Wednesday, October 31, 2018

praying with my eyes...

A year ago in November, I received a gift of this small candle at the close of our community retreat at L'Arche Ottawa. It has become the center of my small prayer altar on my home desk. Behind the candle is a picture of the L'Arche community taken in May 2018 after another retreat. A Russian theotokos, my prayer book and a wee pumpkin sit on a prayer cloth I found in Istanbul. Every day I return to this place for silence, reflection and prayer. Often I use the opening words for Morning Prayer taken from Psalm 51:

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Give to me the joy of your saving help again, and sustain me wit your bountiful Spirit. All glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

On the other side of my prayer altar are icons including two paintings from Harry, a core member of L'Arche Ottawa, as well as a French icon showing Jesus celebrating the Eucharist and one by Tommie De Paola set in a Latin American context. The Serenity Prayer from a retreat house in Michigan shares wall space with the Prayer of St. Francis I found in a monastery in Tucson. I have added an Islamic call to prayer tile alongside an olive branch my daughter Jesse brought back to me from Assisi. 

These visual and physical "friends" are important to me because sometimes I find I don't have words when I sit for prayer. I may read the lessons and a few of the liturgical prayers, but there are times when all I can do is sit and rest in the beauty and grace of God. Jean Vanier has written that people with intellectual disabilities don't have a cerebral relationship with God. They just know when they are loved. I experience that most when words fail me and I just sit with my L'Arche candle lit in the presence of my icon friends. The late Henri Nouwen put it like this in his little book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.

Acting, speaking and even reflective thinking may at times be too demanding (for us), but we are forever seeing. When we dream, we see. When we stare in front of us, we see. When we close our eyes to rest, we see. We see trees, houses, roads and cars, seas and mountains, animals and people, places and face, shapes and colors. We see clearly or vaguely, but always we find something to see. But what do we choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We have a choice. Just aw we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see... and we do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain, distract (or disturb) us. 

Using icons to "pray with our eyes" in silence is a time-tested way of being prayerful. Nouwen writes that "gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing." This makes sense to me. It speaks to where my heart is on some days. So I choose to "behold" (there's that word again!) the beauty of the Lord. The goodness of God's grace. The rest and assurance that even as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou, O Lord, art with me. Sitting quietly here is enough. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

more thoughts on a year of beholding...

When Di and I found it essential to embark on this journey into retirement - and a new way of being in ministry - we went to the Eastern Townships of Quebec for a few days of solitude and silence. It was essential because the old ways had outlived their usefulness and vitality. To go into a new way of being - a new way of living, loving, serving, and honoring the Source of Creation - required some quiet time for discernment. 

As I have noted in the past, often a word or phrase from Scripture comes to me during these retreats to bring a measure of focus to my sorting. My earliest days of ministry were shaped by Luke 9: 62: Whoever puts his/her hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God. (Ah, precious clarity of youth!)
Later and for a long time, it was Psalm 37: Fret not... be still and know that I am God. Later still, Matthew 11: 28-30 offered guidance: Come to all ye who are tired and heavy laden... and I will give you peace. (Especially Peterson's retelling: Are you burned out? Come to me and I will teach you the unforced rhythms of grace.) For the past few years, Isaiah 55 has been a constant reference: 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.

On our retreat, a new text captured my imagination, and I have used it to guide decisions, actions and options for living into this new way of being. The text is Luke 1: 31: Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. It is spoken by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary about how it is she shall bring Jesus into the world. I love the Blessed Virgin and believe the heart of ministry has to do with giving birth or making flesh the words of Christ in daily life. 

So as I began to ponder and study how behold is used it rang true for a year of discernment. Behold, you see, shows up often in Scripture as a call to see and respond to something remarkable God is creating. In Hebrew, hinneh, is often translated as behold meaning: pay attention. Chazah also suggests perceiving and understanding with the intellect. In the Greek New Testament behold is how ide is rendered - mirroring the Hebrew hinneh - for taking notice of something in reality that holds significance. So for the past nine months (hmmmm?) we have been noticing. Beholding. Watching and looking for the things God is sharing in our lives right here that likely have deeper significance. It is a sacramental way of seeing, where nature and events point towards something deeper even as they have authenticity in themselves.

So what's popped up in all this birthing, noticing and perceiving? 

+ First, our lives have become noticeably smaller. On a fixed income, we can no longer afford to do many of the things that once were common place. Like spontaneous travel. Or movies and concerts. Or subscriptions to favorite periodicals. Or unplanned shopping and dining out. Out of necessity, we have now eliminated a host of expenses - including our denominational health insurance - so that we can live into what is most important: sharing love with our children and grandchildren, being present to L'Arche Ottawa, making music. and being fully alive with one another. Being small has helped us discern what is most important for whatever time remains. There is a loss in this, to be sure, but such is the way of love: beholding is helping us to say yes with clarity and no with conviction. 

