Monday, June 27, 2016

taking a break...

I am going on a writing break for the next two weeks on this blog:  it is vacation time in the North
Land and we're going to take it slow.  So, we'll see what's shakin' after the middle of July, ok? In the meantime I will be wandering around Ottawa, doing house repairs with my honey, visiting my grandson and family and continuing to discern what form my emerging "spirituality of tenderness" book will take. I've completed a rough introduction and gotten a sense of chapter one. My hunch is that subsequent chapters will include: 1) an appreciation of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen; 2) an equally important appreciation of Wendy Farley and Richard Rohr; and 3) my own retranslation of seven practices to enrich a spirituality of tenderness for a non-religious era.  

So I'll be reading lots of Nouwen and Vanier over the next few weeks as well as Barry and Connolly's text on The Practice of Spiritual Direction. Later in the summer I need to spend time with seven key biblical texts, too. So, for the time being, be well, get some rest and enjoy the beauty even in the midst of the harshness of these trying times.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

confirmation day 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes from this morning when we said farewell to a beloved staff member, Mark, and welcomed five young people into membership through the Rite of Confirmation as well as a talented and gifted musician who came into membership, too. It was a full and rich liturgy and my heart rejoices. And now it is time to step away for a break. Thanks be to God.

This is an important Sunday for me because, in all likelihood, you are one of the last classes I
will have the privilege and responsibility of teaching something about the way of Christ to in my ministry.  I’m getting near the end of my run, right? So while I’m not finished serving the Lord quite yet – and this congregation is not done with ministry either – things are definitely in flux.

+  I’m getting older, fewer and fewer people are interested in the disciplined ways of Jesus Christ in our culture, you are getting busier and busier, the demands on your families are increasing rather than getting easier. And, we as a congregation are starting to rethink what does the Lord require of us at this moment in time? It is an exciting and potentially holy time for all of us.

+ So, because I have come to love and respect each of you over the course of our time together, I’ve chosen what I consider to be the four most important passages from Scripture to talk about with you today, knowing full well that after the summer our paths will not cross very often.  I feel a unique responsibility to you and your families – and to the whole Body of Christ we know as the Church – to give you one more clear message about why all this church stuff matters.

Since the start of the new year we’ve talked about the Apostle’s Creed – the oldest poem about belief in our tradition – the gospel of Luke – the New Testament book with the most parables of Jesus – we’ve memorized the 23 Psalm – the best loved song in the Scriptures – and shared a few conversations about how confirmation is like a bar or bat mitzvah.  Someone asked me not too long ago:  is this year’s confirmation class READY to become members? Do they know what is required of them and how to do so responsibly?  And I have to tell you that all I could do was laugh, because the answer is NO – of course we’re not READY in a traditional, testing, let’s get all the right answers sense – but that would be true for ALL of us here.  Who is ever really ready to say:  Ok, Lord, NOW I’m all set to be your disciple? I get what grace is all about – I comprehend the mystery of the Cross – and I am fully prepared to die to myself so that I might live completely as a living sacrifice for you in the world!  None of us – now or in the past – are ever really READY.

But we ARE ready to take another step on the journey of becoming disciples – we ARE prepared (as much as we can comprehend right now) to say YES to following Jesus on the path of life– and we ARE aware that we do this by faith not sight. We trust God more than we understand God. We accept that now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face.  Confirmation in the 21st century, you see, is NOT about facts and information; it is about relationships, especially relationships built upon faith, hope and love.  So, I can’t tell you that these young people KNOW what it means to become a Christian. All I can say is that we’ve spent some time getting to know one another:  they’ve read and talked about the gospel according to St. Luke with their mentors and we’ve answered a few of one another’s questions trusting that that is sufficient for right now. But I do have one final lesson for this confirmation group and I predict it will take the rest of your lives to make it real, ok?

The first passage I want you to know about is Micah 6: 6-8.  Micah was a prophet in ancient Israel – so that would put him in the Old Testament – and he told his people that the heart of faithful living involved three essential commitments:  do justice, love compassion and walk through this world with humility.  Let me explain because you’re not going to get this anyplace else in your young lives:

Micah wants us to know that God expects us to live in ways that look like God to others. That means our words, actions, habits and worship are not to be shared as chore or a drag, but a joy.  God doesn’t love us grudgingly or because somebody made Her love us:  God loves us for the joy of it. So Micah tells us that the way we live should be equally joyful – and the best way to experience joy is to make life more joyful for other.  This is something that we don’t know how to do that very well all by ourselves. We need guidance and practice, we need encouragement and accountability – and we need a safe place to ask questions, make mistakes, be forgiven and discover what the real purpose of life is all about.

