Tuesday, May 29, 2018

send lawyers, guns and money: humor as a way into spiritual wisdom and peace

One of the ways I stay grounded - even in a shit storm - is with self-deprecating humor. I am not a fan of sarcasm. It is veiled cruelty. I have no room in my life for jokes that hurt others, shame others, wound others or make others the victim of my intellect or power. Rather, like the Holy Fool Nazruddin of the Sufi world, I am called to laugh at myself and share my foibles out loud in public. For in this, maybe those I love might see their own failings and move towards a bit of humility. A favorite tale of the Sacred Fool goes like this:

One afternoon, Nasruddin and his friend were sitting in a cafe, drinking tea and talking about life and love. His friend asked: “How come you never married?”

“Well,” said Nasruddin, “to tell you the truth, I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo I met a beautiful and intelligent woman, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no common interests. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something missing. Then, one day, I met her. Beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind. We had very much in common. In fact, she was perfect!”

“What happened?” asked Nasruddin’s friend, “Why didn’t you marry her?” Nasruddin sipped his tea reflectively. “Well,” he replied, “it’s really the sad story of my life…. It seemed she was looking for the perfect man…

When I can step back and see how my wounds, failings, obsessions and limited vision are throwing me into a tailspin, then new insights are bound to follow. It takes time. Silence. Trust. Love. And practice. I think poet and pastor, Maren Tirabassi, got it right when she riffed on one of her favorite prayers.

God grant me the laughter –
to accept the things I cannot change,
the patience to keep on and keep on
and keep on and keep on
changing the things I can,
and the friends to help me
when I cannot tell the difference,
or when my wisdom
has soured into self-importance.
Then, too, God, laughter will help. Amen.

Today, after a glorious time of musical practice, I was thrown a curve ball. For a few hours, I let it drive me crazy. Then I shared my fears and shame with my beloved and we laughed at it together. In silence I was later able to take it to the One who is Holy and ask for the grace to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference. Humor, for me, is a spiritual discipline. Not all humor. Just the type that opens me up to my humanity and encourages me to trust God more than my self, my shame, or my fears. My man, the late Warren Zevon, cut to the chase in this self-deprecating, rock and roll confession...

Monday, May 28, 2018

encouraging the way of respect, beauty, dignity and love...

When I was a freshman in college, I wrote down my deepest beliefs on a yellow legal pad. A young idealist with a bent towards peace-making, works of mercy, and personal and social justice needed clarity in those heady days when it seemed as if "revolution was in the air." My goal was to articulate my values and their source as a way to measure my integrity. If I was authentically certain about my core values - and knew they were of the Lord rather than culture, race, class or gender - then I could guide my life into the ways of righteousness. 

From time to time I stumble upon this legal pad while sorting through boxes of old papers and I continue to set is aside for safe-keeping. For even in this season of ruthless de-cluttering in retirement, I trust that my initial attempt at theological discernment warrants honoring. Not because they were particularly insightful, however, or true. Rather, I find my notes to be inflated, self-centered, and naive. At the time, I was certain that if I could clearly state the core of Christian universalism, then I could train myself to live an ethically consistent life. I ached to smash my inner contradictions and was confident I had the moral strength to do so. 

Forty eight years later, my arrogant innocence is humbling - not uncommon among religious zealots of all stripes, of course - but still discomforting. Hubris was integral to being a straight, white, 18 year old, male college student in bourgeois America in 1970. How many times did I sing along passionately with Jefferson Airplane: "You are the crown of creation?" 

Today, I take my counsel more from another Paul: When I was a child I spoke like a child - and acted like a child - and thought like a child. Now that I have aged, I must put childish things away. For now we see as through a glass darkly, only later shall we see face to face... Only three things endure: faith, hope and love - and the greatest of them is love.
Spiritual discipline and well- crafted theology still matter to me. But in 2018, rigidity strikes me as dangerous - especially when married to notions about God. Abstract, intellectual tests of faith tend to become lethal, making orthopraxis - right action - rather than orthodoxy - right thought -  true north for my spirituality today. Like St. Paul confessed about himself: Rarely am I able to consistently do the things that I know are good; and the things I hate I wind up doing so often that I cannot rely only on myself. Joni Mitchell said it best: I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow its life's illusions I recall: I really don't know life at all.

I still wrestle to find a coherent way of understanding both my core beliefs and their moral implications, but not to beat myself into ethical obedience. Or trick myself into doctrinal belief. Rather, I need a vision of the holy that rings true to my experience to serve as an antidote to the fear and hatred of my heart and as a guide into life's questions. Left to my own limited insights, I get lost - angry and afraid - of real life. All these years later, I have stumbled upon four touchstones that give me a taste of God's peace and a way through the darkness: 

1) My world view is now grounded in the Pashcal mystery: This is a Cross shaped analysis of every day life and its purpose. Taking a long, loving look at reality through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus helps me search for where life is emerging from death and where the possibility of compassion might be born within the bleakest experience. It is a non-dual way of contemplation that trusts the mystical while awaiting the holy beyond what is obvious.

2) This world view must be nourished and I have embraced four new /old practices: silence, study, music-making and humor. These are my time-tested tools for the inward journey that simultaneously feeds my soul and stretches my consciousness. These disciplines are quiet, metaphorical and beyond judgment.

