Sunday, September 30, 2018

reclaiming the lost wisdom of michaelmas...

Yesterday, September 29, was the Feast Day of Michael and All Angels, the Christian connection to the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. We are honoring the heart of the feast with pancakes and maple syrup while listening to traditional tunes of Northumbria. Three angels are named in the Hebrew Bible - Michael, Raphael and Gabriel - and most Christians recognize a fourth: Uriel. Each of the four central angels in tradition point to God and tell us something of God's presence in creation. 

+ Michael, meaning "who is like God," is the protector of Israel who not only rescues the patriarchs but leads the children of God out of Egyptian oppression as a cloud of smoke by day and pillar of fire by night. 

+ Gabriel, meaning "God is my strength," acts as the Lord's messenger to humanity.  In Jewish traditions he communicates with Daniel and in Christianity brings messages to Zechariah (John the Baptist's father) and the Virgin Mary. Islam also trusts that the prophet Mohamed, blessed be his name, was also instructed by Gabriel. 

+ Raphael, meaning "Lord please heal," is considered the angel who came to Abraham and Sarah as a stranger in need of desert hospitality. The gospel of St. John embraces a tradition that it was Raphael who moved the healing waters at Bethesda.

+ Uriel, meaning "God is my light," is often considered to be the cherub of repentance who checked the doors of Egyptian houses for lamb's blood on the first Passover and brings inspiration into the hearts of Christians.

Beyond folk tradition and superstition, the Feast of Michael and All Angels gives us a clear time to mark the close of summer and ready our lives for a season of challenge. "Michael is the leader of the heavenly host in the final battle against the dragon, the forces of darkness and chaos" as recounted in Revelation. 
Michaelmas is a reminder that autumn is the time to do the spiritual preparation for Advent and Christmas. Michael's role as dragon fighter gives a clue (as to the work of this season...) In stories and dreams, serpents and dragons can symbolize the dark parts of ourselves - instinctive, unconscious, primitive parts we don't want to face. Our dragons are our old, unresolved energies, desires, hurts and fears - parts of ourselves we are not aware of that can compel us to act counter to love... If we can look at these dragons in daylight, they begin to lose that power. Michale's spear is a ray of light, the light of awareness, shining on the things that live in the dark. (Christopher Hill, Holidays and Holy Nights, pp. 38-39)

Michaelmas connects us to the wisdom of creation: it is one of the four quarter days in the earth's journey around the sun. It is our feast day for the equinox of autumn. Christopher Hill writes, "In summer we celebrate our at-homeness in the world. Michaelmas balances that feeling (for) in autumn we feel our not-at-homeness, the sense of wanting something else, something we can't name. We feel like wayfaring strangers... Summer is static - in Latin, solstice means "the stationary sun." Summer is the sacrament of natural harmony with God... while autumn we fall away from the dreaming paradise of summer back into the conflict of light and dark." (pp. 36-37)

I cannot but note that the conflict between truth and lies, light and darkness, trust and deceit that is currently taking place writ large in the politics of the United States shows what happens when our "dragons" are not brought into the light. Elsewhere I have written that the USA is almost pathologically unable to engage in repentance. We romanticize our genocide of First Nations peoples with the mythology of the Founding Fathers. We ignore the greed and carnage of slavery and demonize its victims. We are addicted to a warped sexuality that simultaneously celebrates male violence even as it shames, degrades and brutalizes women. We champion the sanctity of life, but only until a baby leaves the womb: the state of our health care, child care, maternity/paternity leave, infant mortality, incarceration of people of color, social welfare, public housing, and addictions of every variety expose our public pronouncements as hollow lies. And that's not taking into account the percentage of US taxes that go to pump life into the military-industrial-technology complex.

The Hopi Nation in the American Southwest speak of the dominant culture as a people trapped in "koyaanisqatsi" - life out of balance. At the autumnal equinox, or Michaelmas, our souls are invited back into equanimity. One of the practices of this season is to "let go of the old." De-accessorize rather than acquire more burdens, "ask God for courage to release what no longer serves" whether that is "possessions, relationships, old habits of thought or behavior." (Hill, p. 42) The core of Sabbath is learning to be rather than have. (Heschel) The feast of Michaelmas also encourages us to trust "the unseen world" of God's love and justice. My rewrite of a traditional Michaelmas prayer includes:

O Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battles of this life;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke all that is evil, we humbly pray: help us by God's love
to thrust all that is destructive into the light so that healing and hope
thrive even from within our wounds.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

sabbath: the realm of being not having

Today is one in which I rest and revel in each moment: quiet morning tea in the autumn sunshine followed by browsing the stacks of the library, and simple yard work. After a full week of sorting, packing-up and relinquishing books; entering into the hearings of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh as part prayer, lament and analysis; and traveling two hours each way to play a gentle harvest festival at a farmers market gig in Connecticut: everything within me is aching for Sabbath. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it like this in a small volume called Sabbath:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern... The Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon.11 Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.

Elsewhere he observed that if we can learn to rest and trust God for 24 hours perhaps we can learn to trust the Creator to care for creation during the remainder of the week. That is tough going, but essential. I am such a novice.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

impressions and quotes as dr. ford shares her testimony...

I am watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing as Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh make their respective cases about allegations of sexual assault. The chair, Chuck "Blowhard" Grassley, opens the day with an attempt to clean himself up while blaming Democrats and Dr. Ford for the inconvenience of this crucial hearing. My first impression is simple: I am angry that this has been set up to be a farce.

