Monday, April 30, 2018

dancing with the mummers on the eve of beltane...

It should come as no surprise that I love the bold earthiness of the Celtic Wheel of Life. From its creation-centered roots to its appropriation by Christian people of faith, the Wheel of Life celebrates an incarnational spirituality that keeps me grounded. It honors the ebb and flow of life, death, birth, maturation, light, dark and all of life's shades of gray. There is feasting and fasting, dancing and mourning, times to be bold as well as times for silence. As the prioress at The Abbey of the Arts, Christine Valters Painters, writes:

The Celtic Wheel of the Year is an ancient way of understanding the unfolding seasons and slow turning of the earth... a closer intimacy with the rhythms of creation offers us a wisdom about the patterns of rise and fall, fullness and emptiness... Further, the Celtic framework is an indigenous tradition for (some) of us and our ancestors. So even if we don't live in Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales, we may still feels a kinship and connection to this understand of the year's rhythms.

This is certainly true for me: even as I dig deeper into the wisdom of Christian liturgy - honoring its Circle of Life with Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, feast days, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost - I also visit the Celtic Wheel to stay firmly planted in Mother Earth. In my neck of the woods, we are just about to enter the feast of fertility, flowers and fire the Celts called Beltane. In the church this falls close to the festival of Holy Fire we know as Pentecost. It is a "cross quarter day, halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice... (it is) experienced at the height of spring. In Ireland it is considered to be the beginning of summer and the beginning of the light half of the year. We can feel the significant shift in light at this latitude and the days are becoming significantly longer. Temperatures are warmer. Flowering has come to its fullness. Birds are singing in full chorus." (Abbey of the Arts, The World Begins to Flower.)

This morning's local paper carried a front page story on sheep shearing - one of the ancient rituals of this season - and I noticed that the daffodils are just about to bloom in our yard, too. Fecundity fills the air in these hills so I smiled as the 
"old" religion of my people once again popped into view just at the edge of our consciousness. Once upon a time bonfires were lit on this night: cattle were driven between the flames as prayers were intoned to keep the herd safe from disease. In the morning, maypoles were erected adorned with flower wreaths. The birch phallus evoked the Green Man, the bouquets the Goddess Flora, and the intertwining ribbon dance pointed to the passionate embrace of male and female that brings to birth God's promise of new life. It is not hard to grasp why Pentecost became our festival of being filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit in order to give birth to Christ in a new way. Remember: while talking about both archetypes and mythology J.R.R. Tolkien said to C.S. Lewis, "The Jesus was the true myth that really happened." Lewis put it like this in his journal:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.
It is cold, gray and damp in the Berkshire hills this day. But I have seen clues of crocuses peeking through the muck. And daffodils ready to burst into beauty as well. Change is in the air - and I am ready - do a wee dance with Loreena who always keeps it real.

icon: Lord of the Dance by Robert Lentz

Sunday, April 29, 2018

revolutionary love...

The rain keeps coming down in our parts - and soon there will be more snow! At least that is the prediction for the Berkshires and it is probably right. So as I sit in the dry warmth of my desert-colored study, sipping hot tea while listening for the lure of God's Spirit in the appointed scriptures for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, I am struck by St. John's insistence upon the primacy of loving relationships as the heart of faith. In both the Epistle and Gospel (https://lectionary.library. Christ's message is clear: let us love one another as God has loved us from before the beginning. 

"Abide in me as I abide in you." That is, rest in my grace as I have tenderly filled your hearts with my revolutionary love. It has been said that the message of Jesus in St. John's gospel is a celebration of compassionate relationships: from start to finish John tells us about communion with God and solidarity with one another. St. John is known as the "Beloved Disciple," not because he is elevated spiritually over the others, but because "this name reveals to us this disciple's deepest identity: one who rests in Christ's love." (Vanier, The Gospel of John, p. ix) Throughout this gospel we see Jesus living in complete communion with God, creating ways for friends as well as enemies to come into a grace-filled relationship with himself, and then to learn how to live with one another in a loving community. There is depth and discipline, fruit-bearing alongside barrenness, joy in the midst of sorrow, light within the darkness, action and reflection, and the birthing of a new way of living together guided by the Way of the Cross. In a reading from Jean Vanier, the charism of L'Arche is described as a contemporary embodiment of Christ's invitation:

God wanted L'Arche to be a new form of family: a family of the poor that rises above prejudice and fear of difference, a family witnessing that the only way to build peace and unity is to recognize our own poverty and our need for others.

This morning Di and I went to church for the first time in three months. Well, we participated in church by watching Middle Collegiate Church's on-line streaming of their worship. It was right on the money. I found tears of joy and sorrow spontaneously welling up and flowing as I owned how much I miss being in community for worship. Not leadership, mind you, but the experience of being a part of a fellowship of love. Middle Collegiate Church is where the Revolutionary Love conference was held. It is where Valerie Kaur and Parker Palmer met to discuss moving from disillusionment and death to birth a community of tender and strong people of love. And, I must confess, it was grand to be back in the fold today singing the hymns, praying the prayers, listening carefully to preacher Jackie Lewis unpack St. John's words "God is love and love is God." There was even a piano rendition of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It?" so I really felt like I was going home! (check it out here: http://www.

Being "in" church again also solidified for me how deeply I have been missing my friends at L'Arche Ottawa. I'll be heading north again next week (for a time in the Townships with Di for our anniversary) and the following week in Ottawa (for a community retreat and Mass.) As we've joked about before: one worship home has ended and a new one has begin - it is just six hours away -at least for the time being!

