Sunday, April 30, 2017

dance me to the end of love...

On this celebration of the Christian Sabbath, Sunday, April 30, 2017, I continue to be taken by aesthetic of Leonard Cohen. Yesterday, at a small Anglophone bookstore in the neighborhood, I found a copy of Various Positions: a Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel. The text begins: "The enigma of Leonard Cohen: a well-tailored bohemian, an infamous lover who lives alone, a singer whose voice resides in the basement of song, a Jew who practices Zen."

When I posed a question the publisher insisted I ask: could this be called an authorized biography? Cohen paused and then thoughtfully said, "tolerated," adding an instant later, "benignly tolerated." Cohen has been called "part wolf and part angel" - "the grocer of despair" - the "poet lariat of pessimism" - and, more colloquially, the "prince of bummers."... The title of this book, Various Positions, originates in Cohen's favorite album, released in 1984, but it is also a philosophical statement, reflecting a dictum offered by Cohen's Zen master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi: "A Zen man has no attachments." To fix a position, to hold to a singular point of view for a lifetime, is antithetical to Zen because there are no absolutes... only reality.
Ironically, but not unexpectedly, Cohen's favorite album was never released in the US. Columbia Records sensed it was not commercially viable in 1984. It was the master's first recording in over five years and contains two of his best loved tunes - "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Hallelujah" - but these gems, as Frank Zappa was told ad nauseam, "had no commercial potential." Cohen once told the CBC that:

"Dance Me to the End Of Love"'s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that's why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the 
death camps, beside the crematoria...a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on...they would be playing classical while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin", meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it's not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.

Incredible the so-called "logic" of the market place, yes? There is genius in its creativity, to be sure, but also pure Philistine cruelty in denying tender hearts such soul satisfying beauty as "Dance Me." And don't even get me started on "Hallelujah!"

What, you might be wondering, does any of this have to do with Sunday? Or the connection between Cohen's art and my own complicated dance with faith and ministry?  Well, since you've asked, let me be clear: we have entered another moment in time when artists have been summoned by the Spirit - and the suffering of the whole Earth - to challenge the hegemony of the market with wild acts of beauty and political resistance. This must take place within the heart of Christianity as well as the public square because the ethos and aesthetics of our culture have become pathological. We are so addicted to a love of death that necrophilia is not an exaggeration.

Fr. Richard Rohr and others in the emerging church movement have insisted that the Church has historically emphasized binary thinking: we are either good or bad, the world is either safe or dangerous, a soul is either saved or damned, our hearts are either filled with the light of Christ or condemned to eternal darkness in Hell.

Dualistic thinking, or the “egoic operating system,” as my friend and colleague Cynthia Bourgeault calls it, is our way of reading reality from the position of our private and small self. “What’s in it for me?” “How will I look if I do this?” This is the ego’s preferred way of seeing reality. It is the ordinary “hardware” of almost all Western people, even those who think of themselves as Christians. The church has neglected its central work of teaching prayer and contemplation, allowing the language of institutional religion itself to remain dualistic and largely argumentative. We ended up confusing information with enlightenment, mind with soul, and thinking with experiencing—yet these are very different paths. The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets. Yet depth and breadth of perception should be the primary arena for all authentic religion. How else could we possibly search for God?

As a practicing Zen Jew with a lover's soul and mystic's heart, Cohen has always modeled for me a way of living that nourishes hope.  His sadness never stays trapped in depression for it is born of compassion. His poetry refuses to ignore the pain of living while celebrating the ecstasy, too. I like the way biographer Nadel puts it: "Art hold a unity that history does not, and for Cohen, there is no separation between music and writing. This embodies the Judaic tradition of the unity of the Written Law with the Oral Law; they are inseparable, the Oral Law sometimes interpreted as the soul of the Written Law. Their revelations are contemporaneous." Jennifer Warnes, one of Cohen's musical soul mates and collaborators, said much the same thing more colorfully:  "Leonard speaks in complete sentences... he is the only person I know who in one breath can share Talmudic insights with you; and in the next recall a time of oral sex in the Chelsea Hotel." Now that is nondualistic thinking and living!  Fr. Rohr continues:

Nondual consciousness is about receiving and being present to the moment, to the now, without judgment, analysis, or critique, without your ego deciding whether you like it or not. Reality does not need you to like it in order to be reality. This is a much more holistic knowing, where your mind, heart, soul, and senses are open and receptive to the moment just as it is, which allows you to love things in themselves and as themselves. You learn not to divide the field of the moment or eliminate anything that threatens your ego, but to hold everything—both the attractive and the unpleasant—together in one accepting gaze. The nondual, contemplative mind is a whole new mind for most people! With it, you can stand back and compassionately observe the self or any event from an appropriately detached viewing platform. This is the most immediate and practical meaning of “dying to self” I can think of. As a general rule, if you cannot detach from something, you are far too attached to it! Eventually, you can laugh or weep over your little self-created dramas without being overly identified with them or needing to hate them. Frankly, few people fully enjoy this emotional freedom.

