said in an Associated Press survey that bridging our national division must be a priority – what eludes us is the wisdom and will to make it so. No wonder I kept hearing what Jesus told his friends after teaching them that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for some of us to get over our fears and privilege and embrace the values of grace in public. In a shocked voice they yelped: “Well, then, who can be saved and made whole?” Do you recall his reply? “YOU can NOT make it happen; with individuals, it is impossible, but with GOD ALL things are possible.” The old gospel hymn wasn’t kidding: it’s NOT my sister, NOR my brother, but it’s ME, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” A few years back I heard the Americana artist, David Bromberg, add: “NOT the deacon nor the preacher, but it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. NOT the rabbi nor the mullah but it’s ME, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

To be a fool for Christ, a misfit for the Messiah like St. Paul said, is to know and accept in humility that by ourselves we cannot incarnate or enact the healing love and grace of God that we ALL want and need. By ourselves, that is impossible, and we often become exactly what we hate trying to force it into being. But with God… and that is probably why I’ve been so keen of late to focus our attention on the wisdom way of Celtic spirituality. It’s one of the paths the Western Church once knew how to use in integrating the inward and outward journey of our faith’s foolishness. They insisted that while we live and move and have our being by grace, we must also practice opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the presence and power of God so that we are healed from the inside out.

For a few hundred years, before being forced into the doctrinal absolutes of the Roman Empire, the ancient Celtic Church freely incorporated spiritual disciplines, the wisdom of the seasons, and even regional insights into their spirituality – and they did so with playful verve and tender-hearted creativity. This was true for much of the early church for a few hundred years in the beginning, too. There was a distinctively Middle Eastern flavor to Syrian congregations and those living in the Levant. The was a Greek and Eastern European aroma to faith communities in that incorporated the agricultural feasts and time-tested folk wisdom of that world into the liturgical celebrations, too.

And believers in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, areas that never or rarely encountered the demands of the Roman Empire and its state religion, explored a spirituality influenced in part by the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 4th century as well as the first word of God found in creation. Without romanticizing or sentimentalizing the Celts (as too often happens) we can appreciate the fact that they crafted a more egalitarian way of being faithful than that of the Empire that included: both male and female leadership; a commitment to individual confession; a porous monastic culture that welcomed guests and the wider region into the life of the community rather than maintaining a rigid cloister; and a balanced and ordered life that included study and worship, acts of compassion alongside prayer that was broader than the deep silence and liturgical prayers required by Rome. That’s an inadequate summary of the Celtic Church, I know, but perhaps it paints a simple picture of how the Christian faith was once free to incorporate local truths and practices into their observances before Rome insisted upon a strict uniformity of form, belief, and discipline.

The late Jesuit scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, a leader in the modern study of the gospel according to St. John, notes that for nearly six or seven hundred years after the early disciples lived and founded churches in the Middle East, seven distinctive types of churches thrived in the region. They had differing and sometimes competing theologies and liturgies. Some were Gentile congregations, others allowed Jews only, while still others celebrated a hybrid community of inclusivity as Jews, Gentiles, and non-traditional spiritual seekers became the Living Body of Christ together. There were churches open to women serving as leaders and some that were hierarchical and run by men only.

Fr. Ray researched the apostolic churches loyal to Peter, Paul, James, and John, those with a loyalty to Rome and those who looked to Antioch, Ephesus, and Jerusalem for inspiration. It was a heterodox world of diversity, yet ALL accepted one another at the holy table of the Lord’s Supper. Given the divisions we know today that strikes me as remarkable. For they genuinely practiced no distinction when it came to the Eucharist. Sadly, that charism was lost when Roman uniformity became normative by about the year 1000 CE and grew worse when the Orthodox and Catholics split and worse still after the Protestant Reformation.

