Tuesday, August 4, 2020

all blues...

One of the truths I rediscover time and again about intentional solitude, silence
and contemplation is that whenever I make this commitment to rest into deep reflection, I uncover an aching intimacy with the wounds of the world - and I weep. There is a soul rattling urgency to this mourning that makes me cry, "No wonder I look for distractions - 
such sorrow is exhausting!" Yet still I return. Slowly, to be sure, and with a tentative naivete, too. For remembering why I fled these blues in first place floods my heart with shame and confusion: what gives rise to such lament? Am I really such a coward? Or fool? Is there verve enough in grace to endure still another season of this inward squall? Like Ezekiel standing on the brink of the valley of dry bones I confess: "Only Thou knowest, Lord, only Thou." Gunnilla Norris suggests in Sharing Silence that "we discover ourselves, our actual presence to the life within and around us," in solitude.

When we are present, deeply attentive, we cannot be busy controlling. Instead we become beholders -- giving ourselves up to the mystery of things. We become more willing to let things be. And, as a consequence we can also let ourselves be. Through silence our days are illumined -- like rooms filled with light -- so we may inhabit our lives.

My truest self is what then: shrouded in tears? A grounding in anguish as well as elation? Small wonder I love me some blues, n'est pas? I lost it yesterday during the Poor Peoples "Moral Monday" live streaming with the Rev. Dr. William Barber. He shared this clip from the June online rally that was for me a moment when ecstasy embraced grief and gave voice to God's judgment and promise simultaneously. It was a musical incarnation of Psalm 85 where God's steadfast love and wisdom meet and shalom and hesed kiss.
How serendipitous that this Psalm is paired with the Lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday wherein Jesus meets his terrified disciples on a lake during a storm? The arc of Hurricane Isaias is starting to unleash its power over us now and will continue to do so through the night. My tears feel like this storm. Like the storm over the ancient lake, too and the storm shaking and maybe cleansing America even as the contagion rages. The poet, Marilyn Nelson, put it like this to Krista Tippet:

There’s a big difference between / the mentalities of magic and of alliance. / People who spend their lives searching for God have a magical mentality: / They need a sign, a proof, / a puff of smoke, an irrefutable miracle. / People who have an alliance mentality / know God by loving.”

Tippet: I’m really intrigued by that phrase, “an alliance mentality.” What do you mean by that?

Nelson:I  think people who have a “magic mentality” believe that God is something out there that we have to find to connect with and people who have an “alliance mentality” know that God is inside of us and in our connections with each other and with the world, that God exists within and between, not exterior to us, but within us and between us. I think that’s what he was trying to say.

Tippett: So we are allied with whatever God is.

Nelson: Yes.

Tippett: And with everything we’re part of.

Nelson: Yes. There is no separation. We are a part of God. That’s — isn’t that the ecstatic experience? We recognize that. And some people know that just naturally. Other people have to learn it.

And so a beautiful sorrow deepens within me today. Not depression, more alliance - alliance with all that is holy in this broken time - the blues in all its hues. Like the lyrics Oscar Brown, Jr. crafted for the Miles Davis masterpiece: "All Blues." It is a rainbow, a lament, the dark sad and the bright glad... they're all blues.

The sea, the sky, the you and I
The sea, the sky, for you and I
I'll know we're all blues
All Shades, all hues, all blues

Some blues are sad
But some are glad,
Dark-sad or bright-glad
They're all blues
All shades, all hues, all blues

The color of colors
The blues are more than a color
They're a moan of pain
A Taste of strife
And a sad refrain

A game which life is playin'
Blues can be the livin' dues
We're all a-payin'
Yeah, Oh Lord
In a rainbow
A summer day that's fair
A prayer is prayed
A lament that's made
Some shade of blues is there;
Blue heaven's hue,
They're all blues

Monday, August 3, 2020

hold on just a little while longer...

This past week we visited IN PERSON with part of our family. It was glorious - the first time in over five months - and while there is more of the family still to be held close and listened to deeply, this reunion was holy ground. Three full days of soul food. Given the constraints of the pandemic, it wasn't extraordinary or filled with special activities. That was an unintended blessing because mostly we simply ate, walked around the garden, played freeze-tag on the lawn, and talked and talked and talked together: with the little ones - and their special insights and questions - and with the adults and all our well-moderated grief and gratitude.
When the party was over and the crew left for their Brooklyn home, we wept. Holding on to my adult daughter for life itself as we both quietly sobbed, I heard myself whisper, "We'll get through this, ok?" I guess there is no good way to hold down these parental sensibilities as they rise to the surface without any warning. Still, my words startled me. What do I know about what's going to happen next, right? I have no wisdom or experience with such things. How could I mumble such a thing? But it wasn't hubris talking. In that moment, it was pure love between a father and his oldest daughter. And when that moment passed, and we wiped away our tears and nodded our assent, did we both inwardly wonder, "I want to believe this even if I don't know how?" I know I did. There are challenges and fears this woman faces in just the next month that I cannot comprehend. As a middle school teacher in NYC, we still don't know what will be demanded of her physically or professionally as politicians, parents and front line teachers wrestle with the coming school year. What will those demands mean for her young family? For her own health? God only knows...

When I began this morning's guided meditation on a story from St. Matthew's gospel about Jesus going into the mountains at night to pray in solitude, I wasn't consciously fretting about all of this. I've heard it so many times before, and even with the sacred, familiarity can breed contempt Or at least inattention. As the narrative deepens, we're told that Christ's disciples took a boat across the lake as the night descends. A storm arises and those in the boat are filled with terror when they see Jesus walking towards them on the water. I was not prepared for the meditation leader to ask, "What storms are facing you right now?" In my silence, nothing bubbled to the surface, so I made the sign of the cross, prayed the Gloria, and brought my prayers to a close.

Listening to Krista Tippet's interview with Pauline Boss a little later, however, pushed that meditation straight into my heart. Together they spoke about our losses, both small and large, as we really start to settle in now. "We're going through a global, civilizational moment of ambiguous loss at a societal level," Tippet said.

Boss: Yes. We have lost. Indeed, we have lost our freedom to go about our day as we always have. We have lost our freedom to visit with our loved ones or to have lunch with dear friends. And, I must say again, because the school thing is coming up, the young people have lost, not only a year, it may be two years, of what they usually do: go to school in the usual manner; make friends; socialize; learn; learn. And that generation will have to carry that the rest of their lives.

Tippett:I ’m finding, personally, and picking up in others — obviously, this is not a scientific study I’ve done — but it feels to me, in myself and in others, that I’ve hit this moment. I don’t know how many months we are on now, from March …

Boss: Too many.

Tippett: Yes, certainly. But certainly, in March and April and May, there was a sense that this will end; that this is something we have to do so that we can get through this. And even things that got cancelled got rescheduled for, first, July, and then September, October. And I feel like it’s really settling in now, the losses. And they’re large and small, as you say. People have lost loved ones. But there’s also this loss of going to the office; of certainty, like that your kids will go to school.

