Saturday, October 31, 2015

a feast for all hallow's eve...

Tonight is Halloween and we spent it with our daughter and her family eating roasted organic chicken, sipping red French wine and telling stories filled with laughter and grace. One of my deepest joys is setting a table for my loved ones, cooking a meal filled with love and then feasting in their presence - it made tonight holy ground. 

I haven't been able to spend any serious time with this part of the family since before our sabbatical when we had a feast out at their farm house in April. Yes, we shared 20 minutes at grandson Louie's birthday in Brooklyn, but we had to leave early to get back for Sunday worship so it was quick hugs and then out on the highway.. That made tonight a mini-reunion of sorts - and I was filled to overflowing. Earlier in the day I also got the chance to spend time on the phone with my dear brother-from-another-mother, Peter, in Ontario so this was REALLY a joy filled day. 

Now here's the thing: nothing special happened - just conversation, good food and lots of shared memories - but at this point in the journey, that's all I need - and want! So, as I get ready to call it a day before celebrating All Saints Day in the morning with my beloved community of faith, I want to express my deep gratitude. Thanks be to God for this day and the loved ones who made the effort to share it with me.

Friday, October 30, 2015

some slowly emerging sabbatical insights...

Back in Cleveland, when we first started to explore, practice and then celebrate a holy Sabbath in our home, I was caught off-guard by the push-back from discrete congregational leaders. It wasn't widespread, of course, but it was real. "What do you mean you don't answer the phone on Fridays? That is just selfish!" There were other versions of this song, too all of which equated resting and renewal with selfishness.
Part of my shock was born of my own naivete: in retrospect, I should have anticipated some negative reaction to changing my public engagement. That is certainly true whenever a person in an alcoholic family starts to alter her/his own behavior with a move towards greater health. When we finally realize that we cannot change others - and can barely change ourselves - those seeking equanimity begin a process of acceptance, spiritual discipline and surrender. And as this commitment takes root, it creates turmoil in a broken family or relationship. One person starting a journey towards healing throws everyone off course. Consequently, those who don't want to change - or cannot change - often blame the changer for disrupting the family. They tend to project all their fear, shame and anxiety on to this person and do everything in their power to disrupt the pilgrimage towards serenity. Having spent some time at the Hazleden Treatment Center's seminars for clergy, I might have predicted this commotion - but didn't.

So I was stung by the critique. I felt attacked and diminished - even disoriented. Three factors helped me go deeper into Sabbath in those early days:

+ First, the encouragement and wisdom of my spiritual director. Fr. Jim was a rock solid elder in the contemplative tradition.  He not only supported my practice of Sabbath-keeping, he showed me ways to enrich it. "Stopping is only the first step," he said over and again, "and a baby step at that. The whole point of stopping has to do with trusting God to care for creation not your ability to stop for a spell. So what are you doing to nurture a radical encounter with trust?"

His counsel was clarifying.  My first assignment, after a few months of gentle conversation

andperiodic overnight retreats at the Oasis House, was to take 20-30 minutes twice each day to "experience" myself "resting in the palm of God's hand." This was not a linear prayer. It had nothing to do with my rational realm and everything to do with learning to live from my heart. Jim was explicit: "You are too smart for your own good and don't know how to get out of your own way. So, the time has come to learn to sit quietly and await upon the Lord. In time, God will come - and you will know a love greater than anything you can imagine from the inside out." And he was right. It took about seven weeks - and I was often bored and unconvinced - but when I was able to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" then I knew much like it is written in Job 42: 5: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you."

+ Second, the experience of renewal I felt in my flesh. Beyond my propensity for whining, there is an objective weariness that weighs down all parish clergy. It goes with the job and is born of seeing the sacred significance in human relationships, dealing with regular but often contradictory complaints and wanting to love and care for sometimes unlovable people. What I found when I started to regularly keep the Sabbath as holy - even imperfectly - is that I had more inner assurance in my heart and much more stamina in my body. To sleep deeply is a spiritual practice. To stop fretting is equally refreshing. To walk in the quiet woods, to eat a simple meal in candle light and music with my loved one, to read aloud to one another: all of this helped me remember that my life was blessed. There is heartbreak and anguish woven through the tapestry of everyone's existence, and, there thousands of ordinary miracles and joys, too if we have eyes to see. One of my current spiritual mentors from a distance, Carrie Newcomer, puts it like this in a poem she entitles, "Remembering."

