Sunday, May 31, 2015

Resting with a puppy on Trinity Sunday...

Today is Trinity Sunday.  We walked around Marché Jean-Talon - one of our favorite places in
all of Montréal for an hour mostly to take in the colors and the people. In time we bought some local tomates, fraises and framboises. We discovered an adequate little Mexican place  too before returning home for a long, long nap.

The thing about Jean-Talon is the extraordinary colors. On a cool and grey day, it becomes an oasis of reds, oranges, yellows and greens. And the flowers! They create yet another festival of violets, blues and yellows. Even if nothing is purchased - and that is almost an impossibility - it is just a treat to walk around and take in all the visual blessings.

When we got home, I took Lucie to the sofa in the front room so that Di could rest in the bedroom. She (Di) did not sleep well and needed a dark quiet place to rest. I needed time with my buddy - and within 10 minutes she was asleep wrapped around my feet. For the next 90 minutes we both slept like logs. From time to time, she would hear a street sound and perk up in her startled, anxious way. This was a good time just to rub her softly and remind her all was safe. Then she would crash again into another deep sleep. Me, too. In time she had wound her legs around mine and had her head resting - albeit asleep - on my knee. Let's just say a good time was had by all. (And now she is back on the sofa sleeping on my pillow while I write!)

I mention these little, almost boring details because it is Trinity Sunday: the celebration of the mystical dance of loving relationship that is God. On this day, we celebrate that the essence of the Sacred is like a divine dance - a relationship - a mutual sharing, receiving and honoring of love in ways that nurture all at the same time. Fr. Richard Rohr has noted that:

A Threefold God totally lets go of any boundaries for the sake of the Other, and then receives them back from Another. It is a nonstop waterwheel of Love. Each accepts that He is fully accepted by the Other, and then passes on that total acceptance. Thus “God is Love.” It’s the same spiritual journey for all of us, and it takes most of our life to accept that we are accepted—and to accept everyone else. Most can’t do this easily because internally there is so much self-accusation (self-flagellation in many cases). Most are so convinced that they are not the body of Christ, that they are unworthy, that we are not in radical union with God.The good news is that the question of union has already been resolved once and for all. We cannot create our union with God from our side. It is objectively already given to us by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (Romans 8:9—and all over the place!). Once we know we are that grounded, founded, and home free, we can also stop defending ourselves and move beyond our self-protectiveness, too.
One of the gifts I have been given on the sabbatical is the chance to rest.  I have also been given the unexpected gift of helping my all too nervous dog, Lucie, learn to rest, too. The more she is at rest - the more she is loved and reassured - the deeper and more satisfying my rest, too. The same is true for the love and rest Di and I share in very ordinary ways.  I think Rohr's observation about human and holy strength as the source of loving rest in light of the Trinity rings true:
Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). That awesome line gives us a key into the Mystery of Trinity. I would describe human strength as self-sufficiency or autonomy. God’s weakness I would describe as InterbeingHuman strength admires holding on. The Mystery of the Trinity is about each One letting go into the Other. Human strength admires personal independence. God’s Mystery is total mutual dependence. We like control. God loves vulnerability. We admire needing no one. The Trinity is total intercommunion with all things and all Being. We are practiced at hiding and protecting ourselves. God seems to be in some kind of total disclosure for the sake of the other. Our strength, we think, is in asserting and protecting our boundaries. God is into dissolving boundaries between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet finding them in that very outpouring! Take the rest of your life to begin to unpackage such a total turnaround of Reality.
This morning Di and started reading the daily Psalms aloud in English and then in French. Tomorrow we start another phase of this sabbatical as she heads out with her camera and I hunker down with my bass. And then, after lunch and a nap, we'll start wandering into new and as yet unexplored neighborhoods.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The wonder of humbling surprises...

One of the totally  unexpected encounters of this sabbatical involves Lucie. She is a dear friend, a totally neurotic whack-job, an unintentional spiritual mentor, a bright and playful dog and the source of great delight and distress often all too close to one another. Yes, she is oh so slowly adjusting to the urban groove of Montreal. Of course, she continues to follow our cues and rhythms re: life and engagement with the world (read: she likes to sleep late and take the morning hours slowly, too.) And without a doubt, I am glad she is part of this adventure. 

What I wasn't prepared for, however, are my reactions to her "freak-outs!" She is so strong and wild when startled - and so easily wigged-out - that she can knock you down, pull you out into on-coming traffic or worse all in the wink of an eye.  Now, having emerged from within the chaos and violence of a family afflicted with alcoholism, I've done my share of work when it comes to "letting go and letting God." My default position when I feel threatened, you see, is stark, irrational and overwhelming panic. My chosen path of resolving this terror was to use whatever tools were necessary - my strength, my words, my imagination, my voice, my position or my anger - to beat the chaos into submission. In those moments, I would fight my way into some measure of quiet and control as quickly as possible. 