Before worship I was reading Vanier who suggests that our model for living into this new way of revolutionary love and tenderness is implied in the witness of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. John's gospel. Not only is she the standard for our personal commitment to contemplation, but she embodies the wisdom and practice of Christ's holy relationships. Within the Christian tradition some have posited that the "beloved disciple" experienced Christ's mystical heart through his encounters with Mary. At the foot of the Cross, Jesus said to Mary, "Woman behold thy son." (John 19: 27) Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms in Americus, GA and progenitor of Habitat for Humanity, taught that when Mary saw Jesus upon the Cross, all the pondering within her heart became clear. "This is what my love looks like in the real world; for I was born to embody how we become whole through our vulnerability."

Vanier writes that Mary then teaches this truth to John: "The last words of Jesus on the Cross are: "Woman, here is your son.... and (to John) here is your mother."

It is said that from that moment, John took Mary as his own, as his treasure... and John lived with Mary. As the mother of Jesus, Mary naturally had an intimate relationship with him. Jesus lived nine months in her womb, had suckled at her breast, and was nourished by her milk. Mary thus had a knowledge and experience of Jesus that nobody else did. For about thirty years, she and Jesus lived together with Joseph... (That is why tradition teaches that) the story told by John about who Jesus is and who God is will be uniquely influenced by John's relationship with Mary. Jesus said, "Here is your mother." He did not say, "Welcome my mother." He said, "Here is your mother." In this we can conclude that John carefully chose events to tell us about Jesus in the light of the gentle understanding John received concerning Jesus through his own special relations with Mary. (ibid, xvi)

Small wonder that revolutionary love and tender relationship born of fragility
and vulnerability become the heart of St. John's gospel, yes? Today I was shown yet again how important it is for me to worship in community. It is where I am fed, taught, trained, corrected and embraced. It is where the Word of scripture comes alive in the flesh of sisters and brothers. My heart has been filled. My soul has been nourished. Like Mary once sang, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior." My calling in these later days is to practice revolutionary love from the inside out. Maybe that resonates with you, too? (check it out:

Saturday, April 28, 2018

sharing about inter-faith organizing for justice, compassion and contemplation...

Today began early: I joined a colleague leading a workshop on: "Organizing from the Heart: Justice, Compassion and Contemplation in a Confusing Time." It was a joy to do - and the 13 people in our workshop were wise and open-hearted. We listened to shared stories at the start of this event asking: when have you experienced the intersection of your faith and the work of justice and peace? In anticipation of that question, I wrote out a summary of my own history in this realm.

I am a happily married, straight, old middle class, white guy with too much education – the proud father of two powerful and creative daughters – and two life-changing grandchildren. Professionally I just retired after 40 years of ordination as a clergy person – serving 4 different congregations – in Saginaw, MI; Cleveland, OH; Tucson, AZ and Pittsfield, MA. Educationally I took my BA in Political Science at San Francisco State University, my Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and my Doctor of Ministry from San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA. I have organized with Cesar Chavez and his farm workers union in their boycott movement as well as in contract administration in CA. I also organized in rural Mississippi with the Mississippi Woodcutters Union in the 80s. I’ve been trained in faith based community organizing by both the IAF – Industrial Areas Foundation of Saul Alinsky fame – and the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago, IL. Each of my congregations have participated in faith based organizing networks. And, I was twice elected to the Cleveland Board of Education as part of an inter-racial reform team in the 90s working closely with then Mayor, Michael R. White. These days, however, I mostly play upright and electric bass in a small local band – serve on the 4 Freedoms Executive Committee – and volunteer in the L’Arche community of Ottawa, CA.

Next, we noted that three broad theological assumptions shape our commitment to interfaith community organizing.

+ Justice means listening before acting as well as discerning what belongs to another and returning it. We are called and inspired to hear one another's stories in our search for right relations between people and all of God's creation. Interfaith justice work, therefore, is about the restoration of land, dignity, hope, power, etc. 

+ Compassion is all about solidarity: sharing one another's suffering as well as our celebrations is at the core of life. It is living as those who choose to be nourished in community from a common loaf rather than isolated and alienated individuals.

+ And contemplation is consciously taking a long, loving look at reality and holding competing truths together. Non-dual consciousness trusts that we have more in common than we realize. But it takes work to be silent and still enough to let these deeper truths fill our hearts.

Finally we offered the nitty-gritty essentials of building a local inter-faith network based upon the experience of Saul Alinsky, Fred Ross and Marshall Ganz. The bullet points include:

+  Identifying local leaders and listening to their stories and concerns about what matters most in their lives. Leaders are not just titular officials, but also those whom others turn to for insight and assistance formally and informally. As Cesar Chavez used to say: a leader is someone who gets things done. This is called a power analysis and a one-on-one campaign.

+ After a significant number of 1 on 1 conversations take place, it is time for a house meeting campaign: bringing friends and neighbors together in a safe place.  Three things must take place at a house meeting:  a) the concerns of the one-on-one conversations are shared in a summary way; b) the group talks together to discover resonance; and c) the host or organizer asks for a decision of support. This might include time, money or hosting another house meeting, but the "ask" is always non-negotiable. A decision to be engaged is how ordinary people challenge organized money on behalf of restoration and solidarity.