3) Tenderness in community is where I encounter God's presence in my life. This includes the concious creation of beauty, listening and living honestly with people who are just as wounded and confused as myself, trusting that grace trumps karma, and practicing the 10 foot rule as the core of my outward journey. 

4) Actively searching for clues in tradition rather than reinventing the wheel: the stories of Scripture, the saints of the Abrahmic tradition broadly defined, and their worship rituals are where I discover ancient words to explain new experiences. As Huston Smith wrote: the great religions of the world are the distilled wisdom of the holy as revealed to humankind over the ages. I am NOT the crown of creation so why act otherwise?

Somewhere in every heart there is a discerning voice. This voice distrusts the status quo. It sounds out the falsity in things and encourages dissent from the images things tend to assume. It under lines the secret crevices where the surface has become strained. It advises distance and opens up a new perspective through which the concealed meaning of a situation might emerge. The inner voice makes any complicity uneasy. Its intention is to keep the heart clean and clear. This voice is an inner whisper not obvious or known to others outside. It receives little attention and is not usually highlighted among a person's qualities. Yet so much depends on that small voice. The truth of its whisper marks the line between honor and egoism, kindness and chaos. In extreme situations, which have been emptied of all shelter and tenderness, that small voice whispers from somewhere beyond and encourages the heart to hold out for dignity, respect, beauty and love.
(John O'Donohue, On Beauty)

Over the next few weeks I am going to try to give form to how and why this spirituality matters. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

looking for the heart of Saturday night...or Thursday or Friday for that matter!

Yesterday was St. Bob's birthday. It was fitting that we played at Infinity Music Hall - and closed the open mic evening off with a Dylan set including "All Along the Watchtower," "Don't Think Twice Its Alright," Everything Is Broken" and "Buckets of Rain." I even won two tickets to a concert knowing certain Dylan trivia!

Two things hit me in spades as we played. The first is it is time for me to up my game with practice again. I totally botched the intro to "Switching on the Lights" in ways that were humbling. I knew this realization was coming re: practice but I need to spend time woodshedding just as much as "Famous Before We're Dead" needs time to hone our craft. Second, it is just too much fun to play the songs we're working on.They are beautiful, challenging, insightful and engaging. What's more, the small crowd received them well. So, we're on the right track. Next week will be a marathon of practice - and well it should be. 

If you are in the area and can join us, please come on down to the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT at 8 pm. It is free - and will be a gas. We can use all the help we can muster and it would be fun to see you as we try to kick this up a notch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

famous before we're dead...

Today was band rehearsal at Hal's and we spent three hours honing two songs. Pure delight to my soul. On Thursday this week we'll return to Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT to try out two more tunes. Then we'll be back at Infinity to play in a competition on Friday, June 1 @ 8 pm. We may get to play near Northampton next
Wednesday, too.

As old guys playing music we have been searching for a way to laugh at ourselves while honoring the reality of still being around and interested in creating some beauty. This inspired Hal to come up with the band's name: Famous Before We're Dead. I love it in so many ways. Check out our Facebook page @ https://www.facebook. com/Famous-Before-Were-Dead-390040761477161/

Our first press release reads:

Back in Ye Olde Dayes, James Lumsden and I played what some might call music together in various bands: Creeping Jesus, Folk You, and, ultimately, Dave and Chuck!!! You may not remember us... that was before we were famous. But now we're reunited to become Famous Before We're Dead! We'll be performing our debut June 1, 8pm, on the big stage at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT, for the open mic competition and need all the help we can get - no, wait, I mean we'd love to see you there!

I watched an interview after practice concerning why CBS News and other sources spent so much time and money covering Meghan and Harry's wedding. The heart of the reality, said one reporter, is love: in a world where news is only tragedy and trouble, we can forget that so much of life is fueled by love. And as Bishop Curry said so well, love can change the world. And is keeping this old world rockin' every day. We're playing music for the love of the groove. For the joy of the experience. And for the promise that love brings healing when nothing else can. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

a contemplative spirit that challenges sentimentality...

Once upon a time, in my early days of pastoral ministry in Massachusetts, a Sunday morning guest asked me about my favorite TV shows. With a bit o fear and trembling, I replied: "In my opinion, the three best written TV shows with the most significant theological content are: 1) Six Feet Under, 2) The Sopranos, and 3) Homicide: Life on the Street." He told me that he didn't know any of these but would check them out. To which I cautioned: "These are sophisticated, challenging programs. Do not, I repeat, do not watch them with your tween children. Do not expect "The Waltons." And know in advance that there is harsh language and upsetting sexuality shown in graphic detail. These programs have been written by adults for adults - and should be treated as such. They are artistically brilliant and spiritually profound, but not easy going. So let me know what you think?" He and his family never came back to worship again.

I heard through the grapevine of our small town that he was shocked and offended by my recommendations. "This man calls himself a Christian, a pastor, and he told me watch this?!" Truth be told, even with my disclaimers, I knew that he probably would have given these shows a chance if someone else had made the suggestion. Sadly what he wanted from his pastor, however, was something safe. Something pretty. Something sentimental, blandly pious and nice. 

