Thursday, November 30, 2017

becoming hollow for advent...

Two poems have popped up for me in the last 24 hours.  Both evoke a
part of the Christian liturgical season of Advent that begins on Sunday, December 3rd. The first, by Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas, invites us to learn to wait. Not waiting simply to acquire patience, however, but rather so that we become fully alive in each moment. To life consciously with love is what the waiting of Advent is all about.

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

"Christ was a poet and the New Testament is all poetry, too" Thomas has said. That resonates with me as I prepare for Advent. The second poem, by Carolyn Locke, speaks of becoming hollow so that we might be filled with light. I think of Eugene Peterson's restatement of the Sermon on the Mount:  "You are blessed when you're at the end of your rope: with less of you, there's more room for God and God's grace."

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.

And so, what else can you do
but let yourself be broken
and emptied? What else is there
but waiting in the autumn sun?

Once the hills behind our home were full and vibrant; now they are barren and still.  They remain glorious, however, whether green or red or basking in the browns and grays of today. Peterson's retelling of a sermon by Jesus comes to mind:

“Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more. Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself." 
(Luke 12)

Like the Blessed Virgin Mary, "Today I take in these truths and ponder them in my heart." 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

black velvet band...

Next week I head back to L'Arche Ottawa again for three days.  With a mere nine Sundays left to my days as a settled, ordained pastor - and a whole new life emerging as I leap into retirement - this connection is growing stronger. I will arrive on Monday in time for community night - a gathering of sharing, music, prayer and more - and stay to talk more deeply about my commitment and take another step into the spirituality of living from my heart. 

One thing I HAVE to do is learn "Black Velvet Band" for Geoffrey: he loves Celtic music but I couldn't pull it up when I was there for retreat. I knew I knew it but... So, as a way of being embodied and prayerful, I promised I would know this upon my return. What a sweet blessing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

horizontal worship...

Last Sunday, I went with my gut in worship:  I selected guitar-friendly folk
hymns, I dressed the Sanctuary for a quiet and contemplative Eucharist, and I led most of worship sitting down. It was more a gentle conversation in faith, song and silence than traditional formal worship  - a way of leading the liturgy that I have set aside for a few years - and it clearly spoke to the hearts of many. It also affirmed a hunch I have been holding close to my heart since the last night of our sabbatical in Montreal two plus years ago:  the horizontal "geography" of this type of worship speaks volumes to contemporary people about solidarity and compassion. In an age of hierarchy and mistrust, the radical equality of this style of worship is both healing and restorative.

So, during my closing two months of pastoral leadership in the Berkshires, I will take this deeper.  In time, I will look for new venues to strengthen the aesthetics and theology of "horizontal" worship, too. I don't know what else to call it except horizontal. On that last night in Montreal, we attended a Taize gathering where everyone sat on the floor. Yes, there were provisions for people who could not sit in this style; a variety of simple benches lined the periphery of the worship space. But the art, the music, the readings, the icons, the Cross and the community all happened on the carpeted floor.  This evoked two things at the same time:  first, equality; and second, humility. This was a simple act of beautiful prayer and song offered to the Lord. There was care given to the feel and flow of the room. There was ample attention paid to practicing the music, too. But it was not complicated or aloof. 

This is what we experienced, too.  And when we gathered in the Chancel to share Eucharist and song - seeing one another closely and hearing our voices reverberate in harmony with the wood - it was pure joy. Since that night in Montreal I have wanted to explore this style of liturgy in the twilight of my ministry. But, for a variety of reasons, have too often deferred to others. Sunday showed me the error of my ways - and I am grateful.   

Sunday, November 26, 2017

balancing the inward and outward journey on christ the king sunday...

NOTE:  This morning I set up for a contemplative Eucharist. It was a quiet and reflective time to rest in God's grace. I have long yearned for such a "retreat" like celebration and give thanks to God that today we did so for Christ the King Sunday. What follows are essentially the notes for today's homily

Some of you knew that I was on retreat in Ottawa right before Thanksgiving: it was a time for personal reflection as well as discernment for me. It was a beautiful way to prepare for Thanksgiving, too as it gave me the chance to ponder the things that really matter to me at this moment in life: things that make Christ’s love flesh within me, things that I cherish about serving God as your pastor in these closing months of my ministry, things that bring me life and light in the larger world and a bit about how they all fit together. I was so very, very grateful for this time. And then returning – in anticipation of Thanksgiving Day – was joy upon joy: embracing Dianne, being devoured by Lucie, cooking our simple feast together, hiking in the woods in the crisp autumn air, resting and napping in the late afternoon. Joy upon joy, yes? My prayer is that you, too had a restorative Thanksgiving – one filled with grace and love, good food and good company – and most of all peace.

While I was away, I learned a few new songs Рprayer chants, actually, in French and English Рwhich I played over and over during the retreat. One, from the Communauté Chemin Neuf Рthe New Life Community of Lyon, France - is a setting for Psalm 138 and goes like this:

Je te benis mon createur, pour la merveille que je suis,
Tous ces tresors au fond de moi que tu as mis sans faire de bruit

I bless you my Creator for the wonder that I am;
All the treasures in the core of me you have placed without making a sound.

I share it with you this morning at the start of our conversation on Christ the King Sunday for two reasons: first, I love the sound of this chant. Like the very ministry of Jesus, it honors the paradox of faith where we praise God tenderly for the blessings and wonder the Lord has already placed deep within us. We start with the mystery of grace – not sin and never shame – but always grace. And second, because grace is at the core of our being, we gently remember that we can do nothing to earn or purchase this blessing. Grace is there from the beginning and will be there beyond this life, too. It is a celebration of original blessing rather than original sin.

Christ the King Sunday has long struck me as the perfect way to close the church year: it takes place at the start of our winter, it speaks to us of what being nourished by the spiritual gift of grace looks like our ordinary lives, it celebrates the mystery of God’s presence within and among us in love, and does all of this paradoxically. Softly and tenderly – beyond the bluster and busyness of our “Black Friday” culture – like the Psalm says: You have placed ALL these treasure in the core of me without a sound. As you may have gathered, I adore this holy day almost as much as Christmas Eve. Because like winter itself, Christ the King Sunday is all about seeing the counter cultural way of Jesus with clarity.