+ Usually house meeting campaigns are for a discrete period - 30 days is common - after which an issue or goal is "cut" and an action planned. Cutting an issue includes: a) summarizing the essence of the house meetings; b) doing research on who are the key players shaping this issue; and c) crafting an action that is clear and win-able. 

+ A date for the action is then set, planning and preparation take place, and the action is embodied: it might be a demonstration, a confrontation, or a public gathering seeking political support for solving a problem. Actions are public. They have a clearly defined goal that can be measured. And they are highly structured. At the close of any action, everyone involved must be able to see what was accomplished: public officials are put on record and held accountable to the grassroots, religious leaders are compelled to stand for or against the common good, etc.

+ Then an internal evaluation takes place: did each of the participants in the interfaith group deliver?  If you committed to bring 7 people, did they show up? Organizers and members of justice and compassion groups have to learn that "maybe" always means no. Internal accountability and leadership development is a learning process. Not only do we learn to be realistic in our responsibilities, but we learn the difference between selflessness, selfishness and self-interest.

To be sure, this was a stream-lined introduction to organizing. There was no training, rather just the whetting of an appetite for more. It was also a chance to share an alternative vision of how faith communities can engage the world of politics: we are never narrowly partisan but always advocating for healing, hope, restoration and right relationships. It was important for me to do this one more time as it is likely my last public act of this type in the Berkshires. I love having a chance to work with Mark. And celebrate the work of the Four Freedoms Coalition. But it is now time for me to deepen my life with L'Arche. It is also time to find new forums to explore music-making, story-telling and feeding the heart. I give thanks for a great day knowing I am ready to fully shift gears. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

the ideal is an illusion...

"The ideal doesn't exist," writes Jean Vanier. "The personal equilibrium and the harmony people dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and then only as flashes of grace and peace." Sounding much like Stephen Mitchell in his books, The Gospel According to Jesus and The Book of Job, Vanier insists that idealistic and/or sentimental yearnings for peace keep us from doing the hard work of being fully alive in our flesh in this moment. As others have said, "The perfect is the enemy of the good" and keeps us from being engaged and real in the present.

Peace is the fruit of love and service to others. I'd like to tell the people in communities:  Stop looking for peace. Give yourselves where you are. Stop looking at yourselves, look instead at your brothers and sisters in need. Ask how you can better love your brothers and sisters. Then you will find peace. (Vanier)

Mitchell offers a clarifying insight: human beings often have a nostalgia for the future. Like my own critique of John Lennon's self-absorbed utopianism from earlier this week, the Jewish/Zen Buddhist poet, Mitchell, notes that:

There is such a thing as nostalgia for the future. Both Judaism and Christianity ache with it. It is a vision of the Golden Age, the days of perpetual summer in a world of straw-eating lions and roses without thorns, when human life will be foolproof, and fulfilled in an endlessly prolonged finale of delight. I don’t mean to make fun of the messianic vision. In many ways it is admirable, and it has inspired political and religious leaders from Isaiah to Martin Luther King. But it is a kind of benign insanity. And if we take it seriously enough, if we live it twenty-four hours a day, we will spend all our time working in anticipation, and will never enter the Sabbath of the heart. How moving and at the same time how ridiculous is the story of the Hasidic rabbi who, every morning, as soon as he woke up, would rush out his front door to see if the Messiah had arrived.(Another Hasidic story, about a more mature stage of this consciousness, takes place at the Passover seder. The rabbi tells his chief disciple to go outside and see if the Messiah has come. “But Rabbi, if the Messiah came, wouldn’t you know it in here?” the disciple says, pointing to his heart. “Ah,” says the rabbi, pointing to his own heart, “but in here, the Messiah has already come.”) Who among the now-middle-aged doesn’t remember the fervor of the Sixties, when young people believed that love could transform the world? “You may say I’m a dreamer,” John Lennon sang, “but I’m not the only one.” The messianic dream of the future may be humanity’s sweetest dream. But it is a dream nevertheless, as long as there is a separation between inside and outside, as long as we don’t transform ourselves. And Jesus, like the Buddha, was a man who had awakened from all dreams.

Mitchell makes the same case in his commentary on Job, too. After a careful
analysis of the story of an upright and moral man who is brought low by brokenness and suffering, Mitchell offers two truths that resonate with Vanier's wisdom. First, as Job's suffering becomes intolerable, he cannot remain faithful and sane without crying out against the pain.  Second, it is only after his anger embraces his sorrow that Job experiences a new intimacy with the holy. It is no longer a faith of binary morality or childlike trust. Now Job knows an integration of flesh and spirit beyond easy comprehension.

What does it mean to answer someone about human suffering? For there are answers beyond the one-size-fits-all propositions of the theologians. But these answers can’t be imposed from the outside. They will resonate only where the questioner lets them enter. Above all, they require a willingness to accept what can be excruciating to the ego. Often we find such reality unbearable. The light is so brilliant that it hurts, as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and we retreat to the softer glow of a familiar, comfortable grief. There is never an answer to the great question of life and death, unless it is my answer or yours. Because ultimately it isn’t a question that is addressed, but a person. Our whole being has to be answered. At that point, both question and answer disappear, like hunger after a good meal.

“God is subtle, but not malicious,” Einstein said in a different context. We have to listen to the Voice from the Whirlwind in a more oblique mode, as if its true meaning lay inside the logical framework of its words. First, we should notice how the answer consists mostly of questions (a good Jewish trait). In their volume and insistence, these questions acquire a peculiar quality. They sound in our ears as a ground bass to the melody of their content, and eventually function as a kind of benign subliminal message, asking a fundamental question that will dissolve everything Job thought he knew.

