Thursday, April 2, 2020

time makes ancient truth uncouth: online Eucharist in the pandemic

My preference for public worship falls into an emerging category: creatively liturgical. I love smells and bells. My heart soars to both chant and pipe organ. A capella music of all types causes my breath to catch. And - and this is a biggie - sometimes a screaming electric guitar and crashing cymbals is just what the doctor ordered. I prefer the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer (with exceptions) to just about every alternative although some of the liturgical poetry from the United Church of Christ, Maren Tirabassi, and Pádraig Ó Tuama warms my heart, too. Which is to say: good liturgy, properly shaped with intentionality and beauty, not only helps ground my soul when so much of life rides me hard and then hangs me up wet to dry, but it takes me deeper into the mystery of God's love.

As I approach the sacred celebrations of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and the Feast of the Resurrection in our new on-line state of mind, let's say that I am aware of the challenges facing us all: more than ever before in my life, our high holy days will be dressed in humility. And solitude. And a growing sense of angst about the worst that is still to come. Even the "doubter in chief" has come to acknowledge that what we will collectively experience over the next three weeks will be a grief unlike anything we have known. The sheer magnitude of death that is just starting to take place will wound us all. That is why the best minds of our generation are urging us to enter now into an anticipatory grief. It is the way to ready ourselves for the onslaught of suffering to come that will be greater than that of WWII. 

Good liturgy, practiced honestly and shared faithfully, teaches us about such matters: in the cycle of the church year we encounter celebration and sorrow, light and darkness, hope and despair, presence and emptiness as well as life and death and life beyond death. I understand that we don't often realize this as we coast through the seasons, but that is what liturgy offers: a chance to practice entering the heights and depths of the human experience in the presence of God's grace. The wise Gertrud Mueller-Nelson has long taught that liturgy in the parish is a fully embodied journey that gives us resources to rest in God's love no matter what is happening within and around us. Advent teaches us to wait with open hearts and patience for the God who shows up in the most unexpected places. Christmas and Epiphany are all about God's love breaking into our ordinary humanity like a light in the darkness. Lent leads us into the reality of facing grief and emptiness openly - and learning that sorrow does not last forever. There is paradox in Palm Sunday where we find ourselves shouting both "Hosanna" and "Crucify him!" Maundy Thursday humbles us with the vulnerability and love of foot washing. Good Friday leads us into the shadows of death and despair. The Easter Vigil takes us through salvation history that climaxes in the new life of resurrection at Easter. The 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are times to listen and watch for the Holy Spirit's wisdom as it breaks into the darkness with joy. As the wisdom of Ecclesiastes teaches us: to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.

During our current season of uncertainty, fear and death I discerned that one of the ways I could encourage tenderness and hope was to continue my online Sunday reflections. I have reached out to a few independent musicians who have graciously given me permission to use their music for these broadcasts (I will compensate them so that no copyrights are violated.) And depending on how long we find ourselves needing to celebrate life by living in solitude, they may join me for some programs through the miracles of technology. I am hoping some of my poet friends will become a part of this, too. I don't want to diminish anyone's support for their own faith community. Please stay in touch with your folk! And, know that what I am trying to offer is another way of doing community and theological thinking during this bewildering season.

Let me turn now to this coming Sunday: I will be celebrating Holy Communion - Eucharist - the Lord's Supper with you online for Palm Sunday. Some have asked how is this even possible given that this feast is most often done in community. Behind the practical considerations of these queries, I believe that there are some theologies and habits colliding. As we struggle to find new ways of going deeper into grace in this bewildering context, I want to be clear of why I am moving forward:

+ Like John Calvin, I experience the radical mystery of being mystically  transported into the presence of Jesus during the Eucharist. This is not unlike the way some understand the Passover Seder to be both a meal of remembrance as well as participation. Unlike some Reformed leaders, Calvin suggested that we are spiritually lifted into the presence of Christ during the Lord's Supper. It is not merely a symbolic encounter with a past event, although it is that, too. It is an inward transformation by grace. For me, I intuitively honor the notion of consubstantiation with the bread and wine even as I make room for those who experience transubstantiation as well as the Zwingli-ish symbolic understanding of communion as an historical ordinance. I choose to be wildly open-ended about this celebration and accept that "now I see as through a glass darkly; and later I shall see face-to-face."

+ At the same time, I know that my loved ones in the Roman tradition have chosen to suspend the holy obligation of attending Mass during the pandemic.  This decision is driven by an ecclesiastical and theological  belief that only an ordained priest can facilitate the consecration of the bread and wine so that it becomes the body and blood of Jesus. Fr. Richard Rohr, operating from what he calls an "alternative orthodoxy," however, has been quick to tell us that the Roman hierarchy has always made a dispensation for emergencies. In times of life and death, they have granted authority to lay people to perform the sacraments – any and all of them - if needed. Rohr calls this the official theological "escape hatch that acknowledges either the real limitations of the priesthood or honors the radicality of the priesthood of all believers. My take on this moment in time is that because staying at home away from community - and the priesthood - is a matter of life and death, the door has been opened for lay people to bless the elements during these online Eucharists. When we make certain that there is a simple liturgical prayer of consecration that anyone at home can offer, the elements do in fact become the blessed sacrament of grace.

+ Interestingly, to date the Lutherans, are still in a quandary about what to do with online communion. Their tradition posits that only the ordained clergy can facilitate the blessing of the elements, so they are urging their communicants to partake of a "spiritual communion" (much like the Vatican) during the pandemic. This strikes me as a weird historical mistaken given Luther's doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” But such is the path they have chosen for the time being. The Episcopalians have not made a formal decision.

+ The Methodists, Presbyterians and others of the radical Reformation have now chosen to encourage online communion. Not only were their congregations already doing it anyway said some leaders, but these traditions have long tried to practice radical inclusivity. T
hey trust that the Holy Spirit will be present wherever “two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name. Communion, therefore, in not merely a horizontal ceremony or symbol that requires a priest, but rather it is the mystical union of Christ and his followers whether we are gathered or scattered. Further, these traditions believe that the healing presence of Christ in this time of tumult brings reassurance and strength to the whole community. 

In thinking about all of this I was reminded of an introduction to Eucharist I lead back in Tucson that utilized four different movies to capture three different but inter-related truths that are always present during the feast. The first honors the mystical Body of Christ that includes the "great cloud of witnesses" in heaven who have gone before us but who join us in prayer and Eucharist as portrayed in "Places in the Heart."