As they say in the 12 Step movement, there was probably a good reason why at one point in time we learned our particular ways of regaining a measure of stability from within the chaos. They served us well in their time, but now they have lost their usefulness. Now they have become part of the pain we bring to others and ourselves. Like Bob Dylan sang: Oh, you can read out your Bible, you can fall down on your knees, pretty mama and pray to the Lord but it ain’t gonna do no good. You’re gonna need, you’re gonna need my help someday. So if you can’t quit your sinnin’ won't you please quit your low down ways!

The only problem is that we can't quit our low down ways without God's help. Once we've grown sick and tired of being sick and tired, once we've grown weary of exhausting ourselves and wounding those we love over and over, once we've discovered we need the love and grace of God to restore sanity and health to our lives because our best efforts keep failing: THEN we are ready to have God remove our "defects of character." But we have to let God take her own sweet and sacred time with this healing process. Otherwise, we're just trying to clean ourselves up by our own efforts like in the past. And... if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. God's ways - and time table - are not ours; they are true and right, but they do not correspond to anything linear or rushed.

Working the steps for the past 15 years has taught me a lot. God's grace in my life has done
much to cleanse and renew my wounds, too. I dare say, much of my fear of chaos has been diminished - especially when it comes to those I love or those I serve in my community of faith - and for the most part I know a measure of inner peace. But apparently part of that old demon is still within me - and Lucie not only exposes my inner terror but evokes it when she freaks out. Clearly, God is neither finished with me yet nor fully ready to remove this defect. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

Nothing just goes away in the spiritual world; al must be reconciled and accounted for. All healers are wounded healers as Henri Nouwen said so well. There is no other kind. In fact, you are often most gifted to heal others precisely where you yourself were wounded or wounded others... You learn to salve the wounds of others by knowing and remembering how much it hurts to hurt. Often this memory comes from the realization of your past smallness and immaturity, your selfishness, your false victimhood and your cruel victimization of others. It is painful to recall and admit, yet this is also the grace of lamenting and grieving over how we have hurt others.

To see and feel Lucie's terror is heart-breaking. To know she can do nothing about it - yet - is unnerving. And to know that she triggers my inner fear and rage is revolting to me in the most humbling way. Without a doubt, the time has come to renew my prayers to God to remove this defect within me so that I can be compassionate and helpful to her. Rohr reminds me of something important:  You have to let God reveal your real faults to you (usually by failing and falling many times!); and then allow God to removed those faults from his side and in God's way. For if you go after them with an angry stick, all you will be left with is just an angry stick - and the same faults at a deeper level of disguise and denial.

For years I was ashamed of my fears. A lot of men are saturated with shame and must learn to both open themselves to another trusted helper about this shame and let God and others love them through it. That has certainly been my reality. Like the young Buddha in Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, over and over again we find ourselves back at the same place in front of the same river. We've changed - we've ripened, healed, resisted and matured - and yet we still find ourselves standing if from of that same damn wound again. Only this time, we face it at a deeper level. Surrender and letting go becomes a way of life, yes?

And so it begins again for me - at another level - as we both learn to face and embrace her anxiety and my fear. Right now Lucie needs to be distracted about every two steps - it is a constant discipline - because other wise she flips out. She is not aggressive or harsh; she is terrified. And I know what that feels like within myself. She cowers and I want to go on the offensive. What a pair! But it is clear to me that in God's own time, God has brought us together so that together we might become a little more sane and loving. "All religion must become flesh," Rohr writes, "otherwise it is merely Platonic idealism instead of Jesus' radicalism." 

For the past few days we've been walking quietly - with tons of verbal distractions for her as part of my walking meditation - and she's done reasonably well. She still HATES buses and motorcycles - and we've discovered that 9:30 pm is a most excellent time for an uninterrupted stroll - but we're both starting to get the hang of this as we learn from one another. Maybe by the time three months has passed, we'll be a little more at peace.
On another front, we've been in  la merveilleuse ville de Montréal for a full week and I dare say we're starting to find a rhythm. We walk a lot. We get up late. We eat way less than before. And we walk Lucie as often as we can. Tomorrow, Sunday, I am hoping we get to worship in St. James United Church of Canada. It is a massive building on Ste. Catherine close to La Place des Arts that I've wanted to visit for eight years. If not tomorrow, soon n'est-ce pas? And next week, we'll start a more "ordered" way of being with bass practice, morning Psalms, heading out into our various disciplines (me to the archives at the Jazz Festival; Di to a photo shoot) and walking through new and as yet undiscovered neighborhoods. 