The closest we can get to that question is: What do you know? During their dialogue, Job and the friends agree about the limits of human understanding, but none of them suspects how absolute those limits are. In order to approach God, Job has to let go of all ideas about God: he must put a cloud of unknowing (as a medieval Christian author expressed it) between himself and God, or have the Voice do this for him.

Job's anger and sorrow evoke an encounter with the holy wherein the suffering servant is swept into a whirlwind. Mitchell is precise in illuminating why this matters:

Job is taken up into a state of vision, and enters a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, which includes what humans might experience as terrifying or evil: lightning, the primordial sea, hungry lions on the prowl, the ferocious war-horse, the vulture feeding his young with the rotting flesh of the slain. Violence, deprivation, or death form the context for many of these pictures, and the animals are to them as figure is to ground. The horse exults because of the battle; without the corpses, the vulture couldn’t exist in his grisly solicitude. We are among the most elemental realities, at the center of which there is an indestructible power, an indestructible joy.

This worldview stands, of course, in direct opposition to the Genesis myth in which man is given dominion over all creatures. It is a God’s-eye view of creation before man, beyond good and evil, marked by the innocence of a mind that has stepped outside the circle of human values. (When I was a very young Zen student, caught up in the problem of evil, I once asked my teacher, “Why does shit smell so bad?” He said, “If you were a fly, it would taste like candy.”)

There is another text that can be contrasted: the peaceable kingdom of First Isaiah, where the wolf lies down with the lamb. Beside Job’s vision, this seems a naive version of paradise, and as elusive as its direct descendent, the Marxist End-of-Days. Since Isaiah still equates the humane with the human, his desire turns wilderness into a zoo, stocked with nonviolent and vegetarian lions. The Voice, however, doesn’t moralize. It has the clarity, the pitilessness, of nature and of all great art. Is the world of flesh-eaters a demonic parody of God’s intent? And what about our compassion for the prey? Projecting our civilized feelings onto the antelope torn apart by lions, we see mere horror: nature red in tooth and claw. But animals aren’t victims, and don’t feel sorry for themselves. The lioness springs without malice; the torn antelope suffers and lets go; each plays its role in the sacred game. When we watch from the periphery, as in a television film, we can sense the dignity this relationship confers on both hunter and hunted, even in the midst of great pain.

What the Voice means is that paradise isn’t situated in the past or future, and doesn’t require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is an experience of the Sabbath vision: looking at reality, the world of starving children and nuclear menace, and recognizing that it is very good.


And when the time is right - when the whirlwind has ended temporarily - Job is
filled with awe. He is bewildered, but silent. Into this staggering stillness the Holy One takes on every anthropomorphic projection sentimental and/or moralistic humanity has ever articulated about the Divine - and devours them. Job's former theology is shredded. Job's intellectual diversions are destroyed. Into the mystery of such sacred emptiness, Job confesses: Once I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me... Once I had heard of Thee by the ear, but now my eye sees... and I repent. (Job 42) He does not speak of this illumination as one shamed by the power of the Holy, but as one awed by the magnitude of the Lord. Job is now at peace with reality. With God's abiding justice that is incomprehensible and reassuring at the same time. Once, he attests, I knew the words of my tradition. Once I parroted the platitudes of my faith. But I never experienced them: but now that I have, everything is different.

After more than 50 years of living in community - learning how God brings wisdom and healing to us all through our brokenness and fragility rather than our strength - Vanier gently invites us to get real. Ideals are a distraction. Be loving and engaged right where you are. Then, with practice and lots of forgiveness, you too will know moments of assurance. Vanier writes in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John:

(John's) prologue ends: "The Word became flesh." The word that is in communion with God, this word that is at the heart of all things and at the source of creation, became flesh. John does not write that the Word became a human being, but that the Word became flesh - and flesh is a fragile reality. Flesh and blood are fragile, vulnerable, and dependent. The Word became flesh... the infinite became little. (Vanier, The Gospel of John, pp. 1-2)

Our growth, maturation, peace "comes through the gradual discovery of the vulnerability of Jesus, the Word who became flesh. It will be this emerging understanding that in his fragility, Jesus is giving us life... in this we will better understand who we are, with our own fragility, our vulnerability, our fears, and our prejudices. We will come to understand that our own need to be transformed" is revealed in our flesh.  The peace that passes understand is passed to us through our flesh - broken, fragile and tender. 

+ St. John's Bible
+ Job
+ Enlightenment
+ Serenity Prayer

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

imagine vs. while my guitar gently weeps... no contest!

I am not a huge John Lennon fan. I used to be in spades - and love hearing his voice and guitar on Beatles' recordings. But I lost interest in most of his later work due to his staggering self-importance. Give me love, give me love, give me peace on earth and a whole lot more George Harrison, too. The creativity of the so-called "quiet one" abides. It nourishes my musical and spiritual interests 17 years after his premature death while the work of John Winston continues to cool off. I still get a buzz hearing "You Can't Do That." And Lennon's rock and roll scream is iconic. I sat for hours mimicking the master back in high school and periodically pull out my version of his primal paean to a sold back beat every now and again just for good measure. 