The second is the unexpected joy and sensuality of feasting on God's grace rather than just enduring a life of sacrifice - and no film gives shape and form to this grace better than "Babette's Feast." It also celebrates the way the one who is on the periphery is often the messenger of healing.
Our encounter with forgiveness at the table - especially the forgiveness that finds us a place despite our offenses - is given beauty and drama in "Chocolat." Note that the Alfred Molina character, the bullying patriarch of the town, has fallen into temptation and gluttony only to be welcome into the love of Easter.

And then the exuberance the whole people of God - including the most simple and broken among us - experience when they embrace one another in grace as shown in Zefferili's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon."
Over the course of 40 years, I have always encouraged the weekly celebration of Eucharist in each the congregations I have served. Sometimes we were able to overcome habit, sometimes not. But going back to Calvin’s words re: giving our churches time to catch up to our new understanding of living as the whole people of God: it seems as if 500+ years after the Reformation is long enough to get up to speed. I hope you will join with me - or some congregation - if you are called to be a part of the feast day. (NOTE: If you do choose to join us, please print or have accessible the simple Palm Sunday liturgy I have prepared for our use? You can find it here and on Face Book (at my spiritual direction page: Be Still and Know.) 


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Palm Sunday liturgy for Holy Communion

NOTE: I am publishing this here so that those who choose to join me this coming Sunday - Palm Sunday, April 5th @ 9:55 am - can follow an order of worship liturgy.

Simple On-Line Palm Sunday Liturgy for Holy Communion
(Please note that you will need some bread and a cup of wine/grape juice to be a part of this sacramental meal. Any bread and any juice will be fine.)

Opening Music

Welcome and Greeting

Litany and Prayers for Palm Sunday
Leader: Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
People: Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
Leader: Let us pray. Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy into the contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus during this week called Holy. We pray in your love. Amen.

The Palm Sunday Gospel: Matthew 21: 1-11 

Leader: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Leader: It is right to praise you, Almighty God, for the acts of love by which you have made us whole. On this day when Jesus entered the holy city of Jerusalem, he was proclaimed as King of kings by those who spread their garments and branches of palm along his path. May we who follow him now grow closer in the Spirit and renew our commitment to share the peace, joy and grace of Jesus as Lord; for he lives and reigns in glory with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
Unison: Amen.

Song (tune: We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder)
Lord in heaven, grant us mercy 
Christ among us, grant us mercy 
Lord in heaven, grant us mercy: Grant to us your peace 

Meditation on Palm/Passion Sunday

Sung Response
Be still and know that I am God 
Be still and know that I am God 
Be still and know that I am God 

Invitation and Great Thanksgiving
Leader: Lend Christ your table, your bread, your cup and your heart, for, as the disciples told the person who loaned the donkey, “The Lord has need of it.”

A holy dialogue of prayer and remembering using traditional and contemporary words takes place hear ending with the Lord’s Prayer in whatever form you know.

Prayer of Consecration

Leader: We are one bread, one body, and one cup of blessing. Though we are many through-out the earth – and this community is now scattered in many kitchens and living rooms – rest your hands lightly upon these the bread and wine which we set aside today to be a sacrament as we ask God’s blessing upon them.
Unison: Gentle Redeemer, there is no lockdown or restriction on your blessing – and no quarantine on your grace. Send your Spirit of life and love, power and blessing, upon every table where your child shelters in place, that this Bread may be broken and gathered in love and this Cup poured out to give hope to all. O Risen Christ, live in us that we may live in you. Breathe in us that we may breathe in you.

Leader: We remember that Paul the apostle wrote letters to congregations throughout places we now call Greece, Turkey and Macedonia, and they were the first “remote” worship resources. Our online liturgy has a long heritage. The Communion words sent to the church at Corinth were these: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Sharing the Elements
Leader: These are the gifts of God for the whole people of God. Come, for all things are now ready. May we in our many places receive the gift of God, the Bread of Heaven.
People: We are One in Christ in the bread we share.
Leader: May we in our many places receive now the gift of God, the Cup or Blessing.
People: We are One in Christ in the cup we share.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Leader: Let us pray in thanksgiving rejoicing that, by the very act of our worship, we have embodied the truth that Christ’s love is not limited by buildings made with human hands, nor contained in human ceremonies, but blows as free as the Spirit in all places.
Unison: Spirit of Christ, you have blessed our tables and our lives. May the eating of this Bread give us courage to speak in faith and act in love, not only in church sanctuaries, but in your precious world. And may the drinking of this Cup renew our hope even in the midst of pandemic. Wrap your hopeful presence around all whose bodies, spirits and hearts need healing, and let us become your compassion and safe refuge. Amen.

Song and Blessing

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, 
Praise God all creatures here below 
Praise God above ye heavenly host 
Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. Amen. 

(This order of worship blends language from the Book of Common Prayer as well as Maren Tirabassi’s “On-Line Palm Sunday Worship.” We have used Public Domain music, too and all are without copyright restrictions.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

heading towards palm sunday and holy week: live streaming blessings...

One of the blessings of being a retired clergy person is the chance to freelance from time to time and help out in ways that make sense. For a few years most of my volunteering has gone into sharing music, presence and prayers with my friends at L'Arche Ottawa. Given the travel restrictions and self-isolation that is essential during this new reality, however, I have not been able to be in Canada since mid-February. Beyond some teleconferencing - and a wonderful Zoom prayer and music gathering last Friday - my current sharing during this season of contagion has taken the form of live-streaming worship reflections, music and prayer on Sunday mornings using Facebook. It is my version of what Martha Wainwright is doing in Montreal ( a host of other musicians and artists are doing every day on Facebook: sharing a hopeful presence in this unsettling time.

It is small - and as you know I believe small is holy. Most of today was given over to working out an online liturgy for Palm Sunday Eucharist. I am grateful that the Book of Common Prayer is not copyright bound. I am also pleased that the wise and poetic pastor, Maren Tirabassi, has given folk the right to use her words - and adapt them as is needed. I am blending both these two resources with some of my own spoken reflections and gave most of the day over to working on this. If you do not have a place of your own to explore the radical wisdom of Jesus, if your own worship community is not going digital during this season, or if you are curious about my simple take on all of this: 

+ Join me on Sunday, April 5th @ 9:55 am. I am trying to broadcast from my spiritual direction Facebook page: The reason I suggest 9:55 is in case there are any technical issues - and they always seem to show up just before I go live. I will be linking a simple liturgy for you to use, too sometime tomorrow (either the whole text, or, a file you can copy.) You will need some bread and wine/juice to share Holy Communion.

+ Those who are liturgically sensitive might find this link useful: it is a personalized way to be a part of the wider worshiping community on this high holy day. Check it out @

+ I am also looking for permission from local musicians I know who are willing to cut a deal with me re: using their music. I am keenly aware of copyright issues so I would like to work something out with you - a modest but fair fee - so that I could set up my program with some of your wisdom and beauty. If you are interested, please let me know and shoot me a note.