+ Second, living smaller also means living slower. Every day there is time for prayer, study, walking, talking, making music, taking in the PBS News Hour and a bit of British mysteries with Di at the end of the day. We go to bed earlier. I get in a few hours of reading, too. Moreover, I am no longer in a hurry to get any place. I have time to talk with everyone I meet at Wal-Mart - and do! Same with Aldi's or Stop'n'Shop. I can go to the hospital and be there for hours with someone if need be. Or take as long as is needed with colleagues in conversation. Living slower has taught me how to behold who is right in front of me so that I can use the time that is for what's most important. Loving. And listening. And being.

+ Third, being smaller and slower gives me time to be a home-body: I bake bread, prepare new recipes almost every night, clean our house and do little repairs. As an organizer, a student and then a pastor, most of these simple things went by the wayside. I was often too busy, too tired or too distracted to give mundane matters my attention. Now, however, I have time to send notes. Or be a neighbor. Or learn from my baking mistakes. I have mastered the Middle Eastern salad, fatoosh, and figured out how to cook falafel, too. I get to be with Lucie every morning as she wakes up and help Di prepare for her work. Additionally, I have the space to be outside cutting grass. Raking leaves. Weed whacking. Gardening. Walking. Feeling the wind. Or the rain - and soon the snow.

+ And fourth I am learning a new way of practicing my Christian faith. For most of my life I have been connected to a faith community. Now my community is six hours away in Ottawa. I cherish our time but am only there once a month. That means it is up to me to find a way to read and reflect on Scripture because it is no long a part of my routine. It is up to me to reclaim contemplative practices because I no longer have to prepare liturgies according to the seasons. And it is up to me to find new/old ways of letting the rhythm of everyday lead me closer to the love of Jesus. As I told my blogging buddy in Brooklyn, this small, slow way of living has lead me into what I call being a secular monk. It makes sense to me and grounds me, too. 

Now that I have tossed out most of my sermon notes from nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry - sorted through most of my books and music, too in a quest to simplify and stream-line living - there's very little in my life from the old days. Oh, I have all my Eucharistic gear and my prayer icons on display, but that's about it. My new life has become quiet, small and slow where it used to be public, big and busy. Tomorrow I'll go to Connecticut to practice music. Thursday I'll head to Brooklyn for a few family days. When I return, we'll turn our attention to All Saints and All Souls day. Later in mid-November I'll be in community at L'Arche Ottawa for conversation, Eucharist and music. And then back to our retreat. By Thanksgiving 2018 we will have sorted through art, book, papers, clothing and all the rest so that in come spring time we can sell the house and find a smaller, quieter place to continue this new life. "Behold" says the Scripture, "I am making all things new." I am so grateful.

Monday, October 29, 2018

arrested development, the rabbis of pittsburgh and talkin' about a revolution of values in solidarity

I have been thinking about the opening cut from the 1992 Spike Lee film, "Malcolm X" - by Arrested Development - called "Revolution."

It is still brilliant. Poignant. And timely. I heard it in my head last night while reading the words of the open letter the rabbis of Bend the Arc sent President Trump. (check it out @
letter_to_president_trump) Their well-reasoned yet passionate words resonate with the vibe of Arrested Development's anthem. It reads as follows:

President Trump:

Yesterday, a gunman slaughtered 11 Americans during Shabbat morning services. We mourn with the victims’ families and pray for the wounded. Here in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, we express gratitude for the first responders and for the outpouring of support from our neighbors near and far. We are committed to healing as a community while we recommit ourselves to repairing our nation.

For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement. You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.

President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism.

Our Jewish community is not the only group you have targeted. You have also deliberately undermined the safety of people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Yesterday’s massacre is not the first act of terror you incited against a minority group in our country.

President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you stop targeting and endangering all minorities.
The murderer’s last public statement invoked the compassionate work of the Jewish refugee service HIAS at the end of a week in which you spread lies and sowed fear about migrant families in Central America. He killed Jews in order to undermine the efforts of all those who find shared humanity with immigrants and refugees.

President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees

The Torah teaches that every human being is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

This means all of us.

In our neighbors, Americans, and people worldwide who have reached out to give our community strength, there we find the image of God. While we cannot speak for all Pittsburghers, or even all Jewish Pittsburghers, we know we speak for a diverse and unified group when we say:

President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you commit yourself to compassionate, democratic policies that recognize the dignity of all of us.