The author and teacher, Parker Palmer, put it like this: “winter clears our landscape, however brutally, giving us the chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to the very ground of our being” if we are paying attention. Spring is about the mud, summer about abundance, autumn asks to be ready to let go of what is not truly essential so that we might be free, while winter cuts to the core. Like the Scripture for this Sunday, Palmer writes that the season of winter tells us that “until we enter boldly those fears we want to avoid, those fears will dominate us. Control us. But when we walk directly into them – protected, of course, from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship and spiritual guidance – then we can learn what our fears have to teach us. We can discover once again that the cycle of life is trustworthy and life-giving even in the most dismaying season of all.” (Parker Palmer, Listen to Your Life, p. 103)

I think I hear Jesus telling us something like this in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the close of Matthew 25. I don’t want to sentimentalize or trivialize these words – they are among my favorite in all of the New Testament – so let me first give you a little Biblical background and then invite you to share out loud with me what speaks to you about this parable. And because my time is growing short with you, I want to ask you to do me a favor today: please don’t sit silently and stare back at me when I ask you these questions, ok? If you need to go out right now and get a cup of coffee to wake you up – or go to the restroom so you are more comfortable – please, do it, ok? It is so discouraging to ask a simple question and receive only… silence.

So here are three things you need to know about this parable in its context: This story comes as the conclusion of a long series of apocalyptic insights Jesus gives to his disciples and friends just before he goes to Jerusalem to face betrayal, abandonment and the Cross. Each of the preceding stories speak of being awake and ready for God’s surprise that will come when we least expect it: like a thief in the night, like an invitation from the king to a wedding banquet, like a summons to light the marriage hall in the middle of the night and all the rest. Do you recall those stories? Remember how I encouraged you to be ready to put on your party dress like Tom Petty? St. Matthew places the sorting of the sheep and the goats at the close of this series.

The first clue for us to consider, therefore, is that God comes to us NOT as we expect the Lord, but in ways that take us by surprise and even up-end our expectations. Are we clear about that? What do we start to celebrate NEXT Sunday? Advent, right? And what is the core of Advent spirituality? Waiting quietly in the darkness to discover the surprising and even unexpected places God becomes flesh in our world, right? Like Bethlehem? As a baby? Or on a Cross dying in disgrace? Ok?

The second clue for Christ the King Sunday is the mixture of both judgment and grace taking place here: this is a parable about the consequences to the choices we make every day. And those choices take us towards grace or face-to-face with judgment. I have come to believe that liberal American Christians often act like there is no such thing as judgment any more. Since we gave up our obsession with petty sins, we seem to believe that God’s grace is always ours for the taking whenever we want a blessing. This renders the Creator more like a 24-hour convenience store dispensing forgiveness without cost than the Source of life itself. Small wonder the German theologian Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace: It is insulting to the Lord and dishonest to us. So I am NOT saying that the Lord sits and capriciously zaps us with hellfire and brimstone over minor peccadilloes, stupid words or even periodic acts of selfishness or gluttony. That would be superstitious and needs to be thrown into the dustbin of history.

But I am saying that when we consistently live without regard to the order of nature, the rhythm of God’s invitation to the kingdom, or the ways of compassion and justice, there are consequences – and this is how we experience judgment. We pollute the air long enough and somebody starts dying of cancer. We sexually abuse women – and young men and children – long enough and when the time is right, some of us are out-ed and degraded publicly as predators and pedophiles. We live like we are the crown of creation and the center of the universe without regard to the cries of the poor and vulnerable and in time our own arrogance and greed become our downfall as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe just discovered. And that’s just what Jesus describes among the nations in the separation of the sheep and the goats: those who have built into their habits the ways of compassion, tenderness and solidarity are welcomed by God in this life and the next; while those who consciously choose to ignore the Lord never feel God’s grace in the moment – and reap what they sow forever. In other words, there are consequences to our commitments in life, in death and in life beyond death.

And the third insight I want to call to your attention is a clarification of what judgment means in the Bible: too often we equate judgment with either TV’s “Law or Order” or with some type of moral punishment. But Biblical judgment is bigger than our culture’s pettiness: judgment in the Scriptures is about making things right. It is about restoring balance to human society, refreshing the land, listening to the neglected, caring for the vulnerable, respecting all life as sacred. Biblical judgment is the social expression of God’s inward grace born of living into Christ’s love.

Are you with me here? It is not coincidental that the Greek New Testament word for judgment is… krisis from which we derive the English word crisis: a dangerous opportunity that creates the chance to make things right. So from each of the morning lessons, Christ the King Sunday asks us to consider the social and personal crises of our generation in light of what is out of balance or unjust: it is a call to consider how our lives contribute to either the joy of the Lord or the anguish of God’s people – and what needs to be changed.

So dear friends… now it is your turn: Jesus told his friends just before he headed to the Cross that their lives had been enfolded into both God’s grace and judgment in surprising ways. Even the worst reality – like his death on the Cross – can be transformed by God into a path that brings new life to birth.

+  So, first, can you think of a time when your world was surprised by either God’s unexpected grace or judgment? Have you ever experienced a sorrow that became joy? Or discovered something holy in the most unexpected place?

+  Second, do you see the consequences of human activity becoming judgment in our society?
Are there events you can name where living outside of God’s rhythm have created problems and pain? What about those places where human consequences are becoming blessings – can you name them, too?

+  And third, what do these crises tell you about setting things right?