I am remembering
My unbroken self,
Which understands that silence
Can be considered an absence of sound,
Or experienced as a fullness of spirit.

I am remembering
That all is vanity in the end,
Except for the love that tumbles out of us,
Or shines down upon us,
In fleeting, glowing moments.
I am remembering
My own wholeness,
The perfect soul I was born with,
Assessing my long endeavors to name the unnameable,
And describe what I know only from the corner of my eye..

I am remembering a lifetime of trying to map
The shape of shadow and light,
To draw the clean edges of change.
And what has made me an oddity
Asked me to live far more closely
To the center of all that awe and ache.

I am remembering my promise,
My willin decision to stand
In a shaft of January light,
Fascinated by the shimmer of the dust,
Suspended in a quiet room,
And how the light travels across the floor,
As a short day lengthens,
Reaching out like hands,
Covering the wood planks like spilled water.

As Israel's ancient poetic prophet, Isaiah, told us: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength.

+ Third, the joy of being with my beloved friend and wife. To have time to laugh - and love - to listen and grow closer in the stillness of a day is a miracle. A blessing not to be taken for granted or rushed through as is so easy to do. Love is a sacred gift that must be nourished and honored.  To paraphrase St. Paul, it can only endure all things if there is a foundation of trust - and trust is never automatic. It is earned. It is incremental. It is fashioned upon simple but regular acts of tenderness. Thus, it must be savored and cherished - and this takes real time. 

Small wonder that the modern master of Sabbath-keeping wisdom, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

As we start to honor and live into another rhythm of Sabbath - different from our four month sabbatical in Montreal but no less grounded in real time - I am starting to understand and appreciate what that time means for us right now. And while there isn't enough recorded wisdom about re-entry from an extended Sabbath, two insights seem to be common:  a) for the first year both clergy and congregation will be on a journey through "in-between" time; and b) whatever misunderstandings may arise during this year, the blessings and practices of Sabbath keeping must not be discarded.

Twenty five years ago, William Bridges wrote a wise volume about this "in-between time" in a short book he entitled: Transitions: Making Sense of Life's ChangesBecause all things now living are constantly in flux - even churches with a 250 year history - he reminds us to become aware of what transitions are at work in our current experiences. Many transitions feel like the movement of God's people out of bondage towards the Promised Land. That is, they are filled with resentments, anxieties and challenges. Bridges writes:

We resist transition not because we can't accept the change, but because we can't accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we have to give up when and because the situation has changed....  “In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t “take.” 

On the flip side of our sabbatical, I have been trying to  both reclaim and share the blessings of the contemplative journey. This takes time - and patience - and trust. And I suspect I will get it wrong at least as often as I get it right. But I have a fundamental commitment to advancing the experience of Christ's peace with a world that seems out of control. The insanity and fury of our busyness is killing and wounding us all.  Our cultural mistrust and disdain of the inward journey is also a challenge the evokes anxiety. So to name this as an "in-between time" - a transition that is different from a destination - is helpful.

The other insight has to do with finding ways to help myself and others link the experiences of
our sabbatical with our current ministry. Mark Millier-McLermore writes in "The Dark Side of Sabbatical" that without clear interpretation, some folk will misunderstand the lasting value of a sabbatical, In my case, I am just now beginning to see that the two sabbatical "take-aways" involve a deep inner connection with Sabbath rest and a new ability to play sacred jazz on the upright bass. These are not the traditional work of theological insight nor a publishable tract on doctrine, to be sure, but they are no less valuable for the work of caring for the congregation's soul and the enrichment of worship and community outreach. That it has taken me more than two months to begin to find language to interpret my encounter should not come as a shock - deep truths take time to find shape and form - but it still perplexes some. Especially given the non-traditional nature of these blessings. Miller-McLermore writes:

A sabbatical forces a pastor to negotiate a transition in role, responsibility and self-definition. Transition involves an “in-between” phase that is hard. Pastors should expect and plan for such a transition when they begin and end sabbaticals. It is hard to move from the world of engagement and authority and accountability to a world of rest or a world of study or writing and back again.