This is a call for a revolution of values. A revolution of attitudes. A revolution of vision. And a revolution of ethics. It will not happen simply because these bold rabbis seized the moment and gave expression to their grief and anger. But it is an important start. Note that the rabbis align themselves with others who have experienced violence, discrimination, shaming and oppression: people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Note, too, that they do not equivocate in calling out the President's fear mongering:  The murderer’s last public statement invoked the compassionate work of the Jewish refugee service HIAS at the end of a week in which you spread lies and sowed fear about migrant families in Central America. He killed Jews in order to undermine the efforts of all those who find shared humanity with immigrants and refugees. And finally note that the rabbis understand that their faith and the common good link the personal to the political: The Torah teaches that every human being is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. This means all of us.

In the early days of the Third Reich, as Nazi leaders and sympathizers consolidated their power and usurped the moral authority of the Christian Church, Bonhoeffer was equally unequivocal: “Only he who cries [out] for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.” In yesterday's Guardian there was an article by Michael Segalov entitled, "The Pittsburgh Attack Affects Jews World Wide." Two quotes are worth sharing: the first clarifies the context of the attacks and the second speaks to a spirituality of resistance:

Number One: The reality is an attack like the one in Pittsburgh has seemed impending for some time. Antisemitism – both dog-whistle and explicit – has made a return to the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. From conspiracy theories to straight-up fascism, antisemites are increasingly emboldened. Whatever one believes about Trump’s position on Jewish people, one can’t deny that he has been content to indulge antisemitic views. The president has regularly courted the support of far-right groups including neo-Nazis, and was disgracefully slow to disown support offered to him by the likes of the KKK’s David Duke. He told a Jewish Republican crowd: you won’t support me because I don’t want your money; he tweeted Hillary Clinton next to a star of David and cash. When fascists and anti-racists marched through Charlottesville? He said both sides were to blame.
Number Two: Normally, when a Jewish person dies, he wrote, we say a prayer: Baruch dayan ha’emet – blessed is the true judge. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact we understand that God, a higher being, works in ways we cannot understand. It’s a nod to the notion that however painful our grief is, the ways of life and death go beyond our understanding. But when Jews are killed by antisemites in attacks such as the one in Pittsburgh, there’s an alternative phrase it’s customary to recite: Hashem yikkom dama – may God avenge their blood. To my mind this is because violent acts of hatred can’t be written off simply as something that elicits sadness: rather we must respond directly to ensure such horrors can’t be normalised lest they happen again and again.It’s not a matter of simple vengeance – the rule of law will ensure that the killer is held to account. To truly be vengeful in these circumstances is to continue to be unapologetic in practising and celebrating what the far right attacks our communities for: whether that be our religion, our skin colour, our sexuality, our gender or our race. But to do so, free from fear of violence or persecution, minorities rely on more than silent support. Jews make up just 0.2% of the global population. To take on antisemitism – and to protect ourselves in a time of rising hatred and danger – we’ll rely on more than condolences and otherwise empty words.

A friend from Canada recently wondered aloud how it can be that the US President is still in office: after almost two years of official lies, slander and emotional manipulation - and a previous year of ugly campaign rhetoric - the question is right on the money. At the same time, however, there is a world wide movement of right-wing nativism that has captured parts of Eastern Europe, Brazil, Italy and even Ontario. This movement is wreaking havoc in the UK as well as Germany and Sweden, too.

That's what elevates the rabbi's letter to revolutionary status: it calls out the hatred, names names and invites nonviolent, public resistance to the current regime. I am not one to throw around revolutionary slogans, rhetoric or ideas easily. Been there. Done that. Rather, my heart looks for authentic game changers - and I sense this could be one. Segalov closes his reflection with a call to action that cuts deeper than solidarity vigils (as important as they are for us all) and warrants our supportive action: 

To take on antisemitism – and to protect ourselves in a time of rising hatred and danger – we’ll rely on more than condolences and otherwise empty words. That means refusing to excuse hatred for political expediency; it means mobilising when the far right marches in emboldened efforts to renew its support. It means not turning moments like this into debates about Palestine. It means linking the dots and seeing the correlation between all oppressed groups being vilified, abused and attacked. Diaspora Jewish communities understand how precarious our safety feels wherever we find ourselves; centuries of pogroms, assaults and state-sanctioned genocide ensure we’ll never be able to forget... Defeating racism takes time and perseverance. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours; demand better from our political leaders and protect each other from what may next come. It’s this that will avenge the lives lost so grotesquely in Pittsburgh on Shabbat.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

a sermon for today IF I were still a preacher: gimme shelter

Not long ago, a colleague posted a meme on Facebook declaring: Yes, this IS who we are, America! Perhaps you've seen it, too? It is a short hand reminder that racism, antisemitism, misogyny, violence, and fear of the stranger are not new things for our nation: rather, hatred has been woven into the fabric of our history. It has been a part of us since the beginning. Sometimes it seems dormant, other times it awakens to become the dominant energy in our politics, and always it shapes and forms our patrimony. Overtly or covertly, the story of the United States is one saturated in hatred. 