In the earliest days of the Christian Church, when Christianity was powerless and on the periphery of Western society, Christ the King became a holy day set to reassure the vulnerable that God’s grace would triumph. The image of the Great Shepherd sitting upon the heavenly throne had political overtones and made sense to those who had been martyred, imprisoned, tortured or abused for their faith. When Christianity became powerful in the West, however, another reality began to shape the soul of Christ the King Sunday. No longer did we look for that time when Jesus would institute a world-wide theocracy, but rather we were asked to discern signs in our everyday lives for places where God’s unexpected mercy, joy, hope, grace and even judgment were breaking into the world beyond our control. We were asked to live in solidarity with the wounded and see God’s face in the most vulnerable.

In the 21st century, Christ the King Sunday asks: where in my little life is the wonder of the Lord being revealed? Where is the baby Jesus being born in my heart? In our congrega-tion? In our community – and world? Where, too, is the Lord being crucified – and what shall I do? The upside-down king who comes to us as a servant shapes our feast – not the military conqueror – but the humble Prince of Peace. As we prepare to receive him in Eucharist, I invite those who have ears to hear: to hear.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

happy thanksgiving for the new world a'borning...

Yesterday I returned from a three day retreat with the members of L'Arche Ottawa. What a grand way to prepare for the American feast of Thanksgiving. I have long cherished this holy day as a time to think and feel deeply about the blessings and curses we share in our complex history.  Not only is this our national harvest festival - a celebration that links us to the intuitive  wisdom of Mother Earth - it is often a family reunion. At the same time, as columnist Robert Jakubowicz notes in today's local paper, Thanksgiving has gradually become a ritual reinforcing a "pleasant fantasy" of inter-racial cooperation and compassion that is fundamentally untrue. (check it out @:http://www. berkshire -day,525303?)  This feast has been dumbed-down into the lowest common denominator of abstract sentimental cultural gratitude. For many among us, it is just another excuse for self-satisfied over-eating. 

Maybe it is an affliction of age, but this year my soul yearns for a more honest - even paradoxical - celebration of Thanksgiving. I know we're not well-practiced with non-dual thought in this country, but I believe there is a new world being born within and among us. Woman are tearing down the foundations of patriarchy's humiliating objectification that has long rendered them powerless, violated and degraded. People of color are both banding together to call out American racism and forging new partnerships with people of good will by electing political servants committed to the common good. Across the barriers of gender and class, not only are conversations of trust taking place again, but hints of a new America are being discussed - one that arises from out the ashes of the current regime's mean-spirited dismantling of LBJ's  "Great Society" - to look a great deal like Dr. King's "Beloved Community." 

In other words, this present darkness is NOT the end of our story. As Valerie Kaur testifies:  this moment in our history is a womb, not a tomb. It is bringing to birth a new way of living together.  I thought of this often on the six hour journey to and from Ottawa last week. Thankfully, the rental car had Sirius Radio so I was able to listen to E Street Radio for most of my trip. Taking in two different Springsteen extravaganzas - a concert from Kansas City, MO in 1984 and another from Buffalo, NY in 2009 - opened me to nearly 7 hours of tears of rage, hope, solidarity, sorrow and gratitude. I felt the presence of my daughters in the music: we have been singing Springsteen songs together since they were were small - going to his concerts, too. Over the years I have watched them find ways to hold together the tensions of America's challenges in their hearts, lives, careers and loves with grace, humor and verve. Like the Boss sings, they have discerned how to live with both/and and rarely either/or. They bring me great hope as I settle into my quiet Thanksgiving Day feast.

This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train dreams will not be thwarted
This train faith will be rewarded
This train hear the steel wheels singin'
This train bells of freedom ringin'

Same, too with the young assistants at L'Arche Ottawa - and the larger L'Arche community - who have crossed the seven seas to live out a season of serving one another in trust. Each day on our retreat I experienced young and old and in-between listening to one another with their hearts; not just with the ears or obvious senses, but beyond expectations in a spirit of trust. Around the various tables, this retreat gave me the chance to break bread with young women and men from Africa and India, Europe, Canada, South America and the USA. They were a living cornucopia of our best selves - and on Thanksgiving Day USA I gladly give thanks to God for them, too.

And when I finally returned home to Pittsfield, I was greeted by my sweet wife - and our goofy dog.  Being embraced by both (albeit in vastly different ways) was yet another reminder of the new world being born in the midst of my fears. We share a fragile but deep love that calls us to sacrifice and trust, listen and accept own our wounds rather than ignore or deny them. For in being real with one another, with God's help, our love ripens. It sustains us and shows us ways to make room to welcome the stranger, the vulnerable, the refugee and even the enemy. It is not perfect - it never will be be - for learning from our pain is part of the bargain of being a part of the new, non-dual world. Like Mother Theresa once said, "God breaks our hearts so that there is more room to love again."

This Thanksgiving Day, we will walk back into the tick-free woods with Lucie for the first time since April. We will cook together, listen to Arlo Guthrie and Carrie Newcomer - probably a bit of the Boss, too - and then feast in the spirit of the birthing that is taking place all around us and within us as well. Happy Thanksgiving, America:  may this moment take us deep.

Friday, November 17, 2017

living into the serenity prayer AND the prayer of st. francis...

This will be complicated to write - but important.  It has to do with my discernment to retire from one form of ministry so that I might have the energy and grace to do another.  A few wise colleagues who have entered this world of clergy retirement told me that I would experience both a season of grief during my waning months at church; and, then another encounter with sorrow after departing. I knew that they were right. I trusted their hard won wisdom. And I had no idea how this would manifest itself.  For while grieving is normative to this moment in ministry, it is also unique unto each minister.

What I have discovered thus far is a profound sadness in relationship to missed opportunities. Not sins or mischief, mind you, but times when we were unable to seize the moment. Some were inevitable, others of my own making, and a few stem from institutional stagnation and/or fear. None of this was born of malice. 
There has been enough shared gaffes, victories, times of courage as well as blunders over 10+ years to document that we have lived fully into our love, faith and broken humanity. "Now we see as through a glass darkly," St. Paul reminds us, "only later shall we see face to face." 

