Tuesday, July 31, 2018

mustard seeds, quiet and unexpected invitation to the holy....

One of the thoughts that keeps returning to me as I listen again to the parable of Jesus and the mustard seed is how easily I can squeeze the holy out of my world. That is, in the beginning of our spiritual journey, even when we recognize our longing for intimacy with God, there is only a small place for the holy within. We're cluttered, distracted, unfocused and more. That's part of the wisdom of this parable, too: we do not need to start out heroically or with great strength for faith to grow. Opening to the sacred needs only a sliver of opportunity for grace to ripen and mature within us. With a modest effort - and persistence in real time - the kingdom of God can and will grow in us in magnificent ways. Part of the genius of this parable is that it tells us something important about ourselves as well as the holy. In each version - Matthew 13: 31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19 - I see four truths described obliquely:

+ First, the openness of our hearts always starts small. Most of us do not have a Damascus Road conversion experience like St. Paul. Rather, over time we notice a yearning within. Or an emptiness when we are quiet. Or an aching for a connection to meaning beyond our daily routine. This quiet desire for something more than the status quo is God's invitation to us. Like Elijah the prophet discovered, the Lord did not come to him in the big things - the earthquake, the wind or the fire - but in the still, small silence. (See I Kings 19: 9-13) One of the truths Jesus asks us to consider is when have we experienced these quiet and small invitations from God? If we're too busy, too stressed, to sleep-deprived and all the rest, we may not notice the still, small voice withing the silence.

+ Second, our openness to God's grace often begins with something outside of traditional religion. The mustard seed, after all, was considered ritually unclean for desert gardens; once rooted, it would quickly spread and crowd out more valuable produce. It is fascinating and odd, but rings true, that Jesus teaches that often God's small invitation to us comes in the most unlikely ways. It might be a song on the radio. Or a conversation in a bar. It could happen through the birth of a child or a humiliating experience at work or love. The still, small voice of God's invitation can show up in any place and at any time - and rarely occurs in worship. It can happen there, too but usually only after we've started to pay attention elsewhere. That tiny, unclean seed holds a lot of meaning for those willing to give it a bit of space.

+ Third, if we offer God a small place in our hearts, the very nature of God's love will grow within us.  All the mustard seed requires is a little dirt, some water and sunlight. The gardener doesn't have to pay much attention to the seed once it is placed into the soil. I was feeling this last night in my closing prayer: when I make a little bit of space and time for the sacred within myself, it grows. That is the nature of God's love. It matures. Ripens. Begins to bear fruit by grace rather than human effort. St. Paul likes to remind us that the presence of God within - the realm or kingdom of God - is a gift. And if we honor it, this gift will ripen into what the apostle speaks of as the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5) These virtues begin small, take a long time to mature, and produce mostly small acts of tenderness in real time. Cumulatively, however, what is small offers shelter to those in need like the birds of the air in the parable.

+ And fourth, while God's grace desires to spread within the garden of our heart, we have to do our part lest the shrub whither and die. This is one of the paradoxes of faith: grace grows within both by God's quiet presence and by our openness. That is all that we need bring to the Lord: an open heart. Without this, God's small invitations still arrive and God's blessings are still taking place, but we will be too busy, cynical or obsessed to receive them. I know in my own journey by faith that without making space every day for quiet and silence I can push the small presence of God away without even realizing it. In fact, it has happened over and again. Maybe for you, too? I am not talking about feelings - they wax and wane in their own mysterious ways. No, I mean being intentional about quiet reflection, contemplation and prayer. Not asking God for anything, but being still to receive in a relationship.

I am grateful to have the time to sit in reflection - and write - these days. One old salt used to tell me, "Man, you have all the time there is so don't waste it." And for many years I knew this was true - and still wasted it. Then, that tiny seed would find a way back into my consciousness and I would start again. On Sunday, when Di and I played and sang with other artists on a stunning Sabbath afternoon, the closing poet, Grace Roman, offered up a new work. She is profound, passionate, brilliant and disciplined as an artist. She joined with me and a cadre of musicians, dancers and poets in January to ring in the new year with courage, resistance and beauty. With her permission, I share with you her poem, Tune In to This, as yet another small and brilliant invitation into the holy.

Tune in to This

It was a spiritual experience.
On a cold night in a crowded concert hall,
Something holy blasted through the speakers,
And burst into the room,
And danced into my collar bones.

In that sea of strangers I was home.
Together we wrote poems on the ceiling with our fingertips,
Thinking as one,
Singing as one,
Pulsing and convulsing as one,
In that moment we were not just one species,
We were one organism - one being, together,
Hearts beating, together,
Feeling the music tickle like a feather,
Then beat down like rain,
Til it exploded like fireworks.

They say it sounded like fireworks
In Orlando, Manchester, Las Vegas
When holy places were violated,
When temples built to the gods of musical unity were desecrated,
When worshipers of melody were struck down as they celebrated.

Is this the world we’re living in?
That moment when you realize that your skin
Is such a thin barrier between you
And those who never learned how to speak
Without taking the voices of others away -
How could we not be afraid?
How could we not want to stay
In our individual, bulletproof bubbles of safety,
Not making a sound?
When fatal fireworks resound around the globe,
How could we not be stunned to silence?
But when we’re quiet, the sounds of violence grow louder by comparison.

