Monday, January 13, 2020

new musical horizons are taking shape...

One of the ideas that I am going to be sitting with for the next two weeks while in sunny Tucson is this: Is it time to create a Pentangle-like groove here among some of my favorite local musical friends?  
Their subtle mix of jazz and Celtic folk tunes fueled by great vocals and two of the finest acoustic guitar players ever - Bert Jansch and John Renbourne - drives me crazy! I don't know if the time is right - and if the players I want to bring together are free and/or interested - so I am just putting this out there as a teaser. I know I am hungry for it. (BTW this clip comes from the 2008 revival; it is Pentangle's refashioned interpretation of the Miles Davis classic: "All Blues" that they first did back in 1970.)

I have a similar fascination for their cover of "Sally Go 'Round the Roses." I was knocked out back in 1963 when the Jaynettes put it out first: the instrumentation sounds like it was recorded under water, the vocalists sound sultry while singing a melody that hails from an old English nursery rhyme and a few years later Grace Slick and her band, The Great Society, gave it a proper psychedelic treatment. What Pentangle does, however, emphasizes the English folk song tempo mixed with a hot bass, stunning guitar riffs and the playful call and response vocal between Jansch and lead vocalist Jacquie McShee. 

Ok I confess that my favorite upright bass player of all time, Danny Thompson, comes from this band, too. They were the first "genre benders" in music to sweep me off my feet and I have never gotten over them. Lots to ponder as new horizons open up... we'll see, yes? Take a listen to this and ponder with me.

you can love them - love them completely...

There are people who pass through our lives who trust the light within us. Not only do they see the light we barely acknowledge, but they reverence and often restore it, too. For some of us, that is no mean feat - especially if our light has rarely been shared in public and then all too quickly extinguished. They say that men often hide their light under shame while women bury it with anger. And at least for me, respecting all the insights of contemporary gender fluidity, this still rings true. A poem by Yeats that opens my favorite anthology, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade,
evokes this insight:   

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweeping of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rages, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Sometimes, but not often, the gentle and wise souls of our stories are parents. More often than not they are relatives once removed or older mentors we find in a variety of ways. Some show up serendipitously, others we search out - like spiritual directors and/or pastors - and a few are teachers who have paid careful attention to the way we move through their classes. This poem by Kory Wells captures the essence of those who see us "as through a glass darkly" and give us the benefit of the doubt. They listen and watch and encourage in small ways that cumulatively ignite the spark within into a true fire.

When she’d hand the rope to me,
she could’ve said, Here, jump
on out of my way—

I’ve got laundry to hang,
supper to cook, a shirt to mend,
this book I want to read.

She’d already taught me
Miz Mary Mac, those silver buttons,
all the other singsong rhymes.

Now she was teaching me
about metaphor, otherwise known as
pretend. She could’ve said, Here,

this is a snake—pretend
it wants to bite you, but
she was not teaching me to fear.

She could’ve said, Here,
find someone to play tug-of-war,
but she was not teaching me

to require the presence
of others. She could’ve said,
Here, this is how you make

a noose, but she was not
teaching me violence
or hatred. No,

my mother handed me
one end of that rope
secured in a stiff knot

and said, Here,
this is a microphone.
What can you sing?

("Voice" by Kory Wells)

There are also people who move in and out of our lives whom we love and respect who steadfastly refuse to trust the light we see in them. Do they choose emotional/psychological/spiritual incarceration? Or is the darkness within so significant or constant that they trust it more than the mystery called hope? I've never been able to know. Back in Cleveland my AA friends and I would ask: why do some of us make the 12 Step Program work when we hit bottom while others keep going back to the pain? Is the pain so intense that they trust what they know more than the possibility of healing? It isn't a matter of morality or integrity. Most of the time we ended these sessions simply scratching our heads and accepting the dilemma. "Who knows why some muster the courage while others cannot?" I often heard the prophet Elijah reply to the Lord while standing in the valley of dry bones: "Only Thou knowest, Lord. Only Thou."

There is a poignant scene close to the end of the film, "A River Runs Through It," where the MacLean family tries to comprehend the self-destructive ways of their youngest son, Paul. It seems that no amount of love, guidance, warning, punishment, encouragement, or support could move Paul out of his downward spiral that culminated in his murder. The words of this sermon continue to haunt me. For I, too, cannot make sense of such agony. The best I can do is entrust these loved ones to the care of God and believe that the One who is Holy cares better than I. "We can still love them - we can love them completely..."

Today, as we pack for our journey to Tucson, I am remembering both those elders and mentors who helped me accept the "foul rag-and-bone-shop of my heart" and those who remain imprisoned within it. For whatever reason I was able to hear what they wanted to teach me during the darkest days of my despair. "Trust the wisdom of your failures," they insisted, "travel through the darkness into a greater light." I rejoice in the blessing of their presence. Thank you, Sam, Martha, Ray, Jim, Dolores and Adolofo. If you have known such soul friends, give thanks to the Lord, and then pass on the gift of love as best you are able.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

laughing at ourselves...

One of the things I notice now about growing older is how carefully I must walk on the ice. Not that I was careless before, mind you. But having taken two excruciating spills on the wet deck in one year, I am clearly not as spry as I once was. Or thought myself to be. And when my friend from the desert suggested I contact the local agency on aging for ideas about how to prevent a fall... Well, let's just say, the humbling presence of reality was given shape and form in a wisdom that became incarnational. 