Last night we spent three hours schlepping through a street fair on Mount Royal. I found two
gorgeous children's books for Louie - and a new leather wrist bracelet for me. Three street dancers on in-line roller skates were a highlight as they "ice danced on the concrete" to the improvised sound of their accompanist on cello. Di got some sweet shots of street art, too. And then we slept until nearly 11:30 am! As you might imagine, we are moving oh so slowly today and won't do much besides buy some dog food, take Lucie on another walk and stop by the grocery store. 

As we were getting ready to call it a day, I mentioned that "It is starting to dawn on me that we are really NOT here on vacation. This is a lengthy sabbatical." For the past eight years we've headed to Montreal each summer for varying lengths: sometimes it was a week for the Francofolies (French songfest), once it was for a long weekend to see Cinematic Orchestra and often it has been for 2-3 weeks around the time of the Jazz Festival. During those times, just as earlier at the start of the sabbatical in NYC, I felt like I had to DO everything I could. I didn't want to waste what little time we had. So, I often stayed out too late, went to too many places and while I had a ball, I didn't rest. This is different. This is ALL about rest... (and maybe the bass, too.)

So we don't have to rush about. Or stay out too late. Or cram 100 things into a week. We can nap. And walk, wander and wonder as the Spirit moves us. And that is starting to take root. Last night I had the strangest dream: I was invited into a large room, given a Jewish prayer shawl and asked to join in a conversation about one passage of the Babylonian Talmud. (NOTE: Ok, I've been reading a LOT of Amy-Jill Levine of late...) The passage - something just of my sleeping mind, ok? - had something to do with a goat and being surprised. (I mean no offense.) 

As the Talmudic rabbis - male and female - discussed this, they started to tell each other ancient stories about when surprises took place in the Scriptures:  the birth of Issac, the tragedy of exile, the wonder of Exodus and the truth that G-d's ways are not our ways. I was fascinated by the depth and detail of their creativity - and memory. I was humbled to be welcomed into this intimate Biblical conversation. And I was eager to learn. This morning I googled "goat" in the Jewish tradition because I wasn't making any connections and came up with:  shofar, sacrifice, scapegoat, Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, teshuvah and repentance.

Hmmmm... this is going to be a time of many surprises


Friday, May 29, 2015

Chance favors the prepared mind...

We walked another 7 miles today - mostly wandering - but a lot along Mount Royal for their
second annual Festival of Poems.
Pavé Poésie is a big street fair with various poetry lectures and random readings thrown into a mix of children's carnival rides, street food and local shops sharing their wares. Dianne took hundreds of pictures she is culling to the essential right now. I am thinking about two quotes I read last night.

+ The first is from the photographer, Ansel Adams, that popped up in Fr. Richard Rohr's reflections on the 12 Steps:  "Chance favors the prepared mind." Man, do I love those words - they speak to me on so many levels - and resonate with the other quote that follows.

+ The second comes from Jason C. Bivins book, Spirits Rejoice:Jazz and American Religion. It is longer, but just as wild:

While academics bristle at notions like "religious in nature," to performers this notion has helped articulate the belief that improvised music is distinct and authentic, a sound that cannot be captured by the market or undermined by racial misrepresentation. Indeed, this concern for authenticity - so indelibly a part of American desires for self-fashioning from the Transcendentalists to the New Left of the 1960s, among many others - is paramount to the musical articulations of religious thought this book... the religiosity of jazz is understood as the register of its transcendence of constraints. Even as the music is surely conditioned, many musicians have held the belief that through the open work of improvisation one can cut through the layers of artifice to encounter some kind of musical enlightenment or becoming.

Dianne asked me today what I was thinking about on our long walks while she was taking pictures. Mostly, I haven't be thinking. Just being. But these two quotes have been lurking in the background and probably will share their genius with me more as the time in Montreal ripens. I have an arrangement of "Peace Train" swimming around my head right now that I need to try out tomorrow - and then score if I can - as it speaks to my heart on so many levels.

Today Lucie did much better than yesterday - mostly because I was prepared to distract her almost constantly from her anxiety.  I think part of my prepared mind is being ready to be present with her wacky self in a gentle and non-anxious way. In this, we can both enjoy our time in the park. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A slow day is good for the soul...

A cool, rainy day in Montreal - a good time to rest and read as we start to make peace with a new rhythm of living. Lucie was having a hard day - lots of anxiety - but now she is at rest. It is going to take some time for this knuckle head to get into the groove. Still, I got some time to practice my bass today so I am grateful. Tomorrow promises sun and about 25C (82ish F) so we'll take in the local street fair, poetry festival and maybe Les 21 Balançoires (21 Swings) downtown.
Tomorrow is also likely to take us to the Mont Royal PAVÉ POÉSIE - a local street poetry fair - that includes games for children, wandering improvisational poets, music, street food and who knows what else? It is a wonderful but tiring challenge to get my French to the place where I can hear discrete words rather than one huge run-on sentence. But we've only been here five days. 