No fooling. Perhaps that is why the Lilly Foundation encourages us both - clergy and congregation - to go slowly. Clergy are advised to ease back into the rigors of parish life. rather than hit the ground running. Leaders are asked to be open to the uncertainties of this "in-between" transition time.  And everyone is invited to take a full year to rethink how all of this might work in our life together. Our report to the Lily Foundation isn't even expected until after Easter 2016. They obviously sense that we all must move through the wisdom of Sabbath living in a slow and deliberate manner. 

I suspect that the more I am able to interpret how our time way connects with the needs and work of the congregation, the more at rest some folk will be. But the deeper truth is this: the more at rest I live in God's grace and peace - and the more I am able to share this with my presence and love with the people I love in church - the better we will all understand the gift of this sabbatical.  We can't hurry this realization no matter how anxious, confused or even resentful some may be for a season. We are on a journey towards grace in real time - it is a sacred journey - that takes patience, practice and trust. Truly it is only in returning and rest will you be saved; for in quietness and trust we shall find our strength.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Oh well...

One of the truths about serving churches for 35 years (including my internships in seminary) is how so few have been shown the beauty, power and promise of nourishing a contemplative life. To some I may seem like a broken record (and if that is true let me refer you to the song below by Peter Green) but this missing element in our spiritual formation not only robs us of Christ's "peace that passes understanding" but keeps us distracted, adolescent and obsessed with living in our heads. As one of my colleagues says: this has always been a missing tradition and must always be rediscovered by each generation.

Here's the deal as articulated by the spiritual masters since the start of our Christian  tradition:

+ First, without tasting the grace of God in our souls, we cannot see the goodness of the Lord.

+ Second, without nourishing and strengthening the inner blessing, we rely upon our own strength, wisdom and generosity - and that is always limited and inadequate.

+ Third, Christianity has a profound mystical tradition that is equal in power and zest to anything offered in the East but has largely remained hidden in monasteries and small retreat houses rather than shared with the full Body of Christ.

+ And fourth, one of the ways to offer a healing and hopeful antidote to the madness of culture is to invite and assist individuals and congregations in the way of the heart that contemplatives have long celebrated. Then others will have both the peace and the fortitude to stand up to evil, hatred and fear in the wider world.

When we practice deep listening and inner solitude, "we encounter a God who cannot be fully
understood, we discover realities that cannot be controlled, and we realize that our hope is hidden not in the possession of power, but in the confession of weakness." (Henri Nouwen) As I continue to take the time, space and quiet to sort out the blessings of my sabbatical - refusing to to turn this gift into a product - I realize three things:

+ First, I have more patience, love and presence than ever before for those who truly want to experience inner freedom. Over the past few days I have sat silently in conversation with a variety of hurting souls who ache for a break. The essence of spiritual direction is always listening and letting silence become our friend. So the more I can listen, the more I can open up in a love that is "born from above." To say that there are a multitude of hurting people all around us is to state the obvious. To go further and confess that there is also "a balm in Gilead" is to celebrate a way beyond and through the anguish into something we can only call peace. I genuinely have nothing to offer another if I cannot share with others the love of God that I have first experienced in my heart, soul mind and strength.

This is very hard to do since we are so fearful and insecure. We keep hiding ourselves from God and from others. We tend to present to God and to others only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer life becomes very selective and narrow. It is clear that the discipline of the Heart calls from some direction to allow us to overcome fears, to deepen our faith and realize more of who God is for us. (Nouwen)  

+ Second, I am baffled at those who take offense at wanting to help others go deeper into God's peace. But they are real and ever present - within the church and beyond. In the gospel for this week, Jesus says (via Luke's text) You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding.You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

Well, it may be blessed but it doesn't always feel that way, right? But that's what the paradoxical wisdom of "losing it all... the hunger and emptiness" is all about.  Nouwen regularly reminds me:

The discipline of the heart makes us aware that praying is not only listening TO the heart but listening WITH the heart. Prayer helps us stand in the presence of god with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings and most of all who our family, friends and enemies - in short, with all that makes us who we are. With all of this we have to listen to God's voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being.

+ And third, listening to the Lord in our bodies, culture, time and hearts is hard work. It isn't a magic bullet that makes everything immediately better. It isn't a new drug that solves our anxieties, fears and shame once and for all. Our spiritual ljourney is NOT a problem to be solved. It is a sojourn. A walk. A journey. And none of this wandering towards the blessings happens quickly. Early on in ministry I was saturated in the contemplative way but over time I slowly slipped away. I would return for a season, but then get distracted and disconnected yet again. With over four months of solitude and practice, however, I sense that something has been reborn - and I am grateful.