The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, is reported to have told his congregants that, "reality is the will of God." He added, "It can always be better, but we must start with what is real." Fr. Richard Rohr wrote something similar recently, too. So these days I walk with a little less zip than before - a bit less speed, too as the NYC family will attest. But my hunch is that there is also a greater overall awareness in my gait as I continue making peace with aging. My heart was pleased to read that the late David Bowie said that, "If you are pining for youth I think it produces a stereotypical old man because you only live in memory, you live in a place that doesn’t exist. Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been."

So, beyond moving more slowly and noticing smaller things more often, what I am discovering is that there is a unique give and take to the wisdom born of aging with humility. If you fight it, you become cranky and cynical. If you deny it, you play the fool. If you give up, you shrink from life before your time and spend all day in your sweats. But, if you negotiate each change the body presents as a small adventure into curiosity rather than resistance or despair, I find that the pay-off is more laughter. I just can't take myself as seriously as I used to. The surprises are just too goofy. Or unexpected. Like the way right now I have to squint, pull off my eye-glasses, and close one eye completely like my father did in his later years because I need a new prescription. I used to wonder why in God's name he did this? It was so scary! Only to find that now I know: one eye is better than the other when it comes to seeing small print.  So when I saw myself in the mirror the other day doing just what Big Jim used to do, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. (NOTE: the amplification of this laughter ought not to have hit me so hard. After all, my favorite part of the "Mary Poppins" movie is the "I love to laugh" sequence. (And the "feed the birds" scene because I love a good cry, too.) These days laughter has become a prayer of sorts.

Self-deprecating humor has often been a spiritual guide for me. Not sarcasm or mockery, that's veiled cruelty and impotence. But laughing at myself? That is pure grace. There are times when we're watching TV and my modest hearing loss takes me into the realm of the absurd. Thank God for close captions while watching shows from the UK! (NOTE: Once we get back from Tucson, and my new insurance plan kicks in, I will be addressing this with tests and hearing aids.) Over and again I am finding that humility truly is the font of wisdom - and a ton of fun.

In Robert Bly's, Morning Poems, my favorite small volume of his work is one he calls "Bad People." I have his autograph on it from a Tucson Poetry Festival that hangs in the guest room. He understands the importance of all that seems troubling to those who want a safe, antiseptic life.

A man told me once that all the bad people
Were needed. Maybe not all, but your fingernails
You need; they are really claws, and we know
Claws. The sharks - what about them?
They make other fish swim faster. The hard-faced
In black coats who chase you for hours
In dreams - that the only way to get you
To the shore. Sometimes those hard women
Who abandon you  get you say, "You."
A lazy part of us i like tumbleweed.
It downed move on its own. Sometimes it takes
A lot of Depression to get tumbleweeds moving.
They blow across three or four States.
This man told me that things work together.
Bad handwriting sometimes leads to new idea;s
And a careless god - who refuses to let people
Eat from the Tree of Knowledge - can lead
To books, and eventually to us. We write
Poems with lies in them, but they help a little.

Moving slower, forgetting things from time to time, mishearing and all the rest has not only helped me slow down, but also get better organized. Now I plan for surprises rather than sputter when they happen. (Most of the time.) Now I take two or three days to get ready for a journey. (It helps that I do the laundry now too.) And, the Lord be praised, I talk about the anxieties I am feeling rather than pretend they aren't real or let them pop up as anger. I think David Bowie was right - but it takes some real negotiating - and a ton of laughter. O Tucson, dear Tucson, O Tucson here we come.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

thoughts on our upcoming pilgrimages...

There is a holy rhythm to making a pilgrimage. Some prefer vacations, pre-planned trips that are well-ordered and safe. They always include a little adventure, of course, maybe even romance. But that is incidental. Whether a cruise or a trip to Disneyland, both the journey and destination are well-defined.
Openness to the unknown, however, is foundational to a pilgrimage. It is all about leaving the familiar behind to search for new insights and ways of being in the presence of God. There is anticipation of mystery. There is the hope that somewhere along the road something sacred will touch our hearts. And there is an awareness that we, like the Magi, will leave differently because of the trip. The late Abraham Joshua Heschel said: "Faith is not the clinging to a shrine, but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

The two constants of a pilgrimage include the desire to meet the holy as the travel unfolds, and, a deep trust it will happen in the most unexpected manner. Somewhere along the way, Di and I chose to enter into travel as pilgrims rather than tourists. There is a place for hotels and well-planned excursions. They're just not for us. We want to stay where ordinary people live. We want to meet the folk on the street and eat what they eat. We want to wander for a part of each day without a plan to see what the Spirit might have in store for us. And we like to move slowly through each day without having to rush according to another's agenda. Or expectation.

This year we are making our third pilgrimage to Tucson. Yes, it will be relaxing. Of course it is a grand place to visit - especially for Northerners in the middle of winter - as the weather will be 70F. And we are grateful to be able to stay with trusted friends. We lived in this fine place for 10 years and hold it dear to our hearts. It is also a place where we keep discovering new truths about our life together as we walk in the total silence the desert. Or visit the White Dove of the Desert: La Misión San Xavier del Bac on the Tohono O'odham reservation. Or reconnect with former church members who are closer to us in love and spirit than some of our flesh and blood. One insight about this type of travel comes from Frédéric Gros in his Philosophy of Walking. He writes:

None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.

I love to walk in the Sonoran Desert. It is the quietest place I have ever known. I love to walk through the streets of Tucson or Tubac, too. Nobody knows me. Nobody has a role or an expectation. And my only two commitments are to be observant of Di and take in the mystery. It is so liberating. And renewing. And after a long, dark winter, to be in this sun is ecstatic. A privilege I never want to take for granted. Another truth about this type of travel was revealed in L.M. Browning's Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations. She observed that:

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are. Many a time we believe we must go away from all that is familiar if we are to focus on our inner well-being because we feel it is the only way to escape all that drains and distracts us, allowing us to turn inward and tend to what ails us. Yet we do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of ourself.