Part of the charism of this moment in my life is to do with my days what Brother Leonard did in his: dance me to the end of love.  I may be dancing with Jesus and many of his wounded and weary sisters and brothers as Cohen danced with rabbis, prophets and tzaddiks. It has different sounds and reference points, but is always the same dance. And if I recall correctly he even took Jesus on a dance or two under the protection of "our Lady of the Harbor."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

maybe we can learn to trust...

Most mornings start with ample amounts of tea, silence and reading. I'm no "Road Runner, Baby" when the day begins. I can party hearty late into the "Midnight Hour" but prefer to ease into existence slowly when "Morning Has Broken." Like Taj Mahal sings, "I was built for comfort, baby, I ain't built for speed."

At some point, and it seems different nearly every morning, I spend a little time in quasi-traditional prayer. I use the British Jesuits on-line resource, "Pray As You Go" for a bit of focused trusting, gentle music and contemplation on a passage of Scripture. Henri Nouwen writes in a book amassed from his classroom notes on the art of spiritual direction that "creating a space for God in our lives takes time and commitment."

By creating sacred space, you reserve a part of yourself and prevent your life from completely being filled up, occupied, or preoccupied... such a spiritual formation affords the ever increasing capacity to live life from the heart... so that we move through each day listening with the heart.

Like Padraig O'Tuama of the Corrymela Community in Belfast, Northern Ireland confesses: I am still often unfocused during these times.  You might have thought that after all these years I would be better at it but... not so much. Still the sitting continues like O'Tuama's poem "de noche" but in the morning.

By nighttime and streetlights,
I examine the light of the day
joined by the city's traffic sounds
coming through the window.

Asking where the heart
was buffet and bolstered;
what little moment
held the unexpected moment;

the kindnesses received and the
kindnesses withheld;
the injustices perceived
and the focus on the self;

what small surprise
showed arrogance or assumption;
naming desolation and consolation
and all the little junctions of the day.

And then, at night, I make a promise
by the traffic and the streetlights,
that tomorrow, at the same time,
I'll meet the night again.

In spite of my restlessness I trust Nouwen's other point to be true: that when we are awakened to the presence of God within us - when we know it, trust  it and feel it within - then we can begin to experience God in the world around us. This is the mystical union with all of creation that people of all traditions comprehend obliquely but no less authoritatively.  St. Paul says, "Now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face."

Musicians, poets, artists, Zen Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims and those who favor honoring the rhythms of Mother Earth - everyone really - have their own words for the mystery of being fully unique and simultaneously fully connected to every other part of creation. St. John uses language that is supposed to sound weird and comforting to us at the same time: I pray that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. Not only are we all in this together, but we are all related one to the other, formed from the very source of creation who aches for us to be awakened to this sacred unity. Pope Francis said much the same thing this weekend while in Egypt.

The sitting is a small act of letting go in an ocean of selfishness and fear. Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of Sabbath keeping in much the same way: if we can learn to experience one full day without being in control, maybe we can learn to trust God with the others, too. Maybe, indeed, we can trust that we are not God?

Friday, April 28, 2017

listen to your life... and your songs

"Listen to your life," teaches Frederick Buechner. "See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” One of the quiet graces of this time away in Montréal is lots of alone time for listening. 

Two of the more satisfying ways I have come to listen to my life happens when I pause to "hear" the songs I am playing and practicing on the guitar, and, giving a bit of shape and form to the snippets of dreams I recall. This week there were three songs that spoke to me about life's longing (Tomorrow I hope to spend a little time with the dreams.)

+ First was an instrumental version of Joni Mitchell's classic, "Both Sides Now" that I used to perform in the 70s at various coffee houses. I cherish this song on so many levels and this version from "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is one of the finest. Carefully constructed
lyrical insights comingle with a melody that tenderly rises and falls like the rhythm of life itself. Mitchell's insights about balance, joy and sorrow, and the practice of listening more than judging speak to my soul as profoundly in 2017 as they did when I first heard them in 1967. As I was playing it to myself the other night, it evoked a bittersweet sense of gratitude for the ups and downs I have known over the past 50 years.

+ Second was the equally sublime albeit slightly more sentimental Tom Rush version of "Drivin' Wheel" from 1970. How many times did I nurse a broken heart to that song? How many times did I burst into tears when that freakin' pedal steel guitar rips your soul open at the beginning of the song's bridge? And how many times did I sit alone in the darkness of various rooms playing it over and over as a personal prayer of lament?  Ok, there has long been an aching loneliness inside me that I've embraced and run from, self-medicated against as well as used as a portal to prayerin equal doses, too. "Drivin' Wheel" is what I often feel like inside even while giving thanks to God for more than my share of blessings. Di often says to me:  "I can always tell if you've had one or two glasses of wine." When I look confused, she continues:  "At one your are sweet and loving (like "Both Sides Now" I think) and at two your tears come out both in joy as well as sorrow (like "Drivin' Wheel" is my hunch.)" I must confess that I was a bit surprised for this tune to pop into my head as I haven't played in over 30 years. But then I noted that... well... it had become a two glass of wine night so Tom Rush it was...