In ways I cannot fully express, I believe the possibilities of this renewed focus upon contemplation, compassion and community action make my heart sing because they are a bold but tender alternative to the culture of greed and busyness that rips us all up and spits us out in ugly, mean-spirited ways. The closing of Sunday's gospel cannot be any clearer:

It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself, your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular. To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Avoiding self-inflicted violence...

I recently read a brief on-line article focusing upon criticism in ministry. At the heart was this
gem: if there is a logic to a person's concern, listen and take stock; if it is only anger and rant, let it go, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Maybe there is something deeper than the presenting issue, maybe not. It takes some discernment, but the distilled wisdom born of compassion is that all people of faith are called to listen for the word of the Lord in others, but not all words are of God. There are critiques born of projection, shame, fear, disappointment and resentment just as there are genuine differences of opinion born of substance and integrity. We are not called as Christians to be the dumping ground for disgruntled souls. There is a place for taking on the wounds of others but not to become their  punching bags. If the heart of a critique is strengthening ministry and growing closer to Christ, be open to it. Otherwise, let it and the critic go. 

Too often clergy and church workers feel that they must be "nice" and simply take an other's bullshit. Wrong. Jesus did not do this, so neither should we. With practice and courage - compassion, support and trust, too - we can learn to shake the dust off our sandals and move on. Or let our critics move on. Because anything less is self-inflicted violence. I continue to be inspired by Henri Nouwen's insights when he advises that before we can truly understand and love an other's challenges, we must be in touch with our own

The first task of seeking guidance then is to touch your own struggles, doubts and insecurities - in short, to affirm your life as a quest. your life, my life, is given graciously by God. Our lives are not problems to be solved but journeys to be taken with Jesus as our friend and finest guide... Prayer helps us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dream and mental wanderings, and most of all our family friends and enemies - in short, all that makes us who we are. To do this we have to listen for God's voice and allow God to speak to us in every corner of our being.  

Today, at midday Eucharist, we shared our reflections on the call to spiritual poverty - and how that frightens us - while being essential for wholeness. I give thanks to God for this day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moving towards All Saints' Day...

Three recently discovered quotes from my time away in prayer and discernment are likely to find their way into this week's All Saints' Day message. I find that most of the liturgical movement between All Saints Day and Christ the King Sunday in November touches me deeply. As my ancient Celtic ancestors knew in their bones, this is luminous time both literally and figuratively. You can see and sense this when walking in the woods in late afternoon: when you inhale the cool clarity of the air, smell the leaves rotting into hummus, taste the apples of autumn and see the stark appearance of the moon you know something is up.

They ancient Celts created their own solar/lunar calendar that was eventually abridged into the Julian calendar of Rome in the 2nd century CE albeit with the distinctive Celtic holidays still woven throughout. This remained in effect throughout the region until the Pope Gregory enforced his "reforms" throughout Europe in 1582. Like many "one size fits all" endeavors, however, something was lost even while standardization was gained. For example, the Celts discerned that autumn (August, September and October) was the close of the year.So before the Gaelic New Year of November 1st, there was at time of wild feasting - Lughnasadh - a season halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox on August 1st. It was a time of rejoicing in the bounty of the earth, partaking of its sensual blessings match-making and athletic games (i.e. the various Highland Games that still take place.) 

As the month drew to a close and the sun began its descent into the dark half of the year, these Gaelic ancestors embraced Samhain - a one day ritual feast marking the threshold between this world and the next - with bonfires, offerings to the Sacred, fear and trembling as well as an embodied remembrance of loved ones who were now departed. They truly "celebrated" this day in a manner that was borrowed and transformed into our All Saints and All Souls Day in the 9th century. At their feasts, place settings were laid for those no longer a part of this realm. The practice of mumming and guising was also set into motion - a roving group party that wandered from house to house in costumes designed to confuse the faeries from doing mischief or damage on this night - a foreshadowing of what became our Halloween. 

Let me be clear: I'm not one for neo-paganism or Celtic revivalism. As Merton once advised: Grow where you are planted. I am a straight, white, middle-class Christian mystic/intellectual guy and I don't pretend to be anything but. And still... I have always been enchanted and drawn to this season. I love everything about it. And so, in anticipation of All Saints' Day this Sunday, I have been reading and praying our sacred texts with a sense of anticipation. 