I understand this yearning for safety. It is not only part of the human condition but it is a heresy the American church in most of its forms has nurtured for decades. Indeed, quietism masquerading as spirituality has historically haunted the Body of Christ. In her reflection on the story of the Christian Pentecost, Dr. Christine Valters Painter writes:  "The Apostles were together experiencing bewilderment over how to move forward when the Holy Spirit flows among them and breathes courage into their hearts." (The Abbey of the Arts weekly email) She continues:

Eugene Peterson describes it this way: "What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it's like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in its vast ocean... but prayer isn't about baptizing the status quo, but entering into dynamic relationship with the God who always makes things new. Scripture challenges our ingrained patterns of belief, our habitual attitudes and behavior...To be fully human and alive is to know the tension of our dustiness, our mortality, to be called to a profoundly healthy humility where we acknowledge that we can know very little of the magnificence of the divine Source of all. The Spirit descends on those gathered together in a small room and breaks the doors wide open. We are reminded that practicing resurrection is not for ourselves alone, but on behalf of a wider community. Not only for those with whom we attend church services, but beyond to the ones who sit at the furthest margins of our awareness. Pentecost is a story of the courage that comes from breaking established boundaries. 
We may limit our vision through cynicism, but equally through certainty or cleverness. Sometimes we fear doubt so much that we allow it to make our thoughts rigid, we choose certainties and then never make space for the Spirit to break those open or apart. The things we feel sure that God does not care about may be precisely the source of healing for a broken world.

Consequently, in our quest not to be among the purveyors of shrill that fills both the Left and the Right - and as a part of the human condition to play it safe - we become addicts to sentimentality. I have done it. You, too, most likely. And as much as I have respected and cherished many of the people in the various congregations I served over nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry, too often we existed more as a bourgeois club guided by self-help slogans than the Body of Christ founded upon the Cross. Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, put it like this: “It is a measure of our enculturation that the various acts of ministry (for example, counseling, administration, even liturgy) have taken on lives and functions of their own rather than being seen as elements of the one prophetic ministry of formation and reformation of alternative community.” Watching the aforementioned TV shows broke through some of my bourgeois addictions. Like all great works of art, they showed me a new reality and my role within it. These days I find that Black Mirror and My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are challenging me to go deeper than mere sentimentality. (And would add Treme, Battlestar Gallactica, and Breaking Bad to the list.)

This year has been dubbed a "season of "beholding" for us in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I still find myself anxious for clarity, unsettled by uncertainty, and aching for what is safe and quiet. What a humbling irony to be confronted by Pentecost! Sister Painter is right: Sometimes we fear doubt so much that we allow it to make our thoughts rigid, we choose certainties and then never make space for the Spirit to break those open or apart. The things we feel sure that God does not care about may be precisely the source of healing for a broken world.

So rather than rushing to get our house on the market, we're taking time to garden, do yard work and rest in God's grace. Instead of dashing into more activities in this season of retirement, I am sorting through 100s of books that have nourished me for decades and recalling their blessings. I am also going to Ottawa regularly to grow closer with the L'Arche community while taking time to let God show me the next step in this journey. I am genuinely not very good at this beholding business - that is, taking time to watch, see, listen and feel what the sacred is sharing with me - and I get it wrong more times every day than I get it right. One of the verses of Scripture that helps ground me in grace comes from St. Luke 2: 19: But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Pentecost calls me to confront my anxiety with silence, face my compulsion to control with trust, and relinquish my addiction to sentimental quietism with the presence of Jesus.

What we must never do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it's like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in its vast ocean... but prayer isn't about baptizing the status quo, but entering into dynamic relationship with the God who always makes things new. Scripture challenges our ingrained patterns of belief, our habitual attitudes and behavior. (Abbey of the Arts)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

conversion is never forcing God into our experience: Pentecost 2018

Today is Pentecost in the Western Christian tradition - and we went to worship on-line. It wasn't very satisfying. Partially that is because I believe worship is an experiential cruciform: true "church" honors both the horizontal beam of God in community alongside the vertical beam connecting individuals with the sacred in intimate and personal ways. Worship is to be an embodied encounter with the holy and the human, one that touches all of our senses and feeds our intellect, too. It is the symbolic marriage of heaven and earth, the embracing of head and heart, a time of celebration, lament, introspection and empowerment. That we have not been able to find an in-person community of faith since retirement was part of today's disappointment. To say that I was missing my sisters and brothers at L'Arche Ottawa big time would be an understatement.

But that was not all that fueled our frustration: today's live-cast was sadly another contemporary example of church-lite; confusing, sloppy liturgy passing for spontaneity, and clergy trying too hard to be hip. That it came to light in the shadow of yesterday's royal wedding only exaggerated its deficits. The event at Windsor Cathedral was an authentic Pentecostal event. In that great hall, upon the marriage of Harry and Meghan, worship gave the world a sensual ceremony mixing ethical and intellectual depth with humor, pathos, tenderness and pageantry. From the a Capella boys' choir singing Thomas Tallis, to the Black gospel choir rocking out on "Stand By Me" and the organ/choral setting of Rutter's "Set Me as A Seal Upon Your Heart," the music evoked the ecstasy of love. The visuals of the ritual were stunning, the aesthetics powerful, and the liturgy simplified but elegant. And what about Bishop Curry's homily?

In an era saturated with the truly stupid, ugly and dumbed-down speeches of bullies and demagogues, Brother Curry gave us the Gospel in all its splendid glory. This was the feast of Pentecost: intentional, carefully considered,  poignant and powerful at the same time that it was grounded in the presence of Jesus. Bishop Curry took-on the legacy of white supremacy, slavery and colonialism by his very essence. And he did so with grace and gravitas. He invited us all, to paraphrase the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to remember that no matter what ship we left on, we're all in the same boat now. He empowered me to open my heart to the Lord again - on TV from across the Atlantic, no less - and my soul rejoiced in God my Savior.