Let's be clear, however, it is not the only fact of American history. Such a claim would be untrue and critically unbalanced. There is a legacy of kindness and generosity that also boldly runs through the American experience. It periodically breaks through both the organized and spontaneous acts of our hatred as well as the crass and selfish machinations of our dominant culture. Sometimes our better angels appear as individuals: think Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Clara Barton, A.J. Muste, Dolores Huerta, A. Philip Randolf, Fannie Lou Hammer, Cesar Chavez, Joe Hill, William Barber, Gloria Steinhem, Sitting Bull, Carrie Newcomer, Denis Banks, Maya Angelou, Valerie Kaur, Harvey Milk, MLK. At other times, the holiness becomes organized: the Abolitionists, the struggle for women's suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, the labor movement, the peace movement, the women's movement, the movement for LGBTQ equality, the American Indian Movement, our ecologists. The aching of our hearts for freedom has been strong and consistent. It has also been systematically compromised, violated and defiled. No one captures the ambiguous agony of America's hopes and dreams better than Langston Hughes in his poem, "Let America Be America Again."

Let America be America again. 
Let it be the dream it used to be. 
Let it be the pioneer on the plain 
Seeking a home where he himself is free. 
(America never was America to me.) 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— 
Let it be that great strong land of love 
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme 
That any man be crushed by one above. 
(It never was America to me.) 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty 
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, 
But opportunity is real, and life is free, 
Equality is in the air we breathe. 
(There’s never been equality for me, 
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

We are a romantic and often naive nation. We tend to see only part of the truth at any given moment in time. We rarely appreciate paradox and often deny the irony of our history. What's more, we haven't yet learned the importance and necessity of corporate confession and repentance - a peculiar oddity given our Puritan roots. Germany learned to confess after orchestrating the Holocaust. South Africa, Rwanda and Canada have explored repentance too albeit imperfectly. At the height of the Cold War, America's wisest public theologian, the late Reinhold Niebuhr, who was equally insightful and blind to his own shadows, described our history in his masterwork, The Irony of American History:

The tragic elements in present history are not as significant as the ironic ones. Pure tragedy elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good. Irony however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood. Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history. Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb. And the irony is increased by the frantic efforts of some of our idealists to escape this hard reality by dreaming up schemes of an ideal world order which have no relevance to either our present dangers or our urgent duties... Our own nation, always a vivid symbol of the most characteristic attitudes of a bourgeois culture, is less potent to do what it wants in the hour of its greatest strength than it was in the days of its infancy. The infant is more secure in his world than the mature man is in his wider world. The pattern of the historical drama grows more quickly than the strength of even the most powerful man or nation.

Today - after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa and a week of attempted political assassinations of President Trump's most vigorous critics by pipe bombs - we are no closer to embracing, confessing and repenting our shadow than we were after the white nationalist rebellion on the streets of Charlottesville, the carnage at the Pulse Club in Orlando, or the slaughter of the innocents at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. No closer. Some thought Colombine might be our turning point. Or the bloodshed at the University of Virginia. I was certain it would take place after Sandy Hook. But our addiction to violence, the virulent denial of American hatred, and greed runs deep. I see no reason to believe that the events of this past week will awaken us.

No, we will enter the mid-term elections as a nation divided and remain so afterwards for the elections will only solidify our polarization. Republican ideologues will likely triumph in the Senate; and Democratic challengers will surely pick up momentum in the House. The Senate elections are mostly in large, rural states with small, conservative populations. The contests in the House will occur in highly populated urban and suburban centers where white, educated women might vote their disgust with the President. It is an important election and holds the possibility of restoring a bit of balance to the equation of power in Washington. 
But it will not heal our souls. It will not evoke a change of heart nor a call to corporate conversion. This will not take place because we are obviously not ready to get honest. Or vulnerable. Or heart broken. Or courageous. Apparently, there must be still more grieving in these so-called United States before there is room in our beings for radical, transformative, healing grace. So let us grieve: publicly, repeatedly, boldly, relentlessly, and honestly. Let us join the Psalmist and lament:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann has written that the Hebrew prophets of ancient Israel have something essential for us to learn: lament opens our hearts. Grief drives us to our knees. Confession exposes us to the possibilities of repentance. And then, when we least expect it and never deserve it, at God's own unique and mysterious time, a vision of a new heaven and new earth is shared with the human imagination. Then, and only then, when we are open to the wisdom of our wounds and thoroughly vulnerable, can a measure of healing take place. It is always beyond our control. It is never a consequence of linear thinking. It is, however, congruent with our brokenness and grounded in our despair. 
Brueggemann makes two points: First, to prepare our hearts for God's healing:

The prophetic task (is) to break that denial, and that can only be done by honest, public acknowledgement that takes the form of grief for what was that is being lost. Ours is a society of great loss; that loss, moreover, generates fear and anxiety. But until the denial is broken by the public acknowledgement of grief, we are unable to come to terms with the reality of our social condition. Old patterns of privilege and entitlement cannot be sustained any longer!