For a season in time, however, diversity guided these Middle Eastern congregations and reigned within those of the Celtic lands, too. One of the insights the Celts carried to the West from the monastic desert was a distinction between metanoia as strictly moral repentance – the doctrinal truth of the Mother Church in Rome – and a more creative emphasis on metanoia as the practice of acquiring a larger – meta – mind. We might name this as both/and or paradoxical thinking, seeing with the heart, or thinking from within the vastness of God’s grace so that we can hold both joy and sorrow together in balance. Practically this meant that believers in the Celtic realm accepted spiritual homework and training as essential for the healing of grace. In time, however, the insistence on human discipline and diversity of emphasis caused trouble with Rome. This conflict is personified in the differences between two theologians: Pelagius of Ireland and Augustine of Rome. Pelagius, whose real name was Morgan (not the Latin nick name “one from across the sea” used by Rome), taught that God’s grace and human initiative were both necessary for an individual to die to self so that God could renew them by love from the inside out. “Pelagius maintained that it was possible for people to embark on the path of Jesus – what is called theosis or divinization meaning to grow more and more like Christ – by cultivating the divine image within through prayer, silence, compassion and sharing. Such,” writes Cynthia Bourgeault, “was the whole point of our earthly pilgrimage he said.” This horrified Augustine. You see:

Augustine was driven by a counterproposal, that which became the doctrine of Original Sin, and eventually carried the day in Rome. Augustine maintained that drawing close to God was totally impossible for human beings because human nature is so irreparably corrupt that salvation is only possible through an extraordinary infusion of grace mediated only through Jesus and specifically within the church… In this, Jesus was no longer the teacher of spiritual wisdom but the mediator between God and humanity. Further, the spiritual journey was reframed from a quest for intimacy with God and growing into God’s likeness to a rescue operation from sin. (The Wisdom Way of Knowing, pp. 16-17)

Bourgeault argues that when Augustine’s emphasis on sin became normative, banishing the Celtic wisdom of embracing well-established human, spiritual practices – practices that were regarded by the world as not only possible, but the whole point of spirituality, namely, the transformation of the person into a more complete and whole being formed in the image of God – what was once universally true was now theologically off limits to Christians in the West. It was a crushing defeat (for the true way of Jesus) the consequences of which are still being played out among us.” (The Wisdom Way of Knowing, pp. 17-18)

Today the wisdom of contemporary Celtic spiritual communities like Iona, Corrymela, and Northumbria is reconnecting Western Christians with the practices of acquiring that larger mind – metanoia – so that we give up obsessing on sin and human depravity and get down to living by grace. An affirmation from Iona is illustrative: “With the whole church we affirm that we are made in God’s image, befriend-ed by Christ, and empowered by the Spirit. With people everywhere we affirm God’s goodness at the heart of humanity planted more deeply than all that is wrong. And with all creation we celebrate the miracle and wonder of life, the unfolding purposes of God that are for ever at work in ourselves and the world.” (The Wisdom Jesus, Bourgeault, p. 41) 

This was and is the central message of Jesus – it’s what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about – and it is one of the ways we learn to live beyond our inner divisions and embrace the totality of creation: the good, the bad, the ugly. It is how each of us can learn to love our neighbors and enemies more honestly while still standing firm against injustice. And it helps us with a uniquely Trinitarian group teaching tools that offer us a vision of what life lived within the foolishness of God’s kingdom would be like. Specifically, they use: 1) the Sermon on the Mount; 2) the outward parables of tenderness; and 3) the inward and challenging stories of metanoia and renewal. These three clusters of insights from Jesus become a Celtic catechism – and today’s gospel is one of the hard stories. (see Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, pp. 1-53)

Scattered throughout the four gospels… are the teachings of Jesus that absolutely refuse to be shoehorned into the “nice Jesus” mold we keep trying to contain him within. One of the thorniest is the parable in Matthew 25 about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. People who try to reconcile this story with what they generally take to be the teachings of Jesus are left completely stumped. After all, they insist, if Jesus is about sharing, wouldn’t it have been nice if the five ladies who had their oil chose to share it with their friends? How in the world do you make this fit with the ‘blessed are the merciful’ of the fourth beatitude? (Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, p. 51)

The Biblical scholars that I trust have come to see this story – and those like it – working on a different level than the tender parables for they use completely different and highly challenging metaphors. “These hard teachings are exclusively about inner transformation, not outward actions, and make sense only within the framework” of metanoia – acquiring a larger and transformed mind and vision. (Bourgeault, p. 52)  "Simply stated, the reason why the five women who have the oil can’t share it is because “the oil symbolizes that which must be individually created through your own conscious striving. Nobody can give it to you; no body can take it away.” Like another gospel hymn says: “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley all by yourself. Ain’t nobody here can walk it for you – you got to walk it by yourself.”