So my mourning does not arise from resentment. Rather, it stems from regret. Like a parent or lover sorting through a box of old photographs, I have found as I look backwards on our time in Pittsfield - as well as in each of the four congregations I have served -  that hindsight affords the vision to see where better choices could have been made personally and corporately - and were not. So while our past can never be remade, owning it without blame or sentimentality seems prudent during these days of closure. Dr. King once said that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward justice requires sacrifice, struggle and suffering; the tireless exertion and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."  

When I applied a fearless moral inventory to my ministry, as is essential to all 12 Step healing, I had to honestly confess that there were times when I was unable to hit the mark and circumstances beyond my control. This is the time-tested path to acceptance, serenity, and the wisdom to know what is mine and what is beyond my power to control. Most of this fall has been given over to this moral inventory - and it has been an emotional roller coaster. A few days ago, however, I realized that this part of the journey had come to an end. Rather than bouncing around with inner turmoil, I felt peace. I have shared a deep love with this congregation - and each of my four charges - in our quest to serve Jesus.  Here in Pittsfield we survived the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 30's. We renewed and revitalized public worship to incorporate 21st concerns  even as we honored ancient spiritual disciplines. We compassionately cared for our community in this small part of the Berkshires. And we acted with courage in challenging the fear and hatred of the current national regime. So, yes there are very real regrets - and there is acceptance - and lots of love.

I did not know how my grieving in community would manifest itself. I just knew that it would come - and then go. And it has. Sometimes congregations don't know how to manage their discomfort when their pastor grieves. It often makes us uncomfortable and uncertain. Wise hearts know from their own experience that this comes and then goes. I know that there will be more mourning when I leave, but now is a time to rejoice in the love that we share. For me, the past year has been a walk through the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;  

and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life 
and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.  Amen.

Now it is time for the Prayer of St. Francis...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

... a hidden wholeness...

Today was a totally wild day: it rained, the sun shined, there was wind and
darkness and a touch of frost, too. Mostly I spent it catching up on commitments that are emerging beyond the realm of church: a poetry slam for young people concerned about challenging racism, sexism and antisemitism; an interfaith concert in solidarity with immigrants and people of color in this harsh and challenging time; late tea with a beloved colleague. During tea, we laughed about our mutual monastic inclinations, albeit from different spiritual traditions, the quest for a deep inner life surrounded by solitude. When I got home, I thought to myself, "Wasn't I just musing about Celtic monastic spirituality earlier this week?" And sure as shooting, my worship notes for this Sunday start with: "I have always been drawn to monastic spirituality – particularly Celtic monastic spirituality – for it honors the seasons as well as the Scriptures."

Of the many insights that I treasure from time spent studying and visiting these places of prayer and hospitality, is the practice of statio. It is a commitment to stopping one thing before starting another. It is the antithesis of contemporary multi-tasking – and is grounded in the Celtic fascination with thresholds. For Celtic monks a threshold was a sacred place: it could be a breath between tasks that help us center ourselves in the present moment rather than remain distracted; it might be a season in time – like the month of November – when the day s grow shorter and the darkness increases. Sometimes it looks like the beach between the mountains and the sea; or the clearing between farmland and the forest. Whatever the nature of the threshold, “whether physical places or experiences in time,” Celtic spirituality cherished the threshold as a place of possibility.” (Abbey of the Arts)

In fact, this monastic tradition taught young novices to practice statio, a commitment to stopping one thing before beginning another. By our nature, we are all impatient – and this is as true in the monastery as it is in the business world. So what would it be like if we learned to transform waiting from either a nuisance or a frustrating waste of our time, to an invitation to breathe into the now and honor its gifts? The Celtic priors believed that “each moment that we breathe was a threshold – a movement from inhaling to fullness and exhaling to emptiness – an organic invitation from God to be prayerful and engaged rather than exhausted, frustrated and selfish. "Imagine," writes Christine Valters Paintner of the Abbey of the Arts that, "instead of rushing from one appointment to the next, that between each one you paused, breathed just five long slow breaths: how might this transform your movement from one activity to another? Or even when you move from one room to another, allow a brief pause on the threshold between spaces, to recall that God lives inside our breath and invites us to make everyone our connection to the resurrection?"

All of November, for example, strikes me as a threshold month helping us prepare both for Christ the King Sunday (next week) and the longer cycle of quiet prayer we call Advent. November begins with Halloween and All Saints and Souls Day – a time to look backwards and take stock of those who have crossed over in death to life everlasting – and what those deaths might mean to us as we continue to live? These are threshold days. The same is at work in our marking of Veteran’s Day: the ceremony of the empty table calls us to pause – to breathe in and reflect – to remember. But never in nostalgia or sentimentality – always in reverence – always seeking to learn from what has already taken place. T.S. Eliot masterfully expressed the challenge of November thresholds in poetry:
The endless cycle of idea and action, 
endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; 
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death, 
but nearness to death is 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?
O the cycles of heaven in twenty centuries brings us farther from God 
and nearer to the Dust.

All of November – all of autumn – quietly invites us into the sacredness of the threshold – if, of course, we choose to notice – which is never a given. That’s why our tradition throws some pretty weird stories at us this month: they are intended to wake us up from habit and start to move us into another rhythm of living.

St. Paul speaks of God’s grace breaking into our experience like a thief in the night – or a woman beset upon by labor pains – or even a nation that boasts of peace and security in confidence only to be upended by a sneak attack. Stay alert. Be awake. Honor your thresholds. The same sense of shocking challenge is at the core of Zephaniah, a prophet of ancient Israel in the 5th century BCE, who called out the lethargy and cheap grace of his people saying: Be silent before the Lord God for the day of the Lord is at hand… on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all who dress themselves in foreign attire (not honor them.) I will punish all who leap over the threshold to fill their master’s house with violence and fraud… rather than do justice and compassion.