Think of all the dissonance we’re carrying
In our collective short term memory,
Replaying every gunshot -
Every screaming, screeching truck,
Every newscast, news that your politicians
Are still stuck in the dark ages,
That there were more outrageous tweets sent at two in the morning,
Disjointed jabber jumbled into one constant, grating hiss -
Life’s soundtrack shouldn’t sound like this.

So take your sadness,
Take your fear - take that last drop of calm that you hold so dear -
Take all of it, don’t swallow it,
You’ve been holding onto it for far too long, now.
Let it breathe -
It’s time to turn it into song now,
Strong, now, together.

This world needs music more than ever.
make some.
Taste the vibrations.
Flourish from their nourishment.
If music be the food of love, play and on and on and honestly,
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able
To fully let go into the flow anymore,
Knowing that people have waged war on it.
Mourn for this.
But then, sing your sorrow
Into something glorious, transforming it -
Feel it beat down like rain.

Joy is not the absence of pain,
But the willingness to sing anyway.

Monday, July 30, 2018

i like birds: reflections on yesterday's art walk as community

A lovely FB meme greeted me this lazy day: "If you think you've blown God's plan for your life, rest in this: you, my beautiful friend, are not that powerful." This is wisdom speaking a word of humility to the hubris of our hearts. It is the love greater than our imaginations reminding us that grace trumps karma. And it is an invitation to simultaneously own our wounds, mistakes, failures, and sins even as we trust that they are not the end of the story. A poem by Daniel Ladinsky evokes this paradoxical blessing born of the spirituality of St. Francis: 
What mother would lose her infant—and we are that to God,

never lost from [Her] gaze are we? Every cry of the heart
is attended by light’s own arms.
You cannot wander anywhere that will not aid you.

Anything you can touch—God brought it into
the classroom of your mind.

Differences exist, but not in the city of love.
Thus my vows and yours, I know they are the same. . . .

The holy water my soul’s brow needs is unity.
Love opened my eye and I was cleansed
by the purity of each

Yesterday I participated in a walking arts encounter sponsored by the local poetry slam organization WordXWord. (http://wordxwordfestival.com) They work tirelessly to bring people of all ages, races, gender and class together in one spot to create and share poetry. Their work simultaneously builds bridges, challenges stereotypes, evokes truth-telling, and sometimes even facilitates beauty and new understandings. It is a risk-taking collection of individuals committed to the cause of community building in a fractured culture. Our challenge was to respond - and react - to sculptures showcased within the gardens of The Mount (https://www.edithwharton.org/ event/2018-sculpturenow-exhibitopening/) There were angry words, cries for justice and mercy, sounds of beauty and wonder, invitations to risk new ways of honoring our differences, and a reminder that each and all of us ache for the comfort of "home."  I left the event with two thoughts connected to the possibilities of renewal and transformation noted above that continue to ripen:

+ First, in ways that are striking to me after 40 years of Christian ministry, this arts consortium brought together diverse people in a way that most American churches have yet to imagine.  This was NOT about entertainment or distraction. It was an engagement with truth on a soul level. Young, old and middle aged folk all had a part to play according to the movement of the Spirit. Black, white and Latinx walked together - those who special needs rode in a small, motorized cart - and after each presentation the crowd responded with gratitude. We talked to one another about what had touched us while walking from one exhibit to the next and then gathered again at the close for more sharing. 

+ Second, the visual art as well as our reactions with dance, poetry, music and shared conversation was not rarefied or elitist.  There was no insider jargon. Rather, there was heart-talk. Big emotions struggling for honest reflection. Tenderness. And even hope. When I read these words from Kahil Gibran this morning, they felt much like my experience at the art walk:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.…When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

Our offering, "I Like Birds," was the only music for the day. Di and I worked up an upright walking bass groove to be the foundation for her vocal. It was both whimsical and prophetic. In a way that is gentle and fun, the song invites each to fully become themselves rather than be mashed into the uniforms of conformity. 
If you're small and on a search
I've got a feeder
for you to perch on
I can't stand in line at the store
The mean little people
are such a bore
But it's alright
if you act like a turd
'Cause I like... birds.
I found myself hearing St. Paul's wisdom from Romans 12 as the day came to a close:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The arts community being forged here is not territorial. Neither is it automatic. The artists and coordinators are vigorous in networking. They insist that there some venues are for expertise and others for novices. Their poetry slams give everyone a fighting chance to share their gifts - and learn from their mistakes. This group also shows up in support of others, too. They have earned their street cred not by words alone, but by solidarity. My urban ministry mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to say: Credibility is not portable; every place demands that you stand and deliver before trust is shared. It is hard work. The church could learn something important for how it is being done among us.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

the prayer of gardens...

We spent the day in gardens: our garden at morning breakfast; the fabulous gardens at Edith Wharton's former mansion, the Mount, for late afternoon poetry and music; and our vegetable patch at sunset. It was a day ripe with thanksgiving. Cesar Chavez introduced me to the joy of gardening back when my family was young and we lived in the UFW compound in La Paz. Most Saturday mornings, the community gathered to weed, water and eventually harvest the bounty of Cesar's massive raised bed, French intensive garden. It wasn't always easy, but I hold the times we walked around that garden at dusk among the 
most holy of those days.

