Wednesday, April 21, 2021

a wild, disorienting, broken but beautiful week in the USA...

What a wild, disorienting, broken but beautiful week it has been. Quite by serendipity I started to read Isabel Wilkerson's searing study Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents two days before the Derek Chauvin verdict in the murder of George Floyd was rendered. It is the most vivid, candid, and heart-breaking study of my nation's founding in slavery, violence, hatred, torture, and soul destruction I have ever read. I am not exaggerating: Wilkerson reminds us that Nazi Germany's studied US race relations prior to Hitler's rise. "T
he Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death."

With a penetrating clarity, she notes that since 1619 our history has been built upon branding people of color as inhuman beasts of burden with all the laws and resources necessary to maintain this sacrilege. Indeed, America's culture of race-based caste set the standard for all future regime's eager to replicate our viscous, abhorrent, and soul-destroying desecration of one part of the human family crafted in God's image by another. “Slavery was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an American innovation, an American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences." And while many rightly claim:

“I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.... Dehumanize the group, and you have completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it. Dehumanize the group, and you have quarantined them from the masses you choose to elevate and have programmed everyone, even some of the targets of dehumanization, to no longer believe what their eyes can see, to no longer trust their own thoughts. Dehumanization distances not only the out-group from the in-group, but those in the in-group from their own humanity. It makes slaves to groupthink of everyone in the hierarchy. A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable.”

Perhaps Caste primed me to see the presence of the holy in the jury's commitment to be a part of the solution to both police violence against Black and Brown people as well as a blow against the historic use of the police to keep Jim Crow alive. As others have noted, this was a poignant and important first step in dismantling a system that must be created if public safety, rather than white privilege, is going to come to pass. But let's not minimize the collective sigh of relief we breathed on Tuesday upon hearing that all three counts against the perpetrator came back: guilty. This in and of itself was a victory for accountability. It was also a blessing for people of color and a sign of hope for those who choose to believe that this nation can become healthier and more compassionate. 

And so now we all enter into the start of a new era as the contagion starts to be controlled: one that is beyond mere tolerance, one that has seen a sacramental clue of what can happen with diverse people link arms in solidarity and love, use politics AND media with wisdom, and refuse to back down. The guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was advanced by the brave smart-phoning of 17 year old Darnella Frazer who used her courage and technology to serve the cause of justice. So, too, the commitment and savvy of BLM and their allies along with public commentators like CNN's Van Jones and Abby Philip, PBS' Judy Woodruff, Yamiche Alcindor, Liza Desjardins and Amna Nawaz. And let's not forget what a difference our national leadership has played as both Joe Biden and Camilla Harris stayed focused, grounded, prayerful, and courageous throughout.

Wilkerson wrote: “In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.” We are NOT called to do it all. Just our part. Just the love we can share. Rabbi Tarfon gets it right:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

thinking more deeply about st. mary magdalene and jesus...

Here are this morning's reflection notes as well as a link to the live-streaming on Face Book.

As is so often true for me, over the course of a day or week, poems pop into my world that some-times illuminate a Biblical truth I am seeking to clarify. Or at the very least, they evoke a feeling or sense of what the Scripture might mean. This past week, as I was struggling to synthesize why Mary of Magdala matters to me (and I pray to you and the wider community of faith, too) I was turned on to this poem by Kim Stafford entitled, “At the Student Poetry Reading.”

I guess you could call me broken, says one. I’m still lonely, says another, but now I can name it with a song.
In my poem, says another, I can forget I am forgotten. 
Now I understand being misunderstood, says another. And another says, in a bold, undeniable voice of power, I won’t step down from myself again.

And they are beautiful, beautiful,
standing one by one at the mic
where they have come forth at last from behind the curtain.

Stafford’s poem summons something of St. Mary Magdalene’s beautiful spirit for us in the 21st century as she is incrementally welcomed back into our consciousness from behind the curtain of neglect, institutional fear of strong, spiritual women, and a culture of ignorance and neglect: she is beautiful in the fullness of her humanity. Her wisdom way celebrates that we are all created beautiful in the image of God; not born sinners, but rather lovers doing our best to be faithful to the sacred spark of the divine that was breathed into us at the start of the cosmos. Hers is a testi-mony to original blessing rather than original sin.

In the remaining fragments of the extra-canonical text that was crafted in her name at about the same time our gospel according to St. John was written, perhaps at the dawn of the second century of the common era, the Gospel of Mary begins with the apostle Peter asking the Risen Savior about sin, to which Jesus replied: “There is no such thing as sin; rather you yourselves are what produces divisions whenever you act in accordance with infidelity” – and when the Blessed One had said these things, he turned and greeted them all saying, “Peace be with you – acquire my peace within your hearts.” So says Jesus at the close of St. John’s gospel, too when he appears to the confused and afraid apostles – including Magdalene – who are hiding behind closed doors: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had spoken to her about his new life.”

And when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the disciples had met behind locked doors for fear of the authorities, Jesus appeared and stood among them saying, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side – his wounds - and the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Risen Lord. Again, Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he breathed on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the infidelity of any, those wounds will be forgiven; and if you bind them, they shall remain.

Peace be within you – breathing the holy spirit upon his frightened friends in a recreation of the beginning of the cosmos when God breathed the spirit upon the face of a formless void of chaos and filled the earth with life, order, and love – the Risen Christ gives the apostles his gift of trust, refreshment, and hope. Such was the testimony St. Mary Magdalene shared although it was intentionally mangled early on, systematically vilified over time, and carefully erased from history for nearly sixteen hundred years. In my personal and professional studies, I have long been hesitant to give attention to the so-called Gnostic Gospels be they of Magdalene, Thomas, or the others found in that cave in Egypt in 1945. They’ve struck me as obscure, incomplete, and sometimes weird.

But a I’ve come to realize, I am OFTEN late to the party in many parts of my life; I take a LONG time studying, watching, listening, and praying over wisdom that begins beyond my experience. When in doubt, my rock is unabashedly Jesus who teaches that we should, “Ask and the gift will come. Seek and we shall find, Knock, and the door will be opened unto us.” So, today I want to share some clarity with you about the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed the feet of Jesus as Messiah that welcomes both the Scriptures of tradition along with some texts that were once circulated within the early church but later hidden, lost, or even rejected by the hierarchy. Over the past ten years, I have been persuaded by serious scholars like Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and Karen King that some (but not all) of these once lost but now found documents can illuminate and clarify parts of our trusted Biblical passages.

They can enrich our understanding of the diversity that was normative in the early church as well – and help us reclaim some theological and liturgical space for our own explorations as we search for ways to be faithful and real in this time of uncertainty. You see, most of these ancient but only recently recovered texts are dialogical, not didactic. They encourage the questions of life at least as much as the answers. They are at peace with paradox and trust that at the heart of creation is a love that carries us towards grace. So, the cloud of unknowing or the path of mystical revelation does not evoke stress in these writings. Kahlil Gibran suggests this in his poem “Fear.”

It is said that before entering the sea a river trembles with fear. She looks back at the path she has traveled, from the peaks of the mountains, the long winding road crossing forests and villages. And in front of her, she sees an ocean so vast, that to enter there seems nothing more than to disappear forever. But there is no other way.
The river cannot go back. Nobody can go back. To go back is impossible in existence. The river needs to take the risk of entering the ocean because only then will fear disappear, because that’s where the river will know it’s not about disappearing into the ocean, but of becoming the ocean.

When it comes to St. Mary Magdalene, these other gospel texts including one attributed to her own revelations about Jesus, help me grasp the sacramental truths of her story as it appears in each of our four canonical gospels. They remind me that what we are told in the Bible about Mary of Magdala is less linear history and more inward revelation. And I’ve had at least two epiphanies in reconsidering the stories of Christ’s anointing and why reclaiming Magdalene’s insights matter:

+ First, as the premiere witness to the Resurrection, the love Magdalene shares with Jesus offers us an alternative path of discipleship: hers is a spiritual formation of compassionate solidarity and liturgical affirmation rather than the traditional practices of renunciation and ascetism. Her commitment to seeing through the eye of the heart starts with love rather than logic, diversity in ways to pray rather than a one size fits all, hyper homogenized liturgy, dia-logue instead of lecture, orthopraxis not orthodoxy (that is, right practice not simply right belief), and trust rather than anxious fretting. Mary’s spiritual practices are like Pete Seeger’s song: to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.