Last night we went to notre petit club de jazz préférée (our favorite little jazz club) -Diese Onze - to listen to "jazz manouche" or Gypsy Jazz. (check it out @ /calendrier.php?l=frIt was a gas, very chill and easy and next week we hope to return and hear the all woman manouche band led by Christine Tassan.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Notre chien de pays apprend à vivre à Montréal...

One of the more complicated factors in adjusting to our sabbatical in Montreal has to do with the fact that we have a COUNTRY dog and we're living in the CITY. Lucie, who is nervous and neurotic by nature, is accustomed to the quiet of our home in the Berkshires - and the loving gentle farm of John and Lauryn. She is NOT used to air brakes on big buses. Or lots of people on bicycles. Or running little children. Or our loud dishwasher. Or people walking by on the street. Or almost anything else related to urban life.  Poor baby... let's just say she is often distressed. (Right now as I am writing, she is hiding under my desk at my feet because that wicked dishwasher is making too much noise!)

So, four days into this adventure, we took her to the doggie park nearby, Parc Fontaine, where we can let her run. She needs to run - the more exercise she gets, the happier she is - and the less wiggy. We have a ways to go before she feels at home here. But at least she's learning to pee and poop without too much fuss now. And it won't be long before she is able to run and frolic in Parc Fontaine. Peu en peu as the locals say.

This afternoon was given to writing (for me) and pictures (for Di.) Then I got a chance to practice some scales and riffs on my bass. I am easing into the groove with that bad boy this week but it felt GREAT to be playing after four weeks off. I've only be at the upright for two years. In fact, it was pointed out to me yesterday that it was almost exactly two years ago since I was kindly given my first upright bass by dear friends at church. When the serendipity of that sunk in I was humbled and grateful. And also aware that what was once terrifying and daunting has now become more and more comfortable. In the last six months especially, I can say, "I'm starting to make this happen and enjoy it." (Di posted this clip of me starting to get my bearings...)

I've got a LONG way to go, but let me say that playing each week with Carlton at church has been a real gift. So now it is on to some serious practice and playing each day so that at the end of all this I've been able to kick it up a notch or two. We are off to Diese Onze tonight to take in some Eclectic Django because Dianne loves her some gypsy jazz...

Monday, May 25, 2015

Enfin, nous sommes à Montréal ...

For almost 30 years I have returned to the Book of Common Prayer and Prayers for the
Domestic Church (Fr. Ed Hays) to get grounded. So today, as we begin to make our abode in our new flat on Rue Chapleau on the Eastern border of Le Plateau en Montreal, I find myself looking to Fr. Ed's wisdom yet again. He writes:

Blessed are you, Lord our god,
   for You have created a wide and wonderful world
   in which we can travel.
We ask Your blessing upon us...
Be our ever-near companion, O Holy Guide of Travelers,
   and spread the road before us
   with beauty and adventure.
May all the highways ahead of us
   be free of harm and evil.
May we be accompanied by Your holy spirits,
   Your angelic messengers,
   as were the holy ones of days past.

On this tripe may we take with us
   as part of our traveling equipment
   a heart wrapped in wonder with which to rejoice
   in all that we shall meet.
Along with the clothing of wonder,
   may we have room in our luggage
   for a mystic map
   by which we can find the invisible meanings
   of the events of this journey -\
   of possible disappointments and delays,
   of possible breakdowns and rainy day troubles.

Always awake to Your Sacred Presence
   and to Your divine compassionate love,
   may we see in all that happens to us,
   in the beautiful and the band,
   the mystery of Your holy plan.
May the blessing of your name be upon us, Holy Three in One and One in Three,
   throughout this trip,
   and bring us home again in safety and peace.
Amen. +
(travelers may make the sing of the cross or share a kiss of peace.)

We had three funny and challenging things happen as we made our way from Pittsfield to Montreal yesterday:

+ First, Di programmed the GPS to "avoid highways" so we could travel up Route 7 and avoid the noise and hassle of I 89.  At some point, however, we were told to leave 7 for Vermont 100 - a lovely two lane thoroughfare that takes a traveler THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF NO WHERE - and adds about two hours to the trip. So, when the fog burned through our minds and we realized what was happening, we made some mid-course adjustments and finally got back on the highway and arrived at our flat about 5:30 pm.

+ Second, the young border guard was puzzled about a "sabbatical" and "all the stuff you have on top of the car." So we experienced the first random check in 8 years. It went fine - we have neither guns nor narcotics - and the main man in charge of exploring our old Subaru was smitten with Lucie - a good sign of things to come - and in 20 minutes we were back on the road. I always fret during such events. Yes, I am well-practiced maintaining a non-anxious outer presence, but I still find myself praying without ceasing until we get back on the road and well beyond the border crossing.