+ And number three turned up as the sassy, polar opposite of the first two: David Bromberg's remake of the classic "Jug Band Song."  For those who don't play the blues - and that's probably many - you have to understand both the fun in the faux bravado of this tune as well as the sheer exuberance in the playing. Not only do these guys NOT take the lyrics seriously - they change them up so often that you come to know they're goofing on themselves as 180 degrees away from macho - but this musical form gives the players a chance to strut as musicians. How often did I literally fall off my stool laughing at some body's improvised new lyrics only to be awed when they took an instrumental break? Not everybody can honor a tradition, joke about it and themselves and then turn around and
play a smokin' hot guitar instrumental. I love me some David Bromberg and while this may not be your cup of tea, it was for me a ton of fun to play the other night.

Here's what I'm thinking as I listen to these songs in the context of my life: tenderness and the blues live in an inner embrace that finds expression through sweet songs of the heart and irreverent humor. Not cruel humor, mind you, not bullying humor or that mean-spirited, foul mouthed junk that can be so popular, but self-deprecating humor. Humor born of some humility and nourished by the ups and downs of real life. These are earthy songs, too. Not overly romantic, never sappy, and often with a bit of grit and double-entendre going on, too. I love the sacramental way of incarnation on every level. More often than not, these songs are my prayers. They articulate the state of my soul, they express to God my deepest yearnings and they offer me a small taste of self-knowledge IF I'm listening. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Today looks to be another foray into wandering - and jazz - with the possibility of real sunshine, too!  This morning, after getting Di off to class, I read these words as a part of morning prayer. They hail from the wisdom of Frederick Buechner and warrant some reflection.

WHEN JESUS WEPT over the dead body of his friend Lazarus, many things seem to have been at work in him, and there seem to have been many levels to his grief. He wept because his friend was dead and he had loved him. Beneath that he wept because, as Mary and Martha both tactlessly reminded him, if he had only been present, Lazarus needn't have died, and he was not present. Beneath that, he wept perhaps because if only God had been present, then too Lazarus needn't have died, and God was not present either, at least not in the way and to the degree that he was needed. Then, beneath even that, it is as if his grief goes so deep that it is for the whole world that Jesus is weeping and the tragedy of the human condition, which is to live in a world where again and again God is not present, at least not in the way and to the degree that man needs him. Jesus sheds his tears at the visible absence of God in the world where the good and bad alike go down to defeat and death. He sheds his tears at the audible silence of God at those moments especially when a word from him would mean the difference between life and death, or at the deafness of men which prevents their hearing him , the blindness of men which prevents even Jesus himself as a man from seeing him to the extent that at the moment of all moments when he needs him most he cries out his Eloi Eloi, which is a cry so dark that of the four evangelists, only two of them have the stomach to record it as the last word he spoke while he still had a human mouth to speak with. Jesus wept, we all weep, because even when man is good, even when he is Jesus, God makes himself scarce for reasons that no theodicy has ever fathomed.

"Jesus shed his tears at the visible absence of God in the world... in the audible silence of God at those moments especially when a word... would mean the difference between life and death." I have known such moments. You probably have, too. Times when the only truth is an inner, aching emptiness that manifests itself in the terrifying sound of gasping for breath in-between the next avalanche of my own sobs. It is a loneliness that feels like suffocation. 

Tears in such a time are, I think, an organic prayer of longing. They are me reaching out to God when I can do nothing else. Knowing that Jesus wept - and shook in his flesh with the same body shaking agony that I have known - does change very much. It doesn't lessen the load of my suffering nor stop the flow from my eyes. At best, my pain is simply shared. Not diminished, not abbreviated, not healed and not explained. Just shared. And this sharing is intimate. I would not feel safe trusting another soul with this degree of vulnerability. Over the years I have discovered that sharing these tears with Jesus doesn't bring them to a close and doesn't really matter to anyone else but me. Yet I still find myself wanting and needing to share these tears with Jesus. Somehow I know he has felt what I feel - and understands me - without judgment.

Having finished Padraig O'Tuama's spiritual memoir last night, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, prepared me to restart my study of Henri Nouwen's insights re: spiritual direction. Brother Henri writes that the practice of spiritual direction is all about creating "a space for God in your life. This takes time and commitment... By creating sacred space, you reserve a part of yourself and prevent your life from completely being filled up, occupied, or preoccupied...for spiritual formation cannot take place without discipline, practice and accountability." O'Tuama closes his book paraphrasing Carol Ann Duffy who suggested that if she believed in God she would "find prayer most consoling because to pray is to believe someone is listening." I know that when I make the time to be "un-full" I am sharing that experience with Jesus. Why I don't go there more often after all these years I still don't know. O'Tuama concludes:

Neither I nor the poets I love have found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it's a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, There, I greet God and my own disorder. I say hello to chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distractions and privilege. I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story...

And now it is time to shower and head to the streets to greet the sunshine.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

shifting gears...