+ Some of you have wondered why you have to go to church on a regular basis, right? I’m really glad you felt safe enough and loved enough to ask that question so boldly.  And while we’ve tried to give you some answers, I realized that I never told you the real deal, so let me be clear:  you have to go to church regularly because you don’t already know everything there is to know – and you are a kid – not an adult. That’s the real reason: you are not yet in charge of your life.  You are part of a family – and you are part of a community – and families and communities have rules to help us live life as God desires.

Church is where we practice and remember what the Lord requires of us – and that means you
are required to go because you aren’t going to hear these truths any other place. You aren’t going to hear about doing justice according to God’s love when you get a job – or take a part in a dance or theatre group – because in that world you have to compete to be the best.  In that world the emphasis is on getting what you want. And while there’s nothing wrong with competition – it isn’t the only truth in creation – and it isn’t how God loves us. God doesn’t love us based upon how big our house is or how much money we’ve gathered or how important people think we are.  And if all you learn as a child is about getting your own way and operating according to the rules of competition, you will grow into a selfish, greedy adult – and there are already too many of them.

So, you come here to discover that God’s justice is about making sure everyone has a fair chance.  To do justice – mishpat in Hebrew – is a verb that means living in ways that make certain food, love, housing, hope and health are shared among ALL people. Not just those you know and like, but all people, the winners and the losers, the ones who deserve and those who don’t.  You come here also to learn about compassion – hesed in Hebrew – caring for those closest to you with tenderness rather than selfishness and going beyond your comfort zone with those you don’t know.  And you come here to practice humility – tsana in Hebrew – living like you don’t deserve anything more than anyone else.

That’s one reason you are required to come to church regularly:  to learn how to become a generous, tender and honest person, you need help. You won’t and can’t figure it out all by yourself.  So we ask:  what does the Lord require? And the answer is mishpat – doing justice so that everyone shares – hesed – sharing compassion to those most in need – and tsana – nourishing humility so you don’[t become an aggressive, loud mouthed bully. And if you are really paying attention, really on the ball, you’ll notice that the words from the ancient prophet Micah shape the mission statement of this church:  In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, reflect on our Christian faith, do just and share compassion. That’s one reason why you are required to come.

The second reason we gather together as church is to practice using our bodies and minds in ways that makes God’s love real to other people.  Over the past six months, I have gotten to know some of your specialties – a few of the things that make you different, unique and wonderful – for example: Cate is a dancer, Aidan is an athlete, Colin is a runner, Max is a thespian and Ella is a deep thinker. Each one of you is an excellent student, too.  I know, I talk to your parents – I see your pictures posted on Facebook – I pray for you almost every day in my quiet time at home.  So I know that you bring your best to your favorite activities. You know how to use your bodies to practice dance and theatre, soccer and running, learning your lines and singing or playing great music. 

What St. Paul is telling us in Romans is that to become a full human being you have to learn how to do the same thing with your physical bodies for God that you already do in preparation for a recital or a game or a concert or a play. In church you learn how to use your body as a servant – you feed the hungry, you carry the babies when they cry, you help the old people not slip on the ice, you sing Christmas carols for our friends in nursing homes, you write letters to congress to help them become more loving, you serve as liturgist, you bring food to someone who is sick and you help the homeless find shelter. 

And once you learn how to use your bodies being loving here, Paul says, then you do it out there:  you present your physical bodies – as well as your words and thoughts and habits and work – to the world as a living sacrifice – an offering – just like the prophet Micah told us.  Your life, you see, becomes a gift to God in the world that makes love and hope and justice and compassion visible. Now this is where Paul is blunt – and he doesn’t care if he hurts our feelings or asks us to do something hard – when he says that we aren’t going to learn how to train our bodies for compassion and justice just doing what we want to:  you didn’t learn ballet all by yourself or overnight – you didn’t learn to kick a soccer ball without practice – or sing or play the trumpet or run cross country like a champ just because you thought about it.  It took practice – and the more you practiced, the better you got at doing it well.

So Paul, who was one of the earliest Christians, tells us if we REALLY want a world that matters, a world that strengthens love and creates hope for all kinds of people, then we cannot be conformed to habits of competition only – we must learn how to let go of some of our selfishness through practicing acts of service to others. That’s the second reason why you are required to come to church regularly:  so that you practice becoming a holy non-conformist – who values love and tenderness more than winning. Here’s what I want you to do, Paul writes to us from prison: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking… because that will drag you down into everlasting immaturity. But grow up so that God brings out the best in you.