But besides "Working Class Hero," let's say that for me: the thrill is gone. The reason for this trip down memory lane has to do with music-making at this moment in time. The United States is currently consumed with fear and loathing. White culture is anxious, resentful and uncertain about our future as an ethnic and numerical minority. We see enemies around every corner and terrorists in our dreams. We are paranoid. Belligerent. And self-absorbed. Whether in culture or politics, therefore, we don't need more of what ails us.

My sense of the sacred invitation of the artist is to evoke a healing alternative to the status quo. Of course, there are artists who are called to be blunt about the human condition. The wisdom of the 12 Step movement testifies to this truth: most of us will not be ready to quit our addictions until we've hit rock bottom. Think Kendrick Lamar, Ani De Franco or Beyonce in this era. Or Gil Scott-Heron, Nina Simone and Frank Zappa in days gone by. These musicians are in-your-face provocative. They are hard-hitting and demanding. They are poetically and aesthetically confrontational. But they are never self-absorbed.

And that's the test: can our music open hearts and eyes with beauty? Can we create an alternative to the bone-crush belligerence of the dominant culture that simultaneously evokes hope and solidarity? Can we musically point to a way of being beyond the bravado? Can we give George Harrison his propers for a season rather than John Lennon?  People gravitate to Lennon's "Imagine" in times of protest. After the bombing in Paris, I too was moved when a performer dragged his piano out to the streets to sing, "They may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." Nevertheless, Harrison moves beyond slogans and sentimentality. Listen to either "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Isn't It a Pity." They sound like the alternative the Spirit is calling for at this moment in time. They give shape and form to our lament. They help us to weep. To feel the anguish of our self-centered, bullying culture. To ache for a way of living that no longer treats precious sisters and brothers as a means to an end. 

When I read Jean Vanier's words in my morning meditation, I knew I had to put it in the context of music-making. It resonates for artists as well as servants of compassion:

Community is the place where people grow in love and peacemaking. That is why it is imperative for communities to grow, expand and deepen; and for many new ones to be founded and supported. To-day war has become too dangerous; it could bring an end to our planet and to the human species. We are all called to grow in love and forgiveness.

I hear more and more artists of every stripe exploring the pathos of compassion and vulnerability. I give thanks to God that they are doing so in ways that build, strengthen and encourage solidarity.

Monday, April 23, 2018

blessed are the poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters, heretics and troubadours...

Yesterday morning I read this note from Christine Valters Paintner of the Abbey of the Arts.

Like many of you, global events lately feel quite overwhelming ... and I ponder and pray about my response. One thing I keep coming back to is a sense of deep certainty that the way of the monk and path of the artist make a difference in the world. What distinguishes these two ways of being is that each are called to live deliberately on the edges of things, in active resistance to a world that places all its value on speed and productivity, that reduces people to producers and consumers, and reduces the earth to a commodity for our use. The longer I follow this path in my life, the more I consider hospitality to be one of the most essential of all the monk’s wisdom. To practice actively welcoming in what is most strange or other in my world as the very place of divine encounter – what St Benedict tells us in the Rule – is a holy challenge! But in a world where otherness sparks so much fear and policies which further divide us, learning to embrace the gift of the stranger, both within our own hearts, as well as in the world is a true balm.

As a musician - and very secular monk - Painter's words articulate how I strive to live. I paraphrased them at band practice, too as we prepare to play some open mics and gigs in the region. My summary: in this age of violence and anxiety, we have been invited to offer an alternative born of trust, tenderness and beauty. I once spoke of these qualities as an antidote to the hatred and was scolded as being too binary: there will always be evil I was told - and we must never assume we have a monopoly upon wisdom. True enough. Jean Vanier said much the same thing in this morning's meditation:

There are more and more groups to-day oriented toward issues and causes. There are peace movements, ecological movements, movements for oppressed people, for the liberation of women, against torture, etc. If there is a consciousness within the movement that within each person there is a world of darkness, fear and hate, they can then radiate truth and inner freedom and work toward justice and peace in the world. If not, they can become very aggressive and divide the world between the oppressors and the oppressed, the good and the bad. There seems to be a need in human beings to see evil and combat it outside oneself, in order not to see it inside oneself.

So maybe the music is not an antidote. It is, however, a clear alternative. We spent five hours honing these new songs. And at the close of the day, it was exhilarating albeit exhausting. On Thursday we'll take the show out for a trial run to see how others respond. It will be good to actually play before a crowd.   

Sunday, April 22, 2018

the challenge of contemplation...

The air is fresh and clean in the Berkshires this morning. Crisp. The sun has returned from a season of hiding and the very earth seems to be stretching herself awake. A purple crocus presented himself to the world yesterday while I was collecting winter debris. And soon daffodils will dance throughout our yard. Even a "peeper" frog was heard singing a love song out in the wetlands last night. Spring is starting to settle in to these ancient hills. 

Sitting in the silence, Sabbath candles lit, I let my questions swirl inside me. They ebb and flow without apparent rhyme or reason. As they come and go, the juniper incense carries me back to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. The rusted cross with the Russian theotokos of Vladimir in the center reminds me to ponder these things in my heart. My "Living Together/Vivre Ensemble" candle connects me to my sisters and brothers in L'Arche Ottawa. There is a prayer cloth that comes from Turkey, a Rothko print from London's Tate Modern, a painting of Christ breaking bread hails from Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac and one of Harry's abstract masterpieces in blue. They all speak to me of being surrounded by love - and yet the closing verse of Psalm 42 is insistent:

Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.