The first time we made pilgrimage to Tucson was just as I retired from pastoral ministry. I knew it was time to go, but I was uneasy about whether my time in Pittsfield had mattered. A foolish, aging-man concern, to be sure - especially for one of faith - but it haunted me. During that trip to Tucson we walked around the Cathedral grounds for a few hours in the sun. We didn't talk much, just walked. After a long nap, about 20 old friends from the region gathered to greet us for a party. And the love we shared, nurtured in ministry and strengthened over time, brought a measure of hope back to my heart. Once again it hit me: it isn't so much what you DO in life, its the depth of love you share in relationship that counts. And all that love that night - all the laughter and trust and music we shared - was illuminating.

Last year there were no parties. No big gatherings. Just a lot of the world's best Mexican food with two of our dearest friends. I got to be an old guy with my friends. Not a former pastor. Not a role or an expectation. Just a guy who could fall asleep in front of a TV at 9:30 pm at night just like everybody else. A small revelation, I know, but one that reminded me how important it is to stay connected with those we love. In the blink of an eye they could be gone. Or so could I. And so we return...

We are also planning an extended pilgrimage to Halifax, NS and Prince Edwards Island in May. It is hard to believe but we are celebrating our 25th anniversary. As I age and Di wrestles with new health challenges, we want to do what we love the most: travel in pilgrimage with one another. That's how we met oh so long ago. That is what we have done with gusto over this quarter century. And that is how we shall mark a love that has changed outwardly, but only grown more profound inwardly. Where did all that time go? How have we changed? For better? For worse? What might we still do together in whatever time we have that remains? I know we will be thinking of these questions and more on this pilgrimage even as we prepare for the next.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

reclaiming our purpose...

A small note has been floating around parts of the L'Arche social media world for the last month called: "Note to Self." It reads: 

"What is my purpose?" I asked the void. "What if I told you fulfilled it when you took an extra hour to talk to that kid about his life?" said a voice. "Or when you paid for that young couple in the restaurant? Or when you saved that dog from traffic? Or when you tied your father's shoe lace? Your problem is that you equate your purpose with goal based achievement. The Universe isn't interested in your achievements ... just your heart. When you choose to act out of kindness, compassion, and love you are already aligned with your purpose. No need to look any further!" 

I like it. It is something I have started to discover and trust and only wish I had learned it earlier. But that's the way of life, yes? Like Moses, we get a glimpse of the Promised Land at the end of the journey, but rarely get to enter it fully. While teaching people in concert to sing the song, "Somos El Barco, Somos El Mar," the late Pete Seeger used to say something like: "Learning the chorus of this song is rather like life: just about the time you get it - its over!" 

Thanks be to God for that - dayenu as our Jewish cousins sing during Passover - even that would be enough: a glimpse, a taste, a simple chorus, a sense that tenderness is our true purpose. Part of the season of Epiphany for those in the Western Christian tradition is about honoring the light. Following the star. Searching for and sensing our purpose within the darkness. It is a journey of mystery and trust that comes into focus only towards the end.

One of the ways our vision is obscured and our hearts confused grows out of our culture. We have been raised in a bottom-line, utilitarian world that doesn't have much room for mystical reflection. It takes time to grow a healthy soul - and we want results. The late Jim Morrison of the Doors used to scream during the 60's: "We want the world and we want it... NOW!" The way of the Lord, however, requires a long, loving look at reality before we slowly move into it. Richard Rohr offers a minority report: 

Most of us who live in a capitalist culture, where everything is about competing and comparing, will find contemplation extremely counter-intuitive. How do we grasp something as empty, as harmless, as seemingly fruitless as the practice of silence? Only when we know that it also offers a “peace beyond understanding” (Philippians 4:7) and a “joy that no one can take from you” (John 16:22).

In this culture, we have to learn to be still. We have to practice slowing down. We have to give ourselves permission to step out of the fray so that we can wander in the wilderness for a season or two. Beyond the demands of success. Without the need to prove our worth. Without feeding our addiction to filling everything full to overflowing. This morning's reflection on scripture, Luke 5: 12-16, reminded me again of how Jesus "withdraws into a deserted place to pray" after bringing healing to a man with leprosy. This seems to be the rhythm of the Lord during the readings for Epiphany: engagement and solitude, teaching/reflection and breaking bread with conversation before returning to work. Rohr writes that silence is particularly important for those of us who seek to engage our 21st century culture of consumption and competition tenderly: silence creates space to be free:

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us in the partial darkness of every situation. We need to practice for many years and make many mistakes in the meantime to learn how to do this. Paul rather beautifully describes this kind of thinking: “Pray with gratitude and the peace of Christ, which is beyond knowledge or understanding (what I would call “the making of distinctions”), will guard both your mind and your heart in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Teachers of contemplation show us how to stand guard and not let our emotions and obsessive thoughts control us. When we’re thinking nondualistically, with this guarded mind and heart, we will feel powerless for a moment, stunned into an embarrassing and welcoming silence. Then we will discover what is ours to do.