And the third reason you are required to get out of bed on Sunday mornings and drag your
tired, young body to church when you’d rather stay asleep is this:  you are not going to learn how to be still and quiet – you are not going to learn the way of prayer and trust – any other place in creation but here. It doesn’t happen at the Mall. Or at Ramblewild. Or plugged into your Smartphone. The words of Jesus are clear: come to me that is follow me and I will show you how to be refreshed without being worn out.  Did you hear how that word practice popped up again?  Practice being quiet, practice being gentle with yourself, practice listening for what you love the most, practice being a servant to others. Practice even being humble like the prophet Micah taught – and the more you practice, the more inner rest, peace and refreshment will become yours – from the inside out.

·    One of the hardest realities for me this year in our confirmation class was not the tough questions you came up with – I loved those – no, it was trying to find enough time in your schedules to get to know you.  You are a busy bunch of kids and we were rarely able to all be together at the same time. I think that it happened maybe… once?

·     So, I was able to share with you information – and talk with you one-on-one sometimes – but we never got to spend time together as a group.  And that made me sad because there are things to learn about the Lord that you can only do in a group.  Like practice being still and silent in community. We can’t change what was but that was something we gave up this year because life was just too full.

We do confirmation class – we come to church regularly – we take time in our personal lives for prayer to practice, to learn, to serve, to worship and to see that there is more to real life than just ourselves and what makes us happy. We practice being a community. We practice being silent. We practice listening to the Lord and singing songs of worship and love. We practice being young and old together – mentors and confirmands together – beginners and old-timers together. We live in an incredibly segregated world, but church shows us that it is possible to break down barriers and live into God’s justice and compassion through humility.  And now, because you are likely to be the last confirmation class on my watch, I want to be very, very personal for a moment.

Ella – I have come to value your quiet honesty so very much. You weren’t always able to be with us in the group for a variety of reasons. You lead a complicated life and you hold a lot inside. When you were able to join us, I was touched by how deeply you think about life and how deeply you feel things.  You are wise beyond your years and I pray that you continue to nourish the path of wisdom in your life.  You could be a great and tender teacher – and the world needs more wise souls like you. In your own way you call to my mind the words written about the mother of Jesus, Mary, who is often described as “quietly holding all things within and pondering them in her heart.” Stay strong and open, Ella, you have blessings to share.

Colin – I love the passion with which you grab a hold of life.  You throw yourself into the things you love wildly and enthusiastically whether that’s running or memorizing lines in the Christmas pageant. In this, you remind me of St. Peter, whom Jesus gave the nick name, the Rock. Now there’s an upside and a downside to being a rock:  a rock is solid and strong and creates a solid foundation; a rock can also become a bolder running down a hill that gets out of control. Jesus spoke about this to Peter often and by the end of Peter’s life he had learned to use being a rock for love and beauty and healing. That is my prayer for you, too.

Cate – you were one of the first children I met when we visited from Arizona – and you were so little and funny.  I remember eating hamburgers with your family at your old house and watching you get some kind of baseball bat thing going with your father – and all I could do was laugh because you kept spinning around and round trying to hit the ball that you looked like a little, female gyroscope. And now you are poised and graceful, a careful thinker who takes her responsibilities seriously even as you dedicate yourself to dance.  My prayer for you is that you come to know how important sharing your art is with the world. The philosophers say that beauty can save the world – it wakes us up and lets us see new possibilities – and you could become like the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with oil. That act, like dance, is extravagant; so shine on and shine brightly because the world came to say of this woman:  she did something beautiful for the Lord.

Aidan – my man!  We’ve been in this thing together for a long time!  When I first met you, you were about seven inches tall and had more energy in that little body than half the town of Pittsfield. When you loved something, you were totally into it and when you hated it…. Well you weren’t shy about sharing that either! And now you are a young man whom others look up to, a student who thinks deep thoughts and an athlete playing soccer all over New England.  I could be wrong but I think you have the soul and spirit of a poet, little brother, and I mean that: a poet. So let me encourage you like St. Paul encouraged his younger friend, Timothy, to cultivate your strength but never forget how to be tender, too. God needs both from you – and you have been blessed with both in abundance.