Second, as we wait upon the Lord, God's prophetic servants must name and claim our grief or the despair that results from denial:

The failure and loss of the ideology is not acknowledged, there is enough awareness of loss and failure to lead to despair. There is no doubt that our society is in despair, hopes for nothing, and does not believe that there are gifts still to be given. Such despair characteristically results in violence, either against others or against self. Readiness for violence in our society (see the militarization of the police and the force of the gun lobby) is a measure of our despair... (But) despair is countered in prophetic parlance, by acts of vigorous hope. The prophets articulate what God has yet promised on which the faithful rely. Such hope is voiced, for example, by Martin Luther King in his mantra, “I have a dream.” The dream he dreams is the promise of God; such prophetic hope insists that the circumstance of social failure has not defeated God’s capacity to generate new social possibility.
(see Brueggemann, Reality, Grief and Hope: Three Prophetic Tasks)

It is my sad conclusion that the lies of the President - his naked racism, his vicious shaming, his disdain for the Earth, and utter disregard for the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers - must continue. Not because God wills it, but because it is the natural consequence of our denial. And until we are sick and tired of grief and despair, the violence and fear will grow. You see, the terror that we are now experiencing as white folk has been a long time coming: it has been present since our origins, it has always been a part of the experience of people of color - women, indigenous, minorities and LGBTQ people, too - and now, to paraphrase Malcolm X, "the chickens have come home to roost among white people of privilege." Our brokenness is palpable. Two thirds of our nation knows it to be fact. 

So our work is to own this grief. To feel it profoundly - without denial - to express it visibly and regularly. Even as we trust in a love greater than our sorrows, now is a time to weep - to sing and dance and wait creatively, too - but mostly to weep.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity...
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun...
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

I may not live to see the healing in my generation. My father said this at the start of President Obama's bid for the highest office in our land - but it came to pass. My grandmother said it about equal voting rights, too - but that which was not imaginable came to pass in 1965. I may not live to see a just peace win the day in the US again. But by faith I trust that compassion and justice are at the core of God's heart - and by faith I know that God's will wins. Love wins. As St. Paul wrote after encountering the presence of the resurrected Jesus:

We celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Our sisters and brothers have lived through times like these - and worse. The rise and collapse of fascism in Europe. The middle passage into American slavery. The Holocaust. Jim Crow. McCarthyism. The internment of Japanese. Sexual violation and exploitation. The trail of tears. The Underground Railroad. Martyrdom in all its multiple forms. The rise and fall of communism. In solidarity with those we love, with song and prayer and encouragement, with earth shattering lament and just a little bit of faith - like unto a mustard seed - we can do this hard thing. We can. We have. And we shall again. 

And I know this to be true both by faith and because I have already experienced the sacred imagination giving us glimpses of our new day through artists letting their grief be transformed into healing by God's love. In their vulnerability and honesty, the holy takes our shared pain, leads us through our agony and points us towards repentance and a measure of hope. If you listen to NOTHING else this week, please give yourself time to take in Lisa Fischer's transformative interpretation of "Gimme Shelter." She is proof that we CAN do this hard thing...

Saturday, October 27, 2018

the wisdom of limits: a sabbath reflection

Today is a cold, dark day in the Berkshires - another of autumn's blessing for those who can bundle up and stay warm inside - but not everyone's cup of tea. There will be bread baking later along with our incremental weatherizing the windows for winter project and music, too. Before any of that, however, I find that since yesterday my heart has been mulling over an essay Wendell Berry wrote in 2008 for Harper's Magazine: Faustian Economics - Hell Hath No Limits. Two quotes cut to the core of his concern. 

The first urges us to get our theology right:

The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals—which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am...” In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

The second speaks to the consequences of our ethics and spirituality:

Human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible... To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent... We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given.... To deal with the problems of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

It is obvious that the introduction of a fixed income in my retirement as well as the likelihood of moving to a smaller home in the next few years has given me a new lens through which to look at my life. Being a grandpa has been a new way of being my true self, too. Sorting through hundreds of books, decades of old sermons, and countless record albums and CDs has been a cleansing exercise. Winnowing these shared belongings has evoked memories. Our recollections have, in turn, given rise to reflection, encouraging conversations about what continues to hold meaning for us at this moment in life. Its been satisfying to be sure, sometimes sad, too; but mostly clarifying to review the arc and meaning of my journey. Fundamentally, after discarding many things and reviewing two score of ministry, I can see that mine has been a slow albeit uneven walk towards becoming small. "Small is holy" I wrote in a song earlier this year. I wasn't thinking of Berry's essay, but it was an influence:

Thinking big and acting strong – led me into all that’s wrong 
Hitting bottom taught me well strategies to get through hell. 
Touch the wound in front of you – that’s all you can really do 
Hold it close – don’t turn away – make room for what is real today. 
Small is me, small is you, small is holy and rings true 
Small is hard, small reveals the way our hearts can be healed

Two small books I saved at the height of my culling have been calling to me just like Berry's essay: Becoming Bread by Gunilla Norris and Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot. It has been years since I visited these old friends and it feels like now is the right time to rekindle our acquaintance. Already I've returned to two other favorite texts - The Spirituality of Bread by Donna Sinclair and Joy Mead's The One Loaf - to great delight. Like Berry suggests, poetry (and in my case bread baking) can not only, "remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology" from my theology and spirituality, but offer a satisfying way to strengthen being small. "Art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work." Norris puts it simply:
When the yeast is added
we will sin in the honey water
the unpredictable, the alive...
which we can never own or
truly understand. We will see
how it bubbles and froths -
how it rises up - and we will know
that we do not have control.
Eliot is, as expected, equally insightful if also elegiac:

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven, 
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
o perpetual revolution of configured stars,
o perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
o world of spring and autumn, birth and dying 
The endless cycle of idea and action, 
Endless invention, endless experiment, 
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; 
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; 
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. 
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, 
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, 
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. 
Where is the Life we have lost in living? 
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries 
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

I like them both. You may find Berry's essay to be food for your soul as I did.( It may make you uncomfortable, too. One of his observations speaks to the challenge of living with compassion, integrity and small acts of loving courage at this time  in the age of Trump: 

The normalization of the doctrine of limitlessness has produced a sort of moral minimalism: the desire to be efficient at any cost, to be unencumbered by complexity. The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination — this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children. Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. 

In a time of political hatred and fear, pipe bombs and attacks in synagogues, mosques and churches, it is likely I will feel overwhelmed. Bereft of hope given the enormity of suffering. This is precisely when I most need to trust being small and honor the path of limits. So Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer:

O God:Give me strength to live another day;
Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties; let me not lose faith in other people; Keep me simple and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery, or meanness; preserve me from minding little stings or giving them; Help me to keep my heart clean, and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity; open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things; grant me this day some new vision of thy truth; Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness; and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls; in the name of the strong Deliverer, our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

listening for the holy in Ecclesiastes...

Yesterday I spent the better part of the morning in Bible study. That was one of the great privileges of being a pastor: every week for nearly four decades I had the time to sit with, listen to, and wrestle with the Word of God as shared in Scripture. These days I still have the opportunity to do this but without the constraints of time or obligation. It is a lovely gift. So, making the most of it, I lost myself in Psalm 37, a wisdom song from ancient Israel, and cherished every moment.

One of the biases I uncovered in myself while considering the wisdom tradition
again was my one dimensional assessment of this rich and complex world view.  Sometime ago, while early in ministry, I read about the wisdom tradition while leading a Bible study in the book of Proverbs. As one scholar put it, the soul of Proverbs "is conservative, practical, didactic, optimistic, and worldly wise." In my busyness and arrogance, I mistakenly let that insight define the second wisdom perspective, too. In truth, as I have since learned, while Proverbs is essentially a collection of conservative aphorisms designed to guide young men into stability, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes (as well as some Psalms) explore very different concerns. Proverbs seems to be influenced by the Egyptian school of wisdom with its wise father-to-son, top-down moral instruction. The second tradition clearly comes from the Sumerian/Babylonian realm. Job offers a mystical critique of one-dimensional morality as filtered through the lens of personal suffering and corporate exile; while Ecclesiastes suggests a rational existentialism beyond the confines of religious ethics. (For a lively and informative summary, please see:

Yesterday's time in study helped me take off some intellectual blinders. It also reminded me that my affinity is with the second wisdom tradition - the mystical and existential school - that is sacramental, too. (NOTE: I am indebted to the musical genius of U2 for new ways of embracing Ecclesiastes and Stephen Mitchell's Jewish/Buddhist commentary on Job.) Funny how one seemingly unrelated day of study can open new places in my head and heart - and that is what I experienced today with a reading from Ecclesiastes 11: 

Do not praise individuals for their good looks, or loathe anyone because of appearance alone. The bee is small among flying creatures, but what it produces is the best of sweet things. Do not boast about wearing fine clothes, and do not exalt yourself when you are honored; for the works of the Lord are wonderful, and his works are concealed from humankind. Many kings have had to sit on the ground, but one who was never thought of has worn a crown. Many rulers have been utterly disgraced, and the honored have been handed over to others. Do not find fault before you investigate; examine first, and then criticize. Do not answer before you listen, and do not interrupt when another is speaking. Do not argue about a matter that does not concern you, and do not sit with sinners when they judge a case. My child, do not busy yourself with many matters; if you multiply activities, you will not be held blameless. If you pursue, you will not overtake, and by fleeing you will not escape. There are those who work and struggle and hurry, but are so much the more in want. There are others who are slow and need help, who lack strength and abound in poverty; but the eyes of the Lord look kindly upon them; he lifts them out of their lowly condition and raises up their heads to the amazement of the many. Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord.