So far I have succeeded in remaining inside and at home today - quite a change from all the schlepping at the start of the week. Last night, after the rain had mostly abated, I ventured out to my favorite local club, Dièse Onze, for their weekly jam. Things got rolling later than I had anticipated @ 9:45 pm, so I had a long time to chat up the owner and wait staff. True confession: talking with waitresses, bar tenders and restauranteurs is one of my favorite quotidian past times. These are hard working people who see the public everyday at their best and worst. It not only nourishes my understanding of how the world really works to hear their stories, but I want offer them a bit of gratitude, too. Call it the seeds of an emerging ministry, but these tough souls need to know they are loved as much as the rest of us.

Well, in time, the bass player finally showed up (the regular host was on tour in Switzerland) and damn if those cats didn't cook once they got into the groove. I had to pry myself away at 1:15 am knowing I needed to prepare Di's breakfast and lunch today @ 7 am. Let's just say that it was a sweet but all too short night. That's one reason I chose to chill at home today.

There is that my old legs and back were worn out from all my previous walking. Besides, I needed to devote time to an essay re: the essence spiritual practices of resistance. Drawing on Brueggemann and Bonhoeffer, this essay may be included in an e-book a colleague is preparing for early summer. Di burst out laughing when I told her later that after my third draft I had finally whittled it down to under two thousand words. "Most people, my dear," she smiled, "would be stumped to come up with 500 words but you... you clearly have a lot to say!"  We talked about everything I left out of this essay for the next 90 minutes.(I'll let you know if my it makes the final cut.)

It was satisfying to give the day over to writing and research. I needed the break. When the local temperature hits 23 C tomorrow,(that's 75 F for those who hail from the USA) I want to be back out on the street. And let's not forget that Christine Tassan is at Dièse Onze tomorrow night and she's one of Di's favorites. Bonne nuit et rest bien mes amis.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

... and keep me out of your way

The spirituality of Charles de Foucauld has long attracted me:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures -
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father

It reminds me of Mychal Judge's prayer (which is cuts to the chase):

Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet,
tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.

What attracts me to both men and their embodied spirituality is the "calling" Foucauld discerned after living as a French noble man, soldier of fortune and dissolute. In his own words he realized he was called to "live as Jesus lived before the season of his public ministry." That is, to live and serve a life of compassion anonymously. Quietly. Without any explicit effort to "evangelize" others save being present in the world with love and solidarity with the poor. 
Members of the Fraternity are called to live the hidden life of Nazareth and ”cry out the Gospel with our lives”. We are called to live in solidarity with the poor. We are to be the living presence of Christ in the midst of the world.... We commit ourselves in a special way to live in solidarity with the poor by living a simple life, which is counter to our consumer society, and by recognizing in all people, particularly our neighbors, a brother and a sister to love, and especially the most abandoned who are in need of material, spiritual or moral support. (from Jesus Caritas web page)

Could this be, perhaps, another take on Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity?" Like Bonhoeffer, Foucauld prayed and celebrated Eucharist regularly. Like the martyred German, Foucauld spent his days outside ecclesiastical structures simply caring for the Muslim peasants of Algeria who were his neighbors. He lived in solidarity with the Berbers until a gang of mercenaries kidnapped him for ransom. In an unplanned act of violence, Foucauld was shot through the head by an startled guard and died in the desert. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on November 13, 2005.

As the next three weeks of quiet wandering mature, I'll be listening to this still small voice of the "hidden" Christ within me...

Monday, April 24, 2017

wandering in leonard cohen's footsteps...

After getting Di breakfasted and off to her first day at school - her practicum for the ESL certificate began today - I faced a wholly new challenge: an entire day with no guidelines! There was no one to report to about my work's progress because there was NO work. There was no one else to help me discern what I felt like doing because I was all by myself. And without anyone else around to suggest alternative plans I had to check-in with myself about what might happen today.

At first this felt unsettling. In so many ways this is unchartered territory. My go to security blanket, therefore, was to start writing and I spent 90 minutes working on an article about resistance to the current regime for a friend's upcoming e-book. But then I was faced with the genuinely peculiar task of making something else of this day all by myself. I was grateful that my daughter suggested visiting some of Leonard Cohen's old haunts so that was my next stop:  Little Portugal in le Plateau. This once old Jewish immigrant neighborhood is still home to some of the city's finest delicatessens. According to the NY Times, Cohen regularly returned to this area even after finding success throughout the world:  "Montreal feels like home to me." It is great old area - one Di and I have walked often - but I never realized it was St. Leonard's favorite abode, too.

"Well, why not keep on "the Main" (the old school nick name for Boulevard St. Laurent)?" I asked myself. So another 2 kilometers later I was downtown. "Let's see how far Rue St. Catherine runs?" I continued. "After all, when we first started coming to Montreal we stayed somewhere off St Catherine and Rue Guy." I walked up and down that street twice - another 7 kilometers - searching for a forgotten Vietnamese noodle shop, obscure bookstores and a small park. All told, I put in about seven US miles before jumping in a cab to meet Di for a celebration of her first day of teaching immigrants. "Parlez-vous Anglais?" I asked the young cabbie only to find he was stone cold Quebecois, so I gave him directions to "Rue St. Nicholas et Moyen en la Vieux Port" and hoped for the best. Later I found out a l'angle de means "at the intersection or corner of" but without that working knowledge I had to hope my man knew his city.  And did he ever: in four minutes flat I was able to pick up my honey, who was famished, and escort her to Modavie Bistro and Jazz Club where we feasted to stories of her first day.  After buying two weekly Metro (subway) passes (en Francais) it was back to our groovy home so Di can prepare lesson plans for tomorrow's class.