As the morning unfolds, the NY Times reports that the Republicans have chosen  "to turn over their questions to Ms. Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor, so that they could have a more targeted, coherent hearing. But as the questioning got underway, the arrangement appeared more halting and cumbersome than efficient, as it resembled a courtroom trial than a typical Senate hearing. The juxtaposition was jarring, particularly with Democrats using their time to cut straight to the heart of Dr. Blasey’s story. After Dr. Blasey’s opening statement gripped the hearing room, Ms. Mitchell immediately dug into granular details, asking the witness to read and correct messages she exchanged with a reporter at The Washington Post and a letter shared with Ms. Feinstein."

NOTE: It would appear the Republicans will obfuscate over "granular" details. Please remember: men who were abused/assaulted by priests 30 years ago are now believed and given the benefit of the doubt. It took a long time for most Americans to accept their truth, too but now it is beyond question. Please hold all assaulted women - and men - in your prayers as PTSD explodes throughout the USA right now.

After the first recess for lunch CNN reports that Senator Orin Hatch said, "She's not an uncredible witness... in fact, she is an attractive, good witness... she is pleasing." Commentators noted that while they understand his nuance - Hatch believes that Dr Ford is thoroughly believable - on the face value of Hatch's comment we can see how thoroughly clueless this group of old, privileged, white men  actually are! To be fair, it is possible for men of privilege and power to change and exhibit solidarity with the suffering of those who are very different. Robert Kennedy is the example that comes to mind. He was a man saturated in racist history and the privileges of great wealth; who, through the persistence of his Bishop and the grace of God, became a champion of the oppressed. It takes a ton of guts, lots of listening, good mentors and people who will tell you what your shadow is exposing to make this change, but it is possible. Sadly, this is not the case for the majority of Republican men on this committee. Some of the Democratic men are learning, but they have a long way to go, too. I give thanks today for the women on the committee.

Earlier in the morning, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked Christine Ford about the things she remembers about the night of the alleged attack.  She replied: "The stairwell, the living room, the bedroom, the bed on the right side of the room — as you walk into the room, there was a bed to the right — the bathroom in close proximity, the laughter, the uproarious laughter, and the multiple attempts to escape and the final ability to do so." (CNN) When asked explicitly if she knew that Brett Kavanaugh was her assaulter, Dr. Ford answered, "One hundred percent."

This is a kairos moment in our culture. It is not yet clear how the power brokers will decide, and raw ideology may triumph over compassion and fairness; but it is clear that more and more of us are learning to believe the wounded. Many are women, but some are men, and all of us who have been assaulted are being honored and empowered in new and essential ways. Mormon women are crying out against the male status quo. Powerful men and their allies are discovering ears to hear and hearts to feel, too. Partisans sitting on the political fence feel it vital to now take a stand and make a decision. 

Dr. Ford has asked the FBI to investigate her charges. Judge Kavanaugh has not. She has provided witnesses who could be called who have offered sworn testimony. Judge Kavanaugh has not. She has taken a polygraph test and given all her evidence to the Senate committee. Judge Kavanaugh has not. Her case merits close attention - especially now that two other women have come forward with similar allegations. To do anything less is a pure ideological grab of power - right-wing power, to be clear - that must never be confused with justice. During the break, Senator Lindsey Graham, flexed his political muscle in this none too subtle threat:

Well let me put it this way to my Republican colleagues. If this becomes the new standard where you have an accusation for weeks, you drop it right before the hearing, you withhold from the committee a chance to do this in a professional timely fashion. When they say they’re going to do this is to delay the vote, get the Senate back in 2018 so they can fill the seat. I don’t want to publicly reward that kind of behavior. I think we’ve been very fair. And to my Republican colleagues. If you can ignore everything in this record an allegation that’s 35 years old, that’s uncertain in time, place, date and no corroboration. If that’s enough for you, God help us all as Republicans. Because this happens to us, but this never happens to them. Let me tell my democratic friends, if this is the new norm, you better watch out for your nominees.

The committee has now excused Dr. Ford and taken a 45 minute recess. I pray that America will say: I believe you - and act accordingly.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

let it go...

There are yet another 500 books sitting on the floor of my study and basement in need of new homes. Upon returning from Ottawa last month, Di and I renewed our vow to radically let go of all the "stuff" we have accumulated over 25 years that no longer either brings us life or is useful to our new lives. I have noted before over the past three years that we have successfully purged our home of 2,000 books, 500 vinyl LPs, and over 30 bags of clothing. Now we're getting down to what I suspect will be the final three cuts: 1) relinquishing our sentimental things; 2) eliminating truly unnecessary items; 3) then doing it all once again with the necessary tears so that we might honestly live lightly on the land.

I understand that I am no pioneer in this work. I've heard from mentors and friends how they, too have struggled with letting go of their once treasured possessions. Sometimes health demands this change. Relocation also requires down-sizing. In the final reckoning, however, it is the sobering fact of aging that urges us to surrender extraneous "stuff" so that simplicity might order our days. Not only do I not want to burden my family with disposing of my belongings, but I no longer need things around me to define my identity. Of course, I will want my guitar and bass, my prayer books and beads, some albums and CDs, etc for as long as possible. But most of the other material gifts, memorabilia, and one-time symbols of my journey through life are no longer required for me to know who I am at this moment in time. An article from Psychology Today proved insightful. In "Letting Go" Steve Taylor wrote

A few months ago, I completed a research project at my university about purpose. We began with the hypothesis that there are different types of purpose. We identified seven different types, beginning with no purpose, survival purpose (in other words, just getting by from day to day) and religious purpose. We also identified 'self-accumulative' purpose, (which means accumulating money, status or power), altruistic/idealistic purpose, and 'self-expansive' purpose, which means developing yourself creatively or spiritually. Finally, we identified ‘transpersonal’ purpose, which is the 'spiritual' feeling of serving a purpose that is bigger than you, without much conscious effort or intention. It’s when your purpose seems to flow through you, and carry you along, rather than you pushing it along. We had some interesting findings, especially in relation to age. There was a negative correlation between self-accumulative purpose and age. That is, the older a person was, the less important money, possessions, status, and power were to them. Meanwhile, there was a positive correlation between ‘transpersonal purpose’ and age. The oldest age group (65-plus) were most likely to feel this kind of ‘spiritual’ purpose, while the youngest age group (18 to 30) were the least likely. (Interestingly, we found that women were more likely to be more oriented around transpersonal purpose too.)