+ And third, I got my first parking ticket in Montreal this morning. I was certain I had
obeyed all the parking restrictions on our street - Rue Chapleau - everything about moving on lundi entre 9:30 -10:30 du matin. to not parking in the Zone 90 areas (local residents only.) So after the street cleaners did our street, I strolled over to the next block to move our car et voila... je devais un ticket de parking pour 50 dollars!  "Merde!" I thought until I started to laugh and recall Fr. Ed's prayer. This, too, is a learning experience - and I was delighted it hadn't been towed!

We've spent the morning walking Lucie for her constitutional, sipping tea and coffee and getting our respective computers set up in the new study. This is a week for wandering and wondering and watching. Di will soon be posting new pictures from the last leg of the US trip over at Jazz for the Journey (https://jazz I suspect some of the other church leaders will be adding updates to their pages, too. Believe me, the sacred irony of leaving on Pentecost has not escaped me - it is a time for new initiatives, deeper wisdom and a renewed sense of God's mysterious guidance even in our darkest times - like Fr. Ed notes in this prayer:

Blessed are you, Lord our God, who in the richness of your Diving Love,
blesses us with good things.

Lord God, we bless You
   and are filled with gratitude for the numerous gifts,
   the countless blessings,
   that come to us from You.
Your blessings come in times of joy,
   in times of victory, in success and honor,
   and they come as well in times of pain and sorrow,
   in sickness and defeat.
Your blessings, however, come always as life...

In winning and in losing -
   in being last as well as first -
   we take relish in the challenge and adventure
   of Your great gift of life.
Lord, we thank you for all the gifts
   that flow fully, day and night,
   into our lives.
Today, with full hearts,
   in the company of Jesus, Mary and all your saints,
   we bless You for all the good that has come to us.
Blessed are You, Lord our God,
   who in the richness of Your divine love,
   blesses us with good things.
Amen. +

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Silence, tears and listening...

In the last two days, two women have shared with me two stories I needed to hear and embrace as part of my life. They are both signs of hope in a complicated and suffering world. The first, from Amy-Jill Levine, comes at the close of her most excellent book, The Misunderstood Jesus: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. I loved this book. I was challenged and made uncomfortable by this book. I was changed by this book.  Dr. Levine's story comes from Megan McKenna, and goes:

In a dream, a devout discipline of the master was permitted to approach the Temple in Paradise where all the great old sages who had studied the Talmud all their lives were not spending eternity. He gazed in at them, and to his amazement, they were all sitting around tables, just as they had done on earth, studying the Talmud still! The disciple watched them passionately exclaiming and arguing and reverently fingering the text. He wondered, "Is this really Paradise? It seems like earth." But then his thoughts were interrupted by warm laughter. "You are mistaken. This is not Paradise. The sages are not in Paradise. Paradise is in the sages."

She goes on to write: "I immediately thought of Luke 17: 20-21. Some Pharisees inquired of Jesus when God's kingdom would come. He answered, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For in face the kingdom of God is among you (or even in your midst!') In these days of interfaith relations, a Catholic woman can teach me (a Jewish professor) a midrash, and I can respond to her by citing a Gospel text she does not mention.

The second is from United Church of Christ scholar, Mary Luti, who writes: When Jesus saw her weeping, and those with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… and Jesus began to weep. - John 11:33-35

A little girl asked him why God lets children suffer—asked Pope Francis, that is, in Manila last January. "Terrible things happen to children," she told him through tears. "It’s not their fault. Why does God permit it?" It was an entirely unscripted question. So was his answer. He didn’t correct her theology or otherwise attempt to pacify Glyzelle Palomar who, in front of a million people, had just told him that she scrounged food from garbage and slept outside on a cardboard mat. Here’s what he did. He enfolded the sobbing child in his arms. Then he admonished everyone to pay close attention because, he said, "She has just asked the one question with no answer."

To her he said, "Only when we are able to weep about the things you have lived will we understand anything and be able to answer you." Then he taught the crowd, "The world needs to weep. The marginalized weep, the scorned weep, but we who are more or less without needs, we don't know how. We must learn. There are realities in this life you can see only with eyes cleansed and clarified by tears… If you don't learn to weep, you're not a good Christian!"

Whenever we’re asked the question with no answer, "Our answer must first be silence, and then a word born of tears."

Prayer:  Give us tears, O God, so that we may see; and seeing, join each other in suffering; and in joining, be moved to love in deed.

Yesterday, President Obama spoke truth to power in a Jewish synagogue in anticipation of Shavuot. He noted that there are times when friends must say hard things to one another. He distinquished between calling out some of the dangerous and destructive policies currently being implemented by the Israeli government with respect to Palestine from anti-Semitic acts of hate and destruction. He noted that there are things that are being done by Israel that not only violate the Spirit of the Law and the Prophets, but cause the whole world - and especially the Palestinian people - to weep. And then, as is his style, he noted that if people think being friends with Israel is complicated, try maintaining friendship with Palestine in this context.