On the way to seminary, in my parents' suburban Maryland yard, we applied the same principles as Cesar and harvested some wonderful vegetables. For years I long dreamed of an urban garden/retreat house only to find it a reality 10 years later. Fr. Jim O'Donnell's ministry of presence in the blighted neighborhoods of Cleveland's East Side converted abandoned lots into verdant centers of community life. For a few years, we resumed small vegetable gardens until we moved to Tucson. After killing too many precious seedlings because we forgot to water them in the desert, we moved our garden inside. Shortly before we moved, it took up an entire wall.

There was excitement with the flowers and garden possibilities when we returned to New England. But we soon discovered that we were often away in Montreal at crucial times. Or there was not enough sun in our raised bed plots. Or simply that the abundant deer beat us to the harvest. After striking out for three years we quit for another seven. Then came retirement and we have been more at rest.

We've worked on the flower gardens throughout the yard. Two or three times a week we are attending to the brush. And on my birthday, we decided to attempt a pumpkin and cucumber patch on the sunniest hill near the house. There are hopes of constructing tiers in this garden come the fall. But why wait? Life is so short. So we just plopped down some great potting soil, lovingly added the seedlings and offered them to the Lord. And now, for the first time in 11 years, we're actually growing pumpkins that are producing fruit!

I have no idea why I love pumpkins so much - but I do. I love their color. Their shape, Their variety. Their taste. Their flowers. Massive or small, perfectly shaped or weird,I can't get enough of 'em! This poem by Mary Oliver gets close to what I have always cherished in gardens whether they hold pumpkins or not.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

After Memorial Day, when we could be almost certain there would be no frost, we surrounded our deck with lovely pots and planted tons of our favorite herbs. That was the start: sitting in the morning sun with the scent of fresh basil and mint is every bit as satisfying and sacred as genuflecting as the incense honors the icon.  This Mary Oliver poem says much the same thing in her gracious manner.

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough?
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?
Have I endured loneliness with grace?

I say this, or perhaps I'm just thinking it.
Actually I probably think too much.

Then I step out into the garden,
where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man,
is tending his children, the roses.

Tomorrow my prayer will be cutting back the always encroaching brush from the wetlands. 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

eucharist as a way to live in the world...

Throughout this past week, Fr. Richard Rohr has been sharing reflections on Eucharist. In simple language he reminds us that Jesus gave the Eucharist to his disciples as a gift: live in the world knowing that it is as filled with my presence as the bread and the wine at this table. Take in everything as a gift of grace so that you may multiple the miracle of love. 

Many of us who participate in church sense that somehow the bread and wine of Holy Communion are special. Sacred. A variety of theological explanations have been offered and all have their insights as well as deficits. Since the time I was small I too have felt that the elements of the Eucharist are filled with the real presence of Jesus. As I aged, I continued to trust this by faith even as I knew that the bread was still bread and the wine still wine. Rohr offers this useful addition to my sensory wisdom: "Eucharist is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God and to be present in an embodied way."

Many Christians say they believe in the Presence in the Eucharist, but they don’t get that it is everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence of God when they leave the church, when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or sexual orientation or nationality.

As we open our hearts and bodies to receiving the essence of Jesus in the sacred meal, we practice recognizing his "real presence" in all of creation. In every tree. Every person. Every act that strengthens faith, hope and love. As the bread and wine are filled with the grace of God made visible in Jesus as Christ, so too are we filled with this grace. Not just those who are currently at the table; but the whole of Creation is saturated with a holy presence once we have eyes to see.

The Eucharistic meal is meant to be a microcosmic event, summarizing at one table what is true in the whole macrocosm: We are one, we are equal in dignity, we all eat of the same divine food, and Jesus is still and always “eating with sinners” just as he did when on Earth.

Henri Nouwen once put i like this: the heart of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is NOT doctrinal truth; but rather an encounter with being God's beloved. "You are my Beloved," is what what was mystically proclaimed when Jesus came up out of his baptismal washing in the Jordan River. The texts tell us that this assurance is what Jesus seeks to share with us all: in our flesh, in this moment, beyond all brokenness and shame, we are now and always will be the beloved of the Lord. Regardless of how we feel. Without social qualification. Beyond linear truth. The essence of Jesus is within and among us whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not, whether we name it as such or not.

As I continue to clean and sort my way through boxes of papers, memorabilia,
notes and more from my days of ministry I continue to see how much I have cherished the Eucharist. Celebrating it in liturgy, wrestling with its grace in pastoral counseling, seeking to apply it to my work in social justice, and attempting to honor it as the core of my inner life of prayer has been a constant. 

With an uncanny vividness, I recall the first time I had a mystical experience with Eucharist. It was at First Congregational Church in Darien, CT when I was in 10th grade. To say that old school Congregational liturgy was less that ecstatic would be a wild understatement. Nevertheless, one Sunday in the summer of 1968, I experienced holding Jesus in my hand when I received the host - and being totally consumed by his love. Like Calvin suggested, in that moment time and space disappeared as my being was lifted into the presence of Christ in heaven. When I heard the pastor's invitation to, "Take and eat for this is my body" I noticed tears flowing from my eyes. It all took place in less that three minutes but for that time I knew from the inside out that there was a new heaven and a new earth. There have been other mystical encounters with the Lord during this meal - and elsewhere, too - but that's for another time.