Taylor continues to explore the blessings accrued through letting go: a deeper connection to creation, a serenity born of accepting what can be changed and what cannot, as well as a sense of communion with loved ones who are not physically present. The reality of aging could become a spiritual guide Taylor suggests - "reality is the will of God" said the mystic Meister Eckhart, "it can always be better but we must start with what is real" - as the various wisdom traditions of most faiths encourage. But there are no guarantees. Some "feel aggrieved about changes to their physical appearance, the loss of youthful vitality, and the potential loss of everything they have accumulated (their achievements, possessions, status and so on) through death. Rather than experiencing transcendence, they feel more anxious and frustrated. As the famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson noted, in old age, there are two paths we can take - into ego integrity or into despair; that is, into wisdom and acceptance, or into bitterness and resentment."

What I am discovering in this round of cuts - our third serious effort - involves memories. It was easy to give up clothes that no longer fit, records I no longer played, books that once helped me complete projects but no longer offer wisdom. It was relatively simple to say goodbye to most of my theological/ biblical texts, too. That chapter of my life was over so it felt like Robert De Niro in The Mission when he cut off the armor he wore as penance. Now some books, photos and music open portals of remembrance. I know these experiences of blessing are over - these representations are now symbols and not the real thing - but the feelings they evoke are profound. And while my heart is often very close to the surface of consciousness for me, this feels different. Part of this, I suspect, is saying farewell to my younger self, yes? It is another encounter with letting go.

My hunch is that these feelings are also prompts for prayer if I am paying attention. What am I genuinely thankful for in this memory? What regrets still cling closely? What might God be asking of me to do now? For years, my dad stubbornly refused to get rid of most of his belongings. He did clear out much of my mother's clothing after she passed - and that was helpful. But as I wise woman from my last church used to say, it took a crisis before he dealt with his own possessions. In this case, his need to self his home and move in with my sister (may God continue to bless her!) A few pieces of furniture really mattered to him: a massive cabinet for dishes, a rocking chair and a deacon's bench from his time in the parsonage. My siblings and I stepped up to the plate and took these items because he was so distressed that they would no longer be a part of his family.
That deacon's bench is still in my basement. For three years after his death, I was unable to look at it without tears. I wasn't able to deal with the boxes of unsorted pictures that remained or the tea cups my sisters set aside for me from my mom. Last year we tossed most of the pictures - my parents were dreadful photographers - after saving a few good ones and laughing hysterically over the true bombs! I have set a goal of Christmas 2018 for finalizing my sorting. The tea cups - and deacon's bench - will need new homes. Same goes for most of my records and CDs, art work and trinkets. Perhaps my daughters will want some of these treasures, but most will need new homes. And this is as it should be: they brought me life in their generation and now it is time to say goodbye. The memories they evoke are holy. They have brought me life in every sense. And now new life beckons... as Robert Bly suggests in this poem.

The drum says that the night we die will be a long night.
It says the children have time to play. Tell the grownups
They can pull the curtains around the bed tonight.

The old man wants to know how the war ended.
The young girl wants her breasts to cause the sun to rise.
The thinker wants to keep misunderstanding alive.

It’s all right if the earthly monk is buried near the altar.
It’s all right if the singer fails to turn up for her concert.
It’s good if the fat old couple keeps whirling around.

Let the parents sing over the cradle every night.
Let the pelicans go on living in their stickly nests.
Let the duck go on loving the mud around her feet.

It’s all right if the ant always remembers his way home.
It’s all right if Bach keeps reaching for the same note.
It’s all right if we knock the ladder away from the house.

Even if you are a puritan it would be all right
If you join the lovers in their ruined house tonight.
It’s good if you become a soul and then disappear.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

sanctifying time...

The recent "retirement from the road" of Paul Simon touched me deeply. Returning home from Canada, we listened to his interview with Bob Boilen of NPR's "All Songs Considered." (check it out @ 510019/all-songs-considered) Simon is a demanding artist: he can be snarky and self-absorbed one moment only to become wise and introspective in the next. He is fiercely independent and precise when it comes to his art. (Watch a clip from Under African Skies, the 25th anniversary documentary of Simon's Graceland masterpiece, for a taste of his acerbic tongue and challenging persona.)

Whatever conclusions you may draw about Simon's strong personality, I have always found his music brilliant: old, new and in-between, this is an artist who works hard to bring beauty, truth and hope into a broken world. Think "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and "The Boxer." Same holds for "Graceland" and "So Beautiful or So What." His new album, Blue Light, reinterprets some of his personal favorites in new collaborations with some of his favorite artists. (This reworking of "Can't Run" from the Graceland follow-up, Rhythm of the Saints, is wildly inventive and musical stunning.)