Honoring our ordinary thresholds takes practice. Silence, completing one task before starting another, and watching patiently in the darkness rather than rushing off to force an action. This is part of what November asks of us in the Northern Hemisphere if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.  Another monastic, Thomas Merton, put it like this: There is in all visible things... a hidden wholeness. Parker Palmer builds on this observation noting that "in the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of 'hidden wholeness."  And these opposites do not negate one another: "they cohere in a mysterious unity at the heart of reality."

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

loving the dark November days...

Robert Frost wrote of these days:

These dark days of autumn rain, are beautiful as days can be;
the desolate, deserted trees, the faded earth, the heavy sky;
I learned to know the love of dark November days.

Intuitively, I have long loved the dark days of November. I fear them at times,

to be sure, but treasure them, too.  For 35 years, my Novembers were saturated in song in anticipation of our Thanksgiving Eve's annual Festival of North American Music. Three years ago a blizzard brought this tradition to a close. At first I was heart-broken and empty: it is hard to let go of something so important. Over time, however, it became clear that not only was the time right to let these gatherings slip into silence, but that I needed space to grieve their loss in order to become open to what the new music might be revealed by the Spirit.  To paraphrase St. Paul, "now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." The blizzard forced my hand - and it was holy - albeit  empty and sad, too much like the dark days of November.  Rilke wrote:

The darkness embraces everything,
It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.
I believe in the night.

At long last I have entered yet another encounter with letting go within the darkness in order that I might be embraced by a season of new blessings. These farewells have a finality to them:  t
his will be my final harvest dinner with our faith community; my last Thanksgiving and Advent as an ordained clergy person; my final Christmas Eve Eucharist.  At the same time, wildly new ways of sharing music, compassion and prayer are taking shape that cause a "great presence of stirring" within me.  Mary Oliver articulates it well: 

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
toward it.

One of my go to authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote a spiritual memoir called Learning to Walk in the Dark. In it she explains how she pushed through her fears of the dark to experience their blessings."The only real difference between anxiety and excitement was my willingness to let go of fear."

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.... Life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.

Yesterday I felt new life stirring within me in the new music I was learning to play with a beloved friend. Today I am reaching out to poets and musicians new to me who are keen on contributing to a "songs of solidarity" project set for the New Year. I am finalizing details for my upcoming retreat with L'Arche Ottawa, too. And tomorrow I will share tea and oranges with a colleague from another faith tradition in hopes of discerning new ways to collaborate.  

Oddly enough, none of these new ventures are grounded in church - at least church as I knew and lived in it - yet each resonates with the sounds of the Eucharist that I have known and cherished for decades. Brown observed that as she learned to walk in the darkness, it happened beyond her congregation:  "I wished I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark."  She searched for guides beyond her comfort zone who loved the darkness concluding that "the difference between pastoral counselors and spiritual directors... is that we go to counselors when we want help getting out of caves and we go to directors when we are ready to be led farther in."

I can't help but think of Christ's words to his friend Peter at the close of St. John's gospel: I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.  For me, I am being led deeper into a darkness I do not fully understand, but trust beyond a doubt.  St. Leonard hit it out of the park with this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

this is soul food for me...

It has been waaaay too long since I have been able to be with a beloved and gifted musician, take the time to dig into the soul of a song in collaboration, and take the time to discover what the spirit might be saying to us through playing these songs in different way. There is a certain rush in sitting-in and improvising on the spot. But truth be told, my soul is fed by hunkering down with some music and practicing it every which way to Sunday. I want to feel the music from the inside out and know what doors it might open - and this takes time. So it has been pure heaven on earth for me over the past six weeks to sit down with one of my all time favorite friends - also a consummate musician who is a great performer and composer, too - and burrow deep into a few songs for two plus hours. Like I said at the close of today's practice: THIS is truly soul food me, brother. Thank you.

Here's a tune we're working on and will not only share it in worship on Sunday, January 14, 2018 but later at a salon at our home.  There is MUCH more to say about the groove, the joy and the importance of getting this music out there. But like playing this tune taught me today: there are times when the silence and the space communicates more than I could ever articulate. So, thanks, brother man, onwards!

Monday, November 13, 2017

taking the time for quiet...

The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation. If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence, and if we do not know how to take time to live from the presence and gentleness of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered.
                                                                 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth

One of the reasons I knew it was time for me to move beyond my current
ministry in the local church was weariness. Yes, there have often been feelings of bitterness mixed with exhaustion. Part of that goes with the job. A wise mentor regularly referenced the healing of the 10 lepers in the gospel of Luke to me noting that only one returned to give thanks to Jesus. "If you're looking for gratitude, man" he told me time and again, "get out now." To be sure, many of the good people I have shared ministry with have been kind and generous and filled with grace.  There are always those who build themselves up by being trying to knock me down with cruelty, but they are dwarfed by the good souls I have known and loved.

And that cuts to Vanier's point: without a strong, disciplined and vibrant inner life that wraps our outward actions in quiet contemplation, it is so easy to become bitter. We blame others for being human. For exposing our wounds. For failing to help us take care of ourselves. Been there, done that - and have spent the better part of four decades learning this same lesson over and over again. I suspect, but do not know, that seminaries are better at equipping young ordinands with wise spiritual directors who can advance spiritual formation than in my day. In the 70s, the once mainstream denominations of the Reformed tradition were just beginning to accept that generations had lost touch with the practices of piety that once nourished the Body of Christ. You can read early Kathleen Norris or Richard Foster as evidence of the Protestant renewal of spirituality that was reborn in the 70s.

My experience with bitterness in ministry has a largely been a grief of my own making:  often, it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, too.  The gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the second parable in St. Matthew 25, points to the dangers of such self-fulfilling prophecies. This is not a story about inherent "talents" like musical ability or business acumen. David Lohse rightly notes that this is Jesus telling us to change our understanding of God from that of a tyrant to that of a lover.  If we believe the Lord our God is out to get us, that's what we will get:  fear, loneliness, anxiety and bitterness. 