Again the words of Nouwen are useful: to live "Eucharistically" is to let yourself be "taken (or chosen or called), blessed, broken and shared." This four point strategy for an embodied spirituality makes deep sense to me. Like Nouwen, I too am rarely fully engaged. I carry around a lot of baggage and miss the mark more than I hit it. But even my mistakes and failures become an invitation back into God's grace by Eucharist. Looking through my old papers, I came across my beaten-up, old Book of Prayer that contains my favorite communion invitation:

This table is open... so come not because you must, but because you may. Come not to be fulfilled, but because in your emptiness  you stand in need of God's mercy and assurance. Come not to express an opinion, but to seek a presence and to pray for a spirit. Come to this table as sisters and brothers, just as you are. Partake and share. It is spread for you and me that we might again know that God has come to us, shared our common lot and invited us to join the people of God for all eternity.

Next month I begin a new chapter in Eucharistic living as I start to participate in the spirituality planning for the L'Arche Ottawa community. My heart is full to overflowing as this journey continues.

Friday, July 27, 2018

in life, in death, in life beyond death...

This morning we rose early to spend the first part of the day in court. This was an act of solidarity, prayer, witness, and love for friends who have been wounded. In my heart, we became a sign of the living Body of Christ enfleshed. "I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows till we've seen this journey through" as "The Servant Song" hymn proclaims. St. Teresa of Avila taught that "Christ has no body now but yours." We pray for healing and a measure of justice now even as we wait upon the Spirit for guidance - and the jury.

This afternoon was given to yard work and quiet prayer. With so much rain over the past five days our manual lawn mower had been rendered useless. Finally we got a 24 hour window in-between storms, so I had to act. The combination of pushing a lawn mower in the sun and silence is meditative. So many thoughts swirl up from within only to dance off as quickly as they appeared. My mind was on yesterday's gospel reading from Matthew 13. In the parable of the sower, Jesus speaks of people who receive inspiration and respond to it in vastly different ways: some waste the blessing, others react vigorously but are not grounded and quickly fade back into their old habits; some are energized by the blessing but are too compromised by the idols of greed and power to incarnate the gift, while still others receive the inspiration with nurture and patience and let deep roots develop that bring new blessings to birth from their very lives.

Ignatian spirituality invites all the senses to be used in a biblical story. In a time for quiet reflection on this parable yesterday, the questions were: when have you wasted an opportunity or a blessing? When did you find your heart unready? Or compromised? What does it feel like to let the invitation of grace and love grow within? What came to me while cutting the grass is that I look at this parable over the course of a life time. Clearly, there have been times when I was too enthusiastic, impetuous or naive to let the seed of God's love bear fruit. There were other times, too when I was consumed with succeeding - even in ministry! I know there were seasons when I turned away from even trying to listen to the word in my life. And, as I have rediscovered while sorting through the letters and papers of 40 years of ministry, there have been some seeds and blessings that I have taken the time to nurture, trust and grow into. The blessings kept coming and my responses were never static. Clearly, this parable resonates differently with young people, those of middle age, and those in their mature years, yes?

Please don't think for a second that I am being a Pollyanna about the pain and agony so many of us face. There are demons in my soul that I have had to wrestle with in the past - and continue to face down regularly - as well as encounters with violence, addiction, abuse and suffering. I do not speak from within a vacuum. Further, as Jean Vanier of L'Arche writes, people of compassion are compelled to enter into the real pain of others:

It is important to enter into the mystery of pain, rhe pain of our brothers and sisters in countries that are at war, the pain of our brothers and sisters who are sick, who are hungry, who are in prison; brothers and sisters who do not know where they will sleep this night; it is important to enter into the pain of all those for whom no one cares and who are alone; all those who are living grief and loss.

Ours is the way of the Cross. Ours is Christ's challenge: when did we see Thee, Lord hungry, naked, wounded, imprisoned and afraid? Ours is a spirituality of embracing the wounds tenderly and honestly. When I do this in my prayers, it is humbling to recall the times I turned away from Christ's love. It is hard to own the ways my negligence and betrayals have hurt the ones I love. It is also remarkable to see how over the course of a lifetime God didn't quit on me. And that even in my dark night I was able to share small gifts of Christ's love with others. 

It is always this combination of letting the seeds come to my life and having them blow away that shapes my life in faith. Darkness is real but not the end; nor is consolation in this realm for the road goes on forever. As the United Church of Canada wisely proclaims: in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

1. http://www.theeventchronicle.com/metaphysics/spiritual/dark-night-soul-4/

Thursday, July 26, 2018

the chance to love and be loved...

My heart was filled with joy last Friday upon seeing a few old friends from my days of ministry at our house concert. After six months, there was still a feeling of deep affection for them all - and it was wonderfully reciprocated. It was also a blessing to have a few of the old timers sing together with me and the band after an extended hiatus. Their voices rang clear and pure as a bell.