The busyness of business and our obsession with judgment and consumption is one of the ways we are trained to miss our deeper purpose in life. Another has roots in how we learn about God. Towards what became the end of his life, the late Henri Nouwen took up residence at L'Arche: first with Jean Vanier and those in community at Trosly, France and later at Daybreak in Toronto, Canada. I am not the only one who believes that Nouwen's words became prophetic and poignant after his shift away from the academy and into the nitty gritty life in community. Not that there wasn't suffering. Nouwen had a complete emotional collapse at Daybreak. But as his world was turned upside down, he became un-apologetically honest about God. This confession is particularly moving:
It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them. I am beginning to now see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the One who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding.

God needs us. Brilliant, don't you think? God aches for companionship. God searches for us. Yearns for us. Works with and through us. And God is changed by our love, too. God ripens and matures, finds new ways to love us just as we do with one another. I see this clearly in the movement of Jesus throughout the gospels: he begins by fiercely demanding that we change directions - repent - using the rigid language of his ascetic cousin John the Baptist. But after moving into relationship with people - broken, wounded, and lonely people - the Bible tells us that Jesus had "compassion upon them for they were like sheep without a shepherd." He began to see with the eyes of his heart. He began to trust what his beloved mother, Mary, had taught him about breaking bread. And holding all things quietly in his heart to ponder. About weeping. And listening. And carrying one another's burdens as well as their joys. To paraphrase Jean Vanier, in Jesus we see a God who desires to belong to creation through love.

This does not diminish God in any way. Yes, it is different from our dualistic deities whom we have defined as all knowing and all powerful. But God can still be wise and empowering through love, yes? God can still be mystically within and among all of creation even as God yearns for companionship, don't you think?. God can still be a mysterious lover even with a broken heart, right? If we trust that we are created in God's image, then we, too were made to love. To belong. To find our purpose through sharing and kindness, rather than crass competition and consumption. This short clip from Vanier is illuminating - part of what helped Nouwen rethink his understanding about God and his relationship with God - perhaps it will be persuasive for you, too.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

poems, silence, anxiety and living into the peace that passes understanding...

This poem has been popping up and demanding attention for a few days. And while I don't quite know what to make of it completely, it evokes something of this moment in time for me - and it feels right.

Early Hominids by Faith Shearin

In one museum scene they are bent over fire
and in another they hold their first stone tools
while the ice age approaches. They have been
painting mastodons and mammoths
in their caves, art already in their animal grasp,
and they have been leaving footprints
in volcanic ash, shedding their skeletons
in deserts. They have begun the journey
from trees to suburbs, have been dressing
themselves in early hats and considering
an alphabet. The young neanderthal looks like
a boy who bit you on the playground
and the woman beside him might be the woman
we avoid at the grocery store. This is evolution:
hair loss, math, a desire for furniture. Already
they worry about predators and weather; already
they have designs for a more comfortable bed.

(for more on the poet please go to her web page @

An oblique but consistent assurance is present in these words: the soul of Hawthorne rather than Emerson peeking through the text to paraphrase Gregory Wolfe. Struggle is real - harsh and hairy with no room for romantic fantasies -  and yet, and this is equally true, built into the essence of our DNA it seems there is also a quiet yearning for "a more comfortable bed." A better life. An existence beyond that which is "nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes) I see this consistently in nature: there is a natural cycle of death begetting life on the road back into death and still more new life once more. Cosmologists suggest that the rhythm of Eucharist is built into the fabric of creation: from out of death comes new life that nourishes the world. Think Big Bang. Food chains. Fire.
This morning David Leonhardt's words in the NY Times suggested something similar in his consideration of the tensions between Iran and the US that are manifesting themselves in death. At the outset, let me be clear: I take a lot of my political/philosophical/theological cues from Reinhold Niebuhr. As a realist, rather than an ideologue, "Reinnie" reminds us that: Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it. He suggests that:

+ Original sin is not inherited organically as Augustine's incomplete and even misogynist science posited; rather it is experienced in the anxiety born of both human freedom and dependence. "We either seek to avoid finitude" by asserting our complete independence and/or loyalty to an idea, leader, or ideology - the sin of pride - or we give up our freedom in pursuit of material pleasures - the sin of sensuality. The wonderful irony in Niebuhr's insight is that "the very freedom that is the occasion for sin also calls us, through conscience, to achieve greater justice and community."(Hein on Niebuhr on Human Nature, Sin and Justice
jchlet1&div=7&id=&page=Built into the logic of creation itself is death and a path into new and better life because of this death. This wisdom is implicitly in his Serenity Prayer, but explicit in this classic summary: 

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

+ This tension between freedom and dependence - anxiety vs. sensuality balanced by conscience - can be seen in what I would call Iran's "measured" response to the belligerent and ill-considered spontaneity of the US President. Our leader, without adults in the room who know how government and diplomacy work and without an ethical bone in his body, appears to be ruled by his reptile brain. He is incapable of thinking and planning for the common good coherently and so acts and reacts in the most vulgar and dangerous ways. What Leonhardtt notes, however, is that there is a larger wisdom being played out.

Last spring, a former Pentagon official named Ilan Goldenberg wrote an article for Foreign Affairs called “What a War with Iran Would Look Like.” It included:

"Between the United States and Iran there is a distinct potential for misunderstanding, not least when both actors are making decisions under time pressure, on the basis of uncertain information, and in a climate of deep mutual distrust. Iran may mistake a one-off strike by the United States as the beginning of a significant military campaign that requires an immediate and harsh response. The danger that the United States will send confusing signals to the Iranians is especially high given Trump’s tendency to go off on Twitter …"

So far — in the hours after Iran’s retaliatory attack on two bases in Iraq that house American troops — this kind of vicious cycle does not look immediately likely. The attacks may not have killed any Americans, and Iran’s foreign minister signaled that the attacks “concluded” Iran’s response to the killing of its top general, Qassim Suleimani.