As I listened to the Boilen interview, and then some of his commentary from the final concert in Forest Hills, NY, I was moved by Simon's careful consideration of what the Spirit is saying to his heart. His mystical encounters with a love and power greater than himself are leading Simon to let go of living fundamentally for art. He now not only wants to explore the meaning of his dreams, but serve the common good by using his time and resources to heal Mother Earth.

I haven't written a new song in a couple of years, now. I think after [the 2016 album] Stranger To Stranger, a funny thing happened when I finished - I literally felt like a switch clicked and I said, 'I'm finished... What I'm really interested in on a personal level are my dreams... We don't have the capacity to understand the great mysteries of life and God or no God or infinity, we just can't get it. It's beyond us, but that's fine. We're not meant to get that. But the pursuit is so interesting. That, I think, it's life sustaining and I think when you lose the interest in that pursuit you're finished.

In this, Simon is living into the archetype of the senex, the wise elder who intentionally chooses a path of solitude and reflection over earlier pursuits of glory. The senex is the polar opposite of the puer, exemplified in Greek mythology by Ichyrus. This exuberant youth foolishly ignores his father's wisdom by flying too close to the sun only to crash to his death in the sea as the wax of his human-made wings melt. If the puer describes the naive hubris of youth, the healthy senex is all about wisdom hard won. There are also unhealthy manifestations of older men who become either devouring fathers, cynical old fools or the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thanks be to God that Simon has not stayed on any of those paths. I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful about what this genius will share next - even if that is silence.

Which brings me back to why the sacramental wisdom of the seasons continues to give me pause: to everything - each day, each love, as well as each career and commitment - there is a season. A natural ebb and flow, birth and death.  Each day after the equinox is incrementally darker - and colder - teaching us that change is literally in the air. And all we're invited to do in these early days of autumn when the sun still warms our skin even as the earth itself is cooling is... notice. Something is different. Carrie Newcomer puts it like this in a poem she calls, "Because There Is Not Enough Time." 

I used to think
That because life is short
I should do more be more
squeeze more
into each and every day.
I'd walk around with a stick ruler
with increasing numbers
as the measure of fullness.

But lately
I've sensed
a different response
to a lack of time.
Felt in my bones
The singular worth
of each passing moment.
Perhaps the goal
is not to spend this day
Power skiing atop an ocean of multi-tasking.
Maybe the idea is to swim slower
dive deeper
and really look around.

There is a difference between
A life of width
and a life of depth.

Depth is what the early Christians honored in life, love, worship and time. We know this by the once normative, but now largely forgotten, organization of each day. In his survey of "the origins of the Christian Year" in Holidays and Holy Nights, Christopher Hill writes that the first followers of Jesus continued a contemplative practice shaped by the contours of Jewish daily prayer.  As the Jesus movement grew, taking shape in the innovations of the monastic mothers and fathers of the Egyptian and Sinai deserts, the Daily Office or Divine Liturgy of the Hours helped "sanctify the cycle of each day." (p. 17)

The Christian day is about responding to the nature of the hour, not working to a schedule. Thus, the proper question (in life) is not, "What time is it?" Rather, we should ask, "What is it time for?" Work or leisure, community or solitude, waking or rest, praying, eating, reading? In the holy rhythm of this day, each part of the whole is expressed through one of the "hours." (p. 18)

To give shape and form to the sanctification of time, the monastics of the desert borrowed a tool from the Roman Empire. For the Romans, an hour "does not refer to sixty minutes of clock time... (but rather the division) of the day into three-hour periods." In this Christian context the hours "became more like a small season within a small year every day." There were three night vigils of Matins (6-9 pm, 9 to midnight, 12-3 am) that called the day into being. The the Hour of Prime (3-6 am) followed by Lauds to greet the dawn. Terce (6-9 am), Sext (9 to noon), None (noon to 3 pm) ordered the day before the community and each individual prepared for the night with Vespers (3-6 pm) and Compline at 6 pm. Hill notes that:

Dividing the day in this way reverses the profane sense of time: the clock now becomes a servant of the holy human pattern (rather than the master.) (p.p. 17-18)

Christians also organized their week around the resurrection of Jesus using Sun-day, the first of seven days, to symbolically honor the blessed light of the Lord. In this "Sunday became the first distinctly Christian holy day... for from the start it was not just a commemoration of a past event, but a real reenactment, on a spiritual level, of the resurrection within each individual. This pattern would hold true for the whole Christian ordering of time." (p. 18) Time became a tool for growing in trust: each day had spiritual meaning based upon the Resurrection as did each week. It was not long before each season gave shape and form to the reality of Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension, too.

Amidst the chaos and clutter of my culture - where the President acts as the Buffoon and Bully-in-Chief and the values of sharing and justice I cherish are discarded for illusions of power and cheap trinkets - the steadfast wisdom of the seasons says slow down. Look for what lasts. And matters. Go for depth, not width. "Be still - and know that I am God." This madness will not last. It will die as autumn dies. This death will be hard. Demanding and harrowing. But fear not, death is not the end of the story. St. Paul grasped this when he wrote near the end of his earthly life: I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. (Romans 8:38-39) God has given us signs in the seasons concerning what is true, noble, pure and lasting.  Paul Simon got it - and is now stepping away from the frantic pace of the road. I am learning it, too as I walk in the woods.

Perhaps the goal
is not to spend this day
Power skiing atop an ocean of multi-tasking.
Maybe the idea is to swim slower
dive deeper
and really look around.

Monday, September 24, 2018

trusting the sacramental wisdom of autumn as american civil religion is shredded...