One of the peculiar problems facing both retired clergy and former congregants has to do with respecting appropriate boundaries. Much has been written and discussed about this dilemma born of mutual affection and compassion; and as is often the case, while the intention of the various solutions are generated in love, time and again they wind up enforcing either/or binary rules. Namely, thou shalt have NO contact with one another for a least a year. I know there are countless horror stories from both camps (retired clergy and congregations) where one party or the other violates the agreed upon limitations. Like the former clergy person returning to their old church to sing in the choir - literally looking over the new minister's shoulder during worship - continuing to visit people in the hospital and offering congregational solutions in a variety of other meddlesome ways. (True story from Tucson.) Or the church member who doesn't think it necessary to consult with the new clergy before inviting a former pastor back to town to conduct a wedding, baptism or funeral. Without clear and effective guidelines, and a solid commitment to honor the fact that one era has both come and gone, both professional boundaries and personal feelings are too easily violated. The result is always lose/lose.

I get that. I clearly grasp why judicatories have developed explicit rules and regulations re: navigating the waters of retirement for both pastor and people. What is sad, however, is how calcified the application of these guidelines can become when creativity and compassion to the cause of Christ are lost in favor of mere institutional stability. It did my heart good when the current interim minister of my former parish invited me to an afternoon conversation at a local coffeehouse. Besides getting to know one another and talking about our mutual love of the Beatles, he made it clear that he is not threatened - nor would the church collapse - should there be times when a contact is made. "The legacy of your love for the people," he told me, "continues to reverberate." My assurance was that I would always keep him in the loop - and honor his office and ministry - should some request for participation occur. It hasn't and I don't expect it to take place. But it was good to know that he approached our different roles with wisdom and trust rather than fear or rigidity. Singing together with a few old friends on a beautiful night in the Berkshires truly became holy ground.  

I share this prelude because as I was unpacking yet another layer of papers, pastoral letters, and liturgies from my basement, I became full to overflowing with unexpected gratitude. Yesterday, after attacking the far back room in our basement with two hours of cleaning, I came upon three more boxes filled to the brim with notes, reports, and epistles going back to the early 1980s. After a shower washed away layers of dust and muck, I took another two hours to read and reread the contents of a box. It warmed my heart and I found myself crying tears of thanksgiving for all the love that we have shared over the course of nearly 40 years.

What was equally satisfying was realizing that even while honoring the ever-changing rules of disengagement, we have found ways to remain friends with a few key people in each of the four congregations (and two pastoral internships) I served between 1979 and 2018. Whether on Facebook, Instagram, snail mail or period phone calls, the ties that bind have remained blessed beyond a host of barriers and miles.

Somehow I wasn't startled when later that night I got an email from a colleague in Tucson letting me know that a past moderator, friend and member of my search committee had just gone home to the Lord. More tears. It was then that it hit me these connections of love may be the enduring blessing of my time in ministry: we shared and sometimes realized what it means to love and be loved through joy and sorrow as well as faithfulness and failure. Thanks be to God and to the people of God who opened their hearts to me and my family. Now I have two more boxes to go through: wonder what will arise within from those treasures?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

the feast of st. james, holy trinity and the law of three...

The entire week looks like it will be filled with rain. Monday brought a torrential downpour to these gentle hills and the rest of the week will be enveloped in a series of thunderstorms. Interestingly, today is the Feast Day of St. James whom Jesus dubbed "one of the sons of thunder." My friend, Martha, posted a video clip on Facebook this morning of the celebration at the Cathedral of Santiago in Compostelo, Spain and a massive incensor covering the crowd with blessings. The spirituality of St. James is that of pilgrimage: often on the road again - and that rings true for me. Small wonder that when I opened a site I often use for morning prayer, Pray As You Go, the lesson from II Corinthians 4: 7-12 spoke to my heart:

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

I rather like the opening verse rendered in the King James Version where "clay jars" becomes "earthen vessels." They mean the same thing, of course, but the poetry of the later soars high above the literal translation. To my heart, earthen vessels evokes Christ's incarnation as well as our human experience; the unity of earth, flesh and spirit; vulnerability within creation and so much more. And holding all these truths together as true simultaneously is crucial for living by faith in these trying times. Indeed, it may be the only way we can resist this regime and its afflictions without being crushed and driven to despair. 

Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest well-versed in Christian mysticism and tradition, has crafted a challenging and insightful book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, wherein she makes this stunning assertion:

The single most liberating insight to come out of our collective work with the Law of Three was the realization that what appears to be the resisting or opposing force is never actually the problem to be over come. Second force - or the holy denying factor - is a legitimate and essential component in every new arising: no resistance, no new arising!

It is her contention that "our usual consciousness is skewed toward the binary, toward 'either/or.' It lacks both the sensitivity and the actual physical capacity to stay present to a third force, which requires an established ability to live beyond the opposites." This is the deep wisdom of the Holy Trinity. It is a way of living into the radical grace of God that brings order out of the chaos and hope from despair. And while I am still stumbling my way into the heart of Bourgeault's rich and complex offering; it is clear that she not only re frame the Holy Trinity beyond binary limitations, but wants us to know that God offers creation a "new orientation to problem solving."