+ Second, Mary’s presence throughout the life of Christ – especially her refusal to abandon Jesus during the Passion – contradicts what we have been taught about Christ’s death. Her prayerful presence outside the tomb pushes us to wonder: why have we missed, overlooked, or ignored her commitment to love and solidarity for so long? How did this come about? And what might happen if we integrated her spirituality of the heart as a corrective to our tradi-tion? The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault is certain that the anointing Magdalene shared with Jesus changes the trajectory and meaning of the Paschal Mystery: where once we saw the Cross as Christ’s sacrificial payment to God to atone for human sin; now we see Jesus showing us: “How a spiritual identity forged through self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away.”

The Paschal Mystery is no longer about dying, it is about dying-to-self. It becomes the archetype for all our personal experiences of letting go and rising to new life along the pathway of becoming whole, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love for this is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be fully alive.

Bourgeault insists that Magdalene’s sacramental anointing of Jesus – and her solitary witness at the tomb – changes Christian faith from a passive spectator sport obsessed with the death of Jesus, in to a spirituality of life where our experiential prayers are more potent than any words or theological abstractions. When we practice incarnating the rhythm of life, death, and resurrection into our everyday experiences, the Passion of the Christ become the form of our life. Bourgeault puts it like this:

From the perspective of sacred wisdom, what can we say now about Christ’s passion? The key is to read the life of Jesus (and Magdalene) as a sacrament – as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – whose purpose is not to arouse empathy (or pity) but to create empowerment and a solidarity of radical love. Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either our guilt or our devotion, but rather, in deepening our capacity to move through our life as those who see the totality of creation as one living being. It is about acquiring non-dual vision so that we see ourselves within the whole of God’s presence even in our most unsettling moments.

This vision of the Paschal Mystery no longer emphasizes an external and historic atoning sacrificial lamb but celebrates the way of Jesus and Mary as sacred archetypes and spiritual guides who take us inward in order that our outward lives of love are strengthened. It is the practice of relinquishing control to pursuit of serenity, letting go and falling through fear so that we live into that love that will not let us go, a dying to self before death welcomes us into the unending unity of reality. Rumi was so spot on when he prayed, “What have I EVER lost by dying?”

I spent millons of years in the world of inorganic things as a star, as a rock...Then I died and became a plant--forgetting my former existence because of its otherness. Then I died and became an animal--Forgetting my life as a plant except for inclinations in the season of spring and sweet herbs-- like the inclination of babes toward their mother's breast Then I died and became a human, my intelligence ripened, awakening from greed and self-seeking to become wise and knowing I behold a hundred thousand intelligences most marvelous and remember my former states and inclinations. And when I die again, I will soar past the angels to places I cannot imagine: What have I ever lost by dying?

Scripture speaks of Mary Magdalene’s part in this cosmic clarification eight different times in each of the four canonical gospels: first, addressing the act of anointing Jesus for the grave and then as she becomes the first witness to Christ’s resurrection. Back in 1972, feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza made it clear that our stories of Mary’s place in early Christianity have been compromised from the start: all of the evangelists recognize her centrality during Christ’s passion and resurrection, but they are all equally silent about her engagement during the Lord’s earthly ministry. For one considered an intimate companion of Jesus from the start of his ministry in Galilee – the only one who continued a loving presence throughout his torture – why is she invisible during the rest of the story? St. Luke goes out of his way to diminish Magdalene in favor of St. Peter’s prominence. And St. Mark’s gospel goes so far as to render Mary speechless after witnessing the resurrection stating in his gospel’s closing verse: “she and the other women were told to speak with Peter and the other disciples … but they fled from the tomb trembling with shock and awe for fear had come upon them.” Fiorenza and other feminist theologians are equally critical of how Magdalene is depicted during the act of anointing Jesus where, in a word, she is written out of the story marking Jesus as Messiah.

Both St. Matthew and St. Mark show Jesus blessing the woman who anoints him, saying to his male disciples: “Truly I tell you from my heart that wherever my gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done here will be told and honored in memory of her.” Why, then, is the name of this holy and faithful woman we’ve been called to remember missing? In three of our four gospels, it has been omitted completely while St. John engages in an odd obscuring of one Mary for another that has left us scratching our heads for nearly sixteen hundred years.

It is small wonder that Bourgeault devoted a full decade of her life to studying and praying over the way tradition portrays women in the earliest days of the community and how that pattern continues to manipulate and marginalize women’s wisdom even now. Beyond the inconsistencies and invisibilities of scriptures, Bourgeault rightly asks: “Why is the apostle to the apostles not herself named and honored as an apostle? How did we get to a place where the apostle to the apostles is now thought of as just a penitent whore?” Bringing Mary back from behind the curtain of invisibility requires giving the anonymous woman at the center of our anointing stories the name Magdalene, she insists.

Magdalene’s undisputed presence in the Easter saga acquires a sacred symmetry and significance when she is restored to the work of anointing Jesus before the Cross. Doing so allows us to see: That Jesus’ passage is framed on either side by her parallel acts of anointing. At Bethany, she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of love. On Easter morning he awakens to that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with her spices and perfumes, expecting to anoint his body for death. He has been held in love throughout his entire passage. In so doing, Bruce Chilton writes, “Mary Magdalene establishes the place of anointing as a central – albeit forgotten – ritual in Christianity, one that helps us enter into Jesus’ death as we move forward to his resurrection.” Here’s what Scripture tells us about Magdalene and the anointing of Jesus.

+ Before and after the Cross, Matthew and Mark tell similar stories. At a private supper, an unnamed woman sneaks into the house of Simon the Leper and pours a jar of expansive, per-fumed oil on Jesus’ head. The disciples are scandalized: some because they saw this as an extravagant waste of resources, others because it was so sensual. To which Jesus replied: “You will always have the poor with you; that is, there will always be a need for acts of mercy. But I will not always be with you. She marked me with the sign of Messiahship in anticipation of my death. Blessed is she: let us always remember this in memory of her.” Note that here the woman is anonymous, the anointing takes place in Simon the Leper’s home, and it occurs shortly before the crucifixion.

+ In John’s gospel, the plot is much the same: before the Cross, Jesus is anointed with costly and highly perfumed oil. Only this time, the woman is given a name. Mary – Mary of Bethany – sister of Martha and Lazarus. In this story, the sensuality of anointing is exaggerated as we are told that Mary wiped the Messiah’s feet with her hair and the fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house. The disciples continue to argue about wasting resources while Jesus scolds them saying: this is a moment to cherish; enjoy it because it will not last forever.

+ Luke offers the greatest details, typical of his gospel, but switches locale and context to a dinner hosted by the Pharisee Simon. The still anonymous woman yet again invades the sanctity of this all-male supper, pours costly and fragrant oil over Jesus, wipes his feet with her tears, her hair, and her kisses and remains there while the men argue. The sheer sensual-ity outrages Simon who names the interloper a woman of the street – a sinner and whore - whom Jesus should have nothing to do with if he was truly holy. A sermonette about hospit-ality, grace, and forgiveness for those who have engaged in bold sins follows changing the meaning of this anointing: no longer does it mark Jesus as Messiah before his death, now it becomes a morality tale.

Both St. Mark and St. Luke mix into this shared story a unique and peculiar aside, namely that one of the female disciples following Jesus, Magdalene, had seven demons exorcised from her – maybe by Jesus himself. It didn’t take long before some started to associate the seven demons with sin. I think Bourgeault is on to something when she writes: the ancient logic went something like this:

Since the woman in Luke’s anointing was a sinner – and Magdalene had once been possessed by seven demons – Magdalene had to be a sinner, too. Simon the Leper was effusive about the sinful nature of the woman from the street, so Magdalene’s sin must have been lust which led her into a life of prostitution. Add to this the woman in St. John’s story of anointing Jesus was named Mary, albeit Mary of Bethany, so this must have been a mistake: Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany had to have been the same person.