To a degree, I get why so many mostly white, working class women and men are unsettled these days. Stability and tradition offer us a sense of security; trust and affection for the status quo ground us in shared values, holidays, history, music and culture. This constancy evokes both a sense of place within the big picture and feelings of solidarity. The civil religion that once shaped our American mythos led many of us to believe that we lived in "the home of the brave and the land of the free" where "liberty and justice for all" was a part of the air we breathed.

When the stories that shape our national identity start to unravel, when the shadow side of our history begins to break through the cracks and the ugly truths challenge our lies, instability is to be expected. Social anxiety and reactionary political activity is not significantly different than individual emotional tumult born of betrayal or fear. It is dangerous - and often ugly - in any of its forms. Yet all too familiar, too. Wounded human beings - in isolation or en masse - tend to strike out in violence when their world is up-ended. I think of the viscous words I have used in my past. Or the raging inner violent feelings that screamed for release. Not justice or revenge. Release. As I confessed to a few trusted friends during my darkest hours, "I know where murder comes from now - and know that I have the capacity to do enormous damage - the way of the Nazi is no longer an abstraction. I have that hideous seed within me, too." Thank God for talk therapy and spiritual direction. Thank God for my community of accountability, too. In time I learned to own and let go of realities I could not change - even the ones that tore apart my inner peace.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche movement, has written extensively about how living with people with intellectual disabilities will expose us to our darkest secrets and deepest joys. We all have within us the power to create and the ability to destroy. Love and hate are intimately entwined. When the magnitude of this truth is experienced and embraced with honesty and trust - as well as spiritual and emotional assistance - it can lead us into authentic humility and compassionate patience. Ignoring the potency of our shadow, however, most often leads to violence and suffering for everyone. Small wonder that Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down her life for a friend." To own, and then release into God's grace, the universal inclination to hurt others rather than confront and accept our own powerlessness, is at the core of all healthy religion. Its opposite - personal or social bigotry, racism, hatred of women - gives birth to violence and death.

Once again in our periodically united but now profoundly divided states of America, truth and light are shining through the cracks of our lies and denials. When our current President won the 2016 election, wise people of color said to me with genuine sorrow: now many you (white folk) are going to experience the fear and social anxiety we (black folk) always live within. The seemingly abrupt but truly long-simmering explosion of the white nationalist and even neo-Nazi activity of 2017 gave shape and form to the fears and social wounds of people left behind by the economy. The courage and clarity of the #MeToo movement is now breaking apart not just the political, artistic and religious constructs of patriarchy, but it is also helping to redefine the mysteries of a healthy, holy and hopeful sexuality.

For some, this moment in history is chaotic and terrifying. Like autumn itself,
the signs of death are stunning and breed feelings of dread and loss. For others, however, even death points to new life - a new life of greater tenderness, justice and trust. I am not so naive as to think this cultural and political death will be easy. It won't. It will be anguished, protracted and bitter. But as Valerie Kaur so wisely insists, new life is coming to birth through revolutionary love.

Revolutionary love is a well-spring of care, an awakening to the inherent dignity and beauty of others and the earth, a quieting of the ego, a way of moving through the world in relationship, asking: ‘What is your story? What is at stake? What is my part in your flourishing?’ Loving others, even our opponents, in this way has the power to sustain political, social and moral transformation. This is how love changes the world. Love calls us to look upon the faces of those different from us as brothers and sisters. Love calls us to weep when their bodies are outcast, broken or destroyed. Love calls us to speak even when our voice trembles, stand even when hate spins out of control, and stay even when the blood is fresh on the ground. Love makes us brave. The world needs your love: the only social, political and moral force that can dismantle injustice to remake the world around us – and within us. To pursue a life of revolutionary love is to walk boldly into the hot winds of the world with a saint’s eyes and a warrior’s heart – and pour our body, breath, and blood into others. (

As a straight, white, Christian man living as a secular monk in these wildly upsetting but holy times, over and again my heart urges me to rest within the wisdom of our wounds. St. Paul spoke of this as becoming holy fools who trust the life, death and resurrection of Jesus more than the evidence of the current moment. The prophet of ancient Israel, Isaiah, was equally counter-cultural: 

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy... Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near...

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Americans are not good at repentance. For too long we have lived within the power of privilege. We have not acknowledged the pain our privilege has wrought upon the innocent nor the suffering that is the consequence of our hubris and hegemony. I remember traveling in the once Soviet Union with the Council of Churches during the closing days of Gorbachev's era. It was a time of openness and national introspection. My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Dipko (then Conference Minister of the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ) said to me, "We North Americans have not matured enough to repent. Canada is learning to do so given their genocide of First Nations people. Russia is struggling with repentance now. And South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given the world a model for what is possible. But that is a long, long way from where we are as a nation - and we need it so badly." 

I believe that part of our new birth in revolutionary love is leading us into the anguish white, male privilege has inflicted upon creation, women, children, GLBTQs, people of color and so many other sisters and brothers throughout the world community. It is a time for national repentance. Like the 12 Step movement teaches, however, some will go through this death and arise in wisdom and humility. Others will run, hide, and deny the pain while still others will attack everything and everybody that calls for truth. Let us remember that all of this goes with the territory. But as more and more of us start to let go of fear and live in trust, the blessings of repentance will be strengthened. I choose to trust the sacramental truth of this season: autumn is coming and within its deaths are the seeds of new life. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

trusting the sacramental wisdom of the seasons: the autumnal equinox

Yesterday a little package arrived: my used copy of Christopher Hill's 2003 book Holidays and Holy Nights - Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year.  To say that I have eagerly been awaiting its arrival would be an understatement. And right out of the gate in the introduction is the reason why. Under the heading "Patterns and Rhythms" Hill writes, "We in the West are oriented to the future. We strive to be ever new, to regenerate the world. Our civilization has accomplished a lot this way. But we've lost something, too."