Again, I think Bourgeault’s caveat is essential when she tells us the clue here is the word wise. “The five bridesmaids with the oil have acquired nondual consciousness – paradoxical thinking – they see life as both/and – something that can’t possibly be shared with their sisters even if they wanted to.” They have learned to embrace the hard but transformative work on the inward disciplines – and there are other hard teachings that tell us much the same thing such as: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate mother or father, wife and children, brother and sister and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ in Luke 14:25. Or ‘Who among you who intends to build a tower does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether or not you have enough resources to complete the task’ in Luke 14:29.

My sense is that these hard teaching of Jesus offer us different insights – his inward spiritual instruction – which is distinctive from his outward and tender messages. They are what we must do within – die to self and empty out our fears and anger – so that God’s grace and peace can take up more room in our hearts. Peterson got this in his reworking of the opening Beatitude in Matthew 5: “How happy you will – how blessed you are – when you are at the end of your rope. For with less of you within there is more room for God and God’s love.” St. Paul experienced and then taught much the same thing when he crafted Romans 12:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world but let yourself be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The practices, disciplines, and spiritual tools of the extended Celtic Advent are intended to be tools to help us practice letting go - emptying ourselves incrementally over 40 days – so that we might be filled with more grace. This has been called a lesser or little fast, a wisdom school into the way of Jesus, that shows us where to find the light in the darkness and trust beyond our fear and anger.

Traditionally, the Celts considered Christ during Advent as a child, as an inner guide, and as a cosmic presence. I’m currently working on an Advent calendar that I hope to have ready in a few days that can be a shared resource into these reflections. (Given the recent postal cut-back my resources have been lost somewhere in transit.) Once I get this completed, I will also share with you some suggestions for ordering our prayers, entering the silence, and sharing small acts of tenderness beyond ourselves and homes.

There will be candles to light, chants to be sung and a way to use the ancient monastic O Antiphons during the week before Christmas, too. During a time when we must spend even MORE time in solitude, one of the ways we can be a part of the healing of this nation is to ground ourselves more deeply in grace. The Celtics insisted that whenever we interrupt our regular behaviors and habits, and fill that space with the foolishness of our faith, we learn that change is possible. Their Advent practices are bathed in tenderness – this is NOT a hard fast – but one shaped by the Christ Child.

And in this moment of anxiety and challenge to accept what I cannot change while opening my heart to what God can transform and heal… rings true in my heart. I believe that Advent could not have come at a better moment – and invite you to join me on the journey if you are able.


Wednesday, November 4, 2020

the day after...

Awaiting, at my computer screen, election updates from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia, I am reminded of what it felt like to sit anxiously in a hospital waiting room as loved ones kept it together anticipating word from their attending surgeon. As the emptiness dragged on after opening embraces and prayers, the shared silences that started naturally soon turned awkward. Even oppressive. So, like mist on a cold, country field, random stories of the heart would start to rise from often the most unlikely member of the family. A tenderness would be spoken. Real albeit incongruous laughs would erupt, too breaking down the tension in the room. And, in the Spirit's own mysterious time, what began as brittle became incrementally more supple. A few hours in, some would even fall asleep. Others drummed and paced - especially men used to "fixing" a problem that was now beyond control - while the unofficial mother hen slipped away quietly to bring back baked goods and coffee. Over and over, I saw this rhythm ripple through waiting rooms all across America until the facts on the ground were disclosed, owned, and digested. Then a whole new cycle of uncertainty moving towards trust would show up and capture us as we tentatively worked at finding our new place of balance once again.

When we went to bed last night, at about 2:00 AM, Joe Biden urged patience and trust while Donald Trump threw emotional gasoline upon our worst fears and prejudices. Both candidates late night behavior resembled their dispositions before the election: one was inclusive and calm, the other unhinged and mean-spirited. The Trump camp continued to insist - especially after their loss in Arizona - that votes were being stolen, manufactured in the dead of night, and manipulated. The President said and tweeted as much beginning at 4:00 AM and has not taken a break. The former Vice President chose to remind the nation that there is an orderly process that we've all experienced before that will make all things clear when it is complete. He added that the numbers and possibilities looked good for his side, but noted "it ain't over til it's over!"