This is the challenge of contemplation, yes? Holding love and doubt, clarity and uncertainty, light and darkness, grace and judgment, joy and fear together? Last night when I sat down to pray, there were no words, only huge, hot tears. Some were tears of sorrow, others were tears of gratitude. They flowed until they were done. And then I sensed within another Psalm: Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46: 10) Another poem by Jennifer Wallace comes to me:

We Know How It Works
We know how it works. The world is no longer mysterious. - Richard Siken

Could it be as the poet said?

flp the switch, the light goes on.
Take the wolves away, the elk eat all the willows.

Yes, the world can be explained.

Someone swallowed the pills.
someone slept with someone who was not his wife.
One person drew a picture of a bridge, 100 people
climbed the girders with their hammers.

But, when Oppen writes,

knowledge is
loneliness turning and turning,

we know what he means               and we don't know.

How do the cranes find their way home?
Where does a song go after it enters an ear?

The Indian Ocean warms, sand blows in  Africa
and the Caribbean stops breathing.
We know it's a matter of one degree
but why don't we stop our burning?

The foghorn reminds us. . . that, even after the perilous crossing,

The self is no mystery. The mystery is
that there is something for us to stand on.

Who understands? Who stands under?
the invisible weight of all that.

We know the number of the gene
but not the day the strand will break.
(Jennifer Wallace, Almost Entirely, p. 33)

And all of it is real. The questions and the certainty, the tears of different origins, the Psalm of lament and the Song of assurance.  Spring is arriving. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

and she pondered these things in her heart...

As a follow up to yesterday's reflection on learning the wisdom of Mary, I want to add one more thought: Mary is our model for contemplation. Twice in St. Luke's gospel - when the angel Gabriel announces her selection as co-creator with God, and, some 13 years later after Jesus has visited and talked with the elders of his tradition at the Temple in Jerusalem - we read that "Mary pondered all these things in her heart." Three interrelated ideas come to me:

+ First, Mary shows us a way of embracing mystery, questions and even uncertainty. She doesn't obsess nor does she ignore; rather, she holds the darkness tenderly and waits for more light. In this she embodies St. Paul's axiom: Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. We cannot grasp the totality of God's grace all at once. We are simply unable to make sense of challenges, blessings and even suffering in the moment. Our quest is to hold all of these things in our heart trusting that in time their meaning will be revealed. Contemplation does not banish doubt nor is it afraid of questions: it is a way of prayerfully embracing reality without arrogance.

+ Second, Mary's form of contemplation is disciplined. Spiritual directors learn that the practice of quiet prayer is to "take a long, loving look at reality." It is not analysis - although that may emerge in time. It is not problem solving either - although that has its place, too. No, contemplation is sitting with what is real with love. It is feeling the anguish of injustice alongside the bounty of love. It is owning the sin of the world while trusting the healing presence of grace. And it learning how to quietly quit any addiction to magical thinking in favor of the 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. 

No one is good at this automatically. It takes practice and patience. It takes training and discipline. It takes the heart of Mary to hold all things in our heart and let them speak to us in love.

+ Third, the Scriptures use three words for Marian contemplation that deserve additional commentary:  kept/treasured, ponder, and heart. To keep - or treasure - from the Greek, συνετήρει (synetērei), means to preserve. That is, Mary is seeking to understand God's actions in Jesus first by keeping the memory safe and conscious. Contemplation is active and on-going. Ponder means throwing wisdom and doubt together, συμβάλλουσα (symballousa), to see what new insights might be revealed. It is an act of vigorous inner questioning in search of new meanings. And heart,  καρδίᾳ (kardia), is not only the font of emotions but also the locus of will, character, logic and intention. Marian contemplation, therefore, is never passive navel-gazing. It is neither confined to ideas or feelings but an embodied search to live into the loving tenderness of God. It trusts that God will make known all that is necessary for love in time and is never afraid of ambiguity. Rather, Marian contemplation cherishes the totality of grace and seeks to make it flesh in ordinary life.

In my own journey of faith, these truths are evoked by praying with my eyes: this icon expresses each aspect of Marian contemplation. Henri Nouwen once wrote that this icon captures Mary's grief and trust, her love and devotion to Jesus, as well as her inner and outward beauty for the world. Perhaps it will be of use to you like it has been to me.

Friday, April 20, 2018

learning to listen to the wisdom of Mary...

To say that I am a "Johnny come lately" to the wisdom and traditions of Mary would be an understatement. Besides the Christmas and Crucifixion narratives of the New Testament, I didn't know much about the Blessed Virgin Mary for the first 40 years of my life - even in seminary. That she has been ignored and marginalized in my tradition is as much a tale of anti-Catholic prejudice as it is fear of the feminine face of God. I first encountered the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland in 1983 in the context of the Solidarity trade union movement. While traveling throughout Soviet Russia, I was moved in unknown ways by various icons of the Theotokos, too. The mytho-poetic wing of the men's movement introduced me to the archetype of Mary in the 90s. But it wasn't Tucson - and repeated encounters with the Virgin of Guadalupe - that I started to listen to the wisdom of Mary in my heart.