And Maxx – young man of incredible depth, big and sensitive feelings and an even bigger heart.  When I heard you sing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” I went home with tears of joy.  You have blossomed so much as an artist, a musician, a disciple of Jesus and a joyful member of this congregation. You can light up the room, dude, when you want to.  My prayer for you is that as you explore your art deeper – your singing as well as your acting and performance on your instruments – that you know you are living into a sacred calling. Not everyone can bring joy to the world, not every can carry a tune, not everyone feels as deeply as you do.  I remember one time being out on Park Square with you collecting funds for the CROP Walk with John and Lauryn and your parents and brother and I thought:  this guy is St. Francis – he loves everything – and feels everything.  So I want to thank you for sharing some of yourself with us and tell you I can’t wait to see where the Lord takes you on your journey of faith.

People of God, this is a quirky bunch of confirmation kids – quirky and holy – and that makes sense because we are a quirky church and faith community.  Our quirkiness is a sacred gift – our smallness allows us the space and time to build trust and love as we get to know one another as Christ’s disciples – and it also stands as a tender symbol of sacred nonconformity in a world that insists that bigger is better. We know differently – and I give thanks to God for that knowledge. So, as we get ready to confirm this quirky confirmation class, I pray that you give thanks to the Lord, too for God has brought us together for precisely this moment in time. We are on holy ground, beloved, let us cherish and honor it with all our hearts.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

love me tender...

One of the blessings I have discovered in my nearly 40 year sojourn with Henri Nouwen is this: he was as anxious as I am at times - and equally haunted by doubt - even as we trust in God's grace.  To be sure, Brother Henri was a whole lot smarter than me (most of the time) and understood the movement of the Spirit with greater clarity. But as I read through his writings again - especially The Inner Voice of Love, Reaching Out and the collected notes/lectures that comprise the Spiritual Formation series - I am reminded that we both wrestled with inner fears like me right alongside an abiding awareness of God's presence. Like the Psalmist of ancient Israel, my soul sings but then seems to hide or get lost even as I hope in the Lord.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God. 
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God? 

My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’ 

These things I remember,
   as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
   and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
   a multitude keeping festival. 
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God. 

My soul is cast down within me;
   therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
   from Mount Mizar. 
Deep calls to deep
   at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
   have gone over me. 
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
   and at night his song is with me,
   a prayer to the God of my life. 

I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’ 
As with a deadly wound in my body,
   my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’ 

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God.

For a few days I have been leafing through my old Nouwen texts, noting what I have underlined in the past, and what speaks to me today. Even 20 years after his death, deep speaks to deep:

As long as we are trying to run away from our loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy... We become dependent on the shifting chain of events leading us into quick changes of mood, capricious behavior and, at times, revengeful violence. Then our life becomes a spastic and often destructive sequence of actions and reactions pulling us away from our inner selves. It is not difficult to see how 'reactionary' we tend to be: that is, how often our lives become a series of nervous and often anxious reactions to the stimuli of our surroundings. We are often very, very busy - and usually tired as a result - but we should ask ourselves how much of our activity... is part of an impulsive reaction to the changing demands of our surroundings than an action born out of our own center?
- Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

Two of the insights I have learned by observing the ebb and flow of serenity and anxiety in the
written work of Nouwen include:

+ The necessity of inner tenderness:  How many times have I been my own harshest critic? How many times have I treated my soul like someone I hate rather than love? How many times have I skipped God's assurance of pardon and forgiveness and meted out only punishment? Who would be surprised to know that I wept the first time I read Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11: 28-30?

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

I mentioned this once to another clergy person who worshipped with us in Tucson - a strong and gentle soul who had been on the cutting edge of the HIV/AIDS epidemic before the disease was understood - and she broke down in tears, too. "I tried so hard to be present and loving to so many..." Learning to love, forgive and cherish ourselves is a key component in our spirituality of tenderness.

+ The willingness to start again:  Some people are uncomfortable with the Scripture where Jesus tells Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." (John 3: 3) To be sure, this text has been used to polarize and exclude, but that is not it's intention. Rather, it is an invitation to respond to grace - or new insights - and move out of the prison of our habits of shame, fear and anxiety. Nouwen puts it like this in his reflection on the desert fathers and mothers:

The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives?...How horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be (with all its busyness!)
- Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

I know that when I become angry and resentful of ministry, people and sometimes even God, three things are true:  a) I am overly tired, b) I am starved for prayer and solitude, and c) I am in need of pardon so that I can be still and start again. My feelings are a clue - an invitation from above and within - but the message is usually upside-down just like God's kingdom.  When I want to rail and shout, it would be better to be silent. When I want to flee and chuck it all, it would be more satisfying and redemptive to stay engaged. When I want to be angry with another, it is usually and invitation to let God heal my inner hurt in solitude.