These two wise and vulnerable women then spoke of grief - how exhausting it is, how it sneaks up on you when you least expect it, how it continues to wear us down individually and collectively - and how the only way through it is with rest, honesty, meaning-filled rituals and connecting with the people we love. That's when my tears returned. They're flowing still as I take stock of all our losses both great and small. As the conversation moved towards conclusion, Ms. Boss said something clarifying for me:

Gradually, working with the people who are suffering from ambiguous loss all these years — I’ve learned from them that you can live with it. You can, eventually, not embrace it and maybe not even accept it, but you can decide to live with it. You can decide to accept it. “Decide” is the main word there. And then you can live well, nevertheless. I think none of us should feel helpless. And we do now, in many ways. So we have to decide how to cope with it, have some things you can control, because you certainly can’t control the virus, yet... That’s why everybody’s baking bread or cleaning a cupboard, whatever, and maybe doing more physical exercise. Those are good things, because you can control that. And you have to have that, because we’re going to have a year of not being in control of the virus, so you’ve got to have something you’re in control over. I love to see that so many people are cooking and baking. I think that’s just lovely.

One of the things I committed to doing at the start of the pandemic was crafting a weekly spiritual reflection for my friends via Face Book live-streaming. At first it included a professional aspect. Before the lock down, I had been contracted to lead worship at a local congregation in search of an interim pastor so we figured how to do worship virtually together. After two weeks though, I kept at it. It became a way for me to give shape and form to my concerns as well as a means of staying in touch with people I care about deeply. Prayerfully reflecting on the movement of the Spirit at this moment in time not only keeps me grounded in a love greater than my grief, but keeps me connected to real, live human beings in this season of self-quarantine. It's not a perfect medium, of course, but it is far better than secluding in total isolation. Without these connections I fear my grief would be crushing.

Taking stock of the losses within my little world, intuitively I reclaimed some small rituals - including the new practice of live streaming - so that I might settle in to this moment. These practices awaken me to reality and nudge me towards the unspoken truth that God's presence abides even in this whirlwind. I am starting to relearn how to pray the monastic hours. I have removed The Guardian app from my phone and computer so that I can't compulsively check in on the latest catastrophe in our so-called news cycles. Di and I are finding time to sit together in the cool of each evening surrounded by the beauty of the wetlands as it shimmers through the mystery of our fairy lights. Like the poet, Brad Aaron Modlin, said in "What You Missed That Day in Fourth Grade" for a moment, we can simply be:

... Mrs. Nelson drew a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

In between placing our online grocery order, going to the hardware store for a board to repair yet one more worn-out portion of the deck, and gathering up cheap cleanser and household goods at Wal-Mart, I read the monthly letter from 
Diana Butler Bass. It was a quiet confession that she, too, is reclaiming some new/old rituals as she, too settles into the reality of spending the rest of this year in solitude: 

In recent days I’ve found myself less anxious than in the past, as I’ve leaned on these words from the late Marcus Borg’s final book,
Convictions“Centering in God transforms us. It changes us. It produces what Paul called ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ and ‘the gifts of the Spirit.’ It is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘You will know them by their fruits.’ The fruits of centering in God are many and intertwined, but the most important are compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude. Sequencing them is thus not about their relative importance; they all go together.” Cultivating the fruits of compassion, freedom and courage, and gratitude seem just right at this moment. Compassion is neighbor-directed love; freedom and courage are the power to resist anxiety and fear; and gratitude awakens our senses to gift and wonder. I can’t think of any four things I long for – that I need – that we need – more right now.
There clearly IS a storm rising within and among us - and it is going to be so for a whole lot longer. In order to stay grounded in love and not get swept away in the wreckage, I need these new/old rituals - including the incomplete contact of the virtual world - to keep me connected to all I hold dear. "Hold on, just a little while longer" the gospel singers tell us, "everything gonna be alright." I believe, I believe, Lord, help my unbelief."

Sunday, August 2, 2020

time for the friar to dance with the monk

 I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s in the United States – an era that sometimes felt liberating to me but also at times unhinged – joyful but frightening, compassionate yet oh so self-absorbed, naive, arrogant, creative, big-hearted, and ultimately wounded. During those days I fell in love with the Lord of Godspell – a mystical, musical, marvelous God who was tender and strong at the same time, grounded in the celebration of the ordinary yet willing to bring hope and healing to all my unique, hurting places – equal parts laughter and tears, male and female, night and day, gay and straight, sensual and ascetic and wonderfully multiracial. From the outset of the pandemic I’ve been taking a long, loving look backwards over my sacred influences. And I confess that my spirituality has been mainly a series of revisions, additions, subtractions, and corrections to the central truths that first touched my heart in Godspell.

While crafting my doctoral dissertation I was drawn back to Godspell – and its
source – a small volume penned in 1970 by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox entitled, The Feast of Fools. It is a joyful yet challenging Christian critique of our culture as it became increasingly violent, greedy, unmoored from sound ethical standards, and fueled by fear and shame. It was moving to me in my youth and foundational for my study of how to discern the sacred in popular culture. Fifty years later, Feast of Fools continues to speak truth to me when Cox writes:

The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of our culture, and the weakness of God is stronger than our own. In previous generations, Christ has come in various guises: as teacher, as judge, as healer. Today these traditional images have lost much of their power. Now Christ has made an unexpected entrance onto the stage of moderns secular life and enters as Christ the harlequin: the personification of festivity and fantasy in an age that has almost lost both Coming now in greasepaint and halo, this Christ is able to touch our jaded modern consciousness as other personas cannot. (Feast of Fools, p. 167)

Interestingly, that same little book by Harvey Cox became the theological foundation for the musical Godspell itself when a young Carnegie Mellon University student was inspired by it to create an upbeat musical alternative to a thoroughly lifeless Easter Sunday liturgy. It seems that Michael John Treblak worshipped at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh on Easter Sunday 1970. But instead of a feast celebrating the sublime gift of grace and resurrection, he was forced to endure a mumbling, disinterested priest leading a boring, worn-out ceremony that made him feel as if the church was trying to roll the stone BACK in front of Christ’s empty tomb rather than proclaim the reign of love and fresh starts. To add insult to injury, on his way home from worship, Treblak was stopped by a policeman and frisked for drugs because his long hair made the officer suspicious. Six months later, Treblak turned his desecrated Easter experience into a contemporary festival based on St. Matthew’s gospel that was infused with the insights of Harvey Cox as well as the joy of Vatican II folk-rock music and poetry.

One song in particular captures the show’s charism for me – and I have recently reclaimed the mystical medieval English supplication for my own prayers – because “Day by Day” gets everything right. It starts with a gentle folk melody that carries a 13th century text into the present day – with a dash of 12 Step wisdom thrown in for good measure. The prayer humbly asks for daily bread in three forms: May God help me to see my path more clearly, experience grace more dearly, and follow the way of wisdom revealed in Jesus more nearly – day by day - not for all time and not in a heroic manner – just one day at a time within my ordinary world.

Day by day – day by day
Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly
To follow thee more nearly, day by day

This morning I want to consider what it might mean for those of us who gather here at Small is Holy to pray this prayer together – or some version like it – as part of our shared commitment for the remainder of 2020. When it first became essential for many of us to shelter at home and practice solidarity through solitude none of us knew how long it would last. I know that I first thought that maybe we’ll be done by early summer. By May, however, it was increasingly clear that this manner of living was going to be a much longer reality. And now we know that we’re going to be doing this for the better part of a year – and probably well into 2021, too. So, I’m wondering what does it mean for us to be open to God’s loving presence personally when most of our time is now shaped by silence and some version of seclusion?