My hunch is that I will keep this up at least until some time in May when new evaluations about our corporate solitude are in order. I must confess that I have a fantasy about when this is over: I would love to invite everyone who has joined in these live-streaming gatherings to come to our home - or another appropriate place - and celebrate by singing together, praying and breaking bread. More on that as the next month unfolds.

Monday, March 30, 2020

learning to dance without knowing...

Monday, March 30th 2020 is apparently the last day for us to be out in the wetland scrub until the first frost of autumn arrives. Dianne found a deer tick on her keyboard. As best we can figure, the little bastard jumped off the sweatshirt she was wearing when earlier in the day, during a break in the rain, we took Lucie out for a romp. We, ourselves, needed some exercise as well and love to take-in the solitude surrounded by the grays, browns and hints of purple mixed into the fields of early spring. And now that season is over: off came the clothes, into the shower we leapt to dislodge any tiny intruders, making certain to toss the bed linens and winter comforter down the basement stairs for a fresh washing, too.

Saturday evening, while watching TV, from out of nowhere came an unholy gnawing sound from under the sun room floor. We had a baby skunk come into life last summer in the same vicinity as this scraping, prompting the purchase of coyote urine pellets as well as my modest attempt at repair. That worked - so after some research on what might make such a terrifying racket, we went into full attack mode again. There are now five mini-spot lights under this floor and the obvious entrances well blocked. We shall see but we certainly need to move the composter farther away from the garage. I am delighted that spring is arriving after the fullness of winter. And yet there are always surprises when you live this close to Mother Nature. I am ready to start working the soil for this year's gardens - and repair the damage winter did to my improvised terraces. There's a ton of leaves and dead branches to be hauled back to the wetlands border, too. I am so ready.

A phrase from one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 journals has been running around my head for about a month: “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” I heard the poet, Gregory Orr, speak of this in an interview on Krista Tippett's "On Being" podcast. And when the world changed completely over night three weeks ago, it seemed like the right time to follow this advice. Orr suggested it was a way of making "our own play list. As one who loved to make tape mixes back in the day, this resonated - and I have been collecting snippets and poems online non-stop without any rhyme or reason. Today I started to gather them all in one place in my "Solitude Collection" file. As this week unfolds I will likely turn it into a hard copy collection with a binder and artsy cover as I cherish the tactile experience of reading almost as much as the visual and intellectual encounter. Two quotes caught my attention again as I was sorting:

+ One is from Elvis Francois, the singing doctor/orthopedic intern at the Mayo Clinic, who tells us: In life, there are so many things that divide us: Religion, race, politics, social status and so much more. But today a global pandemic brings us all together as one. Over the next few months our health care system will be tested. Millions of lives will be lost. Health care providers will be under an incredible amount of stress to save thousands of people. But when times are as dark as they are today, nothing shines brighter than the human spirit. There is something beautiful about a collective struggle. And the beauty in what we are facing today is that the only way to overcome this pandemic is for us to all come together as one. Nurses, doctors, students, research scientists, politicians, Uber eats drivers, cashiers, factory workers etc.....Getting through this will be hard but one thing is certain...the only way we will get through it is together, as one.

+ The other is graffiti taken from a subway station in Japan: We can't return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.

Both are true at the same time, yes? We will get through this together - as one - but we cannot ever return to normal. These two truths are amplified by two other quotes I have collected suggesting that uncertainty and solidarity must embrace even if we don't know what that fully means. Even if we have no idea how to do it. Even if the mere suggestion is terrifying. Gregory Orr puts it like this:

To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That's crudely put, but…
If we're not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?

And Orr's companion, Carrie Newcomer, adds:

I’m Learning to Sit With Not Knowing
I’m learning to sit with not knowing.
When I don't see where its going
Cool my heels and start slowing
I am learning to sit with not knowing

I'm learning to sit with what’s next
What if and my best guess
Be kinder when it’s a process
I'm learning to live with what’s next

 Here's a clear space I've chosen
Where the denseness of this world opens
Where there's something holding steady and true
Regardless of me or you

I’m learning live with the high stakes
Befriending my mistakes
Lay my hand where my heart aches
I’m learning live with the high stakes

I'm learning to live with what takes time
No ribbon across some finish line
Stop feeling I'm always a day behind
I'm learning to live with what takes time
I’m learning to sit with not knowing.
When I don't see where its going
Cool my heels and start slowing
I am learning to sit with not knowing

Me, too, my friends, me too:  dancing with uncertainty - putting spotlights under the floor to ward off squirrels (or skunks) with laughter and trust - noting and honoring the fact that the ticks have awakened so now it is time to hit the Rail Trail for a season instead of the wetlands - figuring out how to call the grocery store to make a delivery at week's end because I ought not to be going out into public - and opening my heart to trust God that as we move through this unknowing we will come out as those who cannot return to the normal that was precisely the problem.

(NOTE: today's pictures are of the wetlands behind our home and St. Brigid's cross on our front door. I made three Brigid's crosses on Candlemas because I love the design. As the lesser known saint of Ireland I wanted to honor her legacy in our spirituality.)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

small is holy: fifth week of lent 2020

Well, week number three for live-streaming and... still some opening glitches with the FB live connection accessing my camera. It worked last night - and AFTER my broadcast - but just as I was getting ready to go live... nothing! I quickly raced into the bedroom, Di help me access my page on her camera and I regrouped. But I wasn't able to start things off with the planned music. Damn. Oh well, keep it simple I guess is the way to go. Here is the actual event followed by my written text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. 

Two weeks ago, when I shared my first live-streaming reflection with you, most of us were just starting to come to terms with our brave, new world: besides our bewildered awareness that life was changing around us so fast that we could hardly imagine, let alone articulate, what it all meant, we experienced ourselves as a people adrift. It was as if a hazy surrealism shaped each day – and that impelled us to grasp whatever illusions offered a semblance of order for our lives: 

+ We washed our hands obsessively and stockpiled hand-sanitizers and toilet paper. We struggled to get our tongues around new expressions like social distancing and self-quarantine. 

+ And almost overnight millions of older Americans began asking children, grandchildren or neighbors how to make the once ignored, but now essential, intricacies of social media their friend.