This, too, reminds me of the surgical waiting room after the doc has spoken to the family: some become unmoored - they are addicted to drama and need all things to be about them - so their wailing dominates. Others hunker down in quiet discomfort, trying to grasp what the consequences will be short and long term. And most stand in front of the surgeon like a deer in the headlights, hearing some of what has been said, but still fundamentally confused. After he/she leaves, these precious souls turn to one another and cry, "What did she say? What did he mean? Is this good or bad?" I am of the opinion that there's no interrupting this essential dance with uncertainty and grief. It must be incarnated - and only later can we unpack what is real and what is not. Often that became my job in these settings: carefully and with tender balance restating the facts at this time, gathering more information if necessary, and then grounding everyone in more prayer and silence. This was NOT kabuki theater. Real people with profound love were feeling their hearts break open and minds split as the life or death of a mother, father, or child rested in the balance. 

And so that's where we are at 12 noon on the Wednesday after Election Day 2020. We all are grieving. Some are calling attention to themselves in unhealthy but not unexpected ways with the President being the most offensive of the lot. Others are taking a nap or a shower - and eating a little too much cold pizza - as they let reality sink in. And most of the rest of us realize we are not in control. We can practice acceptance and find a bit of serenity in this, or, we can distract ourselves or cause a ruckus and bounce around in our own chaos. We will probably try out both sides of the equation before deciding to breathe, trust, and wait. After the first wave of uncertainty washed over a family, and after a few more hours of quiet conversation and prayer, I would typically bow out. Now it was time for the family to make the new truths their own. I needed to know what I could and could not change - and honor that. And, over the next few hours and days, I also needed to regularly check in so that those in the tumult knew they were not alone.

Honest, hard-working patriots are now counting our votes. ALL of our votes. The Liar-in-Chief can huff and puff all he wants. He can pout, posture, and threaten to subvert our democracy, too. And, for a time, he may suck all the air out of the room. He may also intimidate those who know better. But adrenaline addicts run out of gas and drama junkies eventually get shut down by wiser members of the family. Currently, the facts as reported show that the Biden team holds a modest advantage in both Wisconsin and Michigan with hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots still to be counted. Team Biden is also trending in Georgia, too. With one million votes still uncounted in Pennsylvania. it seems likely this battle ground state is tipping towards the Trump camp as is North Carolina. Sadly, the more responsible members of this national family have not yet taken the boisterous bully out of the room. Currently he keeps saying he needs to take the election results to the Supreme Court. In our dysfunctional national family, the shrieking and flailing will continue without an intervention. I pray that someone - or someones - will rise to the occasion and act like the adult in the room.

When my sister Beth was dying, fundamentally because for years she had over medicated herself to the point that her kidneys shut down (to say nothing of the agonizing pain she experienced due to the neglect of her caregivers who let deep, ulcerated and open bedsores go untreated and nearly eat her alive) we had to make the call to move her into palliative care. As her doctors gathered around her bedside with the extended family and explained the slow death before us, after we concluded it was most merciful to unplug the ventilator and let hospice manage her pain as she moved into death, her confused and wounded lover asked, "Will she then live and be able to come home." I was astounded. What willful ignorance! What mind-numbing narcissism! The doctors, too looked like they had been slapped with a brick. For a moment they were speechless before adding, "We're going to step outside and let the family talk about your choices." They weren't skirting their responsibilities. Or ducking for cover. They were living the Serenity Prayer and knew we needed to accept what we could not change. With a ton of patience and prayer, we were able to say out loud over and over what was true and eventually come to a consensus to let Beth pass painlessly from this life to life eternal.

When the ventilator was turned off and new pain meds administered, we created a 24 hour visitation schedule where two members of the extended family would sit with Beth so that she would not die alone. It was agonizing - and essential. And then, from out of nowhere, four relatives from well-beyond the immediate family showed up in the middle of the night and started to insist that they knew better than the doctors. "Beth wants to live. We know" they said over and over with dramatic sincerity. Foolishly they chose to see intention in her involuntary twitches. After 36 hours of this new chaos, I had to assert my professional role (when I just wanted to be a brother) and insist that this crew be banned from the hospital and NEVER be consulted concerning Beth's hospice care. Indeed, we had to physically bar them from her private room. It was ugly and unnecessary and all too frequently one more cross to bear. They huffed off hurling insults and making a host of wild accusations and threats. They took to social media as well with vile assertions and lies adding insult to injury. In two days, Beth was finally able to go let go and go home to the Lord in peace. We were now empowered to say good-bye in a calm and quiet way. And plan her memorial service with a modicum of dignity. (Interestingly, after cutting off the drama and noise, none of the offending parties managed to make it to Beth's memorial service.) 