We have gone along with a flow of events that has somehow ended up making us too busy to respond to that buried sense of the heart that says there must be more: more meaning, more color, deeper excitement. We live in a world where so many authoritative voices - the successful, the influential, even the scholarly - say that commerce and power are all there is; a world where we work fifty-hour weeks for years, then get five days off. We are all Bob Chratchits these days, chained in our money-changing cubbyholes for hours that even Ebenezer Scrooge would hesitate to demand... (Remember at the time Dickens was writing) Christmas and the whole ritual calendar of traditional Britain was fast vanishing... A Christmas Carol... was his response to the crisis created by the Industrial Revolution, and it was a major victory in the struggle to keep humanity human.

The rest of the book explores how the experiences of nature in the Northern Hemisphere give shape and form to the deepening cycle of Christian feasts and fasts, holidays and holy nights. Parker Palmer has testified to trusting the sacramental wisdom of the seasons. "The older I get," he notes, "the more I find nature a trustworthy guide."

For years my delight in the autumn color show quickly morphed into sadness as I watched the beauty die. Focused on the browning of summer’s green growth, I allowed the prospect of death to eclipse all that’s life-giving about fall and its sensuous delights. Then I began to understand a simple fact: all the “falling” that’s going on out there is full of promise. Seeds are being planted and leaves are being composted as earth prepares for yet another uprising of green. It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well-done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But, as I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the most difficult of times.(Parker Palmer, Autumn: A Season of Paradox blog/autumn-a-season-of-paradox/)

In a serendipitous way, a reading from Henri Nouwen this morning re: The Created Order as Sacrament, made me smile.

When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human became united. This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite. In and through Jesus all creation has become like a splendid veil, through which the face of God is revealed to us. This is called the sacramental quality of the created order. All that is is sacred because all that is speaks of God's redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.

This weekend is the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere: a time when
day and night are equal in length. Then, ever so slowly, the darkness grows stronger in the sky as we travel towards the winter solstice. Hill introduces the wisdom and challenge of living into the Christian Year like this:

The first lesson that the Year of the Lord teaches is, appropriately, a paradox - it begins as the natural year ends. As such, it teaches us to watch for the signs of a beginning when, to all appearances, the world seems the least promising. The fall of the year in nature and in the liturgical calendar is a rich and nuanced drama, a perilous and turbulent time, full of conflict, when the seen and unseen worlds come together. They dynamics of the fall of the year have the sweep of a great symphony or an epic poem. From the vast conflict of light and dark, the greater powers of night and quiet emerge.

In this year of "beholding" - a time for us to watch and wait for the wisdom of the Lord to be revealed through what already exists rather than rush towards self-made decisions - I find it increasingly important to be grounded in the liturgy of the seasons. The steady assurance of nature's rhythm mixed with its surprises - like the weird tornado in Ottawa yesterday - is simultaneously comforting and humbling. So, this morning we sat out on the deck to take in the cool autumn air with our tea. We are going to an apple festival later in the day. The band is playing a Fall Farmers Harvest Market gig next Friday. And our extended family will frolic in the fields of a pumpkin festival next weekend as part of our celebration of our grandson's fifth birthday. In my soul I sense the need to savor this season. Hill suggests we savor the word fall, too:

At this time, we watch the fall of the reign of summer, a great triumph moves deep into a darkness full of danger, promise, and mystery. We pass through a wild night of apparitions into a quiet that grows deeper until it is infused with the lights of candles and stars. The time narrows down until it comes to a turning point, as all creation holds its breath in the silent night and waits for the entry of something new and unimaginable.

In a political climate of profound mistrust - where partisan hatred is stronger than the common good and hatred of women, people of color and the stranger has become normative - the equinox invites us back into balance. Not the heresy of quietism nor the inclination to withdraw into bourgeois privilege; but rather the witness of a balanced presence in a broken world. One in which the beauty is honored as creatively as the injustice is challenged. One where we each own our personal capacity for evil and self-deception so that our opponents are never demonized. And one wherein we give ourselves time to rest, renew, and remain silent in order to let grace give shape and form to our words and acts of compassion. 

Because we live in a culture that prefers the ease of either/or to the complexities of both/and, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, the pleasures of life without the pangs of death. We make Faustian bargains hoping to get what we want, but they never truly enliven us and cannot possibly sustain us in hard times. When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off. Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. The moment we say “yes” to both of them and join their paradoxical dance, the two conspire to make us healthy and whole. When I try to fabricate a life that defies autumn’s diminishments, I end up in a state that’s less than human. When I give myself over to organic reality — to the endless interplay of darkness and light, falling and rising — the life I am given is as real and colorful, fruitful and whole as this graced and graceful world and the seasonal cycles that make it so.  (Palmer, ibid)

This is my desire as the paradox of darkness deepens. Words from the New Zealand Book of Prayer get it right:

We wait in the darkness,expectantly, longingly, anxiously, thoughtfully. The darkness is our friend. In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected. In the darkness of the womb, the Christ- child was made ready for the journey into light... It is only in the darkness that we can see the splendor of the universe - blankets of stars, the solitary glowings of distant planets. It was the darkness that allowed the Magi to find the star that guided them to where the Christ-child lay... Sometimes in the solitude of darkness, our fears and concerns, our hopes an dour visions rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves and with the road that lies ahead. In that same darkness, we find companionship for this journey. We know, O Lord, that you are with us - in the darkness and the light - in our fears and in our courage. 

In quiet expectation, then, we await your signs among us, O Lord.