Clearly misogyny and slander were involved in corrupting Magdalene’s legacy. So, too the place of competition and mistrust among the early disciples. This was a fluid time of profound diversity: there were Jewish/Christian congregations as well as Gentile/Christian communities; there were groups loyal to the brother of Jesus, James of Jerusalem, who honored the old ways and believers in Syria, Greece, and beyond who were inspired by the freedom promulgated by St. Paul in regions outside of Palestine. Add to this Magdalene’s gospel which emphasis a loving solidarity, seeing with the eyes of the heart, a ministry of quiet presence over institutional worship, and dialogue rather than catechism and a stark contrast to the style of St. Peter who cherished order, clear lines of authority and accountability, and his culture’s complicated roles concerning gender and privilege comes into view. Remember: Mary NEVER abandoned or betrayed Jesus while the same cannot be said for Peter or the rest of the brothers. “A means had to be devised to undercut Magdalene’s original authority,” writes Bourgeault, “some wanted and needed to move her from apostolacy to apostasy – and Luke handed them the raw materials on a silver platter.”

It is not an accident that the Roman Catholic Church intentionally assigned St. Luke’s story of the anointing of Jesus to be the gospel reading for the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene on July 22nd – a wicked error historically rejected entirely by Eastern Orthodoxy - and not corrected for fourteen hundred years. A homily from 591 of the Common Era by Pope Gregory the Great put it like this in a manner too long commonplace:

She who Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven demons were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven demons signify if not all the vices – the seven deadly sins – which makes it clear, dear brothers, that this woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she, therefore, once displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praise-worthy manner.

Other scholars suggest that there was also unconscious sabotage taking place as well. Think of what often happens during lectio divina – sacred and meditative reading – where Bible stories are shared, conflated, mixed in with personal feelings and biases without much careful research. Over the centuries, “the inevitable shadow side of the church’s increasing obsession with celibacy and sexual purity took root creating space for the deepening sickness in the soul of the Western Church at the end of the patristic era” to rise to the surface” where it became normative.

This soul sickness still exists as Pope Francis finds himself in a guerilla war against the old partisans of privilege in the Vatican. Fear of sexuality, the holy feminine, male superiority, sexual exploitation of children, and the culture of clerical exceptionalism continues to stain and violate the integrity of the wounded body of Christ in Rome. And not just Rome, right? We’re STILL struggling to protect the rights of women to control their own bodies – to secure equal pay for equal work – to live into the fullness of their sensuality without the double-standard condemnation of privileged males – the glass ceiling – mansplaining – and a culture of violence against women. Let’s be clear: the soul sickness is still a plague within the Body of Christ.

And… not but, but and… if brokenness still thrives among us so, too does the small but mighty presence of St. Mary Magdalene: gatekeeper of Christ’s wisdom, minister of a solidarity of love, confidant of Christ Jesus, shepherdess of the open heart that encouraged Jesus to fall through his fear of the Cross into the never-ending love and grace of God that we all might do likewise.

· Some sixteen hundred years after she was erased and silenced, she still shows up showing us what an anointing love means to the world. Mary is earthy and passionate. She is balanced and grounded. She was never trapped by the church’s obsession with monastic celibacy and still refuses to be co-opted into the hierarchy of pseudo-respectability.

· Somedays she’s “bursting into those closed dining halls of privilege,” as Bourgeault puts it, “to share the raw immediacy of her love for Jesus.” On other days she hunkered down in contem-plative prayer. Or sharing a quiet loving presence with an anxious soul. Or inviting us deeper into a spirituality of self-emptying.

Magdalene asks us to take anointing seriously: to be anointed with holy love from the inside out is how we multiply the miracle of falling through our fears into God’s grace. She calls us to practice being grounded in trust, so well-rehearsed in inner peace, so open to the presence of the holy within our humanity that those around us will want an anointing, too. We know, see, and feel every day the anguish, cruelty, fear, and suffering that screams for relief. Our souls ache and writhe in sorrow and solidarity. But what to do? How can we help? My hunch is that it has something to do with the way Magdalene experienced and shared God’s love: she carried the confidence of inner peace within herself so assuredly that outwardly she could stand with courage whenever the temptation to abandon Jesus in his anguish arose. Hers was a witness to love, a non-violent and non-anxious presence in a sea of suffering. Magdalene was intimately connected to the peace that passes understanding, trusting God’s peace to carry the day even beyond the obvious evidence because, you see, that is what God has been doing since before the beginning of time.

When I began these wee live-streaming reflections it was at the start of the pandemic – it was a time when we didn’t know what the hell was going on – and were filled with fear. I sensed that the least I could do from the safety and solitude of my study was offer a calmly word of encouragement that tried to ground us in God’s love. I spoke of nature’s rhythm as one clue that grace would, in time, win the day. I shared songs and poems with you – some spiritual practices to diminish our anxiety.

· We’ve been through two Lents together, two Easters, too – and now it’s a second spring moving towards summer. Many but not all of us have been vaccinated. Some are finding ways to return to the greater world even as some have had to work and be public through-out this time of fear and frustration.

· That means, I think, that the nature of my reflections must change: we’ve made it this far but now everything is shifting. Pent up fears are erupting in violence. Pent up racial injustice is exploding again on our streets. Pent up economic instability is being addressed in the nation’s capital, but many of the old white boys and girls are fighting to maintain the privileged ways that keep the wounded down and the broken without the resources we all need to thrive.

So, what my heart is saying that while some of us are going to be called out into the streets very soon to join with Dr. Barber and the Poor People’s Movement, and others of us are going to be asked to challenge racist/misogynist/nativist hatred in our extended families, we also need to have some among us who are so grounded in love and peace and trust that we can walk as non-anxious partners with Jesus and Magdalene and quietly anoint others with grace. Invite others into the inward journey so that our outward endeavors advance compassion and solidarity. That’s what I will be sharing with you over the next few weeks from the wisdom of St. Mary Magdalene: ways to nurture our souls inwardly so that our outward pursuit strengthens love and trust.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

attention, says mary oliver, is the beginning of devotion...

Some 35 years ago I started tinkering with a garden. I didn't know what I was doing, of course, I simply found solace and a measure of peace getting my hands in the dirt. Adding small gifts of color and order to a city backyard made me smile, too. So, starting in mid-May, I would visit one of the local nurseries on the fringe of Cleveland's West Side every few weeks on my way home from church and spend a few dollars. Daffodils delighted me. I was often captured by a coleus. So, too, with other small plants of blue and red whose names I never learned. Looking for beauty, bringing some home and adding it to our small, city plot became my prayer.
Last week, as our basil and cilantro plants poked through the soil on a planter shelf I added to the kitchen this winter, I realized that over the course of my 68 years I've never grown a plant from seed. Never. I had helped friends in St. Louis one spring add bulbs to their garden. A few years later, those of us living in the United Farm Workers compound/headquarters of La Paz, CA were drafted some Saturday mornings to help Cesar (as in Chavez) cultivate his massive French intensive gardening raised bed plots. And I've built our own terraced raised bed for cukes, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and lettuce  But never in all those years have I had - or taken - the time to start our plants from seed until now.

Small wonder I've been watering those tiny herb sprouts so tenderly, yes? It feels like a metaphor of both my current life of solitude and contemplation, and, my previous existence of fuss and flurry that led to flowers but not the seeds. Now, like Mary Oliver teaches in her recently published final book of essays, I mostly know that "attention is the beginning of devotion." In an article from the current Atlantic Monthly, we're told of a time when the young Oliver became lost from her parents in the woods. "In her narration, this was the very instant that she began her long career as a noticer."
What she sees (in the woods) isn't an undifferentiated mass of a forest or an abstraction called "nature." Her revelation is the pluralism of the woods. "One tree is like another, but not too much. One tulip is lie the next tulip, but not altogether." This discovery of the "harmonies and also the discords of the natural world" fills her with ecstatic joy. "Doesn't anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the middle of the night and sing?" (The essay) concludes with a sentence that implants itself in the brain, because it is, in fact, so far upstream from the way we live: "Attention is the beginning of devotion." And, of course, this is so. The unnoticed can't possibly be loved. Certain critics liked to trash Oliver as unsophisticated. But her simplicity was naked display of the elemental: Dilate, she insisted, because a world worthy of attachment exists outside ourselves, and the alternative is numbness and narcissism.

It is humbling, if not humiliating, to believe that a large part of my previous existence was both numb and narcissistic. After all, I thought I was aiding the cause of compassion and justice. And, perhaps that was true, even as I ignored, forgot, confused, and rushed away from those I loved. As some of the masters of the Enneagram teach, if it stings, then it probably rings true for you. At this late date I know that on so many levels numbness and narcissism spoke my name. It is yet another personal paradox that is hardly unique but still true: while striving to help another in need, I also hurt those closest to me. Or, as I have mangled a poem by Brecht: in pursuit of a greater good, I became what I hated. Rumi, Jesus, Rohr, and Merton suggest that until you can see the complicated humor in this paradox, you are still trapped in its shame. Learning to at least smile in acceptance over those things that cannot be changed is foundational for serenity.  

