Thursday, November 29, 2018

longing for God is enough...

A few days ago I saw a meme on FB that said something like:God has never chosen only the well-heeled, articulate, obviously beautiful and powerful people to carry the message of grace to the world. Read the Bible and discover that most often God calls people like you and me - broken, halting, sometimes confused and silent with more than our share of fear and doubt - to be bearers of the blessing. And THAT is part of the good news. We ALL belong!

I knew in that moment I should save it, but I was weary and a little blue. So I told myself, "I'll go back and get it later." And eventually when I did, of course, it was not to be found anywhere. Still you get the point: the love of God moves into creation through tender, bruised, uncertain and wounded individuals just like you and me. Not the elite or privileged, although they need grace as much as the rest of us, but ordinary women, men and children. The gospel of St. John puts it like this: God set up God's residence in the world smack in the middle of our neighborhood. Indeed, God became human flesh and blood, too so that we might more fully trust that our own flesh and blood is holy. That our bodies are beautiful temples of the sacred. That our lives truly matter. And they can give birth to joy, tenderness, healing and justice just like the Mother Mary. Jean Vanier of L'Arche goes on to say that in the love of Jesus we become sisters and brothers with God. 

Not that I always experience this to be true, ok? I trust it as the deepest truth of
my faith, but I don't always feel it in my flesh. That's why the best spiritual friends and guides remind us that  "we walk by faith, not sight." That is, we trust God's love for us more than any and all of our feelings. St. Paul wrote this for us in Romans 5: We have been united with God forever by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives shape and form to grace...  that is why we know that even in our suffering this isn't the end of the story: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Our feelings come and go. They can confuse us at times as well as give us clues. But they are not the final truth - ever. 

Writing about a new translation of The Cloud of Unknowing, the masterpiece of English mysticism, Bob Trube of Hearts and Minds Books first quotes the new text:

The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So be sure to make your home in the darkness.”

Then adds: 

One of the critical themes running through the work, true to the apophatic tradition out of which it comes, is that God cannot be known with our minds but only in our love– we can’t think our way to God".... (nor can we) attain an experience of God through the senses, (we must) dismiss both our thoughts and feelings into a “cloud of forgetting"(for) longing for God is enough, this will open us to a deeper understanding (and encounter) of God.(see: https://bobonbooks.com/2018/11/28/review-the-cloud-of-unknowing/)

There's a lot swirling around inside of me right now - it may make its way into words sometime -or not. For now, let's stay with "longing for God is enough" and know that you are the beloved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

this is blues time: challenging the madness with solidarity, trust and beauty

The last few days have been all about the blues for me - I have a periodic predisposition to melancholia - as well as a negative reaction to some over-the-counter medications. Mix this into the horror show of bad news abounding in my country and if you don't feel the blues, you're not paying attention.

The truly evil acts of this administration - from tear-gassing children on our Southern border with Mexico, giving Saudi Arabia a pass on murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to encouraging the ecological devastation of the planet for short term financial gain - are soul numbing. And the cumulative assault on tenderness and truth-telling regularly break my heart. This regime goes out of its way to degrade public conversation. Their well-tuned fear-mongering machine keeps some of us in a state of distress while their pandering to our bigotry manipulates others into violence or despair. Recently the Ottawa newspaper, The Globe and Mail, ran a scathing editorial indictment entitled, "America is the bad guy now," that summarizes the US reality like this: the"unfortunate truth has become more evident since Donald Trump took the oath of office and steered the country by its worst instincts."

The unvarnished bigotry of (Trump's) campaign and eventually his administration peeled back the thin veneer hiding our ugliest prejudices. We are in very deep, very dark waters. Whether it was the prejudiced Muslim travel ban, the persecution of transgender Americans, the sowing of racial animus, his inspiration of neo-Nazis and murderous assassins or his partnering with homicidal despots, the sad truth is that, no matter how we want to deny it or wish it wasn’t so, this is who we are now. We are a country that enjoys closer relations to Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia than our traditional allies in Europe and NATO. It’s in these vicious pacts with despots that the true nature of the problem crystallizes.(see https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-america-is-the-bad-guy-now/fbclid= IwAR1GGf2WLvU4r3GfeX0HjYAQHZBlOR_v8K8UVm9doFaEEk5_JCOA17Cvfy4)

"This is who we are now: we are a country that enjoys closer relations to Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia than our traditional allies in Europe and NATO." Let that sink in...

As the snow comes down in my part of the world, my small band of musical allies and I are preparing to play a show at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT. In light of our collective reality, I spent some time reviewing our set list for Friday. And much to my relief, I found it to be a blues-reggae-folk groove infused with modest hopes and poetic critiques of this current madness in America. I had been so caught up in practicing and rehearsals, that for a moment I lost sight of the new music we were sharing. It really does reflect what I recently wrote in a press release:

In a stressed-out era, we share songs of hope, challenge, compassion and humor for 21st century adults. Grounded in Americana our roots also include singer-songwriters like Tom Waits, John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead.


Perhaps its the new freedom of retirement. Maybe it has something to do with my stripped down spirituality. Could be the clarity that comes from choices we must make given our modest income. Clearly the influence of L'Arche and Jean Vanier is at play here. The salty wisdom of Mother Earth, too. Whatever else is going on, I see this as blues time - lament mixed with trust, grief and hope in close proximity - a reckoning giving birth to new alliances.

We're not going to change the world on Friday, but we will offer a little shelter in the storm. There will be a bit of encouragement to get up, stand up, too. If you want to reconnect with some beauty in solidarity with others committed to compassion, join us. (For more information: https://www.infinityhall.

Monday, November 26, 2018

take no thought for tomorrow: bread-baking and bass playing on a winter's day

Today is all about the bass - and bread baking, too. A young friend is applying to regional music schools and asked me to be a part of his audition recording. He'll be showcasing his chops on two essential jazz standards: "Billie's Bounce" by Charlie Parker and a swinging version of "Bye, Bye Blackbird." I need to settle in to a reggae groove later as well to get ready for this Friday's show at the Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT. That means I'll be playing on and off throughout the day. What's more, we polished off the final crusts from my rustic white loaves yesterday, so now it is baking time again at Chez