It was a new experience for me to be totally on my own for most of the day. I like it but it is going to take some getting used to; I could easily fritter away countless hours without coming to grips with what I really want to do. Hence, I am realizing in a new way, the importance of an ordered day a les Benedictines who balance prayer with play and work with rest, silence and study. Two years ago during Advent I used my IPhone like a chapel's bell with chimes going off every four hours. It was an exercise in mindfulness and the settings are still ready to activate. Clearly it is time to reclaim that precious gift. Same goes for setting time aside for writing, walking, study and guitar practice. As I found out during my sabbatical, without a clearly scheduled practice commitment to both music and writing, my monkey mind keeps me distracted. Dianne recently said to me that all this unstructured quiet time is a gift to me for discernment. Just because I am not accustomed to radical freedom doesn't mean it isn't a blessing. Still, it is going to take a little time to get into the groove.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

and so it goes...

Today was "get your bearings day" in Montréal: we slept in, chatted over tea and coffee and then headed off to find Dianne's classrooms in Le Vieux Montréal. It takes exactly 26 minutes from our flat to the school - in either direction - and now that we have the lay of the land, another layer of anxiety can be put to rest. It was a stunning day with warm sun and lots of locals soaking it in. After a stop at "Brits and Chips" for some comfort food (maple battered sole), it was back home for more resting and reading. Then out to a local park before hitting Le Metro supermarché for supplies. Our goal is to do this as modestly as possible so that we can have a few big treats like Cirque du Soliel on the flip side of the encounter.

Truth is we've been working towards this since the sabbatical two years ago. Di discerned that now was the time for her to chart a new direction - one specifically focused on immigrants and language skills - and I realized I was being called out of one ministry (and probably into another.) We have been working at reducing debt, saving resources and living in a focused way so that we can honor this time away. That means a
 time of true experimentation starts tomorrow for us both: Di in her English practicum and me wandering, praying and listening to my heart in relative solitude. I genuinely want to support her in this project in whatever way I can. And, while she is hard at work teaching, critiquing herself and others and acquiring new skills, I want to mostly be still. Yes, I'm going to take in some great jazz from time to time, but a quote I came across this morning from Merton really cuts to the chase:

If you allow people to praise me, I shall not worry. If you let them blame me, I shall worry even less. If You send me work, I shall embrace it with joy. . . . If you send me rest, I will rest in You. Only save me from myself. Save me from my own private, poisonous urge to change everything, to act without reason, to move for movement's sake, to unsettle everything that You have ordained. Let me rest in Your will and be silent. Then the light of Your joy will warm my life. Its fire will burn in my heart and shine for Your glory. That is what I live for. Amen. Amen.  "THE SIGN OF JONAS"

Once again I was reminded of how incompetent yet focused I am on this quest while at Le Metro. The young clerk greeted us, we responded in our well rehearsed French and Di went to pay when I was asked something about which bags would she like me to use first. I could mostly comprehend her French words but... my ears and brain are still stuck in the States and I had no idea how to respond. So, once again with humility, I had to ask for a bit of English noting that I am still trying to learn French. "Je suis en tran d'apprendre Francais." She smiled and said, "Don't worry... you'll get it... somehow!" A bit of encouragement and reality at the super market. And so it goes.

nous sommes arrivés...

Nous sommes arrives!  We are starting to settle into our new digs for a few weeks in Montreal when Di will complete a practicum in her English as a second language certificate program. My assignment - one that I wholly celebrate - is to be her support person. Not that I haven't shared support for her ministries in the past, but this is radically different. She is the lead in this endeavor - and my goal is to make certain she gets what she needs to get the job done.
The trip North was uneventful and the border crossing was smooth, too. We actually arrived in Montreal a mere 5 hours after leaving Pittsfield! Meeting our Air BnB host, Roxanna, was a treat as we discovered:  she is a visual artist (and musician), her significant other is a professional jazz guitarist performing Dianne's favorite style of jazz (Jazz Manouche - French gypsy jazz) and her flat is open, artsy and without a TV (parfait pour nous!) What's more, this flat comes with a parking place - and in the Plateau just off Mont Royal that's a huge gift.