+ First, regardless of what my theologically adolescent Reformed ancestors once taught and believed, I am all about sacramental wisdom. Henri Nouwen was explicit when he taught that "prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing." Our goal in ministry, he went on to say, is to help others move from seeing only what is opaque to what is transparent. It is helping one another transform and convert our deepest loneliness into solitude. 

Ministry is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God... Ministry is to help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful - to proclaim to to others what we have experienced in prayer: God's beauty, truth and wisdom is here for you, too... Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only the hunger to be alleviated, thin injustice to be addressed, the violence to be overcome, the wars to be stopped and the loneliness to be removed. All these are, of course, critical issues and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel only the oppressive weight.

He goes on to observe - and this continues to be my experience, too - that when we spend time with God in quiet solitude, then "the God within us begins to recognize the God in the world." 

God speaks to God, Spirit speaks to Spirit, heart speaks to heart. Contemplation, therefore, is participation in this divine self-recognition. It is the divine Spirit praying in us who makes our world transparent and opens our eyes to the presence of the divine Spirit in all that surrounds us. It is with our heart of hearts that we see the heart of the world and explains the intimate - and essential - relationship between contemplation and ministry.

+ Second, to take time away from being "productive" - to truly rest in the love and presence of the Lord - is profoundly counter-cultural. Two quotes from a recent biography of Nouwen entitled, Genius Born of Anguish, by Michael Higgins and Kevin Burns, explains why:

The caustic and endlessly charming commentator and writer Rex Murphy observed in 2005 that '"a culture that offers intellectual hospitality to the chatterings of Dr. Phil and the romps of Desperate Housewives doesn't have the stamina to pursue the idea of faith and its agency. Ouch! But let's not lay all the blame at the doorstep of a bottom line consumerist and shallow culture. Laurence Freeman, OSB, challenged the institutional church, too:

It is puzzling and frustrating to try and understand how the mainline Churches, despite all their determination and resources, still seem unable to connect with the profound spiritual needs of our time. Most young people are ready for idealistic and sacrificial commitment and hungry for inspiration. And yet, instead of discovering in the Church an inclusive vision and a comprehensive philosophy of life and spirituality, they dismiss what they find as narrowness of mind, intolerant dogmatism, internal feuding, inter-denominational sectarian, medieval sexism and their most damning criticism: the lack of spiritual depth.

As I prayed in the chapel of Vermont's Weston Priory - and walked in the almost winter woods of the Green Mountains - I heard the voices of the saints in my life calling a word of love and encouragement. They are black and white, rich and poor, male and female. They are well educated and street wise. They are Michael and Don - Dolores and Roger - Rick, Vicky and Grace - Jim, Betty, Beth and Linda - Don and Shirley - Casey and let's not forget St. Lou Reed. They are all wounded lovers of the Lord who, in their way, tried to be witnesses to God's love.

 The time has come to CELEBRATE All Saints Day. Own it and treasure it, revel in it and reveal its beauty. Peterson renders one of the readings for this feast day like this:

I saw another Angel rising from where the sun rose, carrying the seal of the Living
God. He thundered to the Four Angels assigned the task of hurting earth and sea, “Don’t hurt the earth! Don’t hurt the sea! Don’t so much as hurt a tree until I’ve sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads!” I heard the count of those who were sealed: 144,000!

I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!

All who were standing around the Throne—Angels, Elders, Animals—fell on their faces before the Throne and worshiped God, singing:

Yes, o Yes!
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
To our God forever and ever and ever!
Oh, Yes!

But now it is on to choir practice where we get to refine our take on Brahms Requiem for this Sunday:. What a joy!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The paradox of passion and rest...

"After everything has been said and done," observes the late Henri Nouwen in an overview of
the art of spiritual direction, he concludes: "what we have to offer is our authentic selves in relationship to others. What matters most, what transforms, is the influence of a humble, vulnerable witness to the truth."