If it is true, as the old hymn teaches, that “time makes ancient truth uncouth,” then how might we be open to the guidance of the Spirit in this season of confinement, quarantine, and relative isolation as it stretches into autumn and then winter? I know that I have tried not to waste the first five months of this desert-like retreat nor ignore its meaning for me personally or as a citizen of our broken nation – and I haven’t always been successful. And yet during this time I have been drawn to a whole new way of paying attention to two ever-changing, always challenging passages of scripture.

The first comes from the close of St. John’s gospel where the resurrected but still wounded Jesus comes to Peter to ask his old friend: do you love me? Three times Jesus asks this of Peter: do you love me? Each time mirrors one of Peter’s previous denials and each time Peter is pushed to own his yearning for forgiveness. As the conversation closes, Jesus tells his old friend: Understand this, when you were young, you went where you wanted to go and did what you wanted to do; but now that you are older there will come a time when another will gird your waist and lead you into those places where you do NOT want to go. That’s what the reality of an extended self-quarantine for the rest of 2020 feels like to me: a place that I do NOT want to go – and yet I must.

What is God saying to me in this? What is God starting to reveal to me – and to us all – during this next cycle of uncertainty? How will our love of the holy and our commitment to our sisters and brothers in community find shape and form in the days to come? This is one text that is helping me pay attention right now even if I’m not yet clear what it fully means.

The other is a wisdom poem from the Hebrew Bible that begins: “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven” from Ecclesiastes 3. The text continues with: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

This past week we reunited with our Brooklyn children and grandchildren for the first time in person in five months. What a delight – a time of laughter and tears, rejoicing and sorrow, a little bit of dancing, a whole lot of feasting all within the context of anxiety as well as trust. When it was over our hearts were full to overflowing with gratitude and grief – it was THIS text on steroids – with all the polarities rolled into three days of love and longing. As our grandson, Louie, made his goodbye with Di as we were sharing hugs in the driveway, he said: This was the best visit EVER! And then, without missing a beat, asked her: Why do you think this was true? Man, out of the mouths of babes, yes? Zoom has its place and social media can keep us connected and I give thanks for them both, but there is nothing like heart to heart affection and the touch of a loving embrace. The intensity of this visit promises to become the norm for months to come – for us and so many others – so what will we discover in our new encounters with divine paradox and balance?

What I’m going to share with you now is very personal: less my regular mystical
reflection on Scripture for this season of solitude and more my still unfolding sense of how the Lord is luring me into a deeper practice of balance. “Day by Day,” is part of it. I must stay grounded in a one day at a time mode. For whenever I start wondering where this is heading – and it all changes so quickly that I often feel dizzy and confused – I can easily slip into fear. Not to be grounded in grace but lost in the sorrow of time and space may be natural, but I don’t believe it is where God wants me to stay. Unmoored and adrift in dread. St. Paul put it like this in Ephesians 4: We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery and their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into the life worthy of our calling… being present to the world with humility and gentleness, being patient with ourselves and bearing with one another in love.

Being patient with ourselves and bearing with one another in compassion is one way for me to get a grip on this moment in time. A spiritual friend spoke of this as the practice of contemplation taking a long, loving look at what is real. In my life and the world – NOT navel gazing or trying to escape reality but taking the time over the long haul to notice what is going on within and among us through the lens of love, truth, and patience. Recently I’ve come across the way Christine Valters Paintner speaks of this as trusting the soul’s slow ripening in real time. Isn’t that a beautiful insight? Trusting and listening to the soul’s slow ripening in real time. There’s no judgment in those words, no shame or rush to a find a bottom-line solution either; just the supple movement of the Spirit leading us towards our best selves. St. Paul encourages this gentleness when he reminds us that “now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face.” That’s another biblical touchstone for me: it gives me permission to ask questions, to stumble and try again, to gratefully embrace forgiveness and patience as I keep on with the journey until greater clarity is revealed.

One of the clues that has slowly been ripening in my soul over the past month – becoming a bit less oblique and more in focus – is the sense that it is time for my inner friar to learn to dance with my inner monk. I have playfully made these two spiritual archetypes my prayer companions on and off for the past few years – sometimes favoring one over the other – but now it feels like they want to dance together.

· Do you know the difference between the friar and the monk? For a long time, I didn’t either but during my sabbatical in Montreal five years ago I kept sensing that my new vocation was less of a pastor in a local church and more of a friar – albeit it a secular mostly Protestant one. A friar is a religious brother among equals; not a leader, a priest, or a monk, nor one who is cloistered in a stable community either but one who is charged with sharing compassion and healing with the whole community. A friar spoke to my natural inclination to wander and connect with others serendipitously as the Spirit inspired. In my prayers, I even adopted the children’s song, Frere Jacques, as part of this new vocation: Brother James, the gentle bells of morning prayer are calling. Are you sleeping? Or are you ready to go where the Spirit leads this day? It was liberating and joyful and I cherished this revelation.

· You see, for decades I have made the way of the flâneur an art form. It is my preferred path to be surprised by grace, encountering new souls to listen to and learn from, finding beauty in the most unlikely places, sharing a caring presence in the midst of life's tussles in the world, and taking-in the wild creativity of cities or country sides. Living as unofficial secular friar felt like soul food to me for the past five years. But now we are in a truly a different season – unlike anything I’ve ever known – and time is calling for a different charism. What I am discerning is that Frere Jacques has been invited to dance with a monastic archetype as this moment makes wandering is impossible and becoming deeply rooted in one place – a small and cloistered home – with little engagement with the wider world my new reality.

This season of being little, being silent and grounded in ordinary prayers and work that reveal the unforced rhythms of grace and nature rather than the adventures of a pilgrimage feels like what some have called a new monasticism. It is an ordered spirituality shaped by the ebb and flow of day and night, light and dark, the steadfastness of the seasons and the very rhythms of life, death, and new life. I have long given myself to spontaneous prayer. My eyes have learned to see the holy everywhere and in all manner of things and this is a friar’s charism. But as Sr. Joan Chittister – a wise monastic master makes clear – if I am the only measure of a prayer’s efficacy, then prayer is more about “seeking consolation than risking conversion” to God’s mysterious presence. Sr. Joan writes that honoring the stability of the monastery in prayer, perspective and patience reminds us that WE are not the center of the universe.

To pray in a monastic manner is not a matter of mood. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better options. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But when that attitude takes over, we have become our own worst enemies: we will call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray over and over. Eventually, life’s burdens will wear us down and we will no longer remember why we are doing what we were called to do: the work of a project, the marriage to a partner, caring for our children, sharing compassion in the midst of pain.

· One monastic discipline for honoring the sacred rhythm of life is praying the hours – coming to prayer in the middle of various tasks when the bells beacon – and learning to let go of my worldly cares for a moment as I rest within God’s healing presence.

· The Buddhist monk, Thich Nat Han, said that he came to use the telephone as his call to mindfulness: when it would ring rather than fume over yet another interruption, he would pause, take a deep breath and return thanks to the flow of life for yet another chance to express love and gratitude for simply being alive in this moment.

· To that end, I am starting to use my IPhone as a portable chapel bell to reorder my prayers: I will always go to spontaneous adoration and tears of joy and sorrow, but now I am going to embrace a measure of order, too. Monastics speak of this as regula – what some call a rule – but which is more a sense of “a guidepost or a railing, something to hang on to in the dark, something that gives us support as we climb” (Chittister, p. 7) through the challenges of the day. (talk about this and demonstrate…)

Living into a commitment to well-ordered daily prayer is going to take some time for me to fully honor – so I am trusting the slow ripening of my soul to be my guide – as I ease into the second half of 2020. One wise soul noted that the chapel bells “that call monastics to prayer… summon us from where we are to what we need to think about if the work we do is to be pure, promising, and prophetic.” Sr. Joan adds: “There is no quick and easy way to make the life of God the life we lead. It takes years of sacred reading, years of listening to the fullness of life, years of learning to listen through the filter of what we have read.”