Spending time in Roman Catholic retreat houses and chapels throughout southern Arizona helped. So did periodic pilgrimages to Chimayo in northern New Mexico. Then I learned to pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the time of our death," and that took me deeper. Dianne created an abstract visual portrait of Guadalupe from her photographs and hung it in our dinning room. And, at about the same time, I bought a magazine containing a picture of a small, stone house outside of Ephesus, Turkey reputed to be Mary's last home. Without knowing why, her spirit was clearly speaking to my heart. In time I came to name this calling: a spirituality of tenderness. Today, she has become for me both the embodiment of spiritual tenderness and my trusted guide. Mary's presence is how I am learning to listen to her wisdom.

A few weeks ago, while re-reading Jean Vanier's introduction to his commentary on the gospel of St. John, I was awakened by these words:

The Gospel of John was written around 90-95 CE by someone who calls himself "the Beloved Disciple." Did this disciple think Jesus loved him more than he loved the others? No. Rather, this name reveals to us this disciple's deepest identity, which is also the deepest identity of each one of us. Our identity is not, as people often think, our role or what we do. Our deepest need is to be loved and our deepest identity is to be the beloved of Jesus. The author of this Gospel is most likely John, the brother of James; both were sons of Zebedee. Through Iraneaus and Clement of Alexandria in the early Church, we understand that he was the disciple who rested on the heart of Jesus, and who received Mary at the foot of the cross as his mother. In the early third century, Origen said that to understand this gospel one must first have rested on the heart of Jesus and taken Mary as one's mother. (The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship, p. ix)

That is a fascinating insight: we must rest upon the heart of Jesus and take Mary as our own mother. We must trust and treat Jesus as our beloved, and, listen and love Mary as our guide in faith. In another commentary, Vanier goes deeper, writing:

Mary, the mother of the Word-made-flesh, who was bonded in such an intimate way to the body of Jesus, formed and sanctified by his presence and love for many years, must have guided the heart of the "beloved disciple," her spiritual son, in his inner journey of union with Jesus. With the mystical realism of a woman filled with the Spirit of truth, she must have helped him to discover the deep significance of many of the words and gestures of Jesus during his life on earth, even all the details concerning time, dates and places, which then became the basis for this gospel. She must have helped him to see how the life of communion with God flows from this union with the humanity of her son. (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus, p. 14)

This suggests that those who seek to love and follow Jesus must listen to the Jewish wisdom of Mary. We must pay attention to - and honor - the unique, maternal compassion she shares with us about what it means to be faithful. For it was from Mary's embodied tenderness that Jesus gave shape and form to God's love. St. John, too found many of his words from within her testimony. 

The coming of Jesus, you see, was prepared for not only by John the Baptizer, but also by his mother. To become flesh, he needed the womb of a woman, Mary, married to Joseph. The Word did not appear out of the skies as a powerful superman. The Word became flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, as a tiny human being, invisible, hardly formed, yet totally prepared for growth. He came out of the womb of this woman, Mary, and lived in a deep relationship with her. He needed her presence, her love, her warmth, the nourishment that flowed from her breasts. He became a part of the history of the human race. The Word who became flesh needed this double preparations, one very hidden, one very visible. (Vanier, ibid, p. 29)

My earliest spiritual training did not honor the early traditions of the Church. In many ways, we acted as if nothing of value happened between Pentecost and the Protestant Reformation. We threw the baby of tradition out with the water of protest. And lost both the roots of Jewish prayer and the mystical, wisdom tradition of Mary and the saints in the process. Small wonder that those seeking balance and direction from within the way of Jesus discover that it is Mary who is calling to our hearts. It is Mary, in St. John's story of Jesus, who encourages the first miracle: turning water into wine at a wedding ceremony in Cana of Galilee. This story is unique to St. John. It also involves the mother of Jesus. It suggests to us that the soul of Christ's way is a feast. "In Aramaic , the word for 'wedding feast' has the same root as the word 'drink,' (a clear) sign that this was to be a time of great revelry and rejoicing." (Vanier, ibid, p. 51) It also tells us that when the way of the feast was jeopardized - when the host of the celebration faced shame and the guests were on the brink of disappointment - "Mary intercedes (with Jesus) for the poor and the humiliated. She is with him at the beginning of his public live, just as she will be present at the end, at the cross." (p. 54)

It is also Mary who returns to us the heritage of Jewish prayer in her Magnificat that closes Christian Evening Prayer:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

In this stage of learning about faithful living, I am learning to listen to the wisdom of Mary.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

... more than once God has turned my head in the right direction...

Today has already turned out different than I had imagined: snow canceled a morning practice, a noontime appointment for tomorrow demands washing the floor, new and unanticipated errands take hold in what was to be a day of music. While washing the kitchen floor, I recalled a book of poems my lover gave me earlier this year. Jennifer Wallace writes, "The Wind of God," and somehow it resonates within:

... moved over the face of the waters. And after reading this, the awareness that,  more than once,
God has turned my head in the right direction,
yet I haven't seen the gesture for what it is.

The world charges and is charged with a white-hot-flame.
I might turn away, but each morning my head is turned for me
toward a crow's flight, a squirrel passages, or a person
with whom I share an ever-present reaching toward.
I let myself be turned sometimes. sometimes
I get into my car and drive away.

Today I picture God's hand cupped atop my head ~
a quiet turning and then receding.
We are "fine" with each others. This god has all the time in the world.
(Jennifer Wallace, Almost Entirely, Paraclete Press, 2017)

Yesterday evening, after an absence of more than 20 years, I returned to the practice of Centering Prayer. I've thought about it for a decade. And talked about it on and off for a few years, too. But I sometimes think I am the god who has all the time in the world. And I don't. Like everyone else, I have anxieties and shame, addictions and compulsions that may have once served me well, but now have clearly lost their usefulness. Listening to a few artists over this past month who are equally happy/sad, wounded healers has helped me own the fact that now is the time to return to living from the center of God's grace.  