The first all-important implication to be drawn from this model is that all three forces (summarized as affirming, denying and reconciling) are equally important participants in the unfolding of a new arising. (The force we call) denying - second force - is never an obstacle to be overcome but always a legitimate and essential component of (God's) new manifestation. In and of itself this realization brings a radically new orientation to problem solving. The "enemy" is never the enemy, but a necessary part of the givens in any situation, and solutions will never work that have as their goal the elimination of the second force... resistance (must always) be factored in: not simply to cover one's bases, but because it is an indispensable ingredient in forward motion.

In other words, it is God's desire that a new heaven and new earth arise from within the wounds that have been built into creation since before the beginning. The holy way, therefore, is not to conquer and subjugate, but rather to engage, suffer, grieve, love and wait in peace until a new and unimagined blessing arises from within the tumult. Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is the message distilled from ancient Israel's exilic prophets. First, they warn and describe what life out of sacred balance looks like: injustice, indifference, inequality. Their cries clearly give shape and form to the the consequences of ignoring grace. Second, they mourn, asking all who have entered the season of grief to feel it fully rather than deny its pain. And third the prophets counsel patience and silence so that as God's new way begins to arise in the human imagination, God's people will have the emptiness to fully receive and embody the revealed way of blessing. Perhaps the opening story of creation in the Bible, born during ancient Israel's exile, is a poetic paradigm for living into the rhythm of life, death and resurrection: out of the chaos and darkness there will emerge a new order and light from within God's love.

Bourgeault states that the law of three is neither inhibited by nor limited to conflict. The way of the Lord is not addicted to drama: "it does no good whatsoever simply to align oneself with one of the two (obvious) opposing forces in an attempt to overcome the other; a solution (that is holy) will appear only when the third force enters." The way of God is that of healing and hope, life from within death, and integrity strengthened by trust beyond our broken earthen vessels. Binary solutions don't last and never bring new life to birth. 

I'm going to keep reading - and sitting with the new take on the Holy Trinity - as summer unfolds in the Berkshires. Bourgeault, who works with Richard Rohr, is on to something and I need to grasp it more thoroughly. At my core it already resonates with today's words from St. Paul. This is what it means to have a treasure in earthen vessels: it shows us how to live with affliction in every way without being crushed. We can embrace being perplexed without giving in to despair, knowing that even while we are persecuted and struck down, we have not been forsaken or destroyed.

1) http://www.thefeastpodcast.org/episode-3-the-medieval-michelin-guide-finding-food-on-the-camino-de-santiago-1490/
2) https://ctbi.org.uk/lent-course-2016/
3) http://www.music.cpcfairfax.org/?p=620
4) http://www.music.cpcfairfax.org/?p=620

Monday, July 23, 2018

space for beauty to trust us.....

Turning our deck into a small, outdoor music venue for a night proved itself to be a winning idea. From emails to in-person comments, the reaction was clear: the beauty of the wetlands and woods behind our home at sunset was magical.

Would it be too grand a notion to claim that the physical beauty that greeted us helped set the stage to welcome the sacred beauty of the music? The poet, John O'Donohue, put it like this: 

What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation... When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.

Tending to the physical environment is an act of radical hospitality. Setting up this encounter with sound and spirit in a place saturated with creation's grace, encourages each of us to "approach the moment with reverence." This was my deepest hope: that the music as well as the setting serve as soul food for our hearts. Ours is a season of fear, fatigue and fury. One antidote is the tender refreshment of music shared in community.  Surrounded by natural beauty - and amplified by the aesthetics of hospitality - we sense a calling to "walk on the earth with reverence (so that) beauty will decide to trust us."  I love that insight, "beauty will decide to trust us." We can only plow the field, till the soil; creation is always a gift beyond our control. By accepting the invitation to slow down and open our lives to kindred spirits for at least a few hours, however, we do our part. We shape a generative safe space that is open to the birth of a blessing. 

Such a gathering is also a small, embodied act of resistance as well as renewal. "The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter" the embrace of hope. O'Donohue suggests that when we practice reverence we gradually forsake the ideals of perfection and open ourselves to the wonders of our brokenness. "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good" is how popular culture articulates it. O'Donohue cuts deeper:

Many people are addicted to perfection, and in their pursuit of the ideal, they have no patience with vulnerability...  Every poet would like to write the ideal poem. Though they never achieve this, sometimes it glimmers through their best work. Ironically, the very beyondness of the idea is often the touch of presence that renders the work luminous. The beauty of the ideal awakens a passion and urgency that brings out the best in the person and calls forth the dream of excellence.

The beauty of the true ideal is its hospitality towards woundedness, weakness, failure and fall-back. Yet so many people are infected with the virus of perfection. They cannot rest; they allow themselves no ease until they come close to the cleansed domain of perfection. This false notion of perfection does damage and puts their lives under great strain. It is a wonderful day in a life when one is finally able to stand before the long, deep mirror of one's own reflection and view oneself with appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness. On that day one breaks through the falsity of images and expectations which have blinded one's spirit. One can only learn to see who one is when one learns to view oneself with the most intimate and forgiving compassion.