A generation of Pop Tarts and instant cocoa and TV dinners and computer calculations and instant Xerox copies does not prepare us well for the slow and tedious task of listening and learning over and over, day after day in the monastery, until we can finally hear the people we love and love the people we’ve learned to dislike and grow to understand how holiness is here and now for us. But someday… we may have listened enough to be ready to gather the yield that comes from years of learning Christ in real time…

First, I am renewing a commitment to pray “Day by Day” and other prayers in a
well-ordered daily rhythm – and invite you to join with me. Second, and this comes from my former spiritual director, Fr. Jim O’Donnell of Cleveland, who used to say: one step at a time, ok? At Lent, I would develop these grandiose plans for my devotional life – fasting every week for two days, an hour every morning in quiet meditation – to which he used to say: Just light a candle every day, man, and say the Lord’s Prayer for God’s sake. You can’t change yourself quickly so don’t set yourself up for disappoint me and more shame, ok? He was right, of course, and now 30 years later I am trusting his wisdom in a new way.

· What I’m talking about is the monastic perspective of stability: living into a rhythm of paying attention to God in one small place. Stability is the antithesis of wandering. It seeks to ripen our souls to rest in grace even when life is hard. “There are some things in life,” writes the prioress of a Benedictine monastery, “that cannot be avoided: death, illness, change, personal expectations. What each of them does to us depends a great deal on the way we have allowed ourselves to deal with lesser things. The purpose of stability is to center us in something greater than ourselves so that nothing lesser than ourselves can possibly sweep us away.”

· I tend to get bored easily – maybe you do, too. After five months in self-quarantine and semi-lockdown I really want a road trip. Something beyond our small but lovely house, something different from the grass, garden, and wetlands. But my wanderlust and aching for distractions while very, very real is not going to be realized. So, what do I do with this? How can I take this insight and let God lovingly wear down some of its rough edges? Again, the words of Sr. Joan are helpful: Staying in one place – stability – is an outward demonstration of what we say is our inward disposition: that the love of God is in ALL things and especially in the humdrum and mundane, in the here and now and the them and those.

This is a quiet invitation to trust that the small IS holy. That God HAS been incarnated in the form of a small, helpless baby in ancient Palestine. That home is every bit as holy and important as the pilgrimage IF I cultivate the eyes to see. Two other Bible stories came to me as I have stated walking around our yard and garden and trying to remember the times Jesus told those who loved him to stay home.

· That happens you know? Not everyone was called to physically follow him; some were told to get home and start practicing a quiet, healing love in what was ordinary. Do you know the story of the young boy possessed by a demon who roamed through a Gentile cemetery each night cutting and wounding himself – sometimes tearing off his clothes – and terrifying the community of farmers?

· Each of the synoptic gospels retells it and St. Luke’s version in chapter 8 is particularly vivid. First, it tells us that this young Jew is haunted by an inner pain that causes him to cut himself. I know young people who have been wounded who do this – cut and scar themselves – like the song says, “I bleed just to know I’m alive.” When Jesus meets him, he listens to the boy – he takes him seriously rather than in fear – realizing that the boy’s scarification is a pathological re-enactment of his circumcision – his wound that brought him into community. So with prayer, compassion and time Jesus brings him into healing and then asks his disciples to offer a new symbol of community by giving up a piece of their own clothing to help this child re-enter society. Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms says that Jesus asked Peter for a shirt, and Andrew for some sandals, and Matthew for a pair of paints until this boy was fully clothed from within the resources of the Jesus family. And when he was restored in every way, and asked Jesus if he could follow him, he was told: no, my friend, you need to go home. Your healing won’t be complete until you reclaim the safety of your family and the fullness of your community.

The stability of home, you see, is every bit as salvific and sacred as the pilgrimage and road trip. And if the story of the Prodigal Son is illustrative – and I suspect it is – then it goes on to tell us what happened to the boy possessed by spirits in the graveyard after he was healed and restored: it is the story of what happened when he DID go home to be embraced by his father with forgiveness, joy and feasting. Taking a long, loving look at my life over these past five years suggests that that seems to be what God has been sharing with me as well: the small sacred healing of being at home.

· Of preparing supper every night for my loved ones. Of learning to make a limited income an encounter with creativity. Of shopping not as a burden, but an act of devotion. Of cutting the grass as an encounter with God’s first word in creation. Of building garden terraces and learning how to use power tools to care for our small cloistered shelter in safety and beauty.

· “Stability” teaches the monks, “says we will stay with what seems to be humdrum if only to condition our souls to cope with the unfleeable in life. We stay with what, if we anted to, we really could get away from so that we can come someday to cope with what we will not be able to leave.”

First, a new and ordered engagement with daily prayer so that it’s not all about me; second, a deepening connection to this place through the practice and perspective of stability so that I learn to pay attention to what is real; and third a slowly ripening silence to help me patiently trust the love of God during the second half of this year. The other day I noticed that my gladiolas were finally blooming with a bold and arresting beauty. They would have blossomed without my noticing, of course, and been just as happy singing their praise to God whether I saw them or not. But there they were in all their majestic glory and my heart was full to overflowing when I saw them. If I can put it this way: that’s how I want to live, too. Silently singing something of God’s glory without ever having to be noticed. 
Right now feels like the time for a radical reordering in a wildly upside-down way. Carrie Newcomer cuts to the chase in this poem she calls “Because There Is Not Enough Time.”

I used to think that because life was short
I should do more – be more – squeeze more into each and every day.
I’d walk around with a stick ruler, with increasing numbers
As the measure of fullness. But lately I’ve sensed a different response
To a lack of time. Felt it in my bones
The singular worth of each passing moment.
Perhaps the goal is not to spend the day
Power skiing atop an ocean of multitasking
Maybe the idea is to swim slower – surer – dive deeper
And really look around
There’s a difference between a life of width – and a life of depth.

I am going to invite you – if you feel inclined – to sing and pray with me right now – and then join me at least once a day in singing and praying this together as we grow into this new way of being:

Day by day, day by day, o dear Lord, three things I pray: 
To see thee more clearly, 
To love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day

Monday, July 27, 2020

saying good-bye to the friar for a time and making room for the monk...

This week Di and I were able to make time each day to share a simple late
morning breakfast on the deck before heading into our respective tasks.There's hot tea with milk and toast as we tell one another stories from the day past, consideration of the most outrageous overnight political developments in the news, and questions about how we might chart a course for engaging in life beyond the threshold of our quiet gardened sanctuary. It is just the right way for me to ease into the ups and downs of the day.

For reasons of age and health, you see, we continue to live in both intentional and literal seclusion even as the Commonwealth "re-opens." After nearly 150 days, it feels as if we are encamped on the edge of civilization. The lush foliage in the wetlands behind us is beset with every shade of green imaginable. The woods are replete with birds, woodchucks, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. The raised-bed garden terraces - and herb pots- are increasingly ample. And our tiny social bubble remains nearly fully sealed. Most of our groceries continue to be delivered to the garage by brave and conscientious essential workers. No one calls our house - nor our cell phones - since my retirement. And friends and colleagues conscientiously choose not to violate our self-imposed quarantine. Perhaps once a week I suit-up for necessary errands like mailing a bill or hunting down lumber for a home repair, but that's it. With one exception: the periodic pizza delivery late some Friday evenings. Ok, I own it: we are still pretty damn bourgeois even in our extended semi-monastic solitude.