Before taking a long afternoon nap, we wandered into the neighbor bibliothèque before wandering up and down our old hood along Rue Mt. Royal. It was a hoot to take in the old sights. It feels like home. We ate Lebanese goodies before heading back to Rue St. Joseph and crashing for 90 minutes. We lugged our gear up three flights of winding steps, set up shop and then headed out into the night. As often happen, we wander for a few hours before finding the right place to settle and eat and last night was no exception. It felt grand to walk and walk and walk. As Di said, "NO ONE eats at home in Montreal on a Saturday night" and she was not far from the truth as the streets where hopping!  As we passed through the Fairmount neighborhood, I came across these gems - prayer candles to various contemporary women "saints" - a certainty that I'll return to savor as this sojourn ripens - for God knows I need me St. Patti Smith!
In time we settled on a small pizzeria that wound up being a mere half a block from our flat! It's décor is an old fashioned diner and the shell was actually hauled to Montreal from dear old Massachusetts. We were tired, hungry and weary so it was hard to "hear" what our server asked. Oh, we heard the sounds but we're transitioning from Anglais to Francais - especially Quebecois - so I sadly said, "Mademoiselle, je ne parle pas plus Francias." And before I could add, "Un petit plus lentement?" she smiled and said, "Anglais?" She was kind. "Do you need English menus?" she continued. "Non, non ,ca va bien" we said trying to regain our equilibrium and ordered in French. It always takes a few days to get our heads and mouths in synch with the jouval groove. As Richard Rohr advises: it is wise to pray for one satisfying and edifying humiliation every day!"

During the week I'm going to have a ton of free time - Di will leave the flat at 8 am and get back about 6 pm - so besides shopping and preparing an evening meal, I'm in full flâneur mode. One of my hopes is to read and learn the Psalms in French. Starting today I am playing with Psalm 131 - a song of humble trust - that I cherish. (I am still searching for French accents so.. desolee!)

Yhwh non non Coeur n'est pas trop haut
Non mes yeux se levent pas
Je ne vais pas vers de grandes choses
Ni vers celles qui sont trop etonnantes pour moi
Non je suis plus bas
Entierement silencieus mon etre
come in tout-petit sur sa mere
Un tout petit enfant sure moi mon etre
Oh Israel espere en Yhwh
De maintenant a toujours.
The ever wise Robert Alter writes: in the quiet of this humble song there is a touching sense that the singer "is content with her/his lot... this soul does not aspire to grand things and is able to rest in the reassuring calm that a loving mother gives a weaned child whom she comforts... it evokes a sense of beautiful self-containment, an embracing of one's self like a child." (The Book of Psalms)  This picture of my precious Louie gets is so right!
And so we enter today's Sabbath.

Friday, April 21, 2017

into a noir groove....

The genre known as "noir" speaks to me at a deep level. Less creepy than goth, more nuanced than industrial, the whole noir groove grabs me where I live. It could be the visual aesthetic of the first "Batman" or "Blade Runner" movies. Clearly the Miles Davis soundtrack to "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud" qualifies in spades (would you expect anything less from the 1957 film by Louis Malle also known as "Lift to the Gallows?") Some go for novels by Dashiell Hammet while others savor the works of James Cain or Elmore Leonard. I dig it all. I can watch the early TV show "The Naked City" with as much enthusiasm as either "Justified" or "Da Vinci's Inquest." And I never get enough of the epic film "Chinatown" by Roman Polanski.

Anxiety and shadow define this scene in all its permutations. Right now I am particularly wild about a song that opens the TV show "Bosch." After stumbling through a few hours of techno insanity, it has become the ring tone on my IPhone.  The band, Caught by A Ghost, has constructed a dark jazz trumpet melody played over a crisp New Jack City beat on "Got A Feelin." What's more, the lyrics evoke a brokenness that speaks to this moment in time and the excellent use of black and white film clips work to kick up the edginess.

Corn sugar and caffeine
I feel my body in two different places
Still playing for both teams
Sometimes it feels I was born with two faces

I feel the smoke climbing up my cheeks
I hear the jokes and I smell the punchlines
I lay broken in my bed for weeks
My room's too dark and my bed's on the faultline

I got a feeling that I can't let go...

Sing a song about heartbreak
What do you know about the sweet taste of sadness?
I got a name for each one of my headaches
What do you know about the thin line to madness?

I need a new part with new lines
Anything if it's good for your head
You can donate your heart to science
But it won't bring you back from the dead

I got a feeling that I can't let go...

This may be my favorite sound of genre-bending music: a taste of old school jazz, a healthy dose of contemporary percussion mixed with a sophisticated hip hop lyrical sensibility that is neither cynical nor sentimental. Trip hop artists like Cinematic Orchestra awakened me to this groove and I've been addicted since hearing them on the sound system of a shop in Camden Market.

Like another sub-genre that speaks to my soul, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the noir scene honors all that is wounded and gritty without ever giving in to cheap horror or sloppy piety. The heroes are broken souls searching for a bit of truth and light within the darkness. They engage the muck of the world as it is, no illusions here, and more often than not they are hurt in the process. And yet I see a quiet nobility to their suffering that gives shape and form to the complicated nature of compassion. The gospel puts it like this: greater love has no person than that she give up her life for a friend. And that is what keeps me coming back for more.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

in the name of...

Once upon a time a colleague said something like this to me: "Over the years serving God in a local congregation, we clergy each leave our mark. Some of our marks are obvious, others are more subtle and nuanced. And when we leave a faith community, some of our marks remain while others disappear as is necessary."

While reading Padraig O' Tuama's spiritual memoir, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, I have started to wonder about the various markings I have left among the people of the churches I have served? There have been times when I have wounded them, I know. What kind of mark does that inflict? How long does it last? There have been a few blessings, too as well as a lot of time spent simply being present for: joys and sorrows, births and deaths, baptisms and weddings, council meetings and service projects.