So, as St. Bob Dylan confessed during one of his own epiphanies, now I know that: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Before heading outside to plant some new shrubs and prepare the raised beds for our as yet still unplanted seedlings, I came upon this perfect verse from Wordsworth - and smiled.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

"When I stop and open up some space for my soul to show up," says Carrie Newcomer, "it always does." She adds:

I might have to be be patient because the soul doesn't travel by fast train or car, but always on foot. So today let me resolves to travel one step at a time, one foot in front of the next. Let me see the delights that can only be seen close up and at a slower pace. What a difference it makes when I slow down enough to walk arm in arm with my own soul.

I couldn't agree more... 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

following Jesus with Mary Magdalene...


The perfect poem came my way by grace the day after Easter. It was posted on the Gratefulness Network’s website and comes to us through author, Bernadette Miller, of NYC.

What would you do if you really knew
that life was wanting to sing through you?

What would you say if your words could convey
prayers that the world was waiting to pray?

What would you be if your being could free
some piece of the world’s un-whispered beauty?

What would you stop to bless and caress
if you believed that blessing could address
our painful illusions of brokenness?

What would you harvest from heartache and pain
if you understood loss as a way to regain
the never-forsaken terrain of belonging?

What would you love if your love could ignite
a sea full of stars on the darkest night?

Ms. Miller’s poem expresses what I sense St. Mary Magdalene shared with those who trusted her to be an authentic disciple of Jesus the Fully Human One. Not everyone did, you know, and their distrust has defiled and denied her witness since about 350 of the Common Era. Still, Magdalene’s unswerving solidarity to Jesus, her contemplative commitment to seeing with the eye of the heart and trusting that love is greater than death, reveal to us a Christianity that is mystical, joyful, and gracious - a sacramental way of loving God, neighbor, and self that is conscious, transformative, and passionately grounded in real life.

No wonder the Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault calls Magdalene: the apostle for OUR age. She not only anointed Jesus into his new ministry of inclusive and radical contemplation, but lived a solidarity of loving presence when everyone else fled. Her witness during Christ’s passion, torture, death on a Cross, and entombment was not just an act of grief, it was a testimony to a love greater than death: she believed in her soul that Jesus would rise again in a new way – and when he did, she was there to anoint him again. Bourgeault boldly insists that St. Mary Magdalene, the long vilified but rarely understood apostle to the apostles, is crucial for our era because, as she puts it in her thoroughly researched book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity:

Mary Magdalene is an apostolic partner of Jesus, one who ministered in a tradition that was not just about male/female equality. Certainly, it was about that, and Jesus was way out in front of the pack; equality was the starting point for everything else. But Mary and Jesus took it a step further, including and transcending the opposites and birthing a new way of being where we can live, minister, and see (the world) out of a new and nondual consciousness. Mary can help us recover Jesus’ teaching and live into a unity that IS at the heart of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Applying the teachings that Jesus showed her, [Mary] did her inner work and emerged through the eye of the needle (to embody the non-anxious presence of love in an era of fear.) If Jesus shows us what the completed human being looks like in male form, she models it for us in its female version; together they become the Christosophia, the androgynous archetype of human wholeness. And because her human heart and lover’s passion are so central to this trans-formation, she teaches us that we need not be afraid of these things in our own spiritual striving; the path to the fullness of being lies through human intimacy, not away from it. She binds the icon of the human heart to the angel of Holy Sophia.

The liturgical season of Eastertide takes place for the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. At its best this is a season to listen to what the Resurrected Christ wants us to know about his NEW commandment – to love one another as he has loved us – and what better guide than the apostle to the apostles? Drawing upon the scholarship and wisdom of Dr. Bourgeault, Fr. Richard Rohr, Dr. Karen King of Harvard University and others who are creative Christianity’s most trusted contemporary interpreters of St. Mary Magdalene’s life, we can nourish a spirituality that feeds our soul as we practice living simply, peacefully, compassionately, and non-anxiously in our era of uncertainty and fear. Her insights into the way of Jesus substitute tenderness for theological conformity, loving presence and solidarity rather than institutional loyalty, the cross as Christ’s commitment to conscious love rather than sacrificial payment and atonement for sin, and a living trust in God’s grace that can lead us “through our personal terrors and fears including our fear of death” with an open heart.

Unlike the other disciples – male or female – Magdalene GOT it before Jesus died. That’s a key reason why she was there on the other side of his death waiting. In Bourgeault’s analysis, Mary had learned from Jesus “something far deeper than merely resuscitating a corpse. Jesus’ real purpose in his sacrifice was to wager his own life to show that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life.” Bourgeault adds:

Jesus was not about proving that a body lives forever, but rather that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away. The real domain of the Paschal Mystery – the life, death, and resurrection – is not dying but dying-to-self. It serves as the archetype for all our personal experiences of dying and rising to new life along the path-way of a transformation of acceptance and relinquishing, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.

Jesus learned this during his desert sojourn vision quest. He went on to teach it over and over as his ministry matured: “Very truly, I tell you from my heart, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life (as it is will) lose it while those who are ready to die before their death will keep experience life in its eternal dimensions. Remember this: whoever serves me must follow me, where I am, there will my servant be also. Abide in me. Rest in me. Trust and follow me.” And before his final Passover feast, he demonstrated to those he loved that letting go of self is the essence of new life when he washed their feet with heart-breaking tenderness.

St. Paul taught the early church much the same truth, too saying: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus; Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God
something he should cling to. Rather he emptied himself, and assuming the state of a slave, he was born in human likeness…

Dr. Bourgeault writes in her commentary on the self-emptying love of Jesus, “The phrase “emptied himself” in line 4 of Ephesians 1 is the English translation of the Greek verb kenosein, which is where the word kenosis comes from. In context, you’ll see exactly what it means: it’s the opposite of the word “cling” in line 3. Jesus is practicing gentle release. And he continues to practice it in every moment of his life, as the next verse of the hymn makes clear:

He, being known as one of us, humbled himself obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” How beautifully simple—the path of Jesus hidden right there in plain sight! While some Christians are still reluctant to think of Jesus as teaching a path (isn’t it enough simply to be the Son of God?), in fact, the Gospels themselves make clear that he is specifically inviting us to this journey and modeling how to do it. Once you see this, it’s the touchstone throughout all his teaching: Let go! Don’t cling! Don’t hoard! Don’t assert your importance! Don’t fret. “Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!”

Among the earliest disciples of the nascent church who grasped this spirituality passionately and profoundly was Magdalene: not St. Peter nor St. John, certainly not the Sons of Thunder Saints James and John; doubting St. Thomas didn’t get it either nor did the Lord’s own mother, Mary the Blessed and Beloved matriarch. From what we know in Scripture and tradition, it was Magdalene who got it – and lived it – and taught it along with Jesus while he lived – and then with assurance after he was raised from death.

· From the start as a companion of Jesus in Galilee, part of the cadre that travelled with him throughout Palestine during the years of teaching and healing, accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem for what we now know as Palm Sunday, stood by him at Golgotha, the tomb, the deafening silence of Holy Saturday and the world changing revelation of resurrection on Easter Sunday, it was Magdalene who embraced, honored, and advocated the inward/outward spirituality of Jesus well before the rest of the community had a clue. Judas sold Jesus out in a tragic moment of weakness. Peter abandoned him. The rest of the community hid away in fear for their own lives. But Magdalene stood witness at the tomb. And after the Sabbath she showed up in love to anoint Jesus yet again.

· The historical record is clear if still veiled that for the first two hundred years of its existence the primitive church revered Magdalene alongside St. Peter. They were in conflict when they lived, to be sure, and their partisans continued their disagreements after their respective deaths. But remember what the Rev. Dr. Raymond Brown made clear about the emerging church during the first 300 years of its development: in his ground-breaking work on St. John’s gospel and community, he showed us that there were multiple understandings of Jesus throughout the Levant as well as a variety of local liturgies, baptismal creeds, and affirmations of faith, too.