There is precious little in our contemporary culture that encourages reflection. There is even less that helps us own our wounds. We are a people obsessed with winning for ours is a binary culture rewarding "my way or the highway" living. A small
 house concert offers an alternative. It quietly asserts the sacredness of small acts of faith, hope and love. Our little gathering interrupted business as usual with a tiny dose of resting together. As E.F. Schumacher and others have documented, an aggressive high tech culture needs small, high touch events to reclaim life on a human scale. "Small is beautiful" was the rallying cry back in the day. In 2018, I would add "small is holy" too.
Last night as I sat with my evening prayer resource, "Pray-as-you-go," the opening music was the Taize chant, "Bless the Lord my soul." It is my favorite prayer/song from this community and as it washed over me I felt myself slip into a deep rest. In time, the liturgist said that prayer is letting go of self and our needs for a time and resting in trust. Right now finding ways to share a safe space so that beauty will come to trust us - and heal us - makes all the sense in the world to me.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Facebook memory photo from our Montreal sabbatical posted on-line when I woke up. How sobering to note that this adventure unfolded for us three years ago this summer. Similarly, it is startling to sense that summer is half over: in August I'll start going back to L'Arche Ottawa on a regular basis as a member of the spirituality planning and implementation team. What's more, our granddaughter, Anna, will celebrate her first birthday in August, too! 

So much has changed in such a short time. Who could have imagined? I find that my usual inner restlessness is now mostly at peace. Not only is there a gentle rhythm to my life that was missing for decades, but I am now centered on small matters of the heart. 

I am learning to sit with not knowing.
Even when my restless mind begins jumping
From a worried
What next,
To a frightened
What if,
To a hard edged and impatient,
Why aren’t you already there?

I’m learning to sit and listen
To pat myself on the knee,
Lay my hand on my heart,
Take another deep breath,
Laugh at myself,
Befriend my mistakes,
Especially the ones,
That show me how,
I most need to change.

I’m learning to sit with whatever comes
Even though I’m a hopeless planner,
Because so much of this life
Can’t be measured or predicted
Or evenly portioned.
Because wonder and suffering visit
When we least expect
And rarely In equal measure.

I’m learning to sit with what
I might never know
Might never learn
Might never heal
With what might waltz in and surprise me
Might nudge me into the risky business of growing
Might crash into my days
With unspeakable sorrow
Or uncontainable delight.

I’m learning to sit
With not knowing

(Carrie Newcomer)

Some fascinating possibilities are brewing just below the surface of my days - so my task, it seems, is just to sit with them. To behold the presence of the holy as it is revealed. The band is taking a break till the start of August. Our Brooklyn family heads to our home for fresh sweet corn and fun in a few weeks. A colleague from California has a daughter beginning college in these hills soon, too. I'll have a chance to be a friendly and safe old guy while momma is so far away. And it's time to get back to practicing my instrument, sitting in Centering Prayer, and seeing where new gigs might be secured. May the peace of a sweet summertime be yours today.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

returning thanks for your house concert generosity...

A massive thank you to everyone who came out to our maiden voyage as the full Famous Before We're Dead band. There were 30+ people, we live streamed the gig and friends in Brooklyn, Canada, California, and Europe took the time to watch - and donate - and the Famous Brothers rocked the house gently with songs of challenge, love, hope and compassion.
A few really wonderful things happened at this house concert at our home:

+ First, we have been able to raise over $700 for RAICES to date. Those who didn't know about the important work RAICES does fighting for migrant children and families separated by the Trump regime's cruelty at our southern border got a chance to join the movement for radical love. To learn more, please go to: https://actionnetwork.org/groups/raices-refugee-and-immigrant-center-for-education-and-legal-services .

+ Second, the Famous Brothers got the chance to kick it up a few notches and play for a listening audience. Bars and open mics have their place, and we're grateful for any and all gigs, but there is something sacred when people with big hearts and creative minds come together to authentically experience our music. It doesn't happen enough in our over worked culture. Nor do we take enough time to be together in the beauty of nature with gentleness and openness. Ours was a 90 minute musical meditation on slowing down, celebrating all that is good and true, and honoring the love at the core of creation. NOTE: If you're so inclined take a listen to the gig on the link below.

+ And third, the band had a chance to play together in a deep and fun way. Enjoying the music is crucial to the musicians. We work hard at this craft but only in pursuit of advancing beauty. So when the groove falls into place, when each member is listening well and playing from the heart, something magical takes place on the bandstand. Wynton Marsailis talks about this experience in a sacramental way: mistakes as well as successes are shared when playing together profoundly because the band seeks to carry one another in love through the music. Nobody is dissed when something goes south, nor is the flow stopped. Rather, the whole encounter becomes a way for our deepest values to be lived out in real time in pursuit of compassion and beauty. 

There were mistakes - I made more than my share, for sure - and I suspect the other Famous Brothers did, too. Accepting them with grace is part of what evokes blessings in a band. And celebrating when it all goes right is ecstatic. I am so very grateful for the whole thing and look forward to moving on to the next performance. Thank you Famous Brothers. Thank you guests. Thank you Di for helping me share hospitality. Thank you to all who donated to RAICES. And thank you You Tube for helping us share the love beyond our backyard.

Friday, July 20, 2018

tonight's the night...