What is being revealed to me after five months is that this is a time to own, confess and reckon with my wander-lust, monkey mind way of praying. For decades I have made the way of the f
lâneur an art form. It is my preferred
path to being surprised by grace, encounter new souls to listen to and learn from, find beauty in the most unlikely places, share a caring presence in the midst of life's tussles, and take-in the wild creativity of cities as well as countrysides. But this is truly a different season and calls for a vastly different inward discipline, too. What I am discovering is that at 68 I am neither as emotionally or spiritually supple as I once was - or that I like to believe I still am. Christine Valters Painter has a gentle way of saying this in her insightful collection of stories of the Celtic saints: she calls it "the slow ripening of the soul." I am choosing to claim that as what is taking place within me these days although there seems to be a lot more slow and a lot less ripening. Be that as it may, as Ecclesiastes observes: to everything there is a season and a time and purpose for all things under heaven.

This week on my Sunday morning live streaming reflections I plan to go more deeply into this challenge. You are likely making sense of it for yourselves in your own way, too. Last night, when I couldn't go back to sleep yet again, I started to make a list of all the ways I am being called to get centered in this new era including:
+ Honoring that this is the season of the monk rather than the friar.

+ It is a time for the monastic charism of stability rather than the more free-wheeling experience of le flâneur or pilgrimage.

+ Obliquely, it is a time to go deeper into the wisdom of the Paschal Mystery and St. Paul's confession that: "now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face."

+ And, in my heart, this is a time to wrestle with what it means to trust that the presence of the holy in this season is to make "our joy full." Complete. Real and earthy as per the gospel of St. John.

Toni Morrison has written: This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need or silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Tomorrow we will experience our first family reunion since the start of the plague as our loved ones from Brooklyn head north to feast and rest with us for four full days. Talk about joy upon joy! I will post pictures for sure but may not be online very much as I want to savor the fullness of this blessing. 

I hope you will join me on Sunday morning, August 2 @ 9:55 am on my spiritual directions Face Book page: https://www.facebook.com/Be-Still-and-Know-913217865701531.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

small is holy sunday reflection: the treasure of the ordinary

Every week, as I sit down to prayerfully reflect on what I am experiencing during this extended time of solitude – and what some of you may be encountering, too – I listen for clues to share with you as we make this journey together albeit apart. Sometimes it shows up in a poem, other times in a song; periodically one arrives while taking-in the nightly news on PBS, and from time to time, a notion catches my attention while I am reading. For the past few weeks, I have been playing an old tune by Kate Wolf as a meditation. I’ve known it since before my daughters were born – forty plus years – and I’ve wondered why it chose to show up again right now?

· So, I’m starting a new/old spiritual practice that begins with the words: I just don’t know. Whenever I can’t figure out why I am thinking or feeling, singing or doing something mysterious these days, I say to myself and to the sacred: Hmmm, I just don’t know. It’s a liberating little prayer to acknowledge my limitations and uncertainties – a path towards a certain humility, too. Those four little words help me “release those things to which I too often cling too tightly,” things Christine Valters Paintner names as “my need to be in control, my need to feel secure” and all the rest. (The Slow Ripening of the Soul, p. 3) “I just don’t know.”

· Accepting and trusting the unknown by stepping into the mystery is an embodied prayer – what the ancient Celtic monks called “crossing the threshold” – and it doesn’t come easily to me. Maybe that’s true for you, too. But the more I, “let go of controlling the outcome, the more these thresholds become rich and graced places of transformation.” (ibid) For as I step through the certainties of what I know into the mystery of what I don’t, I start to notice, “the threads of synchronicity, serendipity and beauty” as they unfold before me. Dr. Paintner likes to call this, “honoring the slow ripening of the soul” rather than insisting upon fast tract solutions for the bottom line.

One of these enigmatic threads that I am noticing as my soul slowly ripens during my solitude is a link between St. Paul’s call to live as a fool for Christ and Kate Wolf’s desire for rest. Both sense a sacred symmetry between the longing of our heart and the tranquility of grace hidden within our humanity this is aching to be discovered like a treasure in a field. Stepping into and then through our uncertainties is what Kate prays for when she sings: won’t you lay me down easy. And what the apostle promises whenever we foolishly honor God’s upside-down grace knowing that in Jesus:

God chose what is small in the world to challenge the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to challenge the strong; God chose what is vulnerable in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are so that no one might boast about themselves…. In this we have become fools for Christ… choosing to live on the edges of society by faith to honor God’s love and offer alternatives to those ensnarled in the rat race.

Let me play Kate’s song for you as one pilgrim’s reflection on the mystery of the ordinary. Like so many of the tunes I use for personal prayer, not all her words sound meditative – and they’re not at all religious. Yet there’s something about this tender, little tune that cuts deep for me – could be the synergy of melody and mood – or the chorus that sounds like so many of my own prayers since March – or the invitation of Jesus to come all ye who are tired and heavy laden - I just don’t know for sure – except to say it calls to me…

Sitting in the sunshine, trying to sing the blues away
Wondering why they came and how long they'll stay
Picking out a little tune I never heard before
Yes, and wishing you were here at the door 

Won't you lay me down easy - lay me down easy in my mind
'Cause babe, I've got the blues and there's something you can do
You can lay me down easy in my mind, in my mind

Well babe, you know how it is when you wake up feeling old
You wonder if you’re doing what you should
And everyone around you — they can’t read what’s on your mind
And they might not want to if they could if they could…

Now the seasons of my life they go turning through the days
I’ve seen bitter winters come and go
And here I am in sunny times not feeling like I could
And wondering when the winds will start to blow…

There is a pathos and integrity – an honesty and humility, too – in this song that feels like deep calling to deep: won’t you lay me down easy. It’s what I pray almost every day for myself, for you, and for so many in this world: Lord, in your mercy, won’t you lay us down easy this day and by your grace help us be at rest with ourselves, our world and your love? Sometimes it feels foolish to keep offering up that prayer: life feels harsh and demanding right now – exhausting and maybe suffocating, too – even while sheltering at home. And watching the news? Trying to make sense of the magnitude of death in the US? And the world? The uncertainty and cruelty of it all? I really don’t know what to do with all of that except to say that sometimes it all feels like too much.

I don’t know if you’ve said this out loud – or kept it to yourself – but it is increasingly clear that we’re going to be in this chaos until at least Christmas – and probably longer. Winter is the earliest we can expect a vaccine no matter what lies come out of the White House. Add to this grim fact what we know about the final 100 days of this election cycle - how this regime is already ginning-up fear and hatred by sending 21st century storm troopers into Portland – and what we said after the 2016 election is increasingly true: it is going to get worse – much worse – before it gets better.