I recall this now, as well as my decades of interaction with grieving families in hospital rooms, because another death is taking place among us. Part hubris, part denial, part bourgeois self-interest, and part sexist,racist, and classicist, too this death is dismantling the romantic and idealistic mis-truths white Americans have savored for 400 years. A deeper truth is being revealed that holds the potential of a healthier country. But, there will be lots of sound and fury signifying nothing before the truth sets us free. It will be chaotic and mean-spirited. If you thought the violence and intimidation of 2000 was sickening, wait till Team Trump brings their neo-storm troopers to a vote recount in Wisconsin. It is going to be wretched before it starts to heal. But that is what needs to die right not. And that death gives us the possibility of forging greater and more authentic solidarity with one another. That is the part of the Serenity Prayer we're facing now: "the courage to change the things we can change and the WISDOM to know the difference."

Monday, November 2, 2020

all souls day

It is blustery in these hills today with a light mist of snow. It feels like All Souls Day. The appointed Psalm (130) speaks of patient waiting in a broken-hearted trust that all shall be made well.

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared. I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy.

My go to commentary, Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, notes the the "depths" is a reference to the depths of the sea, an "image for the realm of death." It is essential to note that the misdeeds and failings at the Psalm's start are the shared sins of the nation not those of an individual. As Alter announces: "This is a penitential psalm, focusing not on the evil of Israel's enemies... but on the wrongs Israel as done." The day before our presidential election the United States is filled with corporate sin. My short list includes: voter intimidation, lies, fear-mongering, a willful dereliction of duty causing over 230,000 deaths to the covid virus, racial injustice, slander, using public office for crass personal gain, destroying the beauty and purity of the earth for short-term profit, and undermining the nation's trust in both the media and our democratic institutions. This, of course, is not new to those who have been paying attention; but rather cause for sorrow, anxiety, and confession.

As I lay down to sleep last night I kept thinking about what one of my mentors told me about "doing" church. The Rev. Ray Swartzback often said, "If we can't figure out how to make the way of Jesus real in the city - where pain and injustice is palpable - how will we ever incarnate Christ's call in the suburbs where so much is masked?" I have held on to Swartzy's insight for decades: it has been the lens of wisdom through which I look upon my politics and spirituality. It is no surprise then when middle class supporters of Biden are threatened and roughed-up by Trump bullies. This has been going in the Black America since Reconstruction. It is simply the "chickens come home to roost" to paraphrase Malcolm X after JFK's assassination. It is a visible manifestation of violent America taking up residence inside what was once our bourgeois safety zone. Today the whole nation looks more like Philadelphia, MS where Goodman, Schwerner, and Channey were murdered while trying to register Black citizens to vote. Or the beer hall violence  of Hitler's brown shirts in Munich just 90 years ago in what was once considered the cradle of well-educated European Christendom.

Like the ancient Psalmist, we wait and hope for a hope that often feels chocked off by reality. We trust that God's steadfast kindness will heal and redeem our sins... but, right now, it feels more like the blustery cold and snow whipping around our hills. To honor the beloved souls of the faithful departed in both houses of Lumsden and De Mott, I am going to bake "pan de los muertos" this afternoon. Before my dad died, he gave up on the Republicans after being a loyal son all of his adult life: they are so corrupt and cruel he confessed. "And that son-of-a-bitch McConnell? His smug face makes my skin crawl!" In so many ways I am grateful that our parents have not had to endure the past four years. Or the current contagion. They lived through the Depression. WWII. McCarthyism. The changes of the Civil Rights Movement. The chaos of the Vietnam War. Watergate. In each of those pilgrimages, my dad said he saw the best of our nation rise to the surface as we became a more perfect union. Not a perfect one, just a bit more perfect. 

I hoped for the Lord, my being hoped, and for God's healing word I waited...

the wexford carol and chicken soup...

I have been playing the "Wexford Carol" on my guitar over and over this past week. It is haunting and reassuring in ways that are...