Therefore, the essence of spiritual direction is the quality of witness, and witness is the proclamation of what "we have heard and seen with our own eyes, what we have watched and touched with our own hands. (I John 1:1)

I've been thinking a lot these days about the connection between authenticity and presence as the core of sharing life's pilgrimage with another as a spiritual friend. Fourteen years ago I left the spiritual direction doctor of ministry program at San Francisco Theological Seminary because I sensed that my calling at the time was not focused upon individuals but groups - or to be more precise - upon the congregation. Even though I was personally hungry to go deeper into the one-on-one ministry of spiritual friendship, my public identity suggested it was wiser to defer this feast for another time. And in retrospect, it was the right call.

Fourteen years later, however, with a profound sabbatical rest under my belt and time to go deeper into the wisdom of contemplation, that call is changing. More and more, not only am I practicing a time of daily quiet and refreshment in prayer, but I am curious to explore sharing the importance of this commitment with others one-to-one. Like playing music in community with those I respect and love, the act of helping one another "convert our loneliness into solitude" is starting to take shape and form within. Nouwen puts it like this concerning solitude:

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than friends with whom we share the gifts of life. In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusions... and discover in the center of our self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of the One who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in solitude that we discover that being is more important than having and that we are worth more than the result of all our efforts... Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared.

The ancient prophetic poet Isaiah put it like this: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength. (Isaiah 30:15) Oddly, David Brooks' most recent column about Lady Gaga and artistic passion helped all of this come together for me. At a recent dinner sponsored by Americans for the Arts, Lady Gaga was honored along with Herbie Hancock, Sophia Loren and others. He wrote: when she remembered her childhood dreams she said: 

“I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like." That passage stuck in the head and got me thinking. When we talk about living with passion, which is sort of a cliché, what exactly do we mean? I suppose that people who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves. We are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. We have to bring ourselves to fulfillment, to integration and to coherence. Some people are seized by this task with a fierce longing.

What a brilliant summary of the call of the Lord in our hearts, minds, souls and flesh: seized with a fierce longing. As Nouwen notes elsewhere, this is the work of ministry - a fierce longing to "help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful" - so that they, too know that "God is not against us, but for us; not far from us, but with us; not outside of us, but deeply within." Passion is what we are witnesses to - a love that is greater than ourselves - a truth deeper than all our lies, fears, shame and wounds. Brooks goes on to suggest that those living into their deepest truths:

They construct themselves inwardly by expressing themselves outwardly. Members of the clergy sometimes say they convert themselves from the pulpit. By speaking out their faith, they make themselves faithful. People who live with passion do that. By teaching or singing or writing or nursing or parenting they bring coherence to the scattered impulses we are all born with inside. By doing some outward activity they understand and define themselves. A life of passion happens when an emotional nature meets a consuming vocation. Another trait that marks them is that they have high levels of both vulnerability and courage. As Martha Nussbaum wrote in her great book “Upheavals of Thought,” to be emotional is to attach yourself to something you value supremely but don’t fully control. To be passionate is to put yourself in danger.

Living with this danger requires a courage that takes two forms. First, people with passion have the courage to dig down and play with their issues. We all have certain core concerns and tender spots that preoccupy us through life. Writers and artists may change styles over the course of their careers, but most of them are turning over the same few preoccupations in different ways. For Lady Gaga fame and body issues predominate — images of mutilation recur throughout her videos. She is always being hurt or thrown off balconies. Passionate people often discover themselves through play. Whether scientists, entrepreneurs, cooks or artists, they explore their issues the way children explore the possibilities of Play-Doh. They use imagination to open up possibilities and understand their emotional histories. They delight in new ways to express themselves, expand their personalities and move toward their goals.

Then he offers us three clues about why passionate creativity is vital:

+ First, the integration of play and imagination with our life's calling turns our faith into flesh. It is vulnerable and honest, imperfect and changing, accessible and real.

+ Second, this quest moves beyond reason and the confines of professionalism into authentic living.

People with passion are just less willing to be ruled by the tyranny of public opinion. As the saying goes, they somehow get on the other side of fear. They get beyond that fog that is scary to approach. Once through it they have more freedom to navigate. They opt out of things that are repetitive, routine and deadening. There’s even sometimes a certain recklessness there, a willingness to throw their imperfect selves out into public view while not really thinking beforehand how people might react. 

+ And third passionatecreativity pushes us to ask ourselves: who would you be and what would you do if you weren't afraid?