The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners. The neighborhood is dangerous. And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility. But it is worthwhile for us to keep up the prospect, the possibility of bridging divides and being just, and looking squarely at what’s possible but also necessary in order for Israel to be the type of nation that it was intended to be in its earliest founding.  And that same sense of shared values also compel me to speak out -- compel all of us to speak out -- against the scourge of Antisemitism wherever it exists. I want to be clear that, to me, all these things are connected. The rights I insist upon and now fight for, for all people here in the United States compels me then to stand up for Israel and look out for the rights of the Jewish people. And the rights of the Jewish people then compel me to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity. That’s what Jewish values teach me. That’s what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches me. These things are connected.  (read the whole speech here: 

One of the gifts I have been given during this sabbatical, is an extended time to rest, read and listen: listen to the silence, listen and honor the weeping of others, listen and shed my own tears. Last night, I shared supper with a few close friends and colleagues before departing for Montreal, and I wanted to listen to them, too. They shared what they have experienced and learned from the first three weeks of this sojourn. They spoke of the blessings all our guest speakers have brought to the congregation - how one after the other built upon the previous wisdom almost like we planned it - and how the congregation has responded in participation and enthusiasm.  There is much more to come - for the congregation, for myself, for Dianne - and I found myself close to tears when we parted saying:  See you in September. 

So now it goes deeper... Give us tears, O God, so that we may see; and seeing, join each other in suffering; and in joining, be moved to love in deed...
+ Terry Graham @
+ The Lost Art of Listening @

Friday, May 22, 2015

I'd like to know everything starting with "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"

One of the many gifts that I am embracing during these early days of our sabbatical is the chance to let go of resentment. I'm doing this again, I know. And if I am healthy and honest, I'll be doing it for the rest of my life. That's what the 12 Steps make clear as I work them:  not only do I trust a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity (and grace and awareness), but I remain in regular dialogue/communion with God. And part of that conversation involves step four - fearless moral inventory - step five - confession before another person and God - and step seven - asked the One who is Holy to remove my short-comings. Resentment is one of the road blocks that often strangles joy within me while robbing me of energy. It is time to consciously and carefully let it go - again - as I also let go of weariness.
Oddly,while  my source of resentment has roots in times long ago and far away, they are triggered by "soul vampires." Every church has them - so, too every school, institution or place of work - and their challenge is to let the anger, fear and shame evoked become the path to greater serenity rather than more anguish. Carlos Castaneda used to speak of these individuals as "petty tyrants" placed in our path to lead us away from resentment into authentic power and humility. The mystics of many traditions call this "dying to self" and being "reborn into grace." And, surprise of surprises, I am rediscovering at a deeper level how closely sleep and rest is related to serenity in the presence of my soul vampires. 

That is what Pico Iyer was talking about in his observation that contemporary people seek solace and solitude in their vacations more than ever: we are too tightly wound and stressed-out from the demands and pressures of our working lives to rest deeply. Consequently, many flee whenever down time arrives. We have not yet learned to celebrate the wisdom of Sabbath keeping in our ordinary experience and so ache for silence and rush towards it during our vacations in a way that is nearly obsessive. I'm not preaching here - this is confession as much as reflection - as I often feel that same ache and addiction. That's why I believe this extended time of rest and solitude is sharing with me a slice of wisdom about my resentments.

Clearly one of the reasons I spend so much time listening and playing music is that it brings insight to my soul and a measure of healing to my feelings. B.B. King was right when he spoke about the gift of the blues: the blues help us feel what is true and deep while simultaneously helping us move through our sorrows. Today I am feeling like Angela Ball in her poem,"Jazz."

I'd like to know everything
A jazz artist knows, starting with the song
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hot." 

Like to make some songs myself:

"Goodbye Rickshaw,"
"Goodbye Lemondrop,"
"Goodbye Rendezvous."
Or maybe even blues:

If you fall in love with me I'll make you pancakes

All morning. If you fall in love with me
I'll make you pancakes all night.
If you don't like pancakes
We'll go to the creperie. If you don't like pancakes
We'll go to the creperie.
If you don't like to eat, handsome boy,
Don't you hand around with me.

On second thoughts, I'd rather find

The fanciest music I can and hear all of it.

I'd rather love somebody

And say his name to myself every day
Until I fall apart

Today there will be a few more errands - a little get together early this evening with a few friends and colleagues - and then more packing before we depart.  Wynton Marsalis put it like this one time on the David Letterman show as he made Vince Garaldi's song new with great respect for the old, too. This is brilliant, humble, honest, playful, cocky and tons of fun all at the same time...