By week two, some of the haze had burned off and we practiced maintaining at least six feet of separation between one another save our own families. Solitude had become the new normal – a paradoxical discipline of self-care as well as compassion for our community and country – and college classes were cancelled, elementary schools and restaurants shuttered, states of emergency declared, and cities and states came under mandatory lock-down orders. Anxiety and fear replaced disorientation. Restlessness, too, as Americans are not well practiced at staying still. Strip malls and city centers became ghost towns. Hoarding pushed our frazzled feelings out into the public; causing us to wonder how we, ourselves, would act should push come to shove. Morality and social ethics was no longer an abstraction.

And now, three weeks into the crisis, heroes have emerged – leaders who clearly care for the common good more than self and status – while callous charlatans have been exposed as posers who would condemn the least among us to painful and unnecessary deaths simply to enhance the possibility of re-election or short-term profit. We now know that our time set-apart will not be just weeks, but more likely months, and that the worst is yet to come. Small wonder that many of us are waking up within the grip of an inchoate grief we prayed could never be the truth. And that is what I want to talk about with you this morning: grief – and what the ancient prophets have to say about its healing role in our lives and culture if we embrace it honestly. 


There is a startling confluence between what the prophets of ancient Israel discovered about grief and what our contemporary pioneers into grief work have learned. The Harvard Business Review recently interviewed Dr. David Kessler, who with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, helped modern medicine come to terms with what is called the “stages of grief.” In this interview, Kessler notes that given the magnitude of the changes we’ve experienced in such a short time, grief is not only natural to feel now, but we should understand that there are a number of types of grief. He tells us:

We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed: The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us all and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air… especially anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain… Anticipatory grief understands that there is a storm coming and there’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing because while our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, we can’t see it – and this breaks our sense of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this before. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new for we are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

He concludes his interview by saying that when individuals – and cultures – live into the wisdom of grief not only is there a time when we find a peace in accepting realities beyond our control – much like the Serenity Prayer of the 12 Step process in AA – but that there is meaning to be mined from this encounter. “We realize that grief and tragedy are temporary – and they are survivable.” That’s important to keep in mind so that we don’t get locked in the loop of anxiety. But more than that, Kessler concludes that:

We will find meaning in it. (Beyond the fifth stage of grief, acceptance, there is another: meaning. There can be) meaning in those dark hours. And I believe we find light in those times, too. Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.

I believe Kessler is right. Already all over the Internet some of our finest musicians – students, amateurs and professionals – are sharing songs every day to help us connect the wisdom of our feelings with the reality of this moment in time. One of the most powerful comes from young students in Italy – who know this season of grief better than any of us dare imagine – and they sing an a capella version of a Steven Stills song: “Helplessly Hoping.” Have you seen it and heard it and felt it? It is chilling and tragic and somberly hopeful all at once. (I’ve added it to this Facebook link for those who haven’t seen it.)

When a friend sent me the link, I wept while watching it – again and again – for the courage and grace these young people are tapping into with beauty and tenderness point precisely to the meaning we might re-discover as we; too go deeper into this time of grief. Just this week, the poet, Jane Hirschfield, published this poem that links the wisdom of the grief we feel in our hearts and flesh with our better angels. She calls it: “Today, When I Could Do Nothing.”

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this. 

Helplessly hoping – the artists, poets, dancers, musicians, painters and sculptors know what we so long ago sacrificed on the altar of bottom lines and balance sheets – that we NEED artists to help give shape and form to what we feel because we can’t yet articulate it. And that is exactly what the prophets of ancient Israel discovered as they lived through slavery, exile, the destruction of the Temple, captivity in the kingdom of Babylon and decades of grief.

Some of you know the Psalms of the Bible – not everyone, of course, because we all know different things as part of the interconnected human community – but some know the Psalms. And ancient Israel’s grief was expressed with agonizing clarity in Psalm 137. As the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flowed, the Psalmist wept this lament: By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. (That is, Israel.) On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us songs, and our tormentors laughed, saying: “Sing for us one of the songs of Zion now!” Oh my God, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 

+ Bono of the rock band U2 used to say that he learned about the blues first from these ancient songs – the Psalter and, of course, Elvis, too – but the Psalms were right up there!

+ Some know this tune from the realm of reggae, others as an American folk song, and you really old timers know it as “On the Willows” from the Broadway musical, “Godspell.”

Its origins, however, take us back to a time when ancient Israel’s best and brightest were led out of the holy city of Jerusalem in chains for 70 years of bondage in Babylon beginning in 586 BCE. This is the era in which Ezekiel, born into the tribe of Israel’s priests, received his inspiration to live as a prophet to the exiles. Prior to Israel’s captivity, a prophet’s calling was to warn the religious, political and economic leadership of the land that their culture was no longer acting in harmony with God’s grace. The poor and broken were forgotten and left out of the nation’s prosperity. Interpersonal ethics had become crass and merely utilitarian. And a social decadence had taken hold where once justice and compassion guided the day.

According to Old Testament professor, Walter Brueggemann, it was the prophet’s first task to warn their leaders that living out of balance – celebrating excess and ignoring the consequences of selfishness – had consequences. It could not endure forever. When the walls of Jerusalem were “breached, however, and the city plundered,” the era of warning came to a close. Brueggemann suggests that what was true in ancient Israel is equally true today in his book: Reality, Hope and Grief. “I have delineated three contemporary prophetic tasks,” he says, “by paying careful attention to what the Old Testament prophets were doing in the context of their society. It is my conclusion that the three recurring actions of the prophets… are in fact prophetic responses to social conditions and social policy in both the ancient and contemporary realm.” So let me summarize Brueggemann’s insights and then connect them to the sacred texts for this fifth Sunday in Lent.

First, a prophet is called to name reality as it is known by the facts on the ground – especially the reality of those who are most vulnerable. The prophet passionately calls out the “bubble of illusion” people of privilege prefer over radical solidarity. The lies of this reality, Brueggemann ads, are “voiced in endless propaganda and advertising, commending a system of private gratification at the expense of the common good. But this system of fearful greed no longer works, nor does it make anyone happy. It is a fraudulent theory of social relationships.”  And don’t we know that now when practicing social distancing and self-isolation incarnates healing for the whole nation while living out in public just for ourselves endangers us all? And what about the sacrilege of telling the old that we should sacrifice ourselves for the greed of the managerial class? I’m with Cuomo when he said, “I will NOT put a price tag on my mother’s life!” Can’t you hear the prophet Isaiah in the 58th chapter of his book shouting to the power brokers of his day: I the Lord HATE your fasts and phony religious ceremonies. I despise them. Is not this the fast that is holy to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Do this and then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. First, the prophet is called to name reality without illusion.