Jazz master, Wayne Shorter, answered this question perfectly when he told Wynton Marsalis: "Play the way you want the world to be!" This is the fierce longing of our souls. When we give ourselves time, space and courage to be seized by it, our lives become full, rich and creative. Anything less feels incomplete and even deadening to me.  The paradox of this long, strange trip is that passion and creativity is evoked in quietness and rest. - and we are saved. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Calling out the violence of sarcasm...

I haven't written about this for some time - besides a passing FB challenge or meme - but today feels right: how about a moratorium on snark, sarcasm and cynicism from those of us committed to peace? You don't have to be a person of one faith or another to grasp that all too often our words do violence to those we know and love. It happens when we try too hard to be funny - or hip - or ironic. It takes place when we're unconscious about our inner motives, or, when we're acting in a passive/aggressive way. And it oozes out like toxic slime when we refuse to let a love and grace greater than ourselves nourish us from the inside out.

Let's go deeper and push the envelope: too many times our humor is a thinly veiled form of cruelty. Sarcasm is the obvious offender. I know some people pride themselves in this form of humor, but consider its roots: "mid 16th century: from French sarcasme, or via late Latin from late Greek sarkasmos, from Greek sarkazein ‘tear flesh,’ in late Greek ‘gnash the teeth, speak bitterly’ (fromsarxsark- ‘flesh’)." That's what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sarcasm, yes? Like the words shared in bitterness have torn your flesh. It is violence and needs to be called out.

"Oh, I didn't mean any thing by that," some will say and try to laugh or deflect the wound away from themselves. So why then say it? It is an ugly but obscure form of bullying - an act informed more by cowardice and inner confusion - than anything resembling love or friendship. Indeed, this veiled violence is more insidious than other types of destructive humor. Outright rage and the vicious maligning of the vulnerable is obviously odious - think Sam Kinison or the cynicism that drove George Carlon in his later days - whether it comes from the Left or the Right. Same goes for racist and misogynist "humor." Humor that is clearly sick is out in the open and can be challenged. Not so, however, with most sarcasm - primarily because its pain is so quickly denied by the perpetrator and deflected back onto the wounded as "a misunderstanding."

Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor and Parker Palmer have all noted that there is a wisdom experienced in our bodies that we need to honor. When we are attacked by the cruelty of another's attempt at humor, we know it. We feel it. It is NOT a misunderstanding no matter how vigorous the denial. So we must defend ourselves - and I think there are three strategies for self-defense against the violence of sarcasm:

+ First, we must name it for what it is: violence. It isn't humor. It isn't hip. And it isn't insightful or ironic. It is cruel and born of cruelty. Lewis Black is funny - biting, to be sure - but funny. Sara Vowel is funny as is Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Louis C.K, John Oliver, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. Each and all of these comics are not Pollyannas. They are often crude, course and even dangerous. But they understand their calling to be puncturing the self-importance of the powerful and giving voice to those who are hurting. Their goal is not violence but strengthening the common good. Such has been the role of jester and fool since the beginning of time and we need this type of comedy to help us mature.

+ Second, we must not tolerate, encourage or support violent humor in our friends or colleagues. Just as racial bigotry needs to be called into question - or Islamaphobia or misogyny - so too personal violence disguised as humor. If we give a pass to those closest to us, we are part of the problem rather than part of the healing. With kindness and clarity, let's unpack these attacks and name them for what they really are: backhanded acts of cruelty. This is hard to do - it makes us all uncomfortable - but if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got. Time has come to call the bullies out and invite them into compassion and responsibility.

+ And third, we must nourish a whole other type of humor in our hearts, souls and minds: self- deprecating jokes, stories and anecdotes. When we are able to laugh at ourselves - and point out our own foibles - we nourish humility and build allies with those we love rather than alienate or shame. Self-deprecating humor also helps another see the splinter - or plank - in their own eye. It is about honesty and trust and is in too short supply. When I was introduced to the poetry of Rumi - and the Sufi stories of Nasrudin - I realized the blessings and insights that could come through a new and tender type of humor. I am still working at it and find it so much more satisfying than the ways of veiled cruelty. One of my favorite Rumi poems gets it completely right.

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious
of what I want.

A spirituality of tenderness cries out for a sense of humor that builds one another up rather than tears them down or reduces us to tears. Here's a song that has always spoken to me of a real life tenderness; it is simultaneously sassy, sensual and safe in the most vibrant way. Dig it.

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:...