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Once upon a time I read that more and more Americans are having a harder time going to sleep. One study suggests that 20% of adults in the USA get less than six hours of sleep each night ( and that this contributes to increased anxiety, stress and work-related injuries. I've been thinking about this a lot as we settle into the groove of our sabbatical and wonder, "How long will I wake up from 9 hours of sleep and still be tired?" We've started being more active again (absolutely essential) and modifying some sloppy eating habits (another necessity.) But the biggest change for me is the amount of sleep I get each night - and the residual weariness I continue to experience 20 days into this quiet time.

Most of the time when I am working I sleep about six hours each night and never remember my
dreams. Now, however, I am dreaming a lot - and most of it is weird and at times disturbing. So when we get to Montreal I am going to start a dream journal. I've done this in the past partly to note the images as soon as I wake up so that I can start to process them; and partly to help me learn to keep track of them without a written resource. Once, during a time of spiritual direction and therapy, we did dream work to explore both my projections and my deepest yearnings. It was illuminating and healing. 

The Scriptures speak of dreaming - something that too little sleep curtails - as a way of listening to God and/or our soul. The Hebrew prophet Joel speaks of a time when the young and old shall dream together.  The Christian book of Acts uses Joel's words, too:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

I think, too, of the visions that guide other wisdom figures in the Scriptures:  Abraham is given a vision of his progeny and the birth of Israel in Genesis 15, Jacob encounters a vision of God's ladder between heaven and earth in Genesis 28, Joseph becomes a dream interpreter for Pharaoh in Genesis 40, Joseph discerns a way to save his young family the book of Matthew, Ananias and Cornelius experience visions of being embraced by the house God's covenant with Israel in Acts (as do Peter and Paul) and John of Patmos sees a vision of a new heaven and new earth in Revelations. Sadly, without adequate sleep, too many of our young and old folks never get the chance to listen more carefully for God's still, small voice in our dreams.
To be honest, I wasn't prepared to still be this tired after three weeks. I feel significantly better and more rested than when we started. A shift towards a slower pace began as we were leaving Nashville and continues to take root.  Cutting out most TV has been a good thing - and will be another commitment in Montreal - and quitting computer work after early evening will help, too. Pablo Neruda put it like this in his poem "The Weary One."

The weary one, orphan
of the masses, the self,
the crushed one, the one made of concrete,
the one without a country in crowded restaurants,
he who wanted to go far away, always farther away,
didn't know what to do there, whether he wanted
or didn't want to leave or remain on the island,
the hesitant one, the hybrid, entangled in himself,
had no place here: the straight-angled stone,
the infinite look of the granite prism,
the circular solitude all banished him:
he went somewhere else with his sorrows,
he returned to the agony of his native land,
to his indecisions, of winter and summer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Getting ready part two...

Haven't posted anything in a few days - mostly because we were chilling out with my sisters - but also to simply take a break. So today is all about random and sundry thoughts along the journey so far. When we left three weeks ago, it was barely spring - still nearly frigid at times - but now our beautiful yard is awakening with blossoms. Still, we are itching to go and here are a few random thoughts discerned along the way...
+ First, staying off Facebook wasn't working. We both missed many of our friends, family and colleagues and found we wanted to stay in touch. So, as that realization dawned on us both at about the same time, we're going to test it with selective postings. It is just too much fun to be in relationship with such wonderful people.

+ Second, we are both SO ready for part two of this sabbatical - our residency in Montreal - to start for a variety of reasons.  We want to get into the new rhythm of things in that fabulous city, we want to start doing deeper into our respective sabbatical commitments (prayer and bass playing for me; photography for Di); we both like being settled much more than free floating. My friend, Martha, wrote a brilliant sentence during the sabbatical rewrite /editing process that says "During the closing week of May, James and Dianne will settle in Montreal with time spent in daily prayer and quiet reflection along with ambling and visiting." So wise and essential to create transitions - and the time is right.

+ Third, I continue to study and think about the implications of Christian antisemitism as I work my way through new texts by Amy-Jill Levine and James Carroll. Both writers are helping me not only rethink some of the facile observations I've made in the past, but also to think about what all that means for me as a preacher/teacher upon my return. At the very least, I need to do a series - with congregational conversation - about some of the new insights I am gleaning from these scholars.

+ Fourth, I am ready to start playing the bass!  I haven't practiced or played in three weeks and that is way too long.

+ Fifth, we need to kick-up our ability to think and listen in French.  To say we haven't done much homework in the last six month would be a gross inaccuracy! We've done almost NO homework.  I need to get my ears working in a new way - and my tongue, too. Finissons-chose en français passe!

+ Sixth, I am most curious to see how Princess Lucie makes the transition. It was a treat to get home and pick her up last night - there was so much enthusiasm and love - and somany licks and cuddles, too. She will always be a bit of a nervous girl in new settings, but with enough attention, exercise and treasts she can also be a very good girl as well. Her adjustment is important to us both as she helps keep us grounded in the land of the living when we ge too caught up in the world of art and ideas.