+ There are, of course, no guarantees - especially given the near insanity and incompetence of our current Commander in Chief. Quoting Ilan Goldberg last night, Leonhardt adds: "The missile attacks are not necessarily the entire Iranian response.” added:

My sense is that Iran needed to do something quickly, something symbolically, something that was public given how public the killing of Soleimani was. … But Iran didn’t want to trigger an all-out war. This Iranian attack is bold. It’s major. It’s significant. But it stops short of killing a large number of Americans. Then the Iranians, on their own state television, they’re saying things like 30 Americans were killed and that Iranian planes are flying into Iraqi territory. They’re saying all kinds of crazy things, which is really for their own domestic audience. So the reality is Iran found a way to, at least for the moment, respond relatively proportionally. … I think Iran will look to do other things over time, just maybe not as public. I still think we need to be worried about things like cyberattacks, terrorist attacks, targeting American embassies, assassination attempts on American officials. I think all those things are entirely on the table for potentially years, frankly, in retaliation.

My point in sharing is simple: breathing and taking time before reacting to almost anything - especially acts of international violence - is essential for peace-makers. All the public hang-wringing and hyperbole of the past few days only deepens our anxiety and traps us in an addictive downward spiral. It is another ironic sign of grace that while our news cycles have been hyper-ventilating about all the horrific possibilities that may occur, Fr. Richard Rohr's on-line meditations have been focused on silence. Not as an escape from reality, but rather as a way to live into this moment with a non-anxious presence that empowers our hearts with peace. 

When we connect with silence as a living, primordial presence, we can then see all other things—and experience them deeply—inside that container. Silence is not just an absence, but a primal presence. Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things. To be clear, the kind of silence I’m describing does not ignore injustice. While some folks who claim to be enlightened contemplatives are merely navel-gazers, as Thomas Merton suggested, there are others who use silence to advance the cause of justice. Barbara Holmes explains:

"We tend to presume that one must create silent spaces for contemplation. It is as if we have drawn the spiritual veil around contemplative activity, seeking to distance prayerful and reflective practices from the noise of the world. [That couldn’t be further from the truth!]... European domination in Africa and in other nations elicited the silence of those captive cultures... Some of us allow [silence] to fully envelop and nurture our seeking; others who have been silenced by oppression seek to voice the joy of spiritual reunion in an evocative counterpoint."

Merton added: "That as frightening as it may be to “center down,” we must find the stillness at the core of the shout, the pause in the middle of the “amen,” as first steps toward restoration." Fear and anxiety are not the way to live into the Beloved Community. They are not an alternative to the brokenness and anger of this era, but a sign of how deeply were are enmeshed in the mess. Rohr adds:

We must find a way to return to this place, live in this place, abide in this place of inner silence. Outer silence means very little if there is not a deeper inner silence. Everything else appears much clearer when it appears or emerges out of silence. Without silence, we do not really experience our experiences. We are here, but not in the depth of here. We have many experiences, but they do not have the power to change us, awaken us, or give us the joy and peace that the world cannot give, as Jesus says (John 14:27). Without some degree of inner and even outer silence, we are never living, never tasting the moment. The opposite of contemplation is not action, it is reaction. We must wait for pure action, which proceeds from deep silence.

Within the mess, within the sin, within the anxiety, and our worry about " the predators and weather, already (we) have designs for a more comfortable bed." 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

today I will... clean

Today, I will clean. At noon, we will take the decorations off the tree; gather-up the candles, stockings, and garlands; wrap the glass icicles and the hand-made tapestries; put away the electric fairy lights and bring this season to a close. Our engagement with the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle has run its course. And as all wise hosts understand, when the celebration is complete, it is best savored surrounded by silence. We need to rest from the sensuality of the incarnation, a time to pause and reflect, a chance to regain a measure of perspective. 

So I will dust, vacuum, wash floors and all the rest. It is a leave-taking of sorts, this "un-hanging of the green," that offers a sobering clarity into a New Year beginning. There is an emptying, too, like a fast or extended quiet time that creates space for whatever might come next. A bleak midwinter? Probably. A season for penitence and compassion in Lent? Inevitably. The startling song of the red wing blackbird after it slips back into town under cover of the night? Assuredly. Mud? The return of the sun? Clearing the land? Gardening? Wars and rumors of wars? Heartache? Waiting? Yes, yes, yes and more yes! But first there is the cleaning: the text tells us that after finding the tiny Christ Child in a most unexpected place, the Magi returned home a different way.

That is part of what the cleaning means for me. I find myself looking forward to moving out the clutter and simplifying our front room again. Our tree has been wonderful - a place of quiet reflection most evenings in the glow of candle light - but now our old friend is drooping and shedding pine needles. It needs to be hauled back into the wetlands so it can break down and rejoin the cycle of creation by the time the Spring Equinox rolls around. Cleaning brings clarity to our home, giving us a chance to re-imagine how it might become a space that nurtures more hospitality in the year come. One hope is to host a series of small, quiet dinners in 2020 using resources from the Living Room  Conversations to practice listening and welcoming new people into our small world. They put it like this on their website:

We can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division by starting new conversations that build relationships — move from "us vs. them" to "you and me." We can transform the toxicity of tribalism into positive connections through conversation. Each person who listens first to understand tips the scales toward a stronger and more equitable for our nation and better relationships in our daily lives. (

What else might the encounter of the Magi with the Christ Child mean for us? I think that the birth is blessed, but it is just the beginning of honoring the light,
regularly returning thanks throughout the day, and finding new ways to rest into the presence of reflection and silence. I wonder how shall we return our home to a place that keeps the busyness at bay? Are there new/old ways to bring sensual, creative and artistic gifts into our space to replace the light of our tree?  To help us push back the darkness that threatens to squeeze God's peace out of our hearts? 