I suspect that is why I keep praying: lay me down easy, Lord. It’s my hunch as well that my affinity with Paul’s call to live as fools for Christ right now is another thread of synchronicity for it insists that NOW is the time for more sacred fools incarnating God’s love. When life is at its most complex, when all we can see is the madness and cruelty of our days, the Spirit often intercedes for us with sighs too deep for human words and invites us to become servants of love even as the chaos rages. It's a call to step through the threshold of what we know into the mysterious reality of what we don’t, trusting the Lord of tenderness to empower us with a holy love that feels intellectually foolish – but ethically right and so soul satisfying. St. Paul talked about the early church as those who “had become fools for Christ” when they visible chose to live on the edge of society by trust, and offered tender-hearted loving alternatives to the empire to all who were tired and heavy-laden.

That’s what I hear in this weird little parable from Jesus, too: the foolishness of sacred love. It has long been perplexing to me what we are to do with this story. For decades it has been relegated to the “well, I don’t really know” pile. Some preachers try to render it with piety by scrubbing away the gritty scandal of grace as they insist it is about discovering the precious beauty of God as our treasure. Others insist that the promise of blessings that could be ours is revealed only to those who work hard enough to dig up the treasure box. But both of those solutions violate the scandal of grace and just don’t ring true. So, while there’s a lot in this weird little story that I don’t get, I have come to trust three insights:

· One is that the treasure in this parable had been sitting there in the ground all along just waiting to be discovered. It has nothing to do with anything the man did: he didn’t earn it or create it and he wasn’t rewarded because of his virtue. Rather, like grace, this treasure just popped up in the middle of his work as a total surprise and it was absolutely free.

· A second insight is that the treasure doesn’t automatically make this man’s life better. Truth is, it caused a dilemma. After discovering this free gift, the laborer secretly reburies it and uses all of his resources to deceptively purchase the land without ever once revealing to the original owner anything of the hidden treasure. See where this is going?

· And third, it is this secret selfishness that reveals the scandal of the story: Without an honest and public way to share this treasure, its bounty becomes useless to the man. In his zeal to possess the treasure all for himself, he acted unethically – understandably, of course, but still dishonestly – and now although he physically owns it, he must keep the treasure in the ground. Hidden. His greed and delight over finding it has trapped him: he is secretly wealthy after spending everything to buy the field but publicly worse off than before.

One thing that helps me make sense of what to do with this parable is where it takes place in the story of Jesus. St. Matthew’s gospel places it by the seaside shortly after Jesus tells his mother and brothers that he must move beyond the limits of family with God’s love. You may recall that after a year of wandering through ancient Palestine teaching and healing, Mary and the brothers of Jesus became increasingly worried that the Roman state and the religious authorities were going to crack down on Jesus because he was challenging their shared power.

There is always trouble when the power of the state gets mixed up with religious authority and that was as true then as it is now. Still, Jesus kept going out to the grain fields to teach the working people of his day that there was more than one way to live in alignment with God’s steadfast love: observing only the outward rules of the Sabbath may not nourish our hearts. This infuriated and frightened the sincere but fundamentalist believers of his day. And it still does. Strict guidelines help some feel safe and Jesus was saying it was spiritually ok to say, “I don’t know? Let’s trying something different.” No wonder the family of Jesus was worried about a crackdown.

I worry that our daughters could be snatched up and carted away in an unmarked car by anonymous paramilitary soldiers wherever they join Black Lives Matter demonstrations – so the family of Jesus had reasons to be concerned. In time, the family of Jesus went and asked him to give it a rest: take a break until the heat dies down. That’s a reasonable request from any parent. But when the crowd noticed that Mary and her other sons were waiting to bring Jesus home, Jesus replied: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? And pointing to his disciples he replied: Here is my family, too, my extended family by God’s love. For whoever is doing the will of my Father in heaven – making sacred love flesh – is brother and sister and mother to me.”

The key is NOT that Jesus wanted to separate from his family, but that he wanted to expand it. His vision of God’s love – the will of his Father to use traditional language –was to make the circle of the covenant bigger. I love you – he told his flesh and blood – and will always love you. But right now, I have some important public work to do in the Spirit of God’s love, so please don’t get in my way. There is a Beloved Community to be birthed within and among us now in the ordinary world – an alternative to the rat race and a way of healing what is broken among us – so please help me out. And this is the context for the collection of parables found in chapter thirteen of St. Matthew’s gospel: they are all about empowering the Beloved community in the most ordinary albeit unexpected places.

Now, scholars of the Scriptures note that the word parable – parabole in Greek and mashal in Hebrew - means to toss or lay one thing beside another for the sake of comparison. Here Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom – God’s presence and the soul of right living – can be discerned by “laying it beside certain symbols or signs.” Fr. Thomas Keating of the Centering Prayer movement writes:

Unlike a simile (which compares one thing to another for emphasis as in ‘brave as a lion’ or ‘crazy like a fox’) a parable actually contains the truth within that comparison… By using a parable Jesus is saying that the kingdom really IS like… a mustard seed. Or a lost coin that is found. Or here as a treasure. (Keating, The Kingdom of God Is Like, p. 75)

To claim that the kingdom of God is like a treasure was nothing new. Jewish wisdom literature often made such comparisons and Jewish rabbis created thousands of comparable parables to those of Jesus during the early years of the Christian community. What makes this parable unique – and even problematic and scandalous – “is what happens once the treasure is found.” Keating writes: The man in this tale was a day laborer. In those days, people did not always have a bank handy… and sometimes hid their treasures in a field. Think of another parable where one servant hides his talents in the ground while the other two invest and multiply theirs and increase its value. It would not have been unusual for a day laborer working in somebody else’s field to come upon a buried treasure. But how in the world can the kingdom of God be compared to a treasure that gives rise to such improper and even deceitful conduct? Clearly the laborer was trying to conceal the treasure from its rightful owner – the one who first possessed the field – so how is this deception like the kingdom? (Keating, p. 76)

I think it has something to do with the fact that the treasure was there in the field before the man ever found it. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is often right there among us whether we recognize it or not. The kingdom is a part of our everyday, ordinary circumstances whether we have eyes to see or not. But that’s not all he’s saying because Jesus uses the symbol of the treasure in a unique way. In his story the treasure does not appear as a reward for the man’s efforts or virtues. Unlike other morality tales like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or Galahad and the Holy Grail where the hero gets the ring, the prize or the princess after enduring the rigors of a trial or a series of events that prove his courage and tenacity. Here Jesus is saying, “God makes the treasure of grace available” to everyone without respect to our proving anything. Grace is the scandalous blessing that trumps karma every time.

Another scandalous aspect is that while we love grace for ourselves, we often feel uncomfortable accepting that God’s love and forgiveness – God’s sacred presence – is just as available to those we hate and fear as it is for us. In our insecurity we know that we need forgiveness. But when it comes to the same failings and weaknesses in others, we want them to be punished.

I remember walking through what was then Leningrad in the former Soviet Union, talking with a Russian Orthodox priest about the struggle for God’s peace and justice in the world. In those days I was a hot head pushing a one-size fits all understanding of God’s judgement. And after some strong words had been share, he looked at me with tenderness and asked, “At the end of your life, and you come face to face with the Holy, who do you want to meet? The God of grace or the God of judgment?” Now I was then – and still am – a straight, white man of privilege and had probably never been confronted by such theological acuity. Walking on in silence for a few minutes, I considered my life to date. Then I confessed that if I was honest, I hoped to meet the God of grace at the end of my life. “Me, too,” he smiled and added “to be a follower of Jesus you can’t be such a hard ass, ok? Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, open your heart to grace for you will be forgiven by God in the same measure that you forgive others.” That’s part of what this parable: we experience judgment in the presence of grace.