While I was striving for a sense of succor from this morning's live-cast, I found I could not help but check my email. Part of an essay from the Abbey of the Arts spoke to me while the preacher rambled on:

We live in the midst of chaotic times. As crises continue to build, we may find ourselves confused or fearful. We may want to gather in the upper room of our lives with our closest friends and close the door on a troubled world just like the disciples. Yet chaos always calls for creative response, it always beckons us to open to holy surprise. Today is the feast of Pentecost, that glorious final day of the season of resurrection. The Apostles were together experiencing bewilderment over how to move forward when the Holy Spirit flows among them and breathes courage into their hearts...

(The story) says that those who witnessed this event were "amazed and perplexed." Some were confused, others cynical. Peter reminds the crowds of the words the prophet Joel declared, that all will be called to dreams and visions, all will need to be attentive to signs and wonders. The story of Pentecost asks us a question: How do I let my expectations and cynicism close my heart to the new voice rising like a fierce wind?

In Benedictine tradition, conversion is a central spiritual practice. Conversion for me essentially means making a commitment to always be surprised by God. Conversion is the recognition that we are all on a journey and always changing. God is always offering us something new within us. Conversion is a commitment to total inner transformation and a free response to the ways God is calling us and to new images of God. Eugene Peterson describes it this way: "What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it's like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in its vast ocean."
(Christine Valters Painters @ Abbey of the Arts)

Reading Dr. Painters' words brought back the beauty of the Royal Wedding and power of Bishop Curry's homily. They also recalled for me the challenge of Childish Gambino's video, "This Is America." I can't get this masterpiece out of my head. If you haven't seen it, stop - do not pass go - and take five minutes to do so right now. It is searing. It is beautiful. It is tragic and oh so true. I am genuinely speechless about everything this evokes for me...

After Friday's most recent massacre at an American high school, this work of art is all the more important to us all. Jim McDermott, writing in the Jesuit on-line resource, America, offers this clue about why "This Is America" is crucial:

How to talk about this extraordinary piece of work? In just four minutes “This is America” shuttles through an astonishing number of referents to both current affairs and black culture, including gun violence, police shootings, school shootings, OK Go’s Rube Goldberg-style music videos, rap video thug and bling posing, urban riots, the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting, gospel choirs, the gospel of prosperity, Jim Crow imagery, “Get Out,” lynchings, memes, Michael Jackson, viral dance videos and Glover’s former role as nerdy community college kid Troy Barnes on the TV show “Community.” All the while Glover mostly dances his way through an abandoned warehouse with happy school children as chaos ensues in the background, his eyes rarely leaving us.

Read his whole essay, please? And know in advance that McDermott links the
paradox of the artist's critique of our nation with the same biting sting that Flannery O'Connor used in her day. I suspect he is right. (https://www.americamagazine. org/arts-culture/ 2018/05/16/what-childish-gambino-and-flannery-oconnor-have commonutmmedium=email& amp;utm_source=newsletters&utm_content=3++What+Childish+Gambino+and+Flannery+OConn&utm_campaign=Newsletter&source=Newsletter Pentecost, for those who choose to trust God and live by faith, is a way of being, not a doctrinal fact. It is a willingness to let our hearts be changed by reality as we embody and wait for the promise of God. Painters is helpful again: 

Pentecost demands that we listen with a willing heart, and that we open ourselves to ongoing radical transformation. We discover that the pilgrimage does not end here, instead we are called to a new one of sharing our gifts with the world. Soul work is always challenging and calls us beyond our comfort zone. Prayer isn't about baptizing the status quo, but entering into dynamic relationship with the God who always makes things new. Scripture challenges our ingrained patterns of belief, our habitual attitudes and behavior. Conversion is about maintaining what the Buddhists call "Beginner's Mind." St. Benedict speaks to this in his Rule with the call to always begin again.

All of which took me back to Leonard Cohen. For me, it almost always gets back to Leonard Cohen. Singing in harmony with Jesus, to be sure, ok? LC reminded me that there "is a crack, a crack, in everything: that's how the light gets in." After watching and listening to Childish Gambino a few more times, I found I needed to hear Cohen again. As Leonard sang, he gave shape and voice to Jesus saying: those who seek to save their lives shall lose them. There is a crack in everything. Trust those cracks. Trust those wounds to become the way into healing and holiness. For your personally. And for your broken, hurting world. Trust God's to break into the chaos through the cracks. For if you trust the Spirit of God to lure you beyond what is comfortable and clear, you will leave the wilderness and wander into what is holy and transformative. "Ring the bells, the bells that still can ring. Forget you perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."  Blessed Pentecost.


Friday, May 18, 2018

the unforced and unexpected blessings of song...