+ First, I cannot help but notice the upside-down analysis that Kohelet, the old preacher in this text, shares with those who have eyes to see and ears to hear: Look at the bee and the sweetness created in its smallness; look at the nobility of the humble who are blessed well-beyond the grandeur of many kings; look at those who have learned to do a few things well and their inner peace and compare them to those who are overly busy and stressed. To be sure, my time with L'Arche Ottawa and study of Jean Vanier have inclined my eyes to take notice of the "small is holy" upside-down kingdom insights of this text. It is a mystical inversion of another tradition in ancient Israel, one guided by a narrow reading of Deuteronomy, and celebrates the unexpected grace of the holy beyond the obvious and expected. To my heart, it sounds a lot like Jesus at his best. A meme on Facebook from NakedPreacher entitled "Love versus Scripture," put it like this:  
NOTE: Often we Christians take a harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional approach to the way Jesus challenged some within his own tradition. Indeed, we are guilty of misreading the context - and advancing antisemitism. We must be on guard for this deadly blind spot in our spirituality and oppose it clearly with love. At the same time, however, every spiritual tradition knows teachers who are harsh and fundamentalist as well as those who are guided by compassion and mercy. In Christianity today this very cartoon rings all too true for us. I am guided by the words of Jesus here: Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7: 3-5)

+ Second, this text counsels living as allies to those who are most vulnerable:  "There are those who work and struggle and hurry, but are so much the more in want. There are others who are slow and need help, who lack strength and abound in poverty; but the eyes of the Lord look kindly upon them; he lifts them out of their lowly condition and raises up their heads to the amazement of the many." Again, Vanier has been instructive to me about this insight. Not only are the vulnerable in need of allies and assistance, but we, too, are in need of their very being that opens our hard hearts to tenderness and shows us our own wounds. In Richard Rohr's mediation for today, something similar is articulated:

Only people who have suffered in some way can usually save anybody else—exactly as the Twelve-Step program illustrates. They alone have the space and the capacity for the other. Deep communion and compassion are formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure. Jesus told Peter, “You must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers” (see Luke 22:31-32). In general, you can lead people on the spiritual journey as far as you have gone. Transformed people transform people. When you can be healed yourself and not just talk about healing, you are, as Henri Nouwen said, a “wounded healer”—which is probably the only kind of healer!

+ And third, the good as well as the bad - the light as well as the dark, the joy as well as the sorrow, the celebrations alongside the suffering, and the wisdom as well as the mystery - are all a part of God's created order. I have written before about how I used to think God was only present in the good times. My wise soul friend, Adolfo Quezada, said: That's really limited - and naive - to believe God is only in what you like. What about Jesus on the Cross? Wasn't God there with him?  Another Facebook meme I saw recently from Rumi put it like this:
James Finley speaks to this non-dualistic view of life with great insight:

What is it that allows Jesus to face all kinds of suffering, including his own, and how can we follow him? In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood because he was afraid (Luke 22:44). It is possible that he was infinitely more afraid than we could ever be. But the difference is: Jesus was not afraid of being afraid, because he knew it was just fear. So why are we so afraid of fear? We are afraid of fear because we believe that it has the power to name who we are, and it fills us with shame. We feel ashamed that we're going around as a fearful person, and so we pretend that we're not afraid. We try our best to find our own way out of feeling afraid, but this is our dilemma, our stuck place, that Jesus wants us to be liberated from. But we cannot do it on our own.

When we start on our path, our hope is that we will be liberated from

fear in light of the mystery of Christ. Certainly, this includes doing our best to be as safe as we can be and to help others do the same. And when scary things are happening, it always includes doing our best to find our way to safer places and to help others do the same. But as for the fear that remains, Jesus invites us to discover that our fear is woven into God’s own life, whose life is mysteriously woven into all the scary things that can and do happen to us as human beings together on this earth. This is liberation from fear in the midst of a fearful situation.

Winter is coming to these parts soon. It would be foolish to ignore the clues. A cataclysmic change is coming to this country, too - one that will lead us through and beyond our current cruelties - but will demand facing our hatred of women, people of color and strangers first. We will have to confess and repent before the time of healing emerges. But it will come. The wisdom tradition speaks to this moment with clarity: let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

searching for God in Psalm 37...