Last night, before I finally fell asleep, two thoughts were running through my head that oddly relate to a spirituality of tenderness:  1) I have always been attracted to Elvis Presley's song, 'Love Me Tender,' not in a schmaltzy or sentimental way, but rather as a prayer. It is simple, honest and healing. And 2) while I make jokes about Blanche Dubois's credo in Streetcar Named Desire, I think it is one of the hidden keys to living a satisfying and sacred life:  "Who ever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Two broken people  sharing gifts with the world in the most ordinary ways.

Monday, June 20, 2016

do you love me...

One more week before a two week break for reflection, rest and renewal - and what a full week this will be. Over the past 30 days we have celebrated both the baptism of a young family as well as the ordination of a new young clergy person. We have helped organize and shape a public vigil on behalf of sisters and brothers slain and wounded in Orlando, FLA and now, on Sunday, will confirm the baptismal vows of five young people. It will also be my joy to welcome into membership a young woman who is now discerning her call to ministry. Simultaneously, we begin an 8 week campaign of small group, house meetings to talk about how we will intentionally transition our ministries into those of a small church in the 21st century. Further,I have returned to my spirituality of tenderness research and writing. So to note that there is a whole lotta shakin' going on these days would be an understatement - and both Di and I are ready for a break.

I am thinking that once we head out of Dodge in 10 days for the Ottawa Jazz Festival I am going to take another internet fast. While we are in Canada, in addition to rest and music, we'll be spending a little time with L'Arche. In fact, we're staying an extra day in order to get to know some of the folk there and learn more about their ministry of tenderness. When we return to the US, I hope to be writing a lot, doing some house painting and home repair, and simply being in this moment. .It is a season for me to be tactile and earthy, immediate and grounded, with a bit hanging with the family mixed into some gardening and landscaping, too.

In my research, I came across this comment from Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, who was noting that Aristotle spoke of the intersection of pleasure and desire being your well-tuned calling in the world. It sounded a lot like Buechner's insight that:  The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger embrace." Vanier amplifies this saying:

The deepest desire for us all is to be appreciated, to be loved, to be seen as somebody of value. But not just seen — and Aristotle makes a difference between being admired and being loved. When you admire people, you put them on pedestals. When you love people, you want to be together. So really, the first meeting I had with people with disabilities, what touched me was their cry for relationship. Some of them had been in a psychiatric hospital. Others — all of them had lived pain and the pain of rejection. One of the words of Jesus to Peter — you find this at the end of the gospel of Saint John — is, "Do you love me? So, the cry of God saying, "Do you love me?" and the cry of people who have been wounded, put aside, who have lost trust in themselves, they've been considered as mad and all the rest, their cry is, "Do you love me?" And it's these two cries that come together.

I cannot tell you how compelling and energizing that truth is to me:  when the cry of the Lord and the cry of the wounded are heard as one.  I will keep you posted as this unfolds even as we take an internet break sometime very soon. Here's one of the Quebecois artists I am eager to take in while in Ottawa:  Marianne Trudel.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

grounding god-talk in bread and feasting...

As I have begun to outline and research my exploration of a spirituality of tenderness, I came
across a brief but insightful article by the Finnish theologian Paulina Kainulainen entitled:  "Tenderness and Resistance: Women's Everyday Wisdom Theology."  One of the many insights she shares has to do with living into an activism of resistance that embodies alternatives to consumerism, the technologicalization of everyday life, and violence. This, she suggests, might be called a "quest for the Kingdom of Tenderness."

+ Such a way of thinking honors feelings as much as reason, values on an equal basis as facts. This is wisdom theology - sapientia - a forgotten and too thin tradition in the West, but one revered and practiced in the Eastern church. Wisdom theology is different from an academic theology that is built upon sciencia - hard facts and formula - what the Reverend Dr. Kainulainen calls a "theology of sure knowledge." "Theology as Sure Knowledge is interested in forming definitions and constructing systems to explain the world and faith."  It creates a specialized language and seeks precision and intellectual comprehension. Wisdom theology, however, looks towards integrating the head with the heart and celebrates speaking of the sacred in ordinary language that real people use everyday. In this, she moves towards the sacramental vision and language of Jesus who spoke of God's kingdom like a wedding banquet. Quoting the Brazilian theologian and activist, Ivone Gabara, Kainulainen writes that wisdom theology is decidedly this-wordly. Never dismissing or ignoring the transcendent truths of our faith, the expression of a kingdom of tenderness remains grounded and concrete:

Salvation is more than a promise ---. Salvation is a get-together, an event, a kiss, a piece of bread, a happy old woman. It is everything that nourishes love, our body, our life. It is more than happiness in the hereafter, even if we hang on to the right to dream of our eternal tomorrow.