As anticipated, last night's "gig" at the Infinity open mic was sweet. It was also a bit of mysterious but sacred communion as artists and fledglings met together for song. Musicians of varying styles and skill levels sat in solidarity for a few hours celebrating moments of beauty. I felt awe and connection when an instrumental version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was performed. I found myself praying silently for a young tween girl playing praise songs on the ukulele and piano with her dad, returning thanks to God for her innocent confidence. And I rejoiced when we played a satisfying, eclectic and fun set. We now move forward to Friday, June 1st @ 8 pm when we return to play in an open mic competition. Three truths stand out about last night: 

+ First, it was an eclectic cast of characters. There is something holy that happens in such a setting: seasoned players and novices share their mutual love of music. There is respect present - for both the individual and the song - and in our current culture, this is no small thing. None of the artists simply show-up for their time slot and then leave: everyone sits and listens in solidarity to the whole show. (Or almost the whole show.) This matters. This communicates that each performer is beloved. Each song holds something of value in it if we listen carefully and with love. In other words, this is NOT a cut and scratch bebop jam session where hot shots strive to knock less experienced players off the band stand. No, this is a check your ego at the door, sisters and brothers, and settle in as part of the community. To be sure, some players are better than others. That is expected. And honored. For where can a new musician learn what works and what doesn't, yes? Performing live brings to each player a simple honesty we all need. That it can be shared in a room that encourages artists at their own level without sentimentality or cruel judgment makes it holy ground.

+ Second, the mood was chill but care was given to sound reproduction. A few weeks ago we played a beautiful room that was packed with music-loving people, but the sound system sucked. The monitor had no lower tones, the bass amp kept shorting out, and the vibe on the stage was dead. No time for sound checks. And when the tech couldn't get my electric bass to work through the house system - and I picked up their instrument in the middle of our second song - it was woefully out of tune. It was a mini-version of what the Beatles' have said about playing She Stadium: you couldn't hear your mates, you couldn't hear yourself, so all you could do is rely on your practicing and pray for the best.We left vowing NEVER to return. A music venue must honor the song - and the sound. My hunch is that one of the reasons for the bad vibe and crappy sound is that this club caters to an in-bred crowd. Everyone who performed knew one another - except us. We were the strangers in the house. It was not a show case for real music, but something like a mutual admiration society. So why bother about the quality of the sound? Another thing open mics document is where the house values the music and where it doesn't. Life is too short and the songs are too important to waste your time playing to the rafters.

+ And third, it was fun. I once heard the late Charles Neville say that there is something sacred about sending your love out to the crowd where it can mingle with the Spirit for a time and then be sent back to you on stage. Fr. Richard Rohr wrote: "The power of imagination and art is at the level of soul, where we do not consciously know what is happening. Therefore, we cannot engineer it, do not need to understand it, nor can we fully stop its effects! If we “perfectly understand” how God is changing us, if we try to be too rational about it, we will only fight grace, try to personally steer the soul (dangerous!), and, of course, take argumentative sides. God works best underground and in our unconscious, by rearranging our assumptions and presuppositions—frankly, when we are not in control. The work of grace and healing mostly happens “in secret” as Jesus himself seems to say (Matthew 6:1-13)." Our calling is, as Bob Dylan sang, "to know our song well before we start singing." We practice and share it in love - and sometimes the mystery of the Spirit is at work and that love is returned ten fold. Artist Barbara Coleman put it like this: 

By not emphasizing a product, and by focusing on process instead, the work becomes more successful as well. The more [we are] able to reach a state of awareness in which [our] self-consciousness disappears into the desire to participate and see what [we] are trying to express, the more the art [and, I would add, God] can reach [us].

When such unforced blessings happen, my heart is full to overflowing. Today I return thanks and rest in the joy.

+ resonica @ https://fineartamerica.com/art/guitar
+ dynamic guitar @ https://digitalhypergfx.deviantart.com/art/Dynamic-guitar-118955013

Thursday, May 17, 2018

a surprising moment of sacred connection...

When I was hanging out in Brooklyn a few weeks ago, I took this picture while
waiting for my daughter and grandson. It was a stunningly warm April afternoon. I had 45 minutes of quiet time before school let out when we would romp around in the park. What better time for a cold Italian lager, a spot of Henri Nouwen and silent prayer? I can't tell you how many times I have found myself talking about matters of life and death with strangers in pubs, jazz clubs and public parks simply because I am sitting quietly and taking it all in. This extended quote from Fr. Richard Rohr's blog this morning articulates experiences that happen to me with startling frequency:

We are told that Jesus hung out with publicans, tax collectors, and sinners. Perhaps during these sessions of music, laughter, and food fellowship, there were also... moments when the love of God and mutual care and concern became the focus of their time together. Contemplation is not confined to designated and institutional sacred spaces. God breaks into nightclubs and Billie Holiday’s sultry torch songs; God tap dances with Bill Robinson and Savion Glover. And when Coltrane blew his horn, the angels paused to consider.

Some sacred spaces bear none of the expected characteristics. The fact that we prefer stained glass windows, pomp and circumstance . . . has nothing to do with the sacred. It may seem as if the mysteries of divine-human reunion erupt in our lives when, in fact, the otherness of spiritual abiding is integral to human interiority. On occasion, we turn our attention to this abiding presence and are startled. But it was always there.

Art can amplify the sacred and challenge the status quo. The arts help us to hear above the cacophony and pause in the midst of our multitasking. The arts engage a sacred frequency that is perforated with pauses. Artists learned... that there were things too full for human tongues, too alive for articulation. You can dance and rhyme and sing it, you almost reach it in the high notes, but joy unspeakable is experience and sojourn, it is the ineffable within our reach.
(Barbara Homes @ Center for Action and Contemplation, May 17, 2018)

Tonight we return to Infinity, Norfolk CT to play an open mic. Not only is it a chance to hone our performance of original music, but it is a time to catch a bit of the vibe of the crowd. There will likely be unplanned conversations inside and out of the music hall, too. And if past is prelude to the future, there might even be  a surprising moment of sacred connection and vulnerability. Contemplation is taking a long, loving look at what is real. It is also being awake and aware that the holy is with us whether we know it or not. Here's to the grace of God, great music and a cold pint of a local lager!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

closing thoughts about l'arche ottawa retreat: part four...