Second, the prophet works to overcome our personal and social inclination to deny our broken reality and maintain the “bubble of illusion.” This is what is now known as the six stages of “grief work” where we move from denial into anger at the mess we’re in. Then from anger into trying to bargain with God or anyone else to get us out of this pain; from bargaining another stage is depression where we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our suffering – then, as the Serenity Prayer says, acceptance – God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference – which is where we can find the meaning of grief in for our lives. Brueggemann writes that even in the face of calamities like the pandemic there are those, like the President, who will continue to lie to us, asking us to trust the old “pathologies that have produced immense suffering,” while benefiting only a few. They “keep reiterating the mantras of greed all the while disregarding the huge loss, in terms of human possibility, that is happening before our very eyes — the loss of moral possibility, the loss of generous neighborliness, and the loss of well-being that depends upon a viable human fabric of solidarity.” Another prophet, Jeremiah, cut to the chase in chapter 7 when he said: “If you truly amend your ways, if you execute right relationships and respect with one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan or the widow, or shed innocent blood… then I will let you dwell in a place of safety, the land that I gave of old to your fathers and mothers forever.” Owning our loss honestly – and grieving it in full – is the second prophetic task.

And third, the prophet is called to help us practice patience and prayer – what the wisdom keepers call self-emptying – so that free from ego and ideology there is space within to listen for the holy. I am moved by the way Eugene Peterson reworks some of the old wise words of Jesus with great insight about this self-emptying in The Message. Again and again I keep going back to his restatement of the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount. The old way tells us: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The newer parsing by Peterson puts it like this: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and God’s grace.” There is more room within us without all that inner chatter and fear, shame and denial that drowns out our ability to hear the holy in a solemn stillness. Grief often comes to us to clear out the clutter so that when a word of hope is articulated, we can honor it.  And this is the real genius in Brueggemann’s analysis: he is convinced – and has convinced me, too – that time and again God speaks to us from our grief through the dreamers and artists of our generation. We will not hear a healing word from those in power nor from elected officials or even the preachers and teachers. Rather, the healing word – the hopeful song – the movie, novel, poem, dance or work of art that points us in a new direction will come from our artists who are uniquely attuned to the prophetic imagination.

Think what you may of Paul Tillich, the German theologian who was an early

critic of Nazi fascism and eventually fled Germany for my alma mater in 1933. But in the dark days after the First World War he discerned that God was no longer speaking in the churches, but rather had now taken up residence in the abstract expressionist painters of his generation who were expressing real horror of greed as well as the promise of new freedom. T.S. Eliot did much the same in 1934 with his extended prose poem, “The Rock,” and we’re just beginning to get it 86 years later.

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

Reality – grief – and hope – naming the source of our wounds, entering into them with humility and courage, and nourishing emptiness and silence in order to hear the still small voice of the Lord calling to us from our artists and dreamers: these are the three prophetic tasks for our generation. Now I know that’s a lot of analysis for a Sunday morning– especially in a culture that wants quick fixes and sentimental spirituality. But as we feel this grief – and it is real – the magnitude of this moment cries out that we not waste it. Like Fr. Richard Rohr says: this is a teachable moment – one in which our values can play a significant part in the rebuilding of our culture, our economics and even our faith communities. Heather Cox Richardson, American historian at Boston College, articulated it well:

Our country is reordering itself as we hunker down for this crisis. Already our work habits, our social habits, our shopping habits, and our personal lives have been knocked into new grooves. It is a mistake, I think, to imagine that when we finally get a handle on this disease, America will go back to what it was before coronavirus... We are learning that many of us can work from home—how will that change our urban and rural spaces? We are learning that our lives depend on a strong government response to pandemics and economic dislocation—how will that change our government? We are learning that our families and friends are even more important than even we knew—how will that change our priorities? The questions raised by this life-changing crisis are open… and so, suddenly, is America’s future.

I think Ezekiel was challenged to rethink his world, too when looking out upon the valley of dry bones: this is not a literal story from history, of course, but an artistic rendering about how God empowers us to trust and love when all around us fear rules the day. This is a story about rebuild-ing human community by God’s grace in God’s time rather than relying upon the pathologies and ideologies that brought us here in the first place. Looking out upon the brokenness of his people the prophet imagines the Lord asking: Can these bones live. To which the bewildered Ezekiel says: “Only Thou knowest, Lord.”

Well then, get to it, man: prophesy to these bones – listen and speak in my love rather than your fears – and let’s see what happens. “So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I did, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.” You get what’s going on, right? This is a prophetic dream – a revelation about trust and reclaiming God’s vision for our era – and it is coming to the people through Ezekiel’s creative imagination, one of ancient Israel’s first blues artists. Like John Lennon, Ezekiel starts singing, “Imagine all the people, living for today aha you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m ot the only one.” Are you with me on this?

I think something similar is happening in the story from St. John’s gospel where Jesus weeps and his friend Lazarus is brought back from the dead. The action in this story is a personalized restatement of the valley of dry bones. A first century Jewish/Christian artistic midrash on Ezekiel. Three quick insights: 

+ First, the focus of this story is Lazarus – brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany – and one whom the text tells us, “Jesus loved.” Scholars point out that Lazarus is the first person we’re told that Jesus loved. Up until this point, Jesus acts as a teacher – compassionate but still a bit removed – but now he’s acting in love. And notice who he loves: Lazarus whom the Bible describes as sickly from the Greek word, asthenes, which can be translated: diseased, without strength or insignificant. This is a story about paying attention to those who are vulnerable and forgotten with love so that the facts on the ground can make God’s love flesh. 

+ Second, when Jesus sees how broken-hearted Mary and Martha are over the death of their brother we’re told that Jesus wept. And that little word, wept, is deceptive and genteel in English. But in Greek it means to grieve with an agitated shudder. An excruciating cry of pain that shakes the whole body. The death of Lazarus upsets the equanimity of Jesus and rips his heart apart. 

+ And third, in this agitated state, the broken-heart of Jesus cries out like Ezekiel for Lazarus to rise up! Like the prophets before him, Jesus trusts God’s love and prophesies to the corpse in a cave behind a stone to come into NEW life. And however you make sense of this story – and I trust in multiple layers with all my heart, soul, strength and might – Lazarus does exactly that. He steps out of death into new life. And just so that we don’t miss the radical and upside down meaning of this story: do you recall what Lazarus, Jesus, Mary and Martha do after this restoration of life? They retire back in Bethany to partake of the Passover Feast. After all the death – after the grief and the anguish and the fear and the heart-break – there is a festival of freedom and feasting at the table of new life. The symbolism is just too strong to ignore.