The existence of a very regional Celtic Christianity that was different from the norm of Rome is yet another example of the diversity of the early Jesus movement. And while all of these early communities were passionate in their convictions, they still welcomed one another as authentic spiritual sisters and brothers with love and made certain that anyone who followed the Risen Christ no matter what style of worship they celebrated had a place at the feast of love and grace we now as the Eucharist – including those who were informed by the insights of St. Mary Magdalene. It was not until sometime in about 350 CE that she started to be disgraced, dismissed, and dishonored by the institutional body of Christ as it became increasingly hierarchical, celibate, centralized, and masculo-centric in leadership.

As we make our way to Pentecost, I will try to unpack more of this history that has locked Mary’s wisdom away for over 1500 years, but today I want to look at one of Magdalene’s foundational acts: her anointing of Jesus. The key progressive scholars who are well-respected and committed to the health of organized Christianity – not the less precise New Age fringe or the sensationalists who have enraptured by the Da Vinci Code – all agree that the woman who anointed Jesus was Mary Magdalene. There is some obscurity in the way Scripture recounts this, but tradition and memory suggest that it was Mary of Magdala. Some of Jesus’ followers were not thrilled that this happened at the hands of a passionate woman with an alabaster jar during a private dinner – not a prostitute as Pope Gregory mused in his misogynist sermonizing nor a priesthood who might have proclaimed him a Davidic messiah – but God works in mysterious ways, the wisdom of the holy a marvel to behold, yes? Yes, I know that St. John’s gospel tells us that the woman who anoints Jesus was Mary of Bethany – and we need to wrestle with this odd detail – but I want to do that next week when I can give deep and focused attention on what St. John was likely doing when he gave us all those Marys to wonder about. I won’t let this go, but I want to zero-in on what anointing means for three reasons:

First, we’ve noted before that Jesus started out in the traditional prophetic role of judge as shaped and influenced by his mentor: St. John the Baptist. This path is fundamentally about showing who is IN and who is OUT. It is a ministry of denunciation – and the early words of Jesus are no different from those of the Baptizer. But there comes a point in the evolution or maturation of Jesus when tenderness, welcome, and healing become his emphasis.

· In chapter 11 of St. Matthew’s gospel there is an episode where the imprisoned Baptist sends word to Jesus asking: ARE you the Messiah or must we wait for another? That is, did I make a mistake in your baptism? This questioning takes place after Jesus finishes a retreat with his disciples and sends them out to bring healing and hope to the wounded. To which the as yet still un-anointed one replies: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

· Already there have been stories in the gospel where Jesus comes upon a crowd and his heart breaks because, as the text puts it, “he had compassion upon them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The wounded and afraid, the marginalized and neglected didn’t need ANOTHER judge. So, at the close of chapter 11 in St. Matthew’s gospel Jesus says what? Do you recall? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It is THIS Messiah – the fully human one (for that’s what the phrase Son of Man means – the child of God who is fully human) – that Magdalene anoints. She is passionate. She is fully alive, too. She weeps, she caresses Christ’s feet with her hair and anoints him God’s messiah of love. Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the grave and is feasting with his most trusted allies.

And just so that we can’t miss the importance of this anointing, what does St. John’s gospel tell us happens right after this anointing? Jesus gathers his disciples, women and men, in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast of Freedom and… washes their feet as a servant leader saying: This is my new commandment – that you should love one another as I have just loved you – by letting go of your status, fears, histories and all the rest and dying to self so that you can rise in love. That is ONE reason why Magdalene’s place in the anointing matters.

Second, Magdalene’s anointing shifts the meaning of the Passion away from the distortions of the “penal or atonement theory” of the Cross and reframes it – correctly I believe – as an act of “substituted love.” Jesus is anointed to show us that dying to self is how God brings new life to us all. Not as a substitute punishment for Adam’s sin – the blood of the Lamb and all the rest – but as witness to a new way of living that trusts God with a single-heartedness that is stronger than death. At Bethany, Magdalene sends Jesus to the Cross marked by her love and God’s love affirming that she, too believes in redemptive love even if it isn’t fully clear. And if we’re paying attention, and I confess that I haven’t always done so, we see parallel acts of anointing happening on either side of Easter. Bourgeault writes:

“At Bethany she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of love. And on Easter morning he awakens to that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with her spices and perfumes, expecting to anoint his body for death. He has been held in love throughout his entire passage. In so doing, historian, Bruce Chilton, declares: “Mary Magdalene established the place of anointing as the central ritual in Christianity, recollecting Jesus’ death and pointing forward to his resurrection.” And what does she point towards? “Christ’s core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to new life in all its fullness.” 

Magdalene’s anointing marks the shift of the Messiah from judgment to tenderness, from exclusion to welcome, and from abstractions about atonement to an act of embodied, loving solidarity. We have so much to learn from Mary’s witness, it seems to me, especially now. There is so much fear in the air. So much confusion and anxiety, too. I need the assurance of Magdalene who shows me just what quiet, conscious love can do in a brutal world.

· Over the next seven Sundays, we’ll take this deeper. We’ll practice a bit of what Mary meant when she taught others to see with the eyes of the heart. It’s in the fragments of the 2nd century gospel written in her name – an especially useful albeit not widely known – sacred text.

· We’ll sort through some of the reasons why the increasingly celibate, woefully misogynist, and neo-Platonic institution lied and buried St. Magdalene’s testimony, too. And, my friends, we’ll do it in her quiet and trusting spirit, ok?

One of those who capture something of Magdalene’s essence for me is the singer/songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, who periodically puts out a note called The Speed of Soul. Last week she wrote: “When I stop and open up some space for my soul to show up, it always does. I might have to be patient because the soul doesn’t travel by fast train or car, but always on foot. So, today let me resolve to travel one step at a time, one foot in front of the next. Let me see the delights that can only be seen close up and at a slower pace. What a difference it makes when I slow down enough to walk arm and arm with my own soul.” Lord, may it be so among us, too.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

easter contemplation

 a simple Easter reflection on St. Mary Magdalene's quiet, simple, and abiding love for Jesus...


Isaiah 25: 6-9:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; the Lord will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of the people will be taken away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited so that we might be made whole. And the Lord for whom we have waited has come to us with gladness and grace.

Psalm 125:
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion
Which can never be removed and shall remain forever.
Peace be on Israel, peace be on Israel, peace be on Israel
Now and forever more.
Alleluia, allelu – alleluia, allelu – alleluia, allelu, alleluia…

GOSPEL: John 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. When Simon Peter came, following him, he went into the tomb.

He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself… They saw and believed but did not yet under-stand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. The disciples returned to their homes, but Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She replied, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ As she said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not yet recognize him. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ And she turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The poet, Padraig O’Tuama formerly of the Corrymela Community in Belfast, Northern Ireland, wrote in the Community’s prayer book that it “was Mary Magdalene – and in the other gospels Mary the mother of Jesus and Johanna – who first encountered the risen Christ. In love they went to the men to proclaim this good news but as so often happens, their words were judged to be an idle tale – women’s talk – and they were rebuffed and not trusted. O’Tuama then offers this prayer:

O surprising Son of God: you revealed the truth to women who were not believed by men.
You are so often in the voices of the unbelieved and the ignored. So, bring us towards each other.
Bring us towards the truest truth. Because here, if anywhere, will we find you. Amen

The appointed readings for today tell a simple but often confusing story – one that conflates Easter with Empire – the quiet presence of the Risen Christ’s love for his friends with bold, public proclaimations of theology where majestic hymns accompanied by brass choirs drown out the intimate whispers Jesus shared in private. Each of our four gospels tells us that Jesus comes to us quietly on Easter, softly and tenderly and in secret as the hymn puts it, not with shouts of glory or elegant processions, but confidentially while still encased in his wounds. Oddly most of my life I have participated in Easter with grand feasts, rich foods, tasteful table settings, uplifting music, and lofty words from my theological lexicon; when, in truth, the servant Christ of our scriptures sneaks in the back door to break bread simply and share the common cup of joy and grace. This year it feels like O’Tuama got it right: “Christ is so often found in the voices of the unbelieved and ignored.” Fr. Henri Nouwen said much the same thing to us last week, too:

I don’t think we’ll ever be able to penetrate the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus until it strikes us that the major part of Jesus’ life was hidden. Even the “public” years remained essentially invisible as far as most people were concerned. Whereas the way of the world is to insist upon publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting maximum exposure, God prefers to work in secret. You must let that mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into your consciousness otherwise you’re looking at it from the wrong point of view. In God’s sight the things that really matter seldom take place in public. Jesus’ life is marked by an always deeper choice towards what is small, humble, poor, rejected, and despised…even on the feast day of resurrection.