What is the best balance between theory and practice? Praxis, the Word made flesh or the practical application and living into spiritual/ theological ideas, is always a work in progress. As I prayerfully ponder what spiritual formation means for me at l'Arche Ottawa, the words of the movement's founder, Jean Vanier, rise to the surface. A l'Arche community is one where there is "a belonging that does not crush or stifle freedom, but enhances it." (Ark for the Poor, p. 16) 

This is tricky business. It always has been and always will be given diversity of age, experience, spirituality, self-awareness, and history within the community. L'Arche is first a home where fragile human beings gather together to become whole in the midst of our brokenness. Vanier wrote: "One thing that people with disabilities have revealed to me is their incredible capacity for creating community and bringing people together. Experience has shown that one person, all alone, can never heal another. A one-to-one situation is not a good situation. It is important to bring broken people into a community of love, a place where they feel accepted and recognized in their gifts, and have a sense of belonging. That is what wounded people need and want most." (Brokenness to Community, pp. 28-29) As he has said elsewhere: l'Arche has been given a gift by God to show how our common brokenness can be healed in peace through trust and tenderness.

Simultaneously, l'Arche provides essential life services to people with intellectual and/or physical
disabilities. Therefore, social service requirements also make up part of the community's identity. Many who come to l'Arche as assistants are first guided by altruism and compassion. These are noble aspirations - and God knows the world needs more tender-hearted men and women - but abstract ideals often crumble in the crucible of conflict. In spiritual formation, a theoretical calling without deep practical application is a desire driven by consolation: in this case, doing good for others in order to feel loved. Vanier offers a sweet but piercing critique of this based upon his 50+ years of living in the spirit of Christ's love in communities of the wounded:

Those who come close to people in need do so first of all in a generous desire to help them and bring them relief; they often feel like saviors and put themselves on a pedestal. But once in contact with them, once touching them, establishing a loving and trusting relationship with the, the mystery unveils itself. At the heart of the insecurity of people in distress there is a presence of Jesus. And so they discover the sacrament of the poor and enter the mystery of compassion. People who are poor seem to break down the barriers of powerfulness, of wealth, of ability, and of pride; they pierce the armor the human heart builds to protect itself. (Community and Growth)

Doing nice things has its place, but it doesn't open us to our own brokenness. Nor does it move us into our second calling.  
The second call comes later, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus; it is a time of renunciation, humiliation, and humility. We feel useless; we are no longer appreciated. If the first passage is made at high noon under a shining sun, the second call is often made at night. We feel alone and are afraid because we are now in a world of confusion. (Community and Growth)

Ripening beyond the level of novice in transformational compassion takes time. It is painful. Humbling. And hard. Not everyone in community wants to sustain such a life-changing journey. Consequently, there is significant annual turn over among l'Arche assistants and volunteers. This alone is reason enough to regularly revisit the balance between theory and practice. The 2008 Key Elements of a L'Arche Community document puts it like this: "A l'Arche community grows and develops when we can identify, articulate and be accountable for the fundamental elements and core values which define who we are and who we want to become. We recognize the need for a continuity of common principles, goals and practices..."  

Community retreats create engaging and enriching experiences where we can "critically reflect upon praxis" through song, story-telling, silent reflection/prayer and conversation over meals. My personal experience was simple: I wept and laughed, I learned a little about myself, l'Arche and my friends in community - and I realized that I had a lot more to learn.

That our entire experience was saturated in grace was essential: unless we know - and are regularly reminded - that first and foremost we are ALL the beloved of God, however we might choose to express this, burn-out is inevitable. Trusting that we are personally and collectively created in the image of God is a work in progress. We may "know" this in our mind, but not trust it in our heart. This is often true for me so I know it is true for others, too. Learning to love like Jesus takes practice - and time - and community retreats model this truth in spades. Psalm 139 in Peterson's reworking, The Message, is instructive:

Oh yes, Lord, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

As Jesus heard at his baptism - and tells us throughout his ministry - WE are God's beloved, created in God's image to love one another as Christ loves us. On retreat our gifts were named and claimed. Our unique beauty was affirmed and reaffirmed, too. We spoke openly and vulnerably. We practiced trust. We held one another up in love. We called out to God for guidance in prayer. We celebrated birthdays, sang crazy songs, and laughed so hard it sometimes hurt. I left our two days together grateful for what someone called "l'Arche time" - refusing to rush so that we took the time necessary to honor each beloved body in the community in grace - for in doing this, we model our deepest values and core principles. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

reflections on l'arche ottawa retreat: part three

In his little book, Befriending the Stranger, l'Arche founder Jean Vanier offers six essays re: spiritual formation for those called to embrace the charism of l'Arche. These words began as lectures and conversations first presented in the Dominican Republic "for those immersed in the daily life of l'Arche as assistants." At the close of the week long retreat, "many of the assistants... announced their bonding or 'covenant' with Jesus and with all members of their community, especially the weakest and the poorest." (p.vii) Vanier's printed text stands in concert with Community and Growth, The Heart of L'Arche, and The Ark of the Poor as guides to embodying the grace of God as revealed by Jesus through the ministry of l'Arche. Having just returned from our second formation retreat at L'Arche Ottawa, Vanier's words call out for deeper appreciation.