O Tuama, a poet as well as theologian, includes this at the close of one chapter. "In the Name" evokes some of what I have been wondering about as I ponder the markings I have shared and received over the years.

In the name of goodness, of love and of broken community
In the name of meaning, of feeling and I hope you don't screw me
In the name of darkness and light and ungraspable twilight
In the name of mealtimes and sharing and caring by firelight

In the name of action, of peace and of human redemption
In the name of eating, of drinking and table confession
In the name of sadness, regret and holy obsession
In the holy name of anger, the spirit of aggression

In the name of forgive and forget and I hope I get over this
In the name of fathers and mothers and unholy spirits
In the name of beauty and broken and beaten up daily
In the name of seeing our creeds and believing in maybe

We gather here, a roomful of strangers
and speak of our hopeland, and talk of our danger
to make sense of thinking, to authenticate lives
to humanise feelings and stop telling lies

In the name of philosophy, of theology and who gives a damn
In the name of employment and study and finding new family
In the name of passions, our lovings and indecent obsessions
In the name of prayer, of worship and demon possession

In the name of solitude, of quiet and holy reflection
In the name of lost, the lonely and without direction
In the name of the early and the late and the wholly ineffectual
In the name of the straight and the queer, transgender and bisexual

In the name of bootclogs, and boobjobs and erectile dysfunction
In the name of schizophrenia, hysteria and obsessive compulsion
In the name of Jesus and Mary and the mostly silent Joseph
In the name of speaking to ourselves saying 'this is more than I can    cope with'

In the name of touchup, and breakup and of breakdown and weeping
In the name of therapy and Prozac and of full-hearted breathing
In the name of sadness and madness and years since I've smiled
In the name of the Unknown, the Alien, and the Wholly-in-Exile

In the name of the named and the unnamed and the names of the nameless
In the name of the prayers that repeat "I wish I could change this"
In the name of goodness and kindness and intentionality
In the name of harbour and shelter and family

A few years back an alienated distant relative popped up from out of nowhere and started to electronically harass me about some of my bad theology back in the day. Mostly it was this soul's brokenness speaking so I let it a lot of the vitriol wash over me and slip away. But part of it stuck because I have always been driven by grace even when I didn't know how best to share it. There were years when my actions and words were too harsh.  Too judgmental. Too aloof. To be sure, I regret these failings and have tried to atone for them as time moves forward. The 12 Steps make it clear that part of our deep healing has to do with making amends. When we can own how we have hurt another - and share our grief without blame or excuse - something humbling and cleansing can be born. It creates the possibility of a transformed relationship - and this is holy ground. But, sadly, not everyone is ready or able to let go and let God's grace shape the present. Some have identities too deeply defined by their wounds to let them go and some wouldn't know who they were if there wasn't someone else to blame.

O Tuama's poem - and memoir - are evoking a host of sacred memories. The good news is that I have experienced how God's grace doesn't quit even when other people give up on us. Or we give up on ourselves.  And this is an authentic blessing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

if we strive to be happy by filling all our silences with sound...

All around me, the communities of faith I have grown up with - and the colleagues who support them - are shape shifting. Seminaries are merging, clergy are retiring or leaving ministry, the rapid decline of participation in formal worship continues to accelerate, and there is no consensus about what might fill the void. I have seen the rise and fall of the charismatic movement; the growth and stagnation of white, American evangelicalism; the ascent and dissipation of both the mega-church and praise band phenomenon, and now an obsession with the NONES (those with no official religious affiliation, sometimes considered part of the SBNR - spiritual but not religious - consort.) NOTE: For more analysis based upon research, please see the Pew Research summary: Factors driving the religious "nones" in the US

I am not stating anything new or profound here: thinkers far wiser than I have been documenting the shifting sand of the North American Christian community since my ordination 35 years ago. To date, both the late Phyllis Tickle - The Great Emergence - and Diana Butler Bass - Christianity for the Rest of Us and Grounded - have written creatively and authoritatively
about this radical change. No, I am simply trying to come to terms with my own personal, emotional reaction to this reality.  

On a macro level I am delighted and excited to see Andover-Newton blend into the Yale Divinity School realm and EDS merge with Union Theological Seminary. This new ecumenical constellation holds great promise for both the wise use of limited resources as well intra-faith collaboration. Same goes for the way these old institutions are using market realities to turn their real estate into ministry: whether it is Old South Church in Boston selling a prayer book from 1620 for millions of dollars, urban churches in New Haven merging to consolidate resources, the auctioning of stained glass in Northampton, MA to fund mission, or the outright sale of under- utilized property at Union Seminary for condominiums each of these projects understands that "time makes ancient truth uncouth." To continue the work of Christ in this environment without succumbing to the ethics of the bottom line requires creativity and risk-taking.