This notion is new to me, but I have been pondering some icons. Generations in the East have found that visual prayers contribute to a spirit of contemplation in the home long after the feasting and celebrations are over. For our family, the icons would need to be simple but creative. I would want to replace them seasonally, too both to deepen my liturgical prayer and because I get bored easily. 

Henri Nouwen wrote an elegant little book on using icons to pray with our eyes: Behold the Beauty of the Lord. I first read it in 1987 - thirty three years ago - and it still stands the test of time. What I had not realized until today, however, is that Henri was first introduced to icons at L'Arche in Trosly, France during a series of retreats. Had the late Jean Vanier's assistant, Barbara Swanekamp, had not placed an icon in the theologian's room, "this book probably would not have been written." In an introduction Nouwen writes;

Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, call us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers (and mothers) focus on gazing.

Two icons that have caught my eye of late: "Epiphany" by the contemporary
artist Janet McKenzie, and, "Adoration of the Magi" from the ancient Ethiopian Coptic tradition. The first offers a creative insight into the blessings of Epiphany not only by picturing the Magi as Three Wise Women, but also by painting the participants as part of a bold and inclusive rainbow of humanity. (For an excellent description of this painting, please see Christine Schenk's article from the National Catholic Reporter @ https://www.ncronline. org/blogs/simply-spirit/epiphany-wise-women)
The second, from the Coptic Church of Africa, is equally captivating to me. It, too, is inclusive and creative; one time it looks ancient and then it looks completely contemporary. I love that all eyes are clearly fixed upon the Christ Child. 
Icons and candles will never replace the Christmas Tree. And they shouldn't. But they could give us another way to return to our home in a new way that is still grounded in the spirituality of Epiphany. Richard Wehrman's poem, "The Call" hit me just right today:

It’s not the day on the
calendar that makes the
New Year new, it’s when
the old year dies that the new
year gets born. It’s when the
ache in your heart breaks
open, when new love makes
every cell in your body
align. It’s when your baby
is born, it’s when your
father and mother die. It’s
when the new Earth is
discovered and it’s the
ground you’re standing on.
The old year is all that is
broken, the ash left from all
those other fires you made;
the new year kindles from
your own spark, catches flame
and consumes all within
that is old, withered and dry.
The New Year breaks out
when the eye sees anew,
when the heart breathes open
locked rooms, when your
dead branches burst into
blossom, when the Call comes
with no doubt that it’s
calling to you.

Monday, January 6, 2020

epiphany 2020: gratitude for the liturgies that gives shape and form to my spirituality

There is a gentle snow falling with full, fat flakes on our part of the world right now. It fills me with a sense of stillness and gratitude. I adore days like these - especially when I don't have to go out and hustle about - worrying about whether another is driving too fast on roads that are too slick. But there are errands to attend, so out I will go. 

It is the Feast of the Epiphany in my Western Christian tradition - also Christmas Day for Eastern Orthodox believers. Once upon a time, I was in the former Soviet Union on this exact day, in the beautiful city that used to be called Leningrad (St. Petersburg.) It was snowing that day, too when we came upon a church whose choir was rehearsing for midnight mass. They welcomed our small band of visitors from the West into their presence like the Magi - with holy hospitality - sharing smiles, hugs, and songs as neither group could speak the other's language. And for a moment in time, nothing else mattered: the snow and candles sparkled, a capella voices mimicked the heavenly host, and something of the Christ Child was mysteriously revealed within and among us that night.

So often this is the way with the Christ Child shows up: unexpectedly in the oddest yet ordinary places. The collect for this feast hints at how we experience this mystery with language both simple and direct: "O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen." (BOCP, p. 214) 

Our prayer suggests there are clues, symbols, and signs in real life that beckon us to follow the star if we have eyes to see and hearts to trust. Such is the calling of those who, "live by faith rather than sight." We look for clues, we listen for songs, we take time to be still, we wander in the wilderness, we let ourselves be surprised one more time so we can taste and see the goodness of the Lord. And over the course of a lifetime, these small, mystical moments and clues add up so that we sense something of God's glory even as we await its fullness face to face.
St. Paul's confession that, "now we see as through a glass darkly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully even as I have been fully known" (I Corinthians 13: 12) holds multiple truths for us. From the time I was a small child till earlier today, I have known a multitude of epiphanies. Some have been life changing, causing me to return home by another path like the Magi (Matthew 2: 12). Others have been "aha" moments of delight when I suddenly glimpsed a piece of the bigger picture. While still others have shown up as brooding questions or agonizing mysteries totally beyond my comprehension that I have had to hold and ponder in my heart silently for years like the mother of Jesus (Luke 1: 19/51). Cumulatively they have become my answer to the question: Why do you continue to live by faith when so much of your religion is broken and even bad? My answer is because I have tasted the goodness of the Lord in small ways throughout my life - a song on the car radio that lifts me beyond my grief at just the right moment, a friend who sends me an email from out of nowhere and we start to repair a broken friendship, the waves of the ocean that draw me under then toss me back on the sand as a child as I start to sense the enormity of awe, my special needs dog looks up at me every morning with total trust, I help deliver each of my two daughters as God invites us into the sacred act of welcoming new life into the world, I collapse in tears of release during confession - and each of these small encounters nourish me more than I warrant or deserve. Like Bono used to say: grace trumps karma.