+ In this, Kainulainen evokes the wisdom of tenderness articulated by Jean Vanier. In an interview with NPR's Krista Tippett, Vanier says: "The big thing for me is to love reality and not live in the imagination, not live in what could have been or what should have been or what can be, and somewhere, but "to love reality and then discover that God is present" right here and right now. Vanier also speaks of resisting the commodification of relationships as well as the importance of unplugging from unnecessary technology. The Internet, he notes, creates the illusion of a small world but it also robs us of the ability to care for it with compassion. This excerpt from the program's transcript is illuminating:
MS. TIPPETT:  This is another conversation I have with people all the time in different contexts that the world's pain comes to people in Western cultures often through their television sets or through reading some horrific story in a newspaper or seeing an absolutely heartbreaking picture, you know, like a picture I saw of an Iraqi child crying at a funeral the other week that haunted me for days. And yet, there's nothing I can do for that Iraqi child, you know? He's thousands of miles away. I think I'm also aware that it's not only that I can't touch his pain or the sources of it directly. It's that I don't know his sources of solace. I don't know what's going to help him get up the next day and somehow start to heal. I'm just, I'm throwing that out

MR. VANIER: You see, we are in an incredible world of technology, the global world. And yet, with television and even with cell phones and Internet, we can cut away from relationship, you see? To get an e-mail, you don't see the eyes of the person, you don't see the face, you don't see the smile, you don't see the hands, you don't see the tone of voice. And we have to come down to small is beautiful because small is where we really …

MS. TIPPETT: Isn't it funny that global technology may bring us back to small is beautiful.

MR. VANIER: Possibly. Or take us away from it. As I had said, you see, I mean, as you look at that Iraqi child and you were wounded and wanted to do something, yet, you were confronted by your incapacity because the child was not in front of you. If that child was in front of you, you could have taken the child in your arms. So we're going into a world where the imagination, the virtual, the long distance, see things far away appear as close. But you can't touch them. They're close to the imagination, but they're not close to the body. So let's come back to the reality of the small.

Intimacy requires reality not abstraction. Love is concrete and ordinary more than it is ecstatic. The way of Jesus and the kingdom of tenderness can be tasted and touched, embraced and smelled, not merely imagined. This is a way of living and praying constructed on relationships rather than goods and services; the celebration of cooperation and recognition rather than just competition that creates adversaries but rarely allies.  I know that I resonate more with Carrie Newcomer on "I Believe" than the abstractions of the Nicene Creed (which I love but rarely use.)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

...that is how the light gets in

Today I returned to a work started just about this time last year: a spirituality of tenderness. It is my hope and prayer that over the next 24 months I can work on this and move towards possible publication. That is not entirely in my hands, yes?  Still, I am hopeful as I outline the chapters, restart my Biblical and theological research and plan to visit a L'Arche community in Canada in early July.  Two poems popped-up in my work this morning that deserve to be shared:

dedicated to a theo-poet

once she was canonized
as a visionary
or burned on a dry wood stake
as a witch
(two sides of the same coin)
i saw her
as one of the levantine women
who tried to live
with jesus and his wandering commune
the humane god
now she sits meditating
on a cliff by the ocean
playing and unwrapping
poems in prayers in faith and love a
prophetess of a magdalenian time
prophesying the aeon of tenderness
- Malcolm Lowry

Small wonder that dear Francesco I has elevated Mary Magdalene to the status of saint: she was faithful, present and tender beyond Christ's grave. She is one of the forgotten teachers of the tenderness tradition. The second poem, by Rumi, speaks to me of how the tenderness of Jesus is born within us and then shared in a broken world. It is the distilled wisdom of Irenaeus and his insights into theosis - deification - wherein we become more and more like God because God has been incarnated in Christ. Such is the foolishness of the Cross: 

Nothing can be undertaken until a pain
—a yearning and love for a thing—
is awakened inside a human being.
Without pain one’s endeavor will not be easy,
no matter whether it be about this world,
the hereafter,
commercial, regal, scholarly, astrological
or anything else. 

Our body is like Mary,
and each of us bears a Jesus.
If we experience birth pains,
our Jesus will be born,
but if there is no pain,
our Jesus will return to his origin
by that hidden road whence he came,
and we will remain deprived
- Rumi
Theosis is mystical Christian theology. It does not assert that we become god, but rather that our nature is transformed and moves into union with the holy as we learn from our sin, accept holy grace and bring to birth more tenderness as the result of our wound.  One scholar put it like this:
For many (early Church) Fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the Fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in His person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. 
Karl Rahner, a Roman Catholic theologian, is often quoted as saying: "Christianity in our era must become mystical or it will perish." I sense that he is right. Another articulation of this comes from the mystical wisdom of Leonard Cohen who reminds us that in all things there is a crack... for that is how the light comes in.