Learning this truth over and over helped me distinguish between my exhaustion and former bitterness. This was part of how I knew it was time to let the local church go. Today I return thanks to the spiritual directors in my life who have been patient, loving and clear-headed when I was bewildered, afraid and angry. Thank you Fr. Jim and dear Adolfo. Without you, and your big hearts and clear minds, I would be a bitter pill indeed!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

knowledge of speech, but not of silence...

Today I was bone tired: weary inside and out. Maybe that made me more aware of the day's transitions. We began worship with the tender "empty table" ceremony to mark Veteran's Day. It reclaims a bit of the old Armistice Day wisdom that peace and conflict are always held in a sacrificial tension. My thoughts for the day involved reclaiming sacramental living in an overly busy materialistic culture.  Looking for God in our ordinary lives and trusting that something of the holy is a part of all creation is one way to step away from the madness. I concluded by saying something like:  one of the great paradoxes of my ministry has been that I have learned more about peace-making from vets than nearly anyone else. Those who have faced death - and been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice - cherish peace in ways that humble me into silence. I urged our small flock to heed their witness. 

After choir practice, one of my favorite vets said to me:  There is an old story about a child asking a seasoned warrior why she tends her garden. "It is better to be a warrior in a garden," replied the sage, "than a gardener in a war." I thought of the Celtic aphorism that says much the same thing albeit from the opposite starting point:  "A warrior must learn to dance before being trained with the sword."  Today I gave thanks to God for the dancing warriors - women and men - who have blessed me with their service, wisdom and love over the course of nearly four decades.  I lit a candle for Al and Norman, Roger and Roger, Mike and Fran and Sean, Bill and Bill, Mark and David, Stanley and Don, Rick and Erik, Dave and Weez, Ray and Don, Steve and Bob, Ed and Nick, Fred and Bill.

Pausing to recall and remember those who care for us takes me deeper into the web of shared love.  Christine Paintner writes about the monastic practice of statio: a commitment to stop one thing before starting another. 

Statio calls us to a sense of reverence for slowness and mindfulness. We can open up a space within for God to work. We can become fully conscious of what we are about to do rather than mindlessly starting and completing another task. We call upon the breath as an ancient soul friend to help us to witness our lives unfolding, rather than being carried along until we aren’t sure where our lives are going. We can return again and again to our bodies and their endless wisdom and listen at every threshold.  (Abbey of the Arts)

The wisdom of pausing hit me later in the day when I had to make an appearance at a community event for ministry. I had taken a nap and woke up played out. So I wasn't thrilled to have to go out in public again. When I arrived the lay of the land was clear: all would be "fine." Nothing aesthetically interesting happened but neither did anything untoward take place. But in my neo-monastic, nearly retired soul that had already been saturated in a morning of silent wisdom amidst the cost of sacrifice, I felt oppressed by the noise. Too many words. Too much sound and fury signifying nothing (at least to me.) I kept returning to the words of T.S. Eliot:

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

So I left and took solace in the grocery store - and now my study. November has always felt like a somber and silent time of transitions for me - a threshold - statio in nature itself. I hope I don't ignore the call of my heart to stay at home in the quiet again any time soon. Now is the time...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

... you're like a magnet...

Yesterday, I was sitting in the public library reading an essay, when a 30 something year old woman 
approached me and said, "Can you help me? I can't die." Those words were unsettling enough, but I was also in Sabbath-time mode: that is, my head was disconnected from engaging with the world around me and my attention was directed inward. It took me a few seconds to shake myself out of my Sabbath stupor. She, however, was undeterred and kept up her banter: "If I hadn't been tricked into signing all those papers I wouldn't have money coming into my mailbox. So now, unlike when I was in Florida - and homeless - I have a place to say and an income, but I no longer have the ability to die..."

When I eventually gathered myself - and tried to connect her words into some coherent narrative - all I could muster was, "Would you like to sit down?" I pulled up another chair and motioned her to join me at the table. She sat - and then the rambling continued.  Her eyes darted around the library like a hunted animal. Her voice grew more frantic. "Why do you sense you are ready to die?" I asked.  She paused briefly and then started in again about being tricked, paper work from Florida and a sense that she was doomed to live for ever. I tried another approach: "Are you telling me you are ready to die?" Quickly she replied, "No. I am not ready. I just know that my death has been taken away from me." And before I could go farther, she jumped up, told me that "I looked like someone she knew in Florida who had once helped her... but now I just don't know. I don't know..." and walked away.

The irony of this encounter was not lost on me as I had been reading a short essay entitled, "Listening vs. Hearing." And I confess that it took me a few minutes to refocus - and I wasn't very helpful. So while I was offering a quiet prayer to the Lord for her safety, all of a sudden she was back. "I just don't know, ok? I don't know why I can't die..." and all the rest.  Di took my library books up to the check out desk so that I could continue. "Well, here's the thing," I tried, "all the people I have ever known who have lived and then died were ready to go. It could be that now just isn't your time."

I knew she was rattled. Probably bi-polar and off her meds, too. I was deeply aware that I had no tools to help her except kindness. (And, of course, if it was clear she was suicidal, making a call to the hospital and police to save her from herself.) But she wasn't going down that road. She sat again and thought, "Well I feel like I'm ready to die." We let that sink in. "But when you go to sleep you always wake up, right?" I offered. Exactly. "Well, my experience with lots of people is that we only die when our time comes." To which she nodded her head and walked away saying, "I just don't know..." I stopped her and added, "It is ok not to know. But here's something else that seems true to me: its best not to make any important decisions when we're confused and uncertain, ok?" To which she looked me deep in the eye, nodded a tacit agreement, but then walked off again mumbling, "I just don't know..."

Back in the car, Di said to me, "You can run but you just can't hide, man. This happens to you all the time. You're like a magnet for people who need a kind word. It happens in bars and train stations, in the grocery store, on the street and now in the library." I don't know about the magnet part, but there are tons of lonely, hurting people out there and I've been blessed to be able to speak with a few of them from time to time. All I have is time and a little bit of concern. I pray it is enough.

Friday, November 10, 2017

listening and entering the dark mysteries...