I believe that is part of the promise for those of us honoring our collective grief: a new way of living shaped by love. Just last week there was a hand-printed sign taped to a pole in Pennsylvania that said: “And then the whole world walked inside and shut their doors and said, ‘We will stop it all!’ Everything – to protect our weaker ones – our sicker ones – our insignificant ones – and our older ones.! And nothing, NOTHING, in the history of humankind ever felt more like love than this.” But to get there we have live into this extended, shared Lent for this is how we shall be emptied, cleansed and moved beyond denial. I think that’s what our artists are helping us to see: by honoring their wounds and grief they are helping us open our hearts to love and tenderness and creativity.

When I do that, open my heart to grief, a little song I wrote called “Small Is Holy” keeps popping up. It comes from my experiencing God’s healing love at a time when I felt insignificant and vulnerable. It comes from my being a volunteer at L’Arche Ottawa and sharing love with people who only ask me if I can be trusted in love. And it comes from discovering that because I can only do a very little bit to make anything better, that small is holy. This song has been swimming around in my head for a while and I could never find a way to really share it in public until right now. It just didn’t feel right – but now it does – this small song about the enormity of God’s love in my little and quiet life. May it be a little blessing for you…

Thinking big and acting strong – led me into all that’s wrong
Hitting bottom taught me well strategies to get through hell.
Touch the wound in front of you – that’s all you can really do
Hold it close – don’t turn away – make room for what is real today.

Small is me, small is you, small is holy and rings true
Small is hard, small reveals the way our hearts can be healed

I been bullied, I been screwed – lost sometimes but won a few
Paid it forward, grabbed it back – hit the jack pot, got the sack
Hurt those who are dear to me – broke their hearts so bitterly
Been forgiven but don’t know why: grace trumps karma - most every time…

   The blues has its own beauty if I have the ears to hear
   The song inside my sorrow’s singing: let go of your fear.
   The wisdom of the sacred is often upside down
   So many times I missed her… when she tried to come to town

I tend to trust too slowly while the sting of shame it lasts
My heart gives up its habits incrementally not fast
Don’t push too hard – don’t say too much
Don’t go too fast – trust human touch
And when I fall, get up again let losing be the way to win.

Small is me, small is you, small is holy and rings true
Small is hard, small reveals the way our hearts can be healed

Friday, March 27, 2020

reflections on breathing as God's breath within and among us...

Last night we watched Valerie Kaur's "zoom" cast re: Revolutionary Love in this
time of pandemic. It was, in essence, her book launch, but also a shared time for meditation together. I resonate with her message. I rejoice that much of the work being done comes from women of color from all over the world. And I trust that her insight that our current darkness is more womb than tomb is right. A new world is being born from this struggle. This hand drawn sign taped to a tree in Pennsylvania says it clearly.

I have been working on my reflection for this coming Sunday when I launch my "Small is Holy" broadcast using live-streaming on Facebook. For the past two weeks I have done this in service to a neighboring congregation as they move into an interim ministry time. I was grateful for the opportunity and sense that there is still room to do this again. So... here are my written notes from last week as prelude to what is still to come. If you're game, join me at 10 am.

Small Is Holy
Live Streaming Reflections on Spirituality for an Unsettling Season
Sundays @ 10 AM on Facebook
Be Still and Know – James Lumsden

SERMON NOTES: Breathe on me breath of life (March 22, 2020)

What a beautiful, demanding, terrifying, blessed, confusing, troubling, frustrating, generous, open-hearted, close-minded, complicated, compassionate and sacred week this has been for me: you, too? It has been ALL of these things – and more – all at once. There were times last week when I was in awe at the grace of God being revealed and reclaimed within and among us – and I rejoiced. And there were other times when I literally burst into tears of sorrow and uncertainty.

+ The creative outpouring of holy human love that has been released all over the world during this shared crisis is breath-taking. Perhaps you’ve seen on the Internet or the news scenes of Italians in strict lockdown sectors opening their windows and filling their empty streets with sweet songs of tenderness and hope? Remarkable and brilliant. 

+ In Iran, doctors and nurses in some of the most dangerous and infected “red zones” have been posting videos of themselves dancing to wild music in what is being called the Covid 19 dance challenge! They want to keep their patients engaged in life – and encourage their colleagues to keep fighting this battle – so with humble good humor they are dancing in hazmat suits, helping to restore their neighbor’s spirits with laughter and delight. Other medical staff brought in their musical instruments to serenade patients in quarantined areas.

The evolutionary anthropologist, Agustin Fuentes at the University of Notre Dame, says that built into our human nature is a capacity for creative connections. “One of the amazing things about the human species,” he told Robin Wright at the New Yorker, “is that these once harmless critters, not much more than monkeys running around have, in time become… incredibly imaginative in finding connections even when we’re not in the same physical space together.” One of the poems of the pandemic that went viral last week was by Kitty O’Meara who wrote:

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested and exercised and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being – and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some even met their shadows: and the people began to think differently. And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully as they had been healed.

Like Wavy Gravy said back at Woodstock: “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area, man.” Listening to the pre-debate reporters a week ago talk about the statistical consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, however, was much more sobering. Perhaps for the first time I finally heard that in the worst case scenario millions of deaths could take place in our country – millions - and out of nowhere I burst into tears. They washed over me spontaneously like a thunder storm on a lake in the summer and I sat alone in front of my TV in the dark and wept for grandmas and grampas, friends with kidney or heart disease, neighbors with high blood pressure or autoimmune problems, those in treatment for cancer. Millions.

A few nights later I awoke from a sound sleep with anxiety coursing through my veins: I had been dreaming about my friends in Pittsfield – and Montreal – who run restaurants, jazz clubs and coffee shops. Most of them have been pleading on-line with their customers to stop by, make a “to go” purchase or buy up some of their food stock that will otherwise rot. They were grieving not simply because they had to close down their businesses, but because they love their employees and have no way to pay them during this shut down – and I work up in a cold, aching sweat.

I think the American Buddhist master, Pema Chodren, got it right when she Tweeted: if you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you too have been on a comparable emotional roller coaster: we are living into a time of unprecedented suffering that was unimaginable just two weeks ago. The bard of Vermont, author Frederick Buechner, likes to say that the best way to discern the presence of the Lord is by listening to our lives. He writes:

I believe that there is NO event so commonplace but that God is present within it – always hiddenly, always reaching out to you compellingly and haughtingly, asking you to listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell you way into the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments – and life itself is grace. Buechner then cuts deeper adding…: YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes (or the words on the TV) … almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure: whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

This morning our texts in Scripture invite us to do precisely this: pay attention to our tears, listen to our lives, that we might discern what the holy is saying to all of us in the scandal of our particularities. So first let me share a Biblical insight with you concerning the Shepherd’s Psalm, Psalm 23, and how it can help get us grounded in our most anxious moments. Second, a few of the challenges set before us in the story of the blind beggar in St. John’s gospel.


Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we’re halfway through a journey with Jesus into Jerusalem and the Cross that culminates on Easter. It is not yet clear whether that journey will take place on-line or in person. However it happens, we know that it is a slow pilgrimage, intentionally paced to help us acquire eyes to see God’s love being revealed within and among us in the most unlikely places. St. Paul used to tell his friends that he was certain that God worked something good for all those who lived by faith. By faith he did NOT mean doctrine or theology, but rather trust. And please be careful to note that St. Paul never said that all things WERE good, or that God forced bad things to happen to teach us some cruel, cosmic lesson.

No, taking the Cross as his guide, he clearly confessed that: God can bring blessing into every situation for those who trust the Lord and have eyes to see the holy emerging in the most unexpected places. And that is my prayer for us at this moment in time: that we don’t waste this crisis with distractions or misdirected action. Rather that we choose to listen for God in our lives and trust that the one who brought new life into the world after the Cross will do so for us, too.

Psalm 23 in the songbook of ancient Israel offers three settings where we might see, feel, smell, taste, and touch the presence of God’s love in our ordinary lives if we are paying attention: a meadow, a valley, and a banquet table. I want to consider just the meadow with you because this prayer/song is so familiar we might miss its message. 

+ Notice that the Psalm opens in nature – not the Temple, not a sanctuary, not a tent or a residence – just a grassy meadow and a quiet stream. We know that being outside – for a walk, doing yard work, tending the garden – is restorative. What we forget is that nature is God’s first word of love to us. The 13th century Italian Dominican priest, Thomas Aquinas, told us that, “Creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine.” It is the FIRST word of God – the organic Bible, if you will – for creation itself reveals to us the true heart of the Lord. Dare I suggest that simply going outside is a prayer? Communion? An act of worship we share with everyone and everything else on the planet? 

+ One of the reasons why Psalm 23 encourages us to get out into the beauty of nature - especially whenever our spirits are troubled – is that it heals our soul. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In grassy meadows God helps me lie down and rest, by quiet streams of water God guides me and restores my trust so that my life can be saturated in peace.”

Robert Alter, master of the Bible’s poetry, teaches that the traditional words – maketh me to lie down – come from a unique Hebrew verb having to do with the way a shepherd helps his or her herd prepare for sleep: the shepherd calms the fears of the flock by creating a place of safety. Then – and only then – can they rest in the experiential assurance that even in the darkest night they will not be left alone.

They do not have to fend for themselves because they have been comforted by a loving presence greater than themselves. They don’t fully know how the shepherd does this, mind you. They just sense – trust and experience – that the shepherd’s security is real. That’s why the Psalmist tells us that the Lord restoreth my soul. The Hebrew word here is nefesh – not soul – but the very breath of life. It is the same word used in the second creation story of Genesis where the Lord breathes spirit into the being formed of mud. When that happens, when the Spirit/ breath of God fills us, we become NEPHESH CHAYAH: a living, breathing being animated from the inside out by God’s spirit.

In this, the ancient Psalmist is telling us about two time-tested ways to reconnect our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies to a trust that evokes rest even within the darkness of our current crisis: 1) we are called to reconnect with nature, and, 2) to use the breath God gave us to become a centering prayer for God’s peace. It is a poetic invitation to practice two simple spiritual disciplines that help us move through hard times with grace and tenderness.

This time of solitude and distance socializing are great for reclaiming God’s restoration of our souls. Many of us have lost touch with this aspect of the sacred. With 24/7 electricity – and the security of warm, safe homes – we don’t have to go to sleep when it’s dark or get up when it’s light. Most of us rarely have to worry about building fires when it’s cold or constructing shelter from the storm. Small wonder we have forgotten the spirituality of the seasons – what it means to build a life honoring the first word of God in the ebb and flow of summer and winter, autumn and spring – let alone how to overcome our alienation from what is taking place in the ground below our feet or the very air we breathe.

I am a big fan of the Quaker author and teacher, Parker Palmer, who suggests that listening to and living into the spirituality of the seasons is essential for the restoration of our souls. “Seasons,” he writes, “Is a wise metaphor for the movement of life."

It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all and to find within the seasons opportunities to go deeper into lives of peace. I love the fact that the word “humus”– the decayed vegetable matter that feeds the roots of plants – comes from the same word root that gives rise to the word “humility” as well as “humor.” It is a blessed etymology. It helps me understand that the humiliating events of life, the events that leave “mud on my face” or that “make my name mud,” may create the fertile soil in which something new can grow.

That’s an earthy way of saying we humans can learn how to get it right from our mistakes – or to use theological language – that we are all being made whole by forgiveness and grace. He goes on to say:

Though spring begins slowly and tentatively, it grows with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, coming up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops do not bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope.

Nature is telling us exactly what St. Paul confessed: that God can redeem all wounds for those who trust God’s presence within and among all of creation. Which tells me that now – especially now – it would be wise for us to get out into some of that sacred, blessed mud - or at least the fresh air – and soak up some of that grace!  A Kentucky farmer by the name of Wendell Berry celebrates the holiness of God’s earth in poetry. He knows that God’s first word is not only revealed in nature, but it brings us restoration, too.

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

The ancient wisdom of our tradition teaches that to be healed we must step away from the clutter of a culture obsessed with control and consumption to “come back into the peace of wild things.” It is a time-tested way to pray, worship with the whole of creation even when we can’t be in church, and open our hearts for the Lord who yearns to “restoreth our souls.” The same is true every moment of the day when we breathe: like the soil, water, air, meadows and woodlands, our breath is a gift from God that centers us so that we experience the peace that passes understanding from the inside out. Some of the older folk – like me – who are listening right now know an old hymn by Edwin Hatch that goes: “Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”

So how does that happen? How can our breath become a prayer that soothes our anxieties, quiets our minds and restores our souls? The late Benedictine master, Thomas Keating, called it centering prayer – the simplest version of which uses our breathing in and breathing out with a few simple words – as a natural way to reconnect with grace. It wasn’t an accident, you know, that the modern rendering of this psalm says: you help me catch my breath and set me off in the right direction. When I used to visit people in the hospital back in the day, I often asked what practice did they use to stay grounded while waiting for surgery and then during the long wait afterwards in recovery? More often than not they would pause, shake their heads and say something like: I just try to endure it.

So let me teach you now what I taught them then so you can use it whenever you feel rattled, ok? If you already know about centering prayer with your breath, let this be a refresher course, ok? Here’s what you can do: 

+ Whenever you feel yourself bracing, becoming tense or slipping into uncertainty: just close your eyes. When you breathe in, think: “God of peace” – and when you breathe out, think: “Fill my heart.” In and out: God of peace – fill my heart. 