+ And seventh, this is not a season for the status quo - this is our time for going deeper - so we both feel like we best not spend any more time than necessary packing and running errands. We are scheduled to depart on Sunday, but my hope is that we get out of Dodge earlier. 

I rather like the way Matthew Holloway puts it in his gentle poem.  Today will given over to our necessary travel errands - but tomorrow may be time to move out...

a time taken

to breathe
re-evaluate the world
take stock of thoughts
and reassess them
allow the soul to rest
the heart to sleep
and the mind to be free
time has it own value
time is limitless
and it will be taken
to breathe 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wilber's history of everything...

I found an used copy of Ken Wilber's The History of Everything yesterday and started to give
it a go last night. For the past 20 years I've wanted to spend some time reading his work but have felt intimidated by the depth of his intellect. This is a highly user friendly introduction that is simultaneously fun and intriguing.  In the early pages he makes a fascinating observation about holons - entities that are both complete unto themselves and parts of something else, too - that cooperatively move towards greater creativity and self-surrender at the same time. He notes that there appears to be an evolutionary creative energy at work in the kosmos (not just the physical realm but also the spiritual, intellectual and emotional) that draws all things towards new and ever more helpful forms.

Two examples are instructive. Take the evolution of wings from an animals forelegs; Wilber notes there there is no satisfying rational explanation in traditional, reductionist evolutionary science except the presence of "the creative impulse" for "the 100 mutations necessary for the evolution of wings " He writes: "a half-wing will not do."

A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing - you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The will will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal - and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling... and random mutation cannot begin to explain this. How do we get one hundred non-lethal mutations all happening simultaneously?

The mystery of this "creative impulse" is currently being called "quantum evolution" in order to embrace the inexplicable self-transcendence that takes place in reality. His other example is equally fascinating to me.  It involves the old hypothesis that given enough time "1000 monkeys typing randomly would manage to type out a play by Shakespeare." Wilber continues:

Given enough time! One computation showed that the chance for monkey power to produce a single Shakespeare play was one in ten thousand million million million million million million. So maybe that would happen in a billion billion years. But the universe doesn't have a billion billion years. It only has twelve billion years. So this changes everything. Calculations done by scientists... consistently show that twelve billion years isn't even enough to produce a single enzyme by chance. In other words, something other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their salvation. Chance was their god... chance - plus unending time - would produce the universe. But they don't have unending time so their god fails them miserably... (in fact) chance is what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes!
There is something creative strengthening and driving new life - a mystery that involves all of creation including Spirit and thought as well as physical matter - something built into the fabric of everything. Wilber is quick to point out that we might substitute the word God for this mystery but we must be careful not to create our God in our image. I am eager to read more this evening. Two notions are swimming around in my head right now:

+ First, I am attracted by Wilber's commitment to depth and breadth. In other areas I find myself moving slowly because I want to go deeper and wider in my understanding before shooting off my big mouth. I am quietly reading and praying over the legacy of the Palestinian nakba - the forced relocation of 750,000 Palestinians off their land during the war the Arab leaders started against Israel in 1948 - and find myself ever going deeper. There are examples of vicious ethnic cleansing massacres by the Israeli forces, and, policies and practices that tried to hold back the anger and fear of these soldiers. There are examples of Israeli citizens opposing the forced relocation of their Arab neighbors as well as ugly Palestinian reprisals against their Jewish counterparts.  And no where in the popular narrative of this horror is there mention of the fact that while Palestinians were being forced out of their homes by Israeli armed forces, Jews were being driven from their homelands in Arab nations at gun point, too - almost 700,000 had to make their way to Israel for resettlement. There is more research, study, discussion and prayer I must do before I can comprehend anything except the anguish and horror of that war.  At best, I pray and grieve for both the people of Palestine and the people of Israel today knowing they have suffered - and continue to create greater suffering - as these injustices fester.

+ Second, the presence of this mysterious, creative impulse in the Kosmos inspires me towards greater personal and social creativity. It is another small clue that the focus of this sabbatical is right: rest, renewal, prayer and music making at a deep level. Both Di and I have noted that three weeks into this trip we are about ready for the residence to begin.  We want to go deeper into the quiet.  I was in touch with the luthiers this morning about my bass rental. My fingers and mind are itchy to start practicing - and composing - and listening and having some fun with where it all leads. I read this quote earlier this morning that speaks to my growing sense of our time:

Bishop Kallistos Ware, drawing from John Climacus (AD 525-606) writes: "The hesychast, in the true sense of the word, is not someone who has journeyed outwardly into the desert, but someone who has embarked upon the journey inwards into his own heart; not someone who cuts himself off physically from others, shutting the door of his cell, but someone who 'returns into himself,' shutting the door of his mind."

This is our last day in Pittsburgh.  It will be a day of walking and watching - quiet conversations and simple meals - as we savor this wonderful gift. 

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...