On a micro level, however, I feel sorrow and some anxiety. Partly this is a function of age, right? My mortality is showing up and asking to be valued in these feelings. Another part frets over leadership development in this shifting environment.  A changing of the guard often evokes consternation among the elders of one generation as they pass on responsibility to the next, I know. In other eras, rites of passage functioned as a way to share knowledge, wisdom, tradition and hope between the generations. With an ever diminished commitment to institutions, however, I am unclear how a new cadre of clergy will learn how to live as wisdom keepers. One-on-one mentoring is probably the best way to do this in our ever evolving religious landscape. But my experience suggests this is not widespread. 

Further, as denominations like my own downsize, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for inter-generational linkage. There are less frequent connections between those at the top of the hierarchy and those in the local churches, too as bi-vocational ministries become the norm not the exception. In a word, there is often no time to simply sit with young clergy and listen. We are now driven by tasks rather than relationships and too often locked into the limitations of competing job demands. Just try to schedule an informal conversation over a cup of tea - it takes weeks if not months to realize - as well as computer generated scheduling resources.

Yesterday, I was convicted by this quote from Thomas Merton: "If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth."  Upon reading it I immediately sent a note to my staff asking if we might gather for an hour this morning simply to check in with one another. I love and value them all and felt like I would be living into what I hated if I didn't try to connect. Later in the day, I came across this from Merton that speaks with equal vigor to my personal reaction to a changing religious terrain:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

The opening stanza of T.S. Eliot's "The Choruses from the Rock" is equally haunting:

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

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

When local congregations assume the evaluation tools of the corporation to help their ministries, we give away part of our soul. When all we can see is the bottom line, our vision has become obscured at best and maybe poisoned, too. Small wonder I am being drawn ever more deeply into the work of spiritual direction. It is intimate, relational and as far from time effective as the Atlantic is from the Pacific. As Henri Nouwen writes about his understanding of our encounters with Christ: they are always personal, they are always quiet, and they are always small. I was blessed to be with my small staff this morning and encouraged by their commitment to the way of love. Now I can head off to three weeks of relative solitude and stillness with a sense of peace.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

le retour du flâneur...

Today marked the close of my work week and the start of our time away in Montréal.  For two weeks we will be in le Plateau while Di completes her practicum for teaching English as a Foreign Language. Then we switch abodes to celebrate our anniversary in the Little Italy neighborhood near our favorite Marché Jean Talon. For the first part of this adventure, Di will be in class: my job will be to care for her needs, make sure she gets to and from the language center in a timely fashion and feed her well. The rest of the day, however, is all about the return of le flâneur as I anticipate a ton of aimless wandering.

During my study time, I will be going deeper into Henri Nouwen's notes re: spiritual direction. This is something I want and need to explore more seriously as the summer unfolds. Having just completed my evaluation and report for our sabbatical experience two years ago, it is clear that doing this work in the wider community - including among those without a clear sense of spiritual grounding - resonates with my soul. So besides practicing scales and considering Nouwen's insights, there's a whole lot of Montréal for me to discover:  markets to shop, museums to appreciate, brasseries to savor and bookstores to get lost in.

I hope to interview the owner of our favorite jazz club, Dièse Onze, and take in as much live Québécois jazz as possible. This gets my mood and groove just about perfectly...

Monday, April 17, 2017

tell me by what you do...

Not long ago I was smitten by Krista Tippett's interview with Padraig O'Tuama on the radio show ON BEING. (For more information, please go to: http://www.padraigotuama. com) Maybe it was because we were driving home from Brooklyn after the blessed news of Louie's recovery from 
meningitis was confirmed - and he was going home. It might have had something to do with my affinity for spiritual leaders who help bridge the gaps between people in conflict; O'Tuama's work with Corrymela in Belfast in one such blessing in a world too torn apart. And it might actually be grounded in O'Tuama's gift for gab: he is, after all, a Celtic poet with a love for nuance. He knows that sound and meaning can dance around together and bring to birth new possibilities. I am still not certain why it all came together for me that afternoon, but I am still smitten. Take, for example, this poem:

Affirmative Action

In the Irish language, there is not a word for ‘yes’. There is
not a word for ‘no’ either.

You can only answer in the affirmative – you can say ‘I
will’, or ‘I won’t’. You can say ‘I can’. You can say ‘I am’
or ‘I am not.

It is appropriate that a language so poetic as to suggest
a bridge between the world for exile and the word for
weeping would be rooted in an earthy solidity that requires
answers to be linked to an action. Affirmative answers are
indicated by action.

Let your yes be yes and your no be no.

Let your yes be seen in your doing.

Let your no be not-doing.

If you say yes, but do-not-do, it is a no.

So, forget all your talk.

Tell me by what you do.

Doesn't this ring true? Now is the time for those of us of faith to simply let go of the BS and tell one another what is most important by what we do.
Earlier this afternoon, O'Tuana got to me again when he wrote:

The call (of the sacred) is to go beyond (obligation)... "I pray God rid me of God" Peter Rollins is fond of quoting, and he's right. Our ideas of God sometimes get in the way of the truth that we are already acting upon, and God is the excuse that hides the lie. The deepest impulse of religion is to move from obligation to something entirely more intuitive - the telling of truth, the doing of truth, the living of a life, the confrontation of what we truly want.

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:...