Today is Sabbath rest time: sleeping late, a trip to the library, staying quiet and feasting after the sun goes down.  Winter is arriving in these parts as a crisp frost, blustery winds, bright sun but no more than 35F greets us all. It is a good day to hunker down and let the past week simmer within for a spell. I read this poem by Denise Levertov, "I Learned That Her Name Was Proverb," this morning.  It continues to call to something in me that I too can't quite name.

And the secret names
of all we meet who led us deeper
into our labyrinth
of valleys and mountains, twisting valleys
and steeper mountains-
their hidden names are always,
like Proverb, promises:
Rune, Omen, Fable, Parable,
those we meet for only
one crucial moment, gaze to gaze,
or for years Know and don’t recognize

but of whom later a word
sings back to us
as if from high among leaves,
still near beyond sight

drawing us from tree to tree
towards the time and the unknown place
where we shall know
what it is to arrive.

I think of St. Paul's wisdom, "Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face." Or that of the poet Isaiah, "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near... for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways sayeth the Lord." Earlier this week I wrote: " feels as if creation is shifting into the darkness. Blessings as we enter into our dark mysteries even as we await the return of the light." Winter is certainly such a season. To which an old friend and colleague replied: "Dark mysteries are deep blessings. As the Tao Te Ching teaches us, "darkness within darkness, the gate to all mystery." 

The mystical insights of my tradition affirms both our waiting and arriving.  In the poetry of ancient Israel: 

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

I have completed the work of autumn:  the leaves have been gathered, the storm windows drawn and soon the house will be cleaned. Likewise I have completed 35+ years of ministry:  the faithful have been baptized and buried, the bread has been broken and the wine poured, and soon my study will be cleared of robes and books, sacramental tools and decades of written reflections. I have completed the work of autumn for winter is soon to arrive. In poem and prayer, in song and service, it is time now for me to be
still and listen to the dark mysteries.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

ode to her highness...

Before raking more leaves, one of the ordinary physical prayers the Holy offers to those who live in this region each fall, I took the time to catch up on emails and engage the next lesson in the on-line November retreat. The practice today was to write a poem honoring one of our saints.  They might come from the land of the two-legged, the forest, the sea or, in my case, from the animal realm. As expected, I selected Lucie, who has become companion, mentor, challenge and spiritual director par excellence for me over the past three years.

You drive me crazy - and fill me with joy.
You expose my wounds - and help me practice acceptance
        (of you AND myself)
You are klutzy and brash - all subtitles of life abandoned
As without reservation, you revel in everything that carries life.
You have become a spiritual director to me:
You refuse to let me off the hook when you flip out and become
You make ME slow down and pay attention - first to you -
        then to myself - 
        and finally to the world we're walking through together.
You slather me with affection every morning
        as if this were the dawn of creation.
You snuggle your massive bulk onto my lap every evening
      and invite me to cherish your goofy essence.
You leave your hair everywhere - and invite me to clean the house yet          again - and again - and again.
And you park yourself on my pillow when I am away
      so that I will know of your presence forever.

The arctic cold will make an appearance here later this weekend. There may be a bit of snow, too. A glorious frost glistened on the grass in the back yard this morning and I could feel the earth shift. So now I'm off to revel in the leaves before life changes yet again.  Thank you, Ms. Lucie.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

wednesday recollections: will it go round in a circle?

Today is all about recollection:  resting, renewal and reflection. In my
part-time ministry, the first three days of the week are full. There is worship and meetings on Sunday; writing, prayer and administration on Monday; office hours and pastoral visitation on Tuesday. On Wednesday, blessed hump day for most, I start an extended time of quiet retreat. Throughout November, for example, I am participating in the Abbey of the Arts on-line journey into the wisdom of our ancestors and saints.  A recent lesson began with this poem: "An Improvisation for Angular Momentum" by A. R. Ammons

Walking is like
imagination, a
single step
dissolves the circle
into motion; the eye here
and there rests
on a leaf,
gap, or ledge,
everything flowing
except where
sight touches seen:
stop, though, and
reality snaps back
in, locked hard,
forms sharply
themselves, bushbank,
dentree, phoneline,
definite, fixed,
the self, too, then
caught real, clouds
and wind melting
into their directions,
breaking around and
over, down and out,
motions profound,
alive, musical!

Perhaps the death mother like the birth mother
does not desert us but comes to tend
and produce us, to make room for us
and bear us tenderly, considerately,
through the gates, to see us through,
to ease our pains, quell our cries,
to hover over and nestle us, to deliver
us into the greatest, most enduring
peace, all the way past the bother of
beyond the finework of frailty,
the mishmash house of the coming & going,
creation’s fringes,
the eddies and curlicues

This evokes nature's call to a balanced living - a deep spirituality as I wrote about yesterday - that invites me to accept both the light and the dark, the anxiety and the hope, the sorrows and the joys of real life. One of the layers of acceptance involves the wounds we both inherit and create. Earlier today, as part of an extended consideration of All Souls Day, I wrote: 

The upside-down wisdom of Jesus resonates with me in this reflection - especially the words: Whether or not the idea of “fate and destiny” resonates with you, I find it compelling to imagine that what I have had to deal with in my own brand of family wounding and angst is exactly what will break open my greatest gifts. This might also be the special insight of 12 Step spirituality that posits that our path to healing and wholeness begins with accepting and even honoring our wounds.

As I look backwards over my years in ministry (I will retire fully in 90 days) and my life as an adult I notice that I have been dealing with the wisdom of my wounds as described by the late Fr. Ed Hays. 25 years ago I read his modern retelling of St. George and the Dragon. In it, the dragon says to George: there is a wisdom to our wounds and we can become wiser and more loving if we learn this wisdom, but it is not obvious. The wisdom of our wounds is mostly an upside down wisdom that teaches us to stay put when we want to run away, to be silent when we want to argue, to engage with others when we want to hide, to trust that our pain is the path to our healing rather than deny or self-medicate it away. Like many young adults, I thought I had understood and applied all of this only to discover that I kept finding new layers to explore. What's more, the deeper I went into this upside-down spirituality, the more there was to uncover. Currently the tender insights of Jean Vanier and the L'Arche community - and the words St. Paul shares about the foolishness of the Cross and living as Christ's fools in the world - speak to me in hopeful and healing ways.