Unfortunately, that is a truth we must learn through the slow ripening of our souls. Organically, in our bottom-line culture, we believe we must grab all the treasures for ourselves as quickly as we can. We are rarely as generous to others as we want God to be to us no matter how many times we recite the Lord’s Prayer. Until the words become flesh, we’re just passing. This tiny parable’s offense is that the man who found this blessing by accident – and did everything is his power to make it his own – finds himself following the rules of the status quo not the Beloved Community. He’s a working man who wants a break and does everything in his power to hold on to his treasure. But once he owns it, he can’t do anything with it without creating a public scandal when people ask: where did all this new money come from? There was no lottery ticket to buy. So even though he is now in possession of a fortune, he’s worse off than before because he’s sold everything he owned to buy the field – and still can’t honorably access its bounty. Keating writes: “This parable alerts us to the fact that the kingdom, although given as sheer gift, is not given to us just for our personal benefit. To share this gift with others is part of the joy in receiving it. And not being able to do so becomes a scandal and even a curse.” (p. 78)

This free gift, you see, was not fully considered – there was no sacred wisdom at work here– so he finds himself in a bind because of his own actions. It’s not the fault of the treasure just his own response. Jesus would have us know that God, like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, is always there to take us back repeatedly. But knowing this can be risky, too: for like Bonhoeffer said, part of the scandal of grace is that “we often treat divine mercy like cheap grace.” And while this never alters God’s love for us, it serves as a warning that we are prone to putting ourselves through hell as a consequence of confusing the steadfast love of the Lord for cheap grace. 

Finding a treasure encourages us to escape from everyday life… this treasure freed the day laborer from the rigors of working and dealing with everyday experiences in ordinary reality… and that’s where the scandal hits because when we get lost in grandiosity we live like we’re the center of the universe. Most of us would love to win the lottery or experience the bounty of a miracle to which Jesus says, “Ok, but watch out.” Most of us don’t know how to handle such extraordinary things. Often, without our knowing, we become trapped in the habits of our culture. Would that we quit looking for a magic bullet or get rich quick schemes and open our eyes to the treasures in every day – the presence of the kingdom already within and among us – “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” Jesus said, “and all these things shall added unto you. The treasures of the kingdom are NOT for ourselves alone and never release us from our commitments to the Beloved Community. (Keating, paraphrased.)

I can’t help but think of the scandal the United States has recently created over wearing a face-mask in public. What an ordinary blessing – a way to share the gift of life and safety with the most vulnerable among us – but some are so locked into the habits of the status quo that turns every-thing into a competition rather than a journey of solidarity – that this simple act of compassion has become an ideological battle ground.

Same for the suggestion NOT to sing for a while whenever public worship resumes. In late May, the Christian Century magazine reports, a CDC guideline was drafting saying the act of singing may contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 through the emission of aerosols. This scientific fact was scrapped and omitted from the final report because the Trump administration feared angering his white, evangelical base. What an ugly American – especially white American – spirituality of entitlement. Right here, right now we have the chance to share an ordinary blessing that strengthens God’s treasured gift of life and our selfish stupidity to have everything OUR way is causing an ever increasing morbidity rate to climb over 1000 every day. As someone far wiser than I said: this is the same death rate as if 50 planes fell out of the sky every day and killed everyone on board.

I hear this weird little parable telling us that the gifts of the kingdom are ordinary – filled with everyday possibilities for us to bask in joy and tenderness – if we have eyes to see. Tish Warren, an Episcopal priest and writer, hit a home run in her book: Liturgy of the Ordinary – Sacred Practices in Everyday Life when she wrote: 

Of all the things he could've chosen to be done "in remembrance" of him, Jesus chose a meal. He could have asked his followers to do something impressive or mystical like climb a mountain, fast for forty days, or have a trippy sweat lodge ceremony. But instead he picked the most ordinary of acts, eating, through which to be present to his people. He says that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. He chooses the unremarkable and plain, the average and abundant, the bread and wine to reveal the kingdom of God” and calls us to do it, too.

And this is where I see our lives having the greatest chance to strengthen the Beloved Community. There will be a time when we’re going to have to stand up to the evil of this era in bold, heroic and public ways. More than at any other time I’ve known since 1968, our land is open to encountering the foolishness of God’s love. Not so much in many traditional churches, although I sense that most of the time Pope Francis is pushing the envelope of gracious, foolish love in the Roman Catholic realm. And not in a majority of white, evangelical churches either for they have turned Jesus into some kind of paramilitary thug who kicks ass and takes names on behalf of a punitive, jingoistic, homo-phobic, and misogynist God. But out in the streets… yes? With Black Lives Matters and the Poor Peoples Campaign, yes. In Portland where anonymous, unaccountable fascist troops recruited from our most rabidly racist cadre of federal warriors have been met with moms creating a human shield around the young protesters – and then dads standing watch over the moms – in a beautiful display of people power guided by the foolishness of love in action.

Our time will come when the grand sweep of the Spirit calls us out of our safety and into the fray of dissent. But for most of us right now our calling is smaller. More humble. We’re on a search for the hidden, ordinary treasures and mustard seeds and invitations to rest that we can share wherever we find ourselves. Every person I hear speaking in the store these days or on the TV news is asking for a little bit of Kate Wolf’s prayer. Maybe not in her exact words. But we know we need a little lay me down easy time – time to feel some rest – and know some love in a safe and holy way. None of us knows when or where we’re going to be asked to share some of this treasure. That’s still another mystery – real to be sure– but a threshold still to be revealed.

Following the thread of Kate’s song, I suspect that’s part of why I’ve been singing it two or three times every day. I need to practice being ready to look for God’s treasure wherever I go. When we least expect it, we’re being asked to help celebrate the everyday treasures that are often hidden from our sight right but are just waiting to be revealed when we really need them. Every day I come face to face with the fact that my culture, my habits, my addiction to the ways of empire keep me from seeking first the kingdom of God in what is ordinary.

And this is precisely why we’re asked to practice an alternative. Jesus says when you feel like running away, do the opposite. Choose the foolishness of the kingdom rather than the logic of Cesar. The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in the place where we already live. Do we have eyes to see? Can we make it your own honestly and openly? For me, and maybe you, too, this sheltering in solitude is challenging my soul to slowly ripen. It is what I am starting to call my Wendell Berry retreat time – and brother Berry has just the poem to bring this all to a close in something he calls “How to Be a Poet.” 

Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet. You must depend upon affection, reading, knowledge, skill—more of each than you have—inspiration, work, growing older, patience, for patience joins time to eternity. Any readers who like your poems, doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath the unconditioned air. Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens. Stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in. There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places. Accept what comes from silence. Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

following the threads of synchronicity, dreams and serendipity

During the on-going sheltering-in-place of the semi-lock-down for people like myself, I have been reading my way through a variety of unknown books that have gathered on my shelves over the years. In the middle of March, I slipped into the garage to forage through boxes once destined for donation. 
Then I combed the bounty of the bookcases lining the walls of my study. To date I have made it through two of Karen Armstrong's theological histories, a few volumes of Wendell Berry poetry, Malcolm Bell's new edition of The Attica Turkey Shoot, two works by Christine Valters Paintner, the male initiation trilogy from Richard Rohr, and a valiant albeit unsuccessful attempt at Neil Douglas-Klotz's The Hidden Gospel of the Aramaic Jesus. (It just doesn't hang together with any depth or zip for me.) As summer ripens, there is still a T.S. Eliot anthology to embrace, what will be my second savoring of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead as well as Noman MacLean's A River Runs Through It and John O'Donohue's Anam Cara.