I don’t know about you, but celebrating Easter in a small, humble, and even simple way resonates with soul this year. I still LOVE the smells and bells and revel in the majestic music of our tradition. But, when I listen to my heart this year, when I look carefully at the testimony of the early church, and the storytelling as recorded in the New Testament, it is the calmly loving quiet witness of Mary Magdalene, apostle to the apostles, who pulls it all together.

To be honest, her constancy with Jesus throughout the passion, crucifixion, and dark night of waiting in anguish helps me see what a conscientious disciple looks like on Easter morning. Too often in the past I’ve been trapped in the trappings of this celebration more than its message. I’ve contributed to the bluster and noisy merrymaking of it – the aesthetic grandiosity, too – when a serene savoring of the peaceful presence of the sacred might be more in keeping with the shared simplicity of bread that is broken and a common cup.

· Last year at this time I don’t think I would’ve been able to say this as my disorientation was too great and I was lost in grief, but I am thankful to God for my enforced solitude because it has opened me to a deeper connection to the spirituality of Easter in general – and St. Mary Magdalene in particular.

· Over the next 50 days of Eastertide, I want to share with you some key insights I’ve gleaned from Magdalene about living from the heart as Christ’s disciple. The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault writes: 

The Risen Lord is indeed risen. Present, intimate, creative, 'closer than your own heartbeat,' accessed through your vulnerability, your capacity for intimacy. The imaginal realm is real, and through it you will never be separated from anyone or anything you have ever loved, for love is the ground in which you live and move and have your being. This is the message that Mary Magdalene has perennially to bring – and this is the message we most need to hear on Easter.

In a sermon Bourgeault shared last week, she framed the importance of St. Mary Magdalene, the one who consistently loved and trusted Jesus, like this: “(Holy Week and Easter are the times) when we ritually re-live and re-claim the very epicenter of Christianity, as Jesus reveals the depth of love and wagers his very life for the reality of the premise he has staked his whole ministry on: that love is stronger than death.”

That love is the strongest power in the world —­­­ stronger than fear — stronger than hatred — stronger than division — stronger than violence. This is the moment when we again have the opportunity in a very special way to enter into this mystery of love with him, confront our own fears and shadows, and emerge as shareholders in his resurrection — not only through faith but through our own lived experience. You would think then, in a time such as this, as we stand on the threshold of this testimony, that our texts might give us an overview of Jesus’ teachings on love, and a reassurance that his love will remain alive and well beneath the surface as we work our way toward cosmic fulfillment. And yet the word “love” does not occur once in our Easter readings…

That’s easy to miss in our traditional Easter hoopla but impossible to overlook when Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles as she was once called and called anew by Pope Francis, becomes our guide to the feast. Contemporary scholarship with a deep reverence for orthodoxy and tradition has all but unanimously concluded that St. Mary Magdalene was the one disciple who got it before Easter: Her own heart was broken open by the love of Jesus where she learned to practice from the inside out a self-surrendering trust of God’s love that is greater than all the graves and can never be taken away. She embodied the early baptismal creed St. Paul shared in Philippians 2: 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any com-passion and sympathy, make my joy complete and be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind with Jesus. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was on Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited; rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant – and in humility shared love beyond the point of death – even death on a cross. Bourgeault adds this post-script:

Letting go is not in order to get something better. In and of itself it is the something better. For self-surrender, letting go, emptying ourselves of the lies, shame, fear, mistrust, and anxiety that guides so much of our culture so that our hearts might be filled with God’s love immediately restores the broken link with the dynamic ground of reality, which by its very nature flows forth from a fullness beyond all imagining.

By letting go Magdalene moved beyond the cultural misogyny of her era – even the prejudice of Peter and the other disciples. By letting go she became a trusted confident to Christ during his years of wandering and teaching in ancient Judea and Samaria. By letting go she found the courage to stand with Jesus is loving solidarity through his passion, at the foot of the cross AND his tomb, and then return after the Sabbath to continue her love by anointing his corpse with holy herbs and sacred oil. At first, today’s story tells us her grief blinded her to Christ’s resurrected presence, but when he speaks her name – not a sermon, not a theological treatise nor one of our grand hymns – just her name, Mary, the grief falls away and she recognizes Jesus as Rabbouni – teacher.

There are two truths here that I want to name briefly today – and spend some time with over the next 50 days much like the Scriptures tell us the first disciples did rethinking the meaning of love with Jesus before the Ascension – and they are: the intimacy and stillness of this encounter, and, the importance of sacred love. I have come to believe that the life of Jesus in general, and the events of Holy Week in particular, are sacramental. That is, they are visible signs of a deeper and more concentrated spiritual truth.

· The quiet intimacy that Jesus shares with Magdalene on Easter morning, then, becomes a paradigm for us, yes? It is a call both to contemplation and stillness. Easter Sunday with Mary Magdalene suggests more time with quiet and love than anything else including preaching, teaching, music and all the rest that has traditionally filled Easter celebrations.

· For the next 50 days I would like us to own this simplicity: let’s learn a little more about what Mary discovered through his discipleship. As much as I love saints Peter, Paul, John and the rest, Magdalene is who I need to listen to after Easter. Maybe that’s true for you, too because her witness is grounded in simplicity, love, and radical trust. What she gives us on Easter morning if we have eyes to see is “the meaning of Jesus that cuts much deeper than merely resuscitating a corpse.” She wants us to know that the real purpose of Christ’s sacrifice was:

To wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to new life. Jesus was not about proving that a body lives forever, but rather that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away. Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying, but dying-to-self.

Mary Magdalene is the master of compassionate contemplation and simplicity – and I want to spend more time with her. Because beyond the celebration she asks like Tina Turner: what’s love got to do with it – and shows us – everything. Simplicity, stillness,
and sacred love – that’s her testimony. And I can’t think of a more important message to focus upon right now when it feels like so much is at stake right here – in our nation – and throughout the world. A preacher far wiser than myself put it like this: It’s hard in this maelstrom of hatred, abandonment, and violence to keep a living connection to the Master of Love, whose death is not to appease an angry God, but a voluntary consummation of the path he has walked through life — through death — and into resurrection life.

So that’s what we’ll do – together and in private – between Easter 2021 and the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday, May 23rd: we’ll keep company with Jesus and Magdalene as they quietly teach us about love and trust.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The past 10 days have been an emotional roller coaster for me – or many of us, too – and now it is Palm Sunday. Seven mass shootings and massacres just last week – NOT two – but seven. Count them:

· Tuesday, March 16: eight people slaughtered in Atlanta.

· Wednesday, March 17: five people in Stockton, CA mowed down in a drive-by attack.

· Thursday, March 18: four people murdered together in Gresham, OR.

· Saturday, March 20: five people outside a club in Houston, TX were shot but not killed.

· Saturday, March 20: eight adults in Dallas, TX were wounded by an unknown assailant.

· Saturday, March 20: at an illegal party in Philadelphia, PA six adults were shot and one died.

· Monday, March 22: ten people including a police officer were killed in a shooting in King Soopers supermarket.

Filmmaker and cultural critic, Michael Moore, got it right on Face Book when he posted: From Atlanta to Boulder, SEVEN mass shootings over the past seven days across the USA. We’ve been praying to get back to normal and for America, you can’t get more “normal” than this: So who wants a whole new friggin’ normal? Add to this the spring-break/super-spreader madness, the next round of stimulus checks, a deepening commitment to vaccinations, the surge of enrollment in the expanded Affordable Care Act, record snow fall in the mountain states, the teaser of spring’s imminent arrival following the vernal equinox, Georgia’s new voter suppression law, the Senate’s affirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as the nation’s first trans cabinet member and it was a week of extreme highs and heart-breaking lows. I was up and down, in and out, and all over the place emotionally and spiritually last week. So, when I came across this poem by the Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski who died this past week, too, I spontaneously combusted into a grateful but exhausted puddle of prayerful tears:

Try to praise the mutilated world 
Remember June's long days, and wild strawberries, 
drops of rosé wine. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees going nowhere, you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world - 
and the gray feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns. 