The grandfather of Western Comparative Religion, the late Huston Smith, used to say that the essence of his religious formation could be summed up as: "We are in good hands, in gratitude for this goodness it would be well if we bore one another's burdens." (For more on Smith go to: https://www.motherjones. com/politics/1997/11/world-religion-according-huston-smith/) In another conversation in the Buddhist periodical, Tricycle, Smith reminds us that every institution has a dark side. "Would you dispense with learning institutions because of the problems of the universities?" (
/spirituality-versus-religion/) Religion is organized spirituality. It gives shape, form, and content to our deepest values and most important truths. It abides long after our emotions have faded from memory. Smith adds:

Religion has preserved history’s greatest wisdom teachings. If the Buddha had not founded the sangha, the community of monks, the Four Noble Truths and the bodhisattva vow would have evaporated in a generation. If Jesus had not been followed by Saint Paul, who founded the Christian Church, the Sermon on the Mount would have been forgotten in a generation or two....Spirituality (alone) gives us a nice, warm feeling, but it doesn’t reach out to other people. When India had a horrendous earthquake three or four years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle listed ten organizations to which you could send contributions to help. Five of the ten were religious; “spirituality” wasn’t one of them. What’s not good for our culture is when spirituality elbows religion aside because it sees itself as superior and sees only the downside of organized religion. The upside is far greater. Robert Bellah, a retired professor from UC Berkeley and one of the most discerning sociologists I know, says that, without the support of churches, the civil-rights movement would never have succeeded. And without the opposition of mainline churches in the eighties, we would have had troops in Guatemala and El Salvador backing up the CIA and installing or defending corrupt dictators. (Water from A Deeper Well, The Sun Magazine interview with Huston Smith @

On this Epiphany it is clear to me that while my particular religious tradition is dying a natural death - and must do so without artificially prolonging its demise - the way of Jesus will continue. The preacher who was inspired by St. Paul to craft the New Testament book of Hebrews said: "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8) Not that Jesus was static - or rigid - or ethically calcified. But, rather, that his small way of loving and sharing the core of God's grace remains throughout time - and beyond time. I still find great value in the liturgical organization of my wider Christian family. So today I rejoice that the liturgy helps me grasp what might otherwise remain obscure. Epiphany celebrates the mystery of how the Christ Child continues to be born in the most unlikely places. It asks me to be grateful that the blessings of God continue to be shared beyond tribe, race, creed, and culture. And it invites me to keep that sharing alive. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

to everything there is a season: silence instead of the so-called news for epiphany...

Being enslaved and/or addicted to the news cycle in the West is dangerous not only to our mental and spiritual well-being, but also to our physical health. It is one of the ways the "master class" (to use Eugene V. Debs old-school term) keeps us anxious, distracted, and reactive. The stress and hyper-tension that is intentionally created by Tweets, FB, 24/7 reporting, and all the rest keeps us awake, unsettles any sense of equilibrium, and taxes our immune system. It is no coincidence that ALL of my spiritual directors for the past 30 years have urged me to: 1) disconnect from all forms of so-called news on a daily basis, and, 2) practice periodic total fasting from the "news" throughout the year. I recall reading somewhere that the late Jean Vanier made a commitment to watching only one news summary each week - and it was fundamentally a time for weeping and prayers of lament. The rest of his hours were spent listening to and visiting with his loved ones, walking in nature, praying the hours, and sharing food and laughter with those who needed him the most. I think he was right.

Over the past year, various mainstream media writers have confessed that they, too, have recognized the value of fasting from social media, cable newscasts, and print journalism. David Leonhart of the NY Times not only stopped posting during the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, but also wrote in support of turning off your phone for thanksgiving. "About a month ago," he wrote, "my wife and I decided that our family would spend a Saturday without the internet, a practice known as a Tech Shabbat (a reference to the Jewish day of rest)."

I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it, I’ll admit, and our kids were even less sure.But it was wonderful. We hung out with friends, without distraction. We never had to ask, guiltily, “Sorry, what’d you say?” because we had been only semi-listening. In between scheduled activities, we took a walk and played a board game, Settlers of Catan. I spent time thinking about long-term projects instead of replying to unimportant emails. It felt productive, rejuvenating and, yes, fun. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who popularized the idea of a Tech Shabbat, says that on her day without screens, she laughs more, sleeps better and feels healthier. As she writes in her recent book, “24/6”: “Having one day off each week shocks you anew into the realization of how bizarre it is that everyone is head-down, looking at screens all the time. That should never feel normal.” (

Ours is a culture simultaneously liberated from the restraints of out-moded and oppressive religion, but also unmoored from time-tested spiritual practices designed to help us rest, grow in wisdom, and advance tenderness in a harsh world. In a neglected but brilliant book, Rediscovering Reverence, author Ralph Heintzman explores how a secular culture"nurtures the virtues of reverence consciously." Some turn to nature and/or art - wonderful encounters with grace and awe - that open individual hearts. Heintzman notes that "seeking spirituality outside a religious frame of reference is certainly worthwhile, as far as it goes."