+ You can use any words that help ground you trust and tenderness, too ok? These are just the ones that work best for me. I used them the other night when I woke up with a panic attack: God of peace, fill my heart. And it works. It takes a little practice and time, but whenever the anxiety flares up – and it will – just feel it, own it as true and then move into that gentle in and out breathing prayer for God’s peace.

Now let me say something that is obvious but important: it is perfectly natural and normal during days like these to feel overwhelmed and anxious. It means you’re alive – and fully human. It happened to Jesus all the time, too you know? That’s one of the reasons he was always wandering off into the hills, gardens or deserts to pray. He, like you and me, needed time to practice what we now call centering prayer so that he could enter into the suffering of his generation with equanimity and trust. I think that’s one of the reasons this story about the beggar born blind is included in St. John’s gospel: it shows what trust as well as anxiety looks like in the extended movement of events

You see, this story doesn’t start off with the healing of the blind beggar. It begins back in chapter eight of St. John’s gospel where Jesus finds himself in an argument with the religious authorities of his day. While honoring his own Jewish tradition, Jesus also trusts that the way of love sometimes has to break the rules. For a number of reasons, those in charge of the tradition at that time vigorously disagreed with Jesus: they insisted that there are those who are ritually clean and those who are unclean, those who are morally right and those who are morally bankrupt, those who are for us and those who are just nasty people. To which Jesus said: Look, we both agree that Abraham was the father of our tradition, but please remember that even he started his journey by faith – by trust – through an inner experience of God’s presence, not a set of rules. He left his home by God’s inspiration before there ever were rules – so I have come to trust this truth as much as the later rules – which infuriated his adversaries so much they tried to stone him to death.

That’s the on-going problem with fundamentalism of any variety: its heart is good, its intentions are holy, but it can so quickly become cruel. So Jesus gets out of town as quickly as possible – for some quiet time. Some Psalm 23/Centering Prayer/restoration of his soul time. And on the outskirts of the city his own disciples start a similar argument when they see a beggar born blind: “Who sinned, rabbi?” they ask: “This beggar or his parents?” Can’t you feel the tension surging through Jesus at this moment?

I really don’t think it is outside the scope of the gospel to say that after being violently threatened and banished from the temple, Jesus was particularly open to the pain that this unwanted beggar felt as he sat beside the side of the road crying out for spare change. He too had been excluded and denigrated. I think that when Jesus felt unwanted and alone his feelings and experiences helped him connect with another who was equally isolated and vulnerable. So with love and tenderness, Jesus offered to the beggar what he himself had been denied: vision to see what was really important and acceptance of his humanity beyond his disability.

We’re in one of those moments right now where our suffering can either make us more rigid and afraid, or, cultivate a gravitas and compassion that is salvific. Fr. Richard Rohr recently framed our moment in history like this – and it bears quoting at length. “We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.”

But for God to reach us, we have to allow this suffering to wound us. Now is no time for academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to let our personal feelings lead us into communion with everyone. What is going to happen to those living in isolated places or for those who don’t have health care? Imagine the fragility of the most marginalized, of people in prisons, the homeless, or even the people performing necessary services, such as ambulance drivers, nurses, and doctors, risking their lives to keep society together? Our feelings of urgency and devastation are not exaggeration: they are responding to the real human situation. We’re not pushing the panic button; we are the panic button. And we have to allow these feelings – listening to our lives and our tears, if you will – as we invite God’s presence to hold and sustain us in a time of collective prayer and lament.

Like Jesus, who knew anxiety, rejection and uncertainty, we must take this time to get ourselves centered in God’s peace. We must weep – and feel all the complexities of this challenge. Do you know the shortest sentence in the Bible? “Jesus wept.” I have come to believe that tears are our most profound prayers of pathos in solidarity with the pain of another, so don’t be afraid of them. We must pray in all kinds of ways – and – we must breathe, beloved. Breathe and breathe and breathe again that we can move forward in God’s love – not our fears – nor the political and economic ideologies of those in power. This is our moment when love must drive the healing, the transformation and restoration of our world.

If we know anything from the arc of the Lenten story it is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is at the core of creation. What we’re being asked to do now by God is trust that truth. It has become abundantly clear that we need one another. Over and over I realize in a whole new way during this time of self-isolation and quasi-monastic living that we really are ALL in this together: black and white, Latino and Pacific Rim, adults and children, rich and poor and those in-between, Christians and Jews and Muslims and every other faith tradition as well as atheists, too. Someone from the Sikh tradition by the name of Valerie Kaur is one such person who helps me live by faith. She keeps saying that the darkness of these days is NOT the darkness of the tomb alone, but also the darkness of the womb. Sure there is death – and there will be more – because death is a part of the cycle of life. But so too is new life – and right now it is being shaped and formed in this dark of these days. Recently Kaur wrote:

What I wish for you now is stillness. The blistering pace of the pandemic, the cacophony of commentary, the relentless barrage of breaking news without rest kills the root of our own wisdom, our ability to think clearly. It drives us to act on fear and panic — to hoard, to ban, to isolate, to self-protect, to act on racist impulses. But this is a time to gather the facts, to get quiet and summon our deepest wisdom — and let that wisdom lead us. For we have difficult choices to make in the coming days. This pandemic is testing who we want to be, as individuals and as a people. Will we succumb to fear and self-interest? Or will we double-down on love? Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities? Is this the darkness of the tomb — or the darkness of the womb? I believe this is a time to love without limit. This is a time to see no stranger. In doing so, we gather information for the kind of world we want, where no one is uninsured or disposable, where our policies and public institutions protect all of us. And if you get overwhelmed sometimes, it’s ok. It just means that you are alive to what is happening. Our work right now is to breathe through it all. Let it become for us a dance – to panic and then return to wisdom – to retreat and then find the courage to show up with love anyway. For like any long labor, we are going to take this one… one breath at a time.

This rings true for me, my friends, that we are now learning to live into a deeper, life-giving love. It can nourish our connections, strengthen us to feel the sorrow and the suffering, and also unite us in a movement towards new. My friends in AA like to tell me: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. We want to come out of this darkness with a restorative love and that takes time. It takes practice and lots of breathing. We can do this hard thing – one breath at a time. Breathe with me now as an affirmation: God of peace – fill my heart….

time makes ancient truth uncouth: online Eucharist in the pandemic

My preference for public worship falls into an emerging category: creatively liturgical. I love smells and bells. My heart soars to both cha...