This is Holy Week 2021 – and every Holy Week, for that matter – a sacred time scared by sorrow and cruelty yet sodden with the presence of vulnerable love, acts of tender mercies, and just a hint of Easter blessings that are as yet still masked and obscured from our sight by darkness, anxiety, and grief. It is a time for the freedom feast of Passover and Peter’s denial, the betrayal of Judas and the fidelity of Mary Magdalene. Some of our Jewish friends have described the liturgies of this season as the ritual experience of feeling sadness within our joys, and exuberance within our sorrows to remind us that neither should ever constitute the entirety of our expectations. I would add because both are always with us.

In our faith tradition, Holy Week is when we come to grips with the Cross: symbol of our faith, sign of excruciating suffering, doorway into God’s love. “Behold,” says St. John the Baptist, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Behold indeed: behold the bearer of inconvenient truth, behold the nonviolent messiah who exposes the horror of state sponsored violence used against a culture’s outsiders in order to maintain cohesion, behold a small and silent savior.

When I behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, I no longer see Jesus as victim or God’s ransom sent to pay off our original sin. No, now I see him as the gentle warrior of the holy who, like his mother before him, freely chooses to accept God’s invitation to incarnate love in his flesh. And he does so by showing us what capital punishment and cultural violence looks like from the perspective of the scapegoat. Not the victor, not the powerful, not the military or police force or the winners, but the beaten, the discarded, the outcast, the losers and prisoners. Look at THIS, Jesus tells us from the Cross, and know that you can make better and more compassionate choices. Behold, the Lamb of God, who exposes to you what it looks like to execute your fear rather than embrace it.

· THAT is what calls to me on Palm Sunday 2021: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by showing us the consequences of our choices and offering us a better way. If we were together in public worship today, we would be grounded in polar opposites. First, we would bless the palms and sing songs of joy only to quickly shift into the proclamation of the Passion Narrative and the Bible’s lengthy recitation of all that happens to Jesus on the way to Golgotha and the Cross.

· Today’s liturgy was crafted to be an extended encounter with paradox: ancient Jerusalem shouts, “Hosanna, hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” with one breath, only to later snarl, “Crucify, crucify, crucify that man” with the next. It is not a senti-mental recreation of what took place 2000 years ago, but a consciously schizophrenic, unsettling, simultaneously intimate and alienating confrontation with the mystery of our faith and the consequences of our choices. The prayer of invocation from my old United Church of Christ prayerbook sets the stage well:

Loving God, who in Jesus Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem, heralding a week of pain and sorrow, be with us now as we follow the way of the cross. In these events of defeat and victory, you have sealed the closeness of death and resurrection, of humiliation and exaltation. As we wave our branches of palm, we recognize that they will become for us symbols of martyrdom and majesty… Travel with us now, Lord, that we may trust that your whisper silences the shouts of the mighty and quiets every voice but your own. Speak to us this week through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we may receive grace to show Christ’s love to the world in lives committed to your service. In Christ, with you and the Holy Spirit, who live and reign forever as one God, we pray. Amen.

This prayer suggests that we consider the worship of Holy Week to be a living poem. I heard Naomi Shihab Nye interviewed by Krista Tippett last week on her clarifying and holy radio program, On Being, and was arrested when she told us, “I think that all people THINK in poems.”

… this is very important — feeling your thoughts as text or the world as it passes through you as a kind of text; the story that you would be telling to yourself about the street even as you walk down it or as you drive down it; as you look out the window, the story you would be telling. It always seemed very much to me, as a child, that I was living in a poem — that my life was the poem. And in fact, at this late date, I have started putting that on the board of any room I walk into that has a board (whenever I lead a class in poetry.) She amplified this saying: I just came back from Japan a month ago, and every classroom, I would just write on the board, “You are living in a poem.” And then I would write other things relating to whatever we were doing in that class, but I found the students very intrigued by discussing that. “What do you mean, we’re living in a poem?” Or “When? All the time, or just when someone talks about poetry?” And I’d say, “No; when you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another — that’s a poem. That’s what a poem does.”

That’s what worship during Holy Week aspires towards: savoring, pondering, wondering, wander-ing, waiting, thinking, listening, weeping, laughing, eating, waking, sleeping into the holy as it has been made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We rarely speak – and even more rarely teach in Christian formation – that our Holy Week observances are a choice to con-sciously live into our lives as a poem – and all the more the sorrow – because a poetic conscious-ness offers us the spaciousness to listen, discern, and go deep. One of Shihab-Nye’s Japanese students told her after a seminar:

In Japan, we have a concept called ‘yutori,’ and it is spaciousness. It’s a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around.” Or — and then she gave all these different definitions of what yutori was, to her. But one of them was: “And after you read a poem, just knowing you can hold it. You can be in that space of the poem, and it can hold you in its space, and you don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to paraphrase it. You just hold it, and it allows you to see differently.”

Holy Week gives us a full seven days of spaciously and symbolically entering into the agony of real life that is also filled with the life-saving presence of the holy. In fact, the whole week is conceptualized as a solitary and continuous act of worship with a call to awareness at the start of Palm Sunday but NO closing benedictions until the last hymn of Easter Sunday! It is one, long, spacious seamless garment that must NEVER be labeled a day of holy obligation. How can we be OBLIGATED to open our hearts and minds to faith as poetry? That smacks of a cruel, controlling, manipulative deity who is the polar opposite of Jesus.

A spirituality of obligation reeks of shallowness creating a culture of clock watchers and hoop jumpers instead of poets, mystics, and sacred clowns. Not women, men, and children ready to welcome the whole of life so that we might see, feel, and act differently beyond our grief.

No, Holy Week is our time to practice praising a mutilated world. NOT a spiritual fantasy, not magic or escapism, but praise and mourning intimately intertwined. Shihab-Nye wrote about speaking to her Palestinian-born father in the aftermath of September 11th that sounds like Holy Week to me:

I call my father, we talk around the news:
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows, to plead with the air: who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?” 

I sense something similar where we’re what does a true follower of Jesus DO now.? And I believe that Holy Week gives us part of the answer. We start with Hosanna – quickly move into the foot washing of Holy Thursday – and then nearly tumble in confusion to the cries of crucify him. Along the way we get on our knees and live as servants not leaders. We listen as people just like us betray the ones they love and cherish so that we might own some of our own deceits. We spend a lot of time in the darkness as candles are extinguished rather than lit, the exact opposite of the growing light of our Advent wreaths. And for two full days – 48 empty and anguished hours – we’re told to wait. And wait and wait some more. And just when we think we’re supposed to stop waiting and make a broken peace with the grave, new life suddenly and mysteriously appears within us. In ways that defy logic but feed our hearts, we find ourselves unable to do anything except sing Christ the Lord is risen today – alleluia!

I’ve come to trust that living poetry between Palm Sunday and Easter morning is how we learn to live and even sing praise for a mutilated world in the manner of Jesus as Christ. Part of this has to do with joy and grief. Most people, I suspect, believe their experiences with happiness and sorrow are unique. We tend to feel that what WE’RE living is more important and profound than what others are encountering. Not that we want to deny their reality.

But without some critical perspective, many of us live in a childish and self-centered way, where we imagine that OUR anguish as well as our exuberance is special. Consequently, part of what the next seven days tries to tell us is that our pain is just a part of life. It is no more IMPORTANT than the experiences of another but no LESS so either. What we feel is what everyone feels as life matures. Joy, pain, anxiety, and trust are a part of the shared human experience no matter who we are or where we live. Somehow this hard and humbling truth has become sadly obscured in so much of contemporary Western Christianity. And I suspect this is at least one of the reasons for the deep and mean-spirited divisions that wound our politics.

In that interview, Krista Tippett said: “There are just so many mysteries about people wanting to presume their pain has more of a reality than someone else’s pain.” Once the best of our religions insisted that the key to coexistence began by waking a mile in another’s shoes. The poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, added: I think all the holy persons of all backgrounds and faiths have always called upon us to empathize in a more profound way, to stretch our imaginations to what that another person might be experiencing. (Religion and spirituality strive for empathy and solidarity.) But these days, when you listen to the loud voices all over the world, you wonder, what’s happened to that? What’s happened to the awareness that we don’t have to be vindictive and continue on in a cycle of revenge and violence? That WE are all a part of a whole?

Some of the big personalities in our story, the archetypal characters like Judas and Peter, Christ’s mother Mary or Magdalene, the aloof Pontius Pilate or the slimy politician King Herod, give us poetic windows through which we can look at ourselves and ask: where am I in this story? What do I feel as it unfolds? Who am I most like this year? How have I changed? How MIGHT I be changed over the course of a new year so that I might think and act differently? More like Jesus. That’s what can happen if we walk through Holy Week in another’s shoes: we can discover something about how the holy is calling us to go deeper.