What non-religious spiritualities often miss is the essence of spirituality - that is spiritual habits, spiritual exercise, spiritual discipline, spiritual behavior and action in the world - (which) is why people prefer the non-religious kinds of spirituality: they are easier. They make fewer real demands. They don't make you change your routines, our your habits, or yourself, or your world. They don't require a turning of the heart, the inner transformation that Thomas Aquinas called "faith." ... These attitudes fit well both with the culture of comfort and convenience in contemporary (Western) societies - the culture of self-assertion and expressive individualism - sometimes called a culture of narcissism.
(p. 188)

A colleague recently captured the dilemma of this moment in time in his post: Keeping the Christmas Decorations Up Till the Feast of the Epiphany. "While the Reformation and the Age of the Enlightenment may have freed us from the "evil" superstitions of religion, it also stripped us of the sensuality of the spiritual in our lives." Nearly everyone in the USA has fled the moribund and antiseptic worship habits of the Reformed tradition. Countless have given up on the Roman Catholic experience with their never-ending disclosure of yet another sexual violation. And younger believers have abandoned the emotional buzz of Evangelicalism because of its anti-science, anti-intellectual irrelevance. In the absence of a sensual, sensible, mystical, and morally meaningful faith traditions, it is no wonder many look for simpler, easier, do-it-yourself spiritualities. 

The spiritual engages more than the rational side of our lives(which is about all the Reformation churches do) it also engages our senses, so that we can smell and taste and feel the presence of the divine in our lives beyond just thinking about the Divine. So I am glad to bring to my Protestant affiliation all of my Catholic baggage around the sensuality of the incarnation. I am proud to keep the Christmas decorations up beyond Christmas(the rational thinkers look at Christmas as an event on the calendar and scurry to take every down immediately), because the sensuality of the manger and the tree and the lights give flesh to what the incarnation is about, in a way that moves us beyond the head and into the heart and the guts and the work a day world that needs a little more sensitivity to life, more patience with the struggle of life. One of the children at our Christmas Eve service(the first Children's sermon ever in our congregation) when asked what do we know about babies said: "They cry all the time!!!" I said yes, and it moves us to respond by feeding and caring and doing all the other things we do for babies. So is to the sensuality of the incarnation and the great manifestation of the Epiphany: God becomes human so that we might experience more of the divine in our midst! (Find Vern's other insights on Face Book.)

Two emerging realities are slowly and quietly offering alternatives to both the antiquated religious traditions of the 21st century and the shallowness of self-centered spirituality. One is the reclamation of time-tested spiritual practices like Sabbath, silence, fasting, contemplation, and acts of compassion albeit with a New Age groove. The other is equally revolutionary but smaller, simpler, and rooted in new forms of ancient practices. 

+ Ethan Blake describes one approach in an article in The Forward:
"Jewish or Gentile, rigid or fluid, as a boisterous Friday night dinner or solo Saturday retreat — the practice of Shabbat can offer an accessible gift of spiritual transformation. As we strive daily to fix our inherently broken world in quests for idols and deceptive messiahs, perhaps Shabbat is a true and accessible utopia, neither a perfect nation nor era of peace, but a weekly consciousness that sees infinite gratitude for what really matters in our finite lives." (https://forward.
com/life /faith/ 414199/the-secular-case-for-a-biblical-sabbath/

+ Tim Cahan points to a vastly different way in Rolling Stone: "A week before Kanye West and the Kardashians turned Easter Sunday into a hyped up celebration of music and merch, Diplo, Flume and a half-dozen other electronic acts had descended upon the shabby-chic Two Bunch Palms resort outside Palm Springs for a two-day event dubbed “Secular Sabbath.” Their goal: to provide an oasis for calm and creativity, set close enough to Coachella for attendees to feel the music, but far enough for them to feel a difference too."

The second alternative reclaims the importance of eating together, entering the silence of contemplation together, and caring for one another's wounds in community. It is free from denominational dogma and dominance, too but firmly rooted in the historic wisdom traditions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism. This clip from last week's PBS News is illustrative.

What all of the new/old experiments emphasize in very different ways are:

+ Maintaining primal encounters with the sacred: "Those moments when a mysterious power seems to break through the surface of ordinary human existence" as Heintzman describes it. Spirituality is not about belief or doctrine but encounters with the sacred - and how they can change our lives.

+ Linking our horizontal and vertical experiences of the holy with time-tested wisdom:  Spiritual practices shared both in community and in private often are enriched when interpreted by tradition. Cynthia Bourgeault writes that when spirituality is shaped only by experience, it loses touch with the practice of surrender - and remains shallow.

+ Learning to discern the connections between ecstasy and everyday reverence:  There is a rhythm to mature spirituality - like the beating of the heart - that trains us in the "in and out, back and forth, permanence and change, part and whole, union and union-union, rhythm of creation" that can sustain us through all of reality. (Heintzman)

After the current regime murdered Suleimani - boasting of their horrible act as righteous and ratcheting up their ugly rhetoric when diffusing fear and hatred would be in order - our news cycle went into hyperbolic overdrive. Non-stories filled with violent images filled the airwaves. Like Chris Hedges used to say: our "news" is addicted to blood and adrenaline, pumping us all up in ways that are degrading and unhealthy. Once again, I sense that it is time to turn them all OFF. It is time to be together with others in prayer. And silence. And it is time to dial back our own reactive vitriol. We can be angry, challenging, and direct without being vulgar, stupid, and cruel. We can join our voices with other peace-makers seeking a way through the danger that builds solidarity instead of merely adding more self-righteous noise to the already cluttered cacophony.

During the season of Epiphany, that begins with the Feast Day tomorrow, until Lent: why not practice a fast from the news cycle? Why not replace your obsession with prayer? Your speaking with silence? Your individualism with community? Could you? Would you? What do you need to make it happen? Let's give it a try maybe using this as our foundation?

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 

new musical horizons are taking shape...

One of the ideas that I am going to be sitting with for the next two weeks while in sunny Tucson is this: Is it time to create a Pentangle-l...