There could 30 of us tonight on the outdoor deck - including the band - as we hunker down to pull this fund raising house concert for RAICES together. Already about $300 has come in so... we'll do our small part for the cause of compassion and justice at the border. NOTE: for those who can't join us for whatever reason, we're going to try live streaming this gig at our Famous Before We're Dead Face Book page. There is also a button to make a donation, too: please go to: https://www.facebook.com/famoushal/ .
For those new to the band, Famous Before We're Dead, it began when singer/ songwriter, Hal Lefferts, and I decided to make some music in our retirement. We met in 8th grade, played rock'n'roll in Creepin' Jesus in high school, and did some acoustic gigs later as Folk U and Dave and Chuck (a white boy play on Sam and Dave; sorry for the earlier error.) After 35 years of doing our own thing in various parts of the country, we reconnected and have explored music making on and off ever since.  With my retirement from ministry we were able to kick-up rehearsals, auditions, etc. From time to time we've been able to add long time friend and musician, Win Riddabock on flute and percussion, as well as Jon Haddad on percussion and harmonica. Last month we welcome guitar virtuoso, John Burns, into the fold and he will debut with us tonight.

Most of tonight's material will be introspective original songs. We'll cover the great Fred Neil's "Other Side of This Life" as well as John Hiatt's "Through These Hands" - and maybe have some fun at the end with an old, sassy blues song "Evolution Blues." Last night we worked out the bugs for most of tonight's performance. There's a few logistical issues to resolve re: equipment placement and microphones and modest set revisions, but we're just about ready to go. Another special treat is the return of Terre Lefferts, Jon Grenoble and Dianne De Mott to the stage singing their sweet harmonies.

If you're going to join us, please park on Oak Hill and walk to our house as we share a drive and are reserving most of that space for the band and the front lawn for those with special needs. It should be a great cool evening in the Berkshires. Our mosquito halos are working, we have additional repellent spray as well so please let me know if you're coming and we'll have a blast together. 

Come on over @ 7 pm for refreshments and drinks. The music starts at 7:30 pm and we'll try to wrap up about 9. For those who want to visit more, we'll move inside after the tunes are done for a bit, too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

peace and practice...

Getting ready for our "house concert" has been a gift and a challenge for me: the gift arrives in both the hospitality and the music; the challenge has to do with trust. In my little song, "Small Is Holy," I confess that "small has shown me strategies for leaving hell." I didn't want to overstate the case: I still experience hell on a regular basis - mostly as deep seated shame well rehearsed and all too well nourished - so I haven't vanquished it nor have I escaped untouched. What is different now is knowing that there is a love greater than my feelings and experiences. If I use some of the time-tested contemplative practices to reclaim a measure of grounding in grace, then the powers of hell within are diminished. So let me be clear: it takes practice to trust God's grace. It takes practice to make good music and share hospitality with compassion, too. But working to reclaim or remain grounded in grace takes practice to a whole other level. At least for me. Beauty and solidarity are rewards unto themselves with an immediacy that invites repetition. But trust? And spiritual practice?  Real but elusive. - and always in search of renewal. 

One of the practices that nourishes trust for me involves my modest connection with L'Arche Ottawa. Jean Vanier suggests why in this extended quote from the Introduction of The Heart of L'Arche:

God has given L'Arche as a gift to this particular time in history. Today, so much emphasis is put on technology, on scientific knowledge and on individual success that people, forgetting the importance of the heart and of faithful relationships, sink into depression and despair. Society often seeks to eliminate people who are weak, before their birth or through euthanasia, arguing that they are a nuisance and cost too much. Through L'Arche, God reminds us of the essential purpose of human life: out of love,we have been created to love. We are called to use all our energies and gifts to create a more just and loving society, where each person, whatever their culture, religion, abilities or disabilities, has a place.... God is love. God is goodness, compassion and forgiveness. L'Arche is not a solution to a social problem. L'Arche is a sign that love is possible, and that we are not condemned to live in a state of war and conflict, where the strong crush the weak. Our communities embody the belief that each person is unique, precious and sacred.

Much like Brother Roger said at the founding of Taize - we are a parable of festival in creation - L'Arche offers a comparable charism: carrying for one another's bodies as a sign that each person is beloved. Those claiming the L'Arche tradition and practices cherish each person while nourishing tenderness. Vanier notes that the 150+ small communities of L'Arche are not solutions to the wounds of the world, but rather signs of what is possible. My experience, inwardly and outwardly, affirms this testimony. Specifically, I am learning three interrelated truths about trust:  .

+ It is possible to live in respect with others rather than competition. 

+ Honoring the importance and value of each person helps me value my own brokenness.

+ None of this is automatic: I must learn to live in the tension of conflict as the honest way to peace.

Personal and inward spiritual practices are still foundational - especially when you wake up in the middle of the night consumed by fear or grief or anxiety. Using my breath as a prayer has proven to be a life saver. And now I am starting to use a multi-sensory meditative tools that was recently summarized like this: 

When overwhelmed or ungrounded, afraid or confused, look around you and find:

1) Five things close to you that are real and that you can see;
2) Four things that you can touch;
3) Three things that you can hear;
4) Two things you can smell; 
5) And one thing you can taste.

This is called grounding. It can help when you feel like you have lost all control over your surroundings. Or when you feel overwhelmed and bewildered.

For me - and perhaps you - finding, practicing, and trusting strategies to get through hell are essential.  The good news is that they are available, simple, and free. The bad news, or at least the complicated news, is that their blessings are not automatic. Like the old musician's joke puts it: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, my friend, practice." Lord, may it be so you for me and you.

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:...