From my ancestors and their wounds - especially with alcohol - I have learned how to read a room instantly and discern whether it is safe or not. I have learned - and am still learning - not to judge those who are hurting and searching for relief. And I am learning to "accept" that there are wounds I can never heal or change. I can barely change my own life - and never another's. This acceptance is liberating. It is an invitation to simply be present. I was able to be present with my father as he died. It was tough. He hated the fact that he couldn't control his movement into death. He had always denied his wounds. For five anguished days he fumed and sulked at the inevitability of his quickly approaching death. He fought like hell all through the night before he died. And then, in the morning, a deep rest passed through him and he let go into the love.

Watching him fight death - and recalling it in these reflections - calls to mind my own stubbornness with accepting my wounds. I am very much like him in ways I have never imagined. The one small difference is that I was led into the the wisdom of my wounds. As an only child, a boy of the great depression and WWII, he was shaped by the demands of external toughness. He was a tender hearted guy who mostly kept that blessing deeply buried. He broke through some of it - and his drinking clearly took him into his emotions, too - but he mostly fought his feelings even through his death.

Imagine my surprise a few months after his passing when Dianne and I made an unplanned stop in Pittsburgh, PA. We had planned to attend a jazz liturgy workshop in Ohio as part of my sabbatical, but it was canceled. Detouring instead to Pittsburgh we hoped to learn more about the African-American jazz composer Mary Lou Williams . One day we decided to visit The Conflict Cafe, an outdoor eatery dedicated to sharing the food and culture of people currently in conflict with the US government. It was a season for Palestine so off we went.

It was located on the edge of the University of Pittsburgh, my dad's alma mater. As we wandered the campus, old pictures started to pop up into my fuzzy memory. I texted my daughter and asked if she could send me one. When she did, we discovered that we were standing on the spot where 63 years earlier my father held me as an infant on his graduation day. It had never occurred to me to go to Pittsburgh before - it was totally spontaneous - as was our trip to the Conflict Cafe. But what a blessing, too. 

Now it is time to rake more leaves - and think about the connection between these two photos taken 63 years apart.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

as the killing continues...

On Sunday during worship, yet another broken and bewildered white man went on a killing rampage. Like so many other wounded men in these semi-United States of America, he went berserk: how many more isolated, fragile white men with access to weapons and turn to mass murder to assert a sense of dominance in the world will it take before we wake up? It is no secret that male impotence – social or sexual – regularly explodes as violence against the vulnerable. Every day this rage is inflicted upon women, children and animals. Other times, male fear and anger turns inward and finds release through a bottle or needle. Why is it that some white men give shape and form to their powerlessness through the senseless slaughter of innocents in public?

There are multiple factors to consider: ineffective gun control of automatic weapons, the national myth of cathartic violence, inadequate mental health resources, the loss of healing rites of passage for men, economic instability, the legacy of domestic violence, virulent sexism and racism as well as the collapse of a shared commitment to the common good. This catalogue is not exhaustive, merely illustrative. So let me call attention to one other piece of this puzzle: the absence of a redemptive spirituality. Jung noted that when people forsake or abandon healing practices of heart and soul, pathological ones pop up to fill the void. Learning to live as a part of the sacred rhythm of life – the dance of light and dark, hope and anxiety, joy and sorrow, life and death – has been replaced with the idolatrous logic of the market place. In Let your Life Speak, Parker Palmer wrote: “The master metaphor of our era comes from manufactur-ing not agriculture or the seasons. As a result, we believe that we make our lives rather than grow them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living and even make love.”

What we are seeing and experiencing in our epidemic of murderous white male violence is what happens when the emptiness of the market place takes up permanent residence in our soul. It fails to deliver. It is a false god. A sacramental reading of God’s first word in nature teaches that the created order ebbs and flows with balance. There are always times of abundance as well as scarcity, feasting and fasting, day and night, summer and winter, flood and drought. But as St. Paul wrote in Romans 1:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts

God’s wrath in this context suggests the absence of God’s loving rhythm in our lives. It is as if a loving parent steps back from engaging with a beloved child for a season and says: “Do you really want to do these things? I’ve tried everything else to help you make better choices, but you seem hell-bent on doing it your way. So let me get out of you way; maybe if you experience the anguish of your selfishness, pride and fear – maybe if you “hit bottom” – you’ll want to return to my loving care?” Like the father in the Christian parable of the Prodigal Son, God’s grace stands waiting even when we become bestial. God is not the cause – nor is the Holy One rendering punishment – rather the Holy is evoking space for us to experience the consequences of our actions.

In America’s escalating encounter with mass murder, I see God’s wrath – God’s absence – as we hit bottom. Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs, Texas is what hitting bottom looks like: we are turning our inner anguish into outward rage and making others pay for our own bleak despair. I believe the American imagination has become so addicted to the bottom line brutality of the market place that we routinely confuse control with value. Our hearts have atrophied through selfish indulgence. Our collective psyche has been so trained to trust that meaning is created only by self-directed activity, that when we bump into the inevitable emptiness of the rhythm of creation we no longer know what to do except lash out in our pathological scramble for control. Like Malcolm X quipped after the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “The chickens are coming home to roost.” It was cold and insensitive – and true. Spiritual direction teaches us not to put whipped cream on bull shit. I will let Parker Palmer have the last word:

From an early age we absorb our culture’s arrogant conviction that we can manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere ‘raw material’ that lacks all value until we impose our designs upon it. What would it be like, however, to accept the notion that our lives are dependent upon an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never fully control? That would be a truly counter-cultural challenge… that takes on our egos and institutions that desperately want to believe that we are always in charge.

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:...