Friday, September 21, 2018

returning thanks to God for Henri Nouwen on the 22nd anniversary of his death...

Today is International Peace Day: September 21, 2018. Of the many prayers raised throughout the world, this one captured my attention:

        Grant us peace that will
BREAK our silence in the midst of violence
that prophetic voices shall resonate.

Grant us peace that will
PULL US DOWN from the steeple of our pride
so we'll learn to wash each other's feet.

Grant us peace that will
EMPTY us of hate and intolerance
that we'll turn guns into guitars and sing.

Grant us peace that will
SHUT our mouths up when we speak too much
that we'll learn to listen and understand what others are saying.

Grant us peace that will 
DISTURB us in our apathy
so we'll dance together under the sun.

Grant us peace that will
BURN our lethargic hearts
so we'll endure burning and let love and justice glow.

It is also the anniversary of Henri Nouwen's death. Twenty-two years ago, while serving an urban congregation in Cleveland, OH, my spiritual director told me of Nouwen's passing. In much the same way that St. Lou Reed's death five years ago knocked me on my ass, awakening me to my own mortality, so Nouwen's death rattled me to my core. In many ways, Nouwen had become a role model for me: an enthusiastic man of prayer who loved the Eucharist, engaged the pain of the world with compassion, faced his own demons vigorously, and ached for the peace of God to heal creation. I first read With Open Hands in 1980 and soon devoured both The Wounded Healer and Out of Solitude. Three other texts touched my heart, too and gave shape and form to much of my ministry: Reaching Out, The Way of the Heart, and Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.

As my life ripened through times of brokenness as well as joy, Nouwen became a passive spiritual director. The vulnerability expressed in The Inner Voice of Love gave me courage to do likewise. His experiment in sharing spiritual depth with those outside of the Christian tradition - The Life of the Beloved - gave me a tool for doing likewise. Both of his prayer journals, The Genesee Diary and Gracias, showed me that the ups, and more importantly the downs, of a life of prayer were holy and essential. And his clarifying interpretation of a Christian classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son, opened my heart to grace at a time I felt lost. Currently I am slow reading three posthumous books re: spiritual direction, discernment, and spiritual formation. Further, Nouwen's time at Daybreak - L'Arche Toronto - was one of the reasons I made my way into towards the community in Ottawa - so I give thanks to Henri for this life changing "heads up!"

Two thoughts about Brother Henri strike me as important on this day of my remembrance. The first is one of those upside-down truths that makes no linear sense, but is soul-saving: when Nouwen's heart was broken open in unrequited love, an agony causing him to collapse emotionally and physically and necessitating intensive therapy and rest, he finally owned the magnitude of his inner pain. He had danced around it for decades, flirting with honesty, but rarely going into his own darkness with abandon. As is so often the case, however, we can avoid our fears and shadows for a long time. But if we want to move towards true wholeness in this realm, we have to let the inevitable crisis in our lives lead us through the darkness and into the light. On the other side of his break down, after extensive therapy and prayer, both Nouwen's writing and personal engagement with others became truly tender. He was a consciously "wounded healer" now, filled with hope born of humility. His battles with self, and his journey into and through his fears, helped me do likewise at a time when I would have rather run even as I knew that I could not hide.

The second thought is this: Nouwen showed me a way into a sacramental spirituality. I was raised in the Reformed tradition. Congregationalism. The radically non-conformist wing of Calvinist Christianity. In this part of the family, the emphasis tends towards pastoral care and intellectual preaching. Both have value, to be sure; and I have been blessed by them, too. What I found missing - and what Nouwen helped me discover - was how to see real life as a form of the holy. Mystical and sacramental spirituality seeks to discern the "eagle within the egg" as well as the Word within the Flesh. It was not, as my world had been, all about good works and the primacy of solid doctrine. Rather, the way of Nouwen was connected to God in nature, in love, in acts of compassion and justice, as well as worship. Eucharist was essential for Henri. Me, too. Through Nouwen I discovered a path towards the holy that was as earthy and gritty as my own soul.  Sacramental spirituality gave me permission to enter music as communion with God. Or bread-baking as a contemplative practice. Or loving my children as the core of my calling.

In a way, Nouwen saved my life by giving me words to express what I did not know how to say. And, by sharing his own journey into fear and doubt that let me descend fully into my own so that I might learn the wisdom of our wounds. I still miss Nouwen all these years later. And find I read him more often than any other writer. I am going to bake some more bread today in homage to Henri's  spirit - and as it is rising, I'll read a little Nouwen, too. Today I give thanks to the Lord for Henri Nouwen. "In the end, a life of prayer is a life with open hands where we are not ashamed of our weakness, but realize that it is more perfect for us to be led by the other, than to try to hold everything in our own hands." (With Open Hands)

(Here's a picture I took one afternoon in Brooklyn waiting for my grandson to get finished with pre-school. The whole thing captures the gifts Henri shared with me...)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

to stand beneath the cross like mary...

Today is a cool, gray day in the Berkshires: autumn has truly arrived. The reds and yellows are popping ever more vibrantly in the wetlands and the pumpkins are ripening on the vine. Every morning I behold this beauty and try to hold it alongside whatever vicious, ugly or mean-spirited reality has currently risen to the surface of this regime's reign of shame. 