Credits: icons of Mary Magdalene and Jesus by Br. Robert Lentz

Friday, June 17, 2016

seek the welfare of the city...

Should those of us in the once main street expressions of American Christianity, who now own our disestablishment from the centers of power and influence, ever grow discouraged or weary: take heart. Our diminished status not only liberates us from serving the status quo, but also grants us the space to embrace others on the periphery - and join them in lives of authentic solidarity. Not in a self-congratulatory way, however, as has been our habit; but as quiet, tender and humble partners seeking the welfare of the city and the restoration of compassion to the core of human community.

The exilic prophet of ancient Israel, Jeremiah, urged those who had been forced to exist on the fringe of Babylon during the 6th century BCE, to "seek the welfare" of their new habitation. After a generation of grief, where the best and the brightest of Jerusalem were condemned to weep in shock by the River Cebar and the waters of Babylon, a new calling was offered:  seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its well-being you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 27: 7)  Earlier this week, I read a Facebook posting from writer, Diana Bass, who put it like this:

Between us as friends, I'm kind of sad that the TIME magazine religion reporter is tweeting out all the nice things that evangelical pastors and RC church leaders are saying about the LGBT community and not a single word about the mainline and liberal churches and synagogues who have risked and worked and witnessed for two generations for full inclusion of LGBT people, their calls to ministry, and the affirmations of their families and loves. Don't get me wrong -- I'm pleased that Rick Warren can say something kind today and every bit of kindness helps. But it is hurtful that the Christians and Jews who have been kind and compassionate and passionate and welcoming and willing to learn and listen to the LGBT community for so long are not heard or seen for that courage and solidarity and witness. Indeed, entire denominations were put on the line in order that God's love would overcome hate like that of today. And our churches, communities, clergy are heartsick today over this violence -- and the brokenness of a world that fails to see LGBT people as fully in God's image and grace. On the potential flip side, maybe it isn't "news" when mainline Protestants preach on love, only when evangelicals do??? That's even sadder.

My experience in the once mainline but now sideline camp of American Christianity is this:

+ In the 50s and 60s, clergy and laity who had experienced the intense fear and apocalyptic reality of WW II, returned to a bland USA and started a quest for meaning, depth, hope and social commitment in our churches.  You can see it in the art and music of that generation. You can point to it in the unity of the early Civil Rights movement. It became palpable during the drive to end the Vietnam War. It brought to birth a new wave of priests and nuns who were set free to be engaged with the world after Vatican II. And  it was synthesized theologically in Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools. This was to become an era of renewal through play and paradox, action and contemplation, sensuality and spirituality. That it wasn't fully realized does not diminish the energy set in motion by this movement.

+ As the 70s and 80s ripened, the hopes of this effort were only partially realized as many in our mainstream congregations fled in fear and confusion.  Some ran into the arms of evangelical churches that were long on loving fellowship and community and short of social engagement. Others decided to opt out entirely and nurture the spirit within through Eastern meditation and/or retreat centers. And still more simply just stayed home on Sunday mornings and enjoyed a break from the grind of earning a living.

+ By the 90s, when "big box" churches were all the rage with their gourmet Christian baristas and seeker-friendly rock show productions, the once liberal mainstream began to rethink their strategies. Some mimicked the mega-churches albeit on a smaller scale. Others folded or merged as numbers continued to dwindle. And a remnant decided to "seek the welfare of the city" through a renewal of prayer and acts of social justice with the poor, broken and socially marginalized. As conservative Christianity became the social norm in popular culture, our side-line congregations worked under the radar of the media: Open and Affirming movements came into their own, the seeds of missional and emerging congregations were planted, and new eco-peace coalitions began to take root, too.
What I am trying to point out is this:  just below the surface, these "seek ye the welfare of the city" churches have acted as a leaven within the whole of American Christianity. It could very well be said that our work in the vanguard of Christian/LGBTQ solidarity prepared the soil theologically and practically for more conservative churches to move towards compassion rather than rigid judgment. And that is where I trust our brand of Christianity must continue to toil, but only with humility. Too often I have heard some in our camp brag about being light years ahead of this or that group. That arrogance is poison. Rather, let us continue to sacrificially seek the welfare of those who have no allies in our realm - without bravado or even commentary - for such is the life of those who follow the man for others.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

where is the knowledge we have lost in information...?