And one of the sacred truths of Holy Week is that Christian people do this all over the world: in Palestine and Peoria, Mozambique and Michigan, Sao Paulo and San Francisco. Every year we have a chance to ask ourselves what do I have in common with others throughout the world – and how can I walk for a spell in their shoes? We’re also get to ask: how have we been changed over the past year – and what does that mean? I know that some years I’ve felt like Peter denying my Lord three times – or three thousand times – but there’ve also been years when I am more like Mary Magdalene standing at the foot of the Cross trusting that God’s love is greater than the sorrow I feel when death breaks my heart. Doing this in the company of others helps me know that whether I am in Rome, Riyadh, Rangpur, or Raleigh, NC people just like me are trying to recognize our shared humanity during Holy Week, too.

In fact, millions and millions of people like you and me are discerning how our joys and sorrows can become one of the places we meet God. That’s why the liturgies of this holy week are not passive: they insist that our bodies live into the poetry of the Cross. To do it right we have to move around and feel the words so that they unclog our hearts. This is one of the ways the Lamb of God brings healing into the world. In those embodied, participatory, subversive liturgies we experience a solidarity beyond race, class, gender, age, and ability.

That’s one of the blessings I have been given by being a part of the L’Arche Ottawa community where people with and without intellectual disabilities from all over the world live and move and learn to love one another as one body. Henri Nouwen, who served as a L’Arche chaplain for ten years, said that L’Arche is built upon the body not abstract words. It is a way for the words to become flesh. “The community is formed around the wounded bodies of those with and without physical and intellectual disabilities where feeding, cleaning, touching, holding, and waiting is what builds community. It is the heart of prayer at L’Arche.”

One of the truths that I have been asked to own at L’Arche is that my pain as well as exuberance is NOT the center of the universe. It I am a part of the whole, then my feelings and experiences are just a part of reality, too. A reality filled with pains and joys that are real but never the totality of creation. L’Arche is a simple and sacred place to learn about the marriage of humility and solidarity.

· The first year I participated in the Holy Thursday foot washing liturgy at L’Arche, I was a stranger. I’d played guitar for a few retreats and shared supper with my new friends at Mountainview, but I didn’t know anybody very well. And that night, in candlelight, about 100 women, men, and children of different faiths, races, spiritualities, class backgrounds, physical and mental abilities gathered into ten small circles of ten where we were asked to wash one another’s feet.

· Now, I didn’t grow up with a foot washing tradition, but I love it and have made it a part of the various faith communities I’ve served over the past 40 years. In my group that night, there were young women and men from Syria, a few Francophone Quebecers, a mostly nonverbal woman Anglophone in a wheelchair, another nonverbal woman with more physical abilities, and me.

After the welcome and opening prayer and songs, we all sat together in an awkward silence for a moment or two. Then, as group leader, I knelt and asked: “Are we clear what we’re to do now?” There were a few questions – and I needed a bilingual person to do a bit of translation into French – and then I said: “Please know three things about this sacrament. One, there’s no WRONG way to do it; if you share it with love it will be perfect. Two, it is mostly a nonverbal prayer. It’s about being vulnerable and tender with our bodies so don’t fret if you feel awkward, ok? And three, at the close of each foot washing, the one whose feet have just been washed is asked to give a blessing to the one who is kneeling.” Most of those in my circle that night were new to L’Arche making the two core members, those with the physical and/or intellectual disabilities, the experts.

But they were nonverbal so I suggested I could model what this was all about and then pass it around the circle. I was already kneeling in front of a refugee from Syria, so I took off his shoes and socks, gently poured warm water over his feet, and sensed the presence of Jesus in the process.

· Everyone’s feet are different, right? Some are beautiful, some are broken, some are young, some are old, some are clean, and some are not. But all of our feet place us closest to the ground – that’s something we have in common – so feet really put you in touch with this body prayer – and it is as tender and sacred as the first time you hold a newborn baby.

· When I finished washing my new friend’s feet, drying them carefully with a towel, I forgot that he was going to bless me. So, he gently put out his strong hand upon my head and said with authority: God’s peace is within you and upon you, James, servant of Christ Jesus. May you always know and trust this. Amen.

For a moment I couldn’t see – I was so disoriented as tears poured from my eyes – so I just knelt as he kept his hand on my head. And when it felt right, he helped me stand and move back into the circle so that he could wash another’s foot. Smiles and tears, hands and feet, opened our hearts to the Living God in that night over the next 20 minutes. Each person with different abilities knelt to become a servant using their gifts with love, then rose in their own way to become the font of another servant’s blessing as the incarnational Lamb of God took shape and form before our eyes.

Reading Fr. Nouwen’s journals I found that he, too experienced what I did during his first encounter with a L’Arche foot washing ceremony: “Everything within me wants to move upward,” he wrote. “Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I am a part… Wherever I turn I am con-fronted with my deep-seated resistance against following Jesus on his way to the cross and my countless ways of avoiding become small, poor, and invisible… (but) sitting in the basement room in Paris, surrounded by forty poor people, I was struck again by the way Jesus concluded his active life. Just before entering the road of his passion, he washed the feet of his disciples and offered them his body and blood” to be sustenance.” Nouwen added that:

The words of Jesus to Peter (at the close of St. John’s gospel) reminds me that Jesus’ transition from action to passion must also be ours if we want to follow his way. He told Peter, “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you like, but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will gird your waist and take you into those places where you would rather not go.” Come to me, Jesus keeps saying, come and let me wipe away your tears…for the voice of Christ does not offer us a solution to our problems, but a friendship. It does not take away our burdens, but promises to be there with us to help us carry them.

Mostly without words, always with intimate, respectful, and safe bodily touch, the foot washing ceremonies of Holy Week push us towards sharing our humble lives as beautiful, broken, living, breathing, fearing, and trusting vessels of Christ’s love. This is how we behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Fr. Nouwen put it like this:

I don’t think you’ll ever be able to penetrate the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus until it strikes you that the major part of Jesus’ life was hidden. Even the “public” years remained essentially invisible as far as most people were concerned. Whereas the way of the world is to insist on publicity, celebrity, popularity, and getting maximum exposure, God prefers to work in secret. You must let that mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you’re continually looking at it from the wrong point of view. In God’s sight the things that really matter seldom take place in public… Jesus’ life is marked by an always deeper choice towards what is small, humble, poor, rejected, and despised.

This week I wish we could be together to wash one another’s feet – but, like the Passover liturgy says – NEXT year in Jerusalem. If, however, you are feel called and would like to join with me and my friends at L’Arche this Thursday at 7 pm Eastern time, send me a note. We’ll be introducing the foot washing ceremony quietly at that time and asking people in their homes to participate how-ever it feels right. We will also be Zooming the stations of the cross on Good Friday at 10 am the following morning. The poet, Padraig O’Tuama, has said that for 10 years he prayed and walked the 14 stations of the cross everyday in his quest to find God’s loving presence in the midst of his pain. He’s written: “What I like about the Stations of the Cross, is that they don’t say, “Oh, 14 ok, but then, there’s the fifteenth one, where it’s all lovely, fantastic.”

No, in the traditional understanding, there isn’t a fifteenth station. The idea is to find hope in the practice of what seemed to be the worst. And it is the worst — there’s no pretense that abduction and torture and murder are anything other than abduction, torture, and murder; however, there is the understanding that within it, we can discover some kind of hope — the hope of protest, the hope of truth-telling, the hope of generosity, the hope of gesture — even in those places.

You may wish to join us for this time of quiet reflection on the Lamb of God, too. Drop me a note and I will privately send you the link. This is the hour when we proclaim with believers throughout the world: behold, the Lamb of God, who quietly, in small and mostly hidden ways, takes away the sins of the world with love – and invites us to join him. Pray with me:

O Jesus of the unexpected, for at least some of your life this was not how you imagined its end. Yet even in the end, you kept steady in your conviction. Jesus, keep us steady. Jesus, keep us steady. Because Jesus, keep us steady. Amen.


a wild, disorienting, broken but beautiful week in the USA...

What a wild, disorienting, broken but beautiful week it has been. Quite by serendipity I started to read Isabel Wilkerson's searing stud...