At present I am enjoying Christine Valters Paintner's The Soul's Slow Ripening from 2018 re: Celtic spiritual practices and a slim overview of spiritual direction from 1981 by Katherine Marie Dykman and. Patrick Carroll entitled Inviting the Mystic, Supporting the Prophet. Both have heart and soul with a tone of intellectual gravitas and time-tested wisdom, too. Dyckman and Carroll have served as spiritual directors for decades. They have helped seminarians construct grounded practices of spiritual formation and trained hundreds of lay leaders in the art of spiritual friendship. And Valters-Paintner keeps unearthing new ways to take general readers deeper into the ancient wisdom of embodied Celtic spirituality. She does her homework. She finds fresh ways to share the mystical tradition with 21st century souls. And she does this with a degree of humor and humility that encourages us to let the words become flesh. 

Like me, Paintner appreciates the systematic approach to the spiritual journey
offered through Ignatian exercises, but prefers the more "organic " way of Celtic monastics.
"There hopefully comes a time when we have to admit," she writes, "that our own plans for our lives are not nearly as interesting as how our lives long to unfold - that these plans are indeed too small for us to live. That when we follow the threads of synchronicity, dreams, and serendipity, we are each led to a life that is rich and honoring of the soul's rhythms, which is a slow ripening rather than a fast tract to discernment." To that end, she offers this poem by David Whyte that rings oh so true for me: "What to Remember When Waking."

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?

Monday, July 20, 2020

aging, isolation and a shrinking sense of what's important...

My world continues to get smaller as I age. I suppose that's how its meant to be as interests, desires, energy and needs contract - but its not how I thought it would turn out. I've seen many people grow old - I came of age living in my parent's home for the aged after all - and have presided over hundreds burials, too. My great grand-mother started a boarding house sometime before the Great Depression in Stamford, CT. After WWII, my father's mother continued that work but shifted the emphasis towards elderly and infirm men and women. By the time my parents took the business over there were only ancient women living with us as "guests." 

What a wild menagerie accompanied me as I entered adolescence! A retired doctor of osteopathy who taught me how to massage another's foot. "Madame" from France who was terrorized in her bouts of PTSD when she was certain that the fireworks from our Fourth of July were the dreaded gunshots she'd heard as a child in the First World War. A wealthy Christian Scientist whose relatives once held my parents hostage upstairs at gunpoint on a Sunday afternoon while other family members were in the kitchen negotiating with our family doctor over future medical treatments and the contested contents of a will. The kindly Mrs. Cain whose nerve damage kept her from walking but not from sharing her accumulated wisdom, candy and abiding affection. Their lives and deaths were woven into the tapestry of my teens. Same, too for the assassinations of my generation: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, the martyrs of Kent and Jackson State, Fred Hampton, John Lennon. They have taken their toll within as have nearly forty years of ordained ministry filled with countless hospital rooms, prayers, hymns, tears, laughter and funerals.

Still, nothing really prepares you for your own ripening on the vine of life. There have been clues, of course. But as Tammie Terrell and Marvin Gaye sang before they both passed: "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby." I knew something had shifted within when earlier this summer I didn't immediately order Bob Dylan's new and celebrated album. I love St. Bobby's work and was mildly annoyed with myself when I did nothing to get it. God knows I haven't listened to any new music since before Christmas with the exception of the online concerts of Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Carrie Newcomer. My upright bass still stands untouched after six months. And I have slowly realized that the only songs I am playing on my guitar are the ones I know well. George Harrison. Bill Withers. Lou Reed. Joni Mitchell.

Another clue caught my eye while reading the unhinged politically paranoid
commentary of an old friend about the danger of face masks: they're the first signs our society is sliding down the slippery slop of socialism. I had to shake my head in astonishment. "I know there are crazies out there," I said to myself, "but not among my buddies!" But the more I read the more absurd and frightening it became: "over four months we have given up our birth right to freedom as we trust faceless bureaucrats with deciding our fate." I kept waiting for an appeal to take up arms. "Good Lord," I said at breakfast, "I live in such a bubble!" Reading some of America's reaction to Dr. Fauci only underscores the limitations of my social engagement - a very small and shrinking circle of friends - reduced further by sheltering in place. 

But my ever-narrowing weltanschauung hit me between the eyes last night upon receiving an email from my primary care doctor. He's a trusted friend and musical collaborator whom I love and respect. Beyond professional commentary on my recent medical tests, I was stunned when he confessed: "I have not been much interested in music these days." That nearly took my breath away. Not only has music been vital and life-giving to his life until the consequences of the corona contagion claimed most of his energy, but music has been a shared window on reality for us both. We've spent hours together sipping red wine while discussing how Jefferson Airplane changed our worlds forever. Our friendship began in New Orleans on a Habitat mission trip after Hurricane Katrina. When work for the day was done, we'd take a quick shower and head into town to hear the local musical genius. And for over a decade we've played live music together with other loved ones to heal our own wounds and raise funds for environmental justice. To now hear that music has become a void in his world alerted me to a similar emptiness I have been trying to avoid of late within my own.

Living in isolation for more than four months has mostly been just fine with me. I prefer the solitude. But I am beginning to own that it has also caused some convictions and commitments to atrophy. It has exaggerated my loss of perspective and diminished my ability to sense the bigger picture. Zoom, FB and emails have their place - and I am grateful for the connection they allow - but they have clearly not been enough. Artist and theologian, Jan Richardson, put it well the other day when she wrote:

I mean, I'm used to living in those threshold-y, liminal, betwixt places,
but I am keenly aware that this is one of the longest, most stubborn between-spaces ever. Whatever these threshold days (weeks, months) are holding for you, may there be grace. May there be sustenance. And may there be, perhaps, a few angels to meet you.

When you come
to the place between.
When you have left
what you held
most dear.
When you are traveling
toward the life
you know not.
When you arrive
at the hardest ground.
May it become
for you
a place to rest.
May it become
for you
a place to dream.
May the pain
that has pressed itself
into you
give way
to vision,
to knowing.
May the morning
make of it
an altar,
a path,
a place to begin

Perhaps this cumulative loss is what inspired me to take in another live streaming musical concert yesterday afternoon: the Folk by the Oak Family Nest Fest. It was grand and I was particularly taken with a performer new to me: Kitty MacFarlane. She knocked me out.
This dawning of my diminishing world is not all darkness: it has called me to pay more to my lazy prayers and the carelessness of my inward journey. It has also spoken to my heart about my need to make an effort to reach out to reality and find ways to embrace it even in this solitude. I have been awakened, too, to how aging can accelerate all of this. This morning's poem on Poetry Unbound was Mary Howe's poignant, "My Mother's Body" and called out to me with clarity.

Bless my mother’s body, the first song of her beating
heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,

grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said.
Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing

the pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings,
rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs . . .

Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone.
Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor,

and my body hurt her, I know that—24 years old. I’m old enough
to be that girl’s mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened eyes,

her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
It’s a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me

with her mouth, first grief, first air,
and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother,

slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it,
across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted.

Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers,
our voice in my throat speaking to you now.

fear, trust, a little faith and the blues...

 Fear, trust, a little is enough and the blues...