Woman-hating mixed with willful stupidity, addiction to the tyranny of the normal, and a celebration of brutality now rules the day. The charade "hearings" taking place in Washington, DC mock the word justice. The Republican majority is drunk with male power, determined to force their brutish authority down our collective throats before the American public can weigh-in at the November midterm elections. Yes, strong women and citizens of conscience are calling out these bullies. Political and ethical challengers to the status quo are emboldened and unafraid to speak truth to power. Further, the loyal opposition is rallying the clout of organized people of compassion to shut down the power of organized money. Anxiety is palpable throughout the republic. The Rev. Dr. William Barber reminds us that if the current political majority forces through the Kavanaugh nomination, it would be the fourth time in our generation that two presidents who were not elected by the American majority added rigid ideologues to the bench of the Supreme Court. 

The late Henri Nouwen once wrote about times these - in our generation as well as times past - and his wisdom demands a hearing. He told us that "mature people in faith stand erect in the face of world calamities."

The facts of everyday life are a rich source for doomsday thinking and feeling. But it is possible for us to resist this temptation and to stand with self-confidence in this world, never losing our spiritual ground, always aware that "sky and earth will pass away" but the words of Jesus will never pass away (see Luke 21:33). Let us be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood under the cross, trusting in God's faithfulness notwithstanding the death of his beloved Child.

To be able to do this consistently and with conviction, Richard Rohr reminds us that: 

This can only be done by plugging into a larger consciousness through contemplation. No longer focused on our own individual private perfection—or what Merton called “our personal salvation project”—we become fully human... by opening our hearts to God.

I love Nouwen's image of living like Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing under the cross. She is honest, compassionate, heart-broken and trusting all at the same time. She didn't hide in fear, but made her love public and visible. She didn't curse or condemn, but stayed the course even in the most agonizing moment of her life. She held the promise of God's grace in tension with the brutality of the regime trusting that God's love is greater than human evil. 

One of my commitments in these later days is to support younger activists for compassion, truth and hope. Some are clergy, a few are musicians and others are simply young adults who want their lives to make a difference. My counsel is simple: like Gandhi said, we must become the change we desire. We must do our inner work, tapping into God's grace with such authenticity that we are able to take on the outward work of soothing another's pain and righting wrongs. If we don't know our shadows - if we believe that all the evil is out there and not also within - we'll give up the ghost in cynicism or despair. 

That is why I keep returning to Mary under the shadow of the Cross. Lord, may she be our guide and a presence within and among us, for your mercy's sake. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

reclaiming my bread baking chops...

I am baking bread today. I gave it a shot yesterday, too but the second rising did not work out. They were tasty, but more like cement than the staff of life. I'll be adding adequate unbleached flour today and giving the rising as much time as it needs. This is, after all, an exercise in patience and beauty, right?

When I was five, I loved spending time with my Grandma Nick making fresh yeasted rolls. There was nothing better than preparing the dough standing by her side on a stool, swapping stories during the baking, smelling the goodness just before they popped out of the oven. And then, slathering them with butter, we laughed like holy fools and devoured as many as we shared. For a few golden years, we were kitchen conspirators of earthly delights. 

One of my favorite bread books, One Loaf by Joy Mead, contains this poem:

Because bread won't be hurfied
we have to learn to let it be,
to do nothing, to be patient,
to wait for the proving.
Because bread won't be hurried
and is a life and death process,
we find out in its making
that time in not a line
but a cycle of ends and beginnings
rhythms and seasons,
growth and death,
celebration and mourning,
work and rest,
eating and fasting,
because bread won't be hurried.

In a pyramid in Egypt
a few grains of wheat
lay surrounded by death 
- dormant for thousands of years.
They waited quietly
until the time was right,
until the life impulse
was awakened by the good earth,
warmed by the sun
and ready to dance
in the bread of tomorrow.
There's no way my bread could be as heavenly as hers. Last night I realized that I have not given much time to baking in 30+ years. There was a time when my daughters were small that baking became a family ritual - all types of fresh bread - from yeasted whole wheat loaves to Irish Soda Bread or Navajo fry bread. As St. Joni used to sing, "there's something's lost but something's gained in living every day" and my bread was lost as other blessings arrived. But now I want to get back my bread baking chops. Mostly because I am smitten by the smell, but also because bread is something I can share with those I love. 

Another treasure from my shrinking personal library, Feasting with God by Holly W. Whitcomb, puts it like this:

Through the ritual of a shared meal, hospitality is extended and acquaintances become friends and companions. The word companion comes from the Latin: cum, meaning "with,"and panis, meaning "bread." Our companions are those with whom we share meals... and break bread... In his book, Sacramental Magic in a Small Town Cafe, Brother Peter Reinhart reminds us that 'each of us unknowingly years for a communion experience every time we eat." The word sacrament itself is derived from root words means "mystery" and "sacred feast." Sharing food is one of life's most primal and bonding experiences - and eating together creates community.

Besides making music, playing with my grandchildren, walking in the woods with Di, and celebrating Eucharist, it is the sharing of fresh bread at family meals that brings me the deepest joy and hope for the journey. "Because bread is the very opposite of fast food," writes Donna Sinclair in The Spirituality of Bread, " it demands peace."

You cannot grow grain in a battlefield. Bread also demands justice; cheap bread that results from the loss of the family farm is too bitter to eat... Nothing is easy... in a postmodern age when we question all our assumptions and struggle with climate change and belligerent politicians, the commonwealth of peace seems far away. But making bread gives us meaning. And that, above all, is why bread baking is a spiritual task. It helps us trust that the world will survive, that we are loved, and that the kitchen where we work is holy ground.

I have started rereading these three treasured books (and also a biography of Rumi, too.) I am returning to my bread-baking roots. And I am recommitting my heart to the practice of gathering simple, wholesome ingredients, combining them in time-tested and traditional ways, and trusting that the waiting will bring a small measure of joy. (The sponge is now rising - and I couldn't resist adding this tune to the mix.)

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:...