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. As soon as I saw that the Psalm for today was 37, I went to Robert Alter's excellent commentary, The Book of Psalms, to review his take on one of my favorites. And right out of the gate he changes the standard opening from "Do not fret because of the wicked" to "Do not be incensed by evildoers, do not envy those who do wrong." I could not help but wonder: what didn't I know?

You see, as one chronically challenged by fretting and vexed by anxiety, I have long savored the invitation of ancient Israel's Wisdom tradition to trust God and be still as I wait upon the Lord. This is at the core of the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer. It guides the meditation of mindfulness. And resonates with the non-dualistic intimacy God promises by holding all things together in grace. This call to contemplation evokes the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, too:

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious...

That's why Alter's rendering through me a curve. Imagine my surprise to read in Alter's commentary: "The distinctive note in all this is a plea for equanimity. The good person is enjoined not to get stirred up by the seeming success of the wicked. The verb used at the beginning (and repeated later in the psalm) is one that derives etymologically from a root that means 'to heat up.'" (Alter, p. 129) Clearly, I was missing something so the time had come to hit the Interlinear Bible. After a few hours, here's what I came up with.

+ Psalm 37 begins with the verb charah (from the primitive root charar) meaning to heat up, scorch, or seethe with such anger that others feel burned. It appears 90 times in the Hebrew Bible and anger is its essence. Not anxiety, as I wrongly believed, but fury. Becoming incensed, as the poet Alter suggests, rings true. Why then do our English translations of Psalm 37 regularly say: Fret not?

+ The Septuagint version of Psalm 37, the Hebrew Bible in Greek, offers a clue by translating charah as parazéloó meaning "to provoke into jealousy." That echoed the burning frenzy of the Hebrew text but bore no resemblance to the passive obsession of the English. And when I finally found a resource to help me translate the Greek Old Testamentinto English, guess what? Fret is the preferred verb of choice. Hmmmm...?

+ So where in God's name did the word fret come from? Its etymology starts with the Old English fretan meaning to eat or devour. It was used to describe the eating frenzies of both monsters and Vikings. By 1200 CE a more figurative use occurred for emotions, sins or vices that consumed a soul or heart. By the 1550s CE, it was also used to describe the "gnawing away" of tranquility caused by "wrongdoing, fear, etc." (https:// /word/fret)

Poetically I could now see the connection between an obsessive, jealous rage and a scorching, devouring anger. There is indeed a parallelism between the Hebrew and Greek texts. Once upon a time, the English made sense, too. But given the ever-shifting nature of living languages, what once was appropriate in English, fret, no longer conveyed the Scripture's original intent - especially in the 21st century when popular usage regularly treats worry, fret and anxious as synonymous. By why stop there?

+ What I eventually discerned is that the way we currently understand fret in 2018 is more like the ancient Hebrew word daag. That word is used seven times in the Old Testament and always means anxiety, worry or dread. So now I knew what the ancient Hebrew word for my inner jitters meant; and, it was clear that the admonition is Psalm 37 is something different.

+ The comparable New Testament Greek word that Jesus and Paul use is, merimnaó, that literally means not being pulled in opposite directions. A much closer description to my sense of what it means to be trapped in fretting. 

Which led me to one thing more: the invitation to be still and wait on the Lord. The wisdom tradition was grounded on observing the long term consequences of nature's cycles as well as the repeated behaviors human beings exhibited in real life. Some call this Mother Wit, others common sense, and still others speak of fables and aphorisms from the folk tradition. Whatever you call it, it is a way of making sense of ordinary experience through the filter of creation's rhythms. I sense that the late Eugene Peterson tapped into this wisdom while working on his restatement of Psalm 37 in The Message:

Don’t bother your head with braggarts
or wish you could succeed like the wicked.
In no time they’ll shrivel like grass clippings
and wilt like cut flowers in the sun.

Get insurance with God and do a good deed,
settle down and stick to your last.
Keep company with God,
get in on the best.

Open up before God, keep nothing back;
he’ll do whatever needs to be done:
He’ll validate your life in the clear light of day
and stamp you with approval at high noon.

Quiet down before God,
be prayerful before him.
Don’t bother with those who climb the ladder,
who elbow their way to the top.

Bridle your anger, trash your wrath,
cool your pipes—it only makes things worse.
Before long the crooks will be bankrupt;
God-investors will soon own the store.

Before you know it, the wicked will have had it;
you’ll stare at his once famous place and—nothing!
Down-to-earth people will move in and take over,
relishing a huge bonanza.

Ruth Moody of The Wailin' Jennys once said in a concert: "Worrying is like
praying to God for things you don't want to happen." The 12 Step movement put it like this in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Clearly my old understanding of the opening of Psalm 37 no longer holds water. The totality of the psalm, however, reverberates with the practice of letting go, trusting God and accepting what is mine while all that is beyond me is mystery. I'm willing to leave it at that as I try out a new bread recipe tonight.


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:...