I have a love/hate relationship with politicians - and I don't think that is too strong a confession to make - love/hate. I admire almost all of our elected officials for their courage, genuine dedication to the common good, tireless commitment to compromise, hard-nosed realism about what is possible, and profound personal stamina. It is an exhausting life putting your soul, integrity and ideas on the line everyday for evaluation. But that is only the start of the trial by fire because then you must be willing to carefully listen and evaluate the instantaneous critiques born of your action, discern the public's wisdom from their ignorance and/or fear, and get up and do it all over again the next day and the next. Like Steely Dan put it, "You go back, Jack, do it again, wheels turning round and round" for so goes in the relentless grind of a politician's life. I stand in awe and gratitude to the women and men who respond to such a calling. They are everyday heroes in my world.

Take the recent filibuster by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut concerning new gun control legislation: after the Newtown massacre, Connecticut's politicians began a serious overhaul of their state's laws. Now, in a moment of personal anguish and political savvy, Murphy seized the day. It is still unclear what the end result will look like, but Murphy knew how to marry the momentum of public anger and grief with his own convictions, so he spoke truth to power. For nearly 15 hours, he called into question the deepest convictions of his colleagues who had sold some of their soul to the NRA for campaign funds. For complicated reasons, some were able to respond to Murphy's chutzpah and we all await the details of the real deal. This was a pol using his voice to make a difference: calling out compromised hearts and minds, invoking our better angels and doing it with bold humility

I love politicians who do this. What I hate has nothing to do with cutting deals - that's how life on the street works. No,what I hate is that too many politicians don't know how to honor silence. Either they feel the need to fill every moment with a comment (or else are forced to do so by the media or their constituency) or they attempt to spin events in ways that give them an advantage. There are times, however, when nothing should be said.  "To everything there is a season," noted the wise, old preacher. "and a time for every purpose under heaven"

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Sometimes our elected officials really don't have anything of value to say. They may have deep feelings. It is quite likely they have ideas in formation that could have value with a bit more incubation, too. But over and again, when asked to respond in public to a tragedy, blessing, challenge or surprise, what comes out of their mouths sounds flat, canned, predictable or even useless. Most of us are not grand orators, but political spin makes all things worse, not better. The common good would be better served by modeling silence in a culture already saturated in sound.

I was struck by this love/hate dissonance yet again when four hundred plus people gathered in Park Square to mourn in solidarity the hate crime in Orlando against LGBTQ Latinx dancers at Pulse.  Everyone's hearts were raw. Each player's motivations were pure. But not everyone knew how to honor the wisdom of silence in public. So, at least for me, it seemed as if too many words were spoken. Some words were clarifying and holy, they bound us together and gave meaning to our wounds. Others...? Well, they merely filled the silence - and that's the best that can be said. Like our politicians, I too I am often asked to comment or analyze a public issue moments or even days after it has taken place. The Scriptures are clear that without an articulated vision, the people perish. But after shooting my own mouth off too many times spontaneously - or offering words without wisdom or depth because someone demanded a sound byte - I have tried to practice listening and waiting before writing or speaking about anything.  I just don't know enough about anything all by myself. I need to connect with the larger pulse of the holy - and that requires silence. I don't always get this right, I know, because there are those in my community who kindly say: put a sock in it for a time, ok? We all need such accountability.

So I wonder does our penchant for expression come from the loss of poetry in the culture? The absence of practicing and experiencing good liturgy regularly? The addiction to the round the clock cable news cycles and infomercial TV? An aching loneliness that confuses noise for intimacy and reverberations for presence?  A spiritual dis-ease that aches for healing but refuses to accept the still, small voice of our hidden God?  T.S. Eliot put it like this:   

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

I was just about to bag this post as perhaps too snarky. But then I heard an NPR clip about the funeral and vigil for Jo Cox in Britain. The spoken description of the memorial emphasized silence, brief comments, music and somberness. It concluded with a tag about all campaigning for or against remaining in the European Common Union being suspended over the next week in respect. But before that could sink in, an NPR reporter, who clearly continues the dumbing down of American culture, asked an English MP to say a few words about how she was feeling about this vicious murder.. Even over the air waves you could sense the Brit's discomfort as she stumbled over her words:  We are all too stunned to speak now... and that's the best thing she could have said for us all. I stand in support of all of our politicians' thankless work and hold them in my prayers daily. as they strive to make ours a more perfect union. There are times, however, when I wish they would just be still so that together we might enter the silence - and maybe go deeper into the complexities of life for at least a moment.

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:...