In his lecture for Day Three, Vanier uses the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from St. John's gospel as a clue for living in community. "John's Gospel tells us that Jesus is tired, so he sits down near the well of Jacob in Samaria."

It is moving to sense Jesus' exhaustion, his humanity. He is so 'like us in all things except sin."We need to pay close attention to Jesus in his humanity, be close to him in his tiredness. He can show us how to live our tiredness and our humanity... (so notice that when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman) he does not begin by telling her to get her act together, but rather by expressing his own need and asking if she can help. (p. 53)

I am usually my worst when I am tired. Not always, of course, but mostly. To be reminded of Christ's exhaustion eases my personal frustrations when I miss the mark re: compassion. But Vanier refuses to rest on piety, platitudes or sentimentality. Two additional truths are revealed in this essay:

+ First, a worn-out Jesus meets a woman living with her own weariness, wounds and brokenness. "She symbolizes the place of guilt in us from which are born many of our attitudes and actions - consciously or unconsciously. And our sense of guilt (sometimes) urges us to be heroic or generous in an attempt to redeem ourselves. It can also push us into anger and dependence on drugs or alcohol. If we do not let God penetrate the shadow areas of our being, they risk governing our lives." These are clarifying words to those of us who wish to ripen in community. They help us humbly own our own wounds as the source of fear, conflict, judgment, and shame. They invite us to cultivate some type of inward contemplative practice so that we are loved and cleansed from the inside out by God's grace. As Fr. Henri Nouwen writes over and again: living in community is only possible through solitude and contemplation. Resting in God's grace and trusting in God's love is essential.

+ Second, denying the existence of darkness within ourselves makes us adversaries of community.  The charism of community life is a double-edged sword. It cuts through personal illusions of purity or self-sufficiency, and, cuts away our insistence that we are special in either holiness or sin. We are beloved, to be sure, but we are ordinary human beings with gifts and flaws. No more, no less. Vanier writes: "In the story of the woman at the well I understand now that I have to let God meet the wounded, broken woman inside of me and let God enter into all the dirt inside me... If we deny the existence of darkness within ourselves because we think we are pure, then the light cannot come into us. So, too, if we think we are only darkness - unworthy of God - we close up in our darkness, cut ourselves off from the light, and prevent it from entering our being." (p. 55)

Such simplicity for spiritual formation, yes? Humility and trust, solitude and service, compassion and contemplation. My deepest personal hope for the coming year is that I can go a little deeper into each of these simple truths with the core members and assistants of l'Arche Ottawa. As I read Vanier's account of the founding of l'Arche, An Ark for the Poor, and spend time in prayer and relationship with my friends in Ottawa, my heart is not weighed down by the rage and anguish that continues to capture so much of the world. They make me weep, yes, but to paraphrase Job's response to the mystical presence of the holy in his pain: once I only heard with my ears, but now I have seen... seen the "anguish of isolation transformed into the celebration of belonging, (for it is) a belonging that does not crush or stifle freedom, but enhances it." (Ark for the Poor, p. 16)

Monday, May 14, 2018

deeper reflections on l'arche ottawa retreat - part two...

In the day-to-day roller coaster ride of living with real people our deepest values and goals for community life will be tested. There are times when we are not our best selves, encounters when our brokenness rises to the surface, or experiences when habit, fear or prejudice become stronger than our intentions. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, has noted two paradoxical truths about living in community that shaped our recent formation retreat:

+ “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes." 

+ “Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” 

I hear this as a spirituality of humility and love guided by a fierce opposition to sentimentality. For two days we used four practices to try and go deeper: a) vulnerable story-telling; b) celebrating one another's gifts out loud; c) singing, praying, laughing, weeping and sharing silence together; and d) eating our meals in common. Vanier put it like this in Community and Growth:

(Our) first call is frequently to follow Jesus or to prepare ourselves to do wonderful and noble things for the Kingdom. We are appreciated and admired by family, by friends or by the community. The second call comes later, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus; it is a time of renunciation, humiliation and humility. We feel useless; we are no longer appreciated. If the first passage is made at high noon, under a shining sun, the second call is often made at night. We feel alone and are afraid because we are in a world of confusion. We begin to doubt the commitment we made in the light of day. We seem deeply broken in some way. But this suffering is not useless. Through the renunciation we can reach a new wisdom of love. It is only through the pain of the cross that we discover what the resurrection means.

One day was set aside especially for community assistants and leaders to honor their experience of "the second call." Fr. Kevin modeled this by telling his own story. "I wanted to share compassion and be a good servant," he said over and again, "only to find out I didn't know how to listen. And I really had to be taught how to wait." Later, L'Arche assistants shared part of their stories, too: stories of heart-break and love, stories of fear and trust, stories of humiliation as well as tenderness. Together we were young assistants and senior citizens, folk from all around the world including South America, Africa, Asia, Europe as well as North America, and people of differing spiritual insights. By evening of the first day a sense of our respective vulnerability was palpable. 

On day two, the core members and some of their families took us deeper by speaking of their journey into L'Arche. Some courageous and tender words were spoken on Saturday, words born of suffering, love and hope. There were songs and prayers, soup and bread, and later Eucharist. The reading for Ascension Sunday was fitting: after Christ is lifted into the consciousness of creation, an angel says to the first disciples, "Why do you have your head in the cloud? Jesus is not up there. Go out into the world in his manner and make his love flesh within and among you. Go do it!" (Acts 1) Vanier reminds us that our calling to make God's gracious love flesh among us is slow work - and requires that we become friends of time.