That is how Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of it: "As your practice becomes more stable and you imprint deeply onto your heart the know-how that the way to get there is to let go of what you're clinging to so that your attention relaxes from its default subject/ object trajectory, then bit by bit you'll discover that this inner spaciousness is no longer 'a place you go to' but a 'place you come from.' It begins to offer itself as a new home for your deepest sense of selfhood." (The Heart of Centering Prayer, p.27) This corresponds to Vanier's assertion that communion and unity precede creation. "From a primary unity comes the unity of all creation... (as the Gospel of John) says: In the beginning, before all things were, there was unity and communion." (Jean Vanier, The Gospel of John - the Gospel of Relationship, p. 1)) 

Vanier is equally insistent that if God's cosmic unity and wisdom became flesh and lived among us in truth and grace, we too must take our own flesh and blood every bit as seriously as God. This is how we live from within the center of our creation: by honoring and accepting our fragile, tender, broken, and loving flesh. John's gospel points to "the vulnerability of Jesus, the Word who became flesh. It (offers us) an emerging understanding that in his fragility, he is giving us life. At the same time, through this Gospel, we will better understand who we are, with our fragility, our vulnerability, our fears, and our prejudices. We will come to understand our own need to be transformed" by the creative love that embraces the cosmos in a unifying grace.

The day began in snow. Now it is gone. What other surprising invitations await me as "God cups my head with a quiet turning and receding?"

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

and our eyes were opened at the breaking of bread... in Montréal

While in Montréal last week we encountered a killer ice storm. Given my liberated schedule, however, we could treat it like an extra holiday. So when our Air BnB host suggested we stay over another night free of charge? Well, it was grace upon grace, n'est pas? Indeed, it gave us the chance to feast with a couple in their late 40s we met at Bistro Beaufort. They were there for a Saturday night drink with the owner, Jean Francois, who had graciously served us supper late on Thursday. We went back on Saturday to return our thanks when introductions were made all around. Soon we discovered that this couple had been to Massachusetts often - loved jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz - and was interested in having us over for dinner before we left.  Our extra snow/ice day gave way to blessings.

Over great food and excellent red wine, we spent four hours sharing our respective life journeys.  I love to hear to hear another's story - and this pair were open and insightful. She, for example, had just completed her nurse's training practicum. Starting in September, two years of university level work would begin. It was an intentional, values-driven midlife career change. After growing up in a small, homogeneous Francophone town outside of the city, she realized that the vibe of cosmopolitan Montréal was magnetic. In time she worked as an editor, married, and raised two children along with her husband of 20+ years. He hailed from a business-oriented, professional family in Montréal. After twenty plus years of working in the corporate realm, however, he too began to march to a different drummer. He wanted time to walk by the river with the love of his before his health gave out. He yearned to play more jazz manouche and savor the blessings of each day, too. Last year, he closed down his corporate career and opened up his own free-lance consulting office. Now there is more time for her to follow her passion for karate. Or open their home to the young "nursing school stray" who needed some special care and attention. Or take in late night jazz together. We spoke about our unique journeys by faith rather than sight, as well.

"We grew up in the Roman Catholic Church," she told us as the feast ripened, "but found it was mechanical and too abstract. What I am looking for now is an incarnational spirituality." Honestly. She spoke about searching for a spirituality that was embodied. These two well-educated, compassionate people came of age during Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" wherein the Roman Catholic church was disenfranchised as a political player. Douglas John Hall, Professor Emeritus of Theology at McGill, has noted that in one generation all the trappings of a once vigorous institutional Christianity have disappeared in contemporary Quebecois culture. This was clearly true for our new friends. 

At the same time, the deeper questions of what it means to live by "faith not by sight" were still real and compelling. How do I go deeper into the heart of being human? How can my commitment to compassion and tenderness guide both the contours of my soul as well as my working life? What does it mean to honor the self and serve the greater good? My mind went immediately to the insight of Pope Francis who recently reminded us that: holiness means being yourself. Fully and incarnationally yourself. With love, depth, integrity, humor, sorrow, doubt and all the rest. Our new friends sensed this from the inside out. They have recently found encouragement from a small Buddhist community that says much the same thing: living with loving integrity is the essence of creation. By doing this, our lives become an embodied prayer.

This was not all we talked about, ok? We shared pictures of our grandkids. And listened to old recordings of Thelonious Monk. And trash-talked Trump noting that "the present moment has already become our worst dystopian nightmare." Still, the way the Spirit of love becomes enfleshed in our ordinary lives wound through our words much like a golden thread in a white braid. I keep thinking of Jean Vanier's insight from the gospel of St. John:  "In the beginning, before all things, communion was: communion between God and the wisdom of creation (logos)... and at the right time, this wisdom become flesh and entered history... so that we all might be led into communion (for this is the very life of God.)" (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John)

Vanier insists that "unity precedes creation." That is, integration and community among all things not only shapes the wisdom of existence, but saturates our souls. To be holy is to be fully alive as ourselves. Imagine my delight as this wisdom became flesh among us once again that night in Montréal. As another holy person once put it: "... our eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread." I am so grateful.

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:...