Individual growth towards love and wisdom is slow. A community's growth is even slower. Members of a community have to be friends of time. They have to learn that many things will resolve themselves if they are given enough time. It can be a great mistake to want, in the name of clarity and truth, to push things too quickly to a resolution. Some people enjoy confrontation and highlighting divisions. This is not always healthy. It is better to be a friend of time. But clearly too, people should not pretend that problems don't exist by refusing to listen to the rumblings of discontent; they must be aware of the tensions and then learn to work on them at the right moment.

As I drove for six hours to get back to Pittsfield, MA by midnight on Saturday, I returned again and again to the marriage of laughter and tears I felt during this retreat. Often I was full to overflowing listening to the anguished descriptions of life in a world that fears and often punishes people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. I wept, too when these same friends suddenly burst out in bold laughter describing their current delights. And some of the spontaneous comments - or song requests - were wildly unpredictable, totally hilarious in the sweetest ways possible, and kept us grounded in reality. St. Paul was speaking to me during this time away saying:

Remember, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, so God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to make whole those who trust. Some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we look to Christ crucified, a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, but to those who are trust, this is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in anything but the love of God.

I look forward to working more closely with spiritual formation at L'Arche Ottawa in the coming program year. I have a few musical and liturgical gifts to share. And a whole lot of learning about tenderness through the wisdom of my wounds, too. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

sunday morning thoughts on our l'arche ottawa retreat...

Driving six hours to and from my community in L'Arche Ottawa affords me a lot of time to listen to what is swirling inside my head and heart. I need a lot of time. Too often I distract myself from what is genuinely life-giving only to have those truths pop into consciousness just when I'd rather be asleep. The long drive back to Pittsfield last night once again became for me an extended meditation on our community retreat. Imagine my delight when I pulled into the driveway at midnight to find this musical meditation in my electronic mailbox.

A few thoughts have already bubbled to the surface and more will come. The most jarring came while crossing the border back into the USA from Canada. The o so young guard could not comprehend why I would regularly make the trek from Massachusetts to Ontario. We clearly spoke different languages. And he was even more bewildered that I would make this drive to volunteer in a community dedicated to love. Not that I used that expression, mind you. That would have certainly suggested cults to him and I didn't want an unnecessary search in the darkness. Still, he looked at me like I was crazy when I explained that L'Arche is an extended family of adults caring for women and men with physical and  intellectual disabilities. "What do you DO there?" he demanded a few times. "Often," I said quietly, "I play music. Sometimes I help out with everyday chores." After about five minutes of being grilled by this tender tough guy, he waved me through with a dismissive smirk.

Earlier that day, Fr. Kevin spoke of how a L'Arche community bumped into a similar experience with a governmental authority. The state officials could not comprehend the charism of community life. They, too, spoke a different language than L'Arche. They were comfortable with rules, regulations and codes to care for individuals with various challenges. Consequently, a request for a community house was denied. "You could have separate apartments, however, so that everyone would have personal rooms, locks and keys" they said. So, L'Arche worked within this framework to create common space - as well as individual rooms - that helped the well-intentioned bureaucrats sign-off on the home. It was up to the community to realize the competing world views and find a way to move through the conflict into compassion. By listening with love, by trusting that God will make a way when there is no way, and by freely entering into the conflict with grace rather than fear or defensiveness, L'Arche was able to deepen their mission in the real world.

All the while I was speaking to the border guard I kept thinking, "We are speaking totally different languages." As an old prayer and praise song put it: "We have another world in view." A ton of snarky thoughts, outright challenges, and sarcastic rejoinders to his bullying tone made their appearances in my mind; however, they would not advance the cause. Nor would arguing. Or trying to explain the mission and experience of L'Arche. When asked again, "Why do you drive all the way to Canada to do this volunteering?" I wanted to say: "Because it is of the Lord. I don't know why God called me to Ottawa. I don't know why I find my heart meeting the presence of Jesus in our encounters. And I don't know the end of this story. Ever hear about St. Paul and the crazy things he did for God? Or how about the story of Easter? It was, after all, the liturgical feast of the Ascension! I don't know why God does what God does, I simply know it is of the Lord... and that's good enough for me." 

But, of course, that wouldn't advance the cause either. Clearly, there is a time and a season for all things under the sun - and this one called for silence. And trust. And a measure of patience, too. I can still see his complete confusion - and disdain - when I told him the only thing I was bringing back from Canada was a small painting by a community member, Harry Laroque, given to me as a gift. "Go on," we waved at me with his hand, "time to go home." He was just doing his job. He takes protecting the border of the USA very seriously. And like many young, white men with a gun and a bit of authority in America, he was feeling his oats. It made me mildly uncomfortable. A little angry and sad, as well. But, as they pray in AA: "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."

There's more to share about the actual retreat - and I will as next week unfolds - just know that for the rest of the ride home I was reminded of my spiritual discipline for this year:  behold. Look deeply and lovingly at what God is doing in the moment - and trust it. Like Mary, who beheld the promise of the Lord by holding all the mysteries of Jesus in her heart even without always understanding, so too shall this year be for me. I am so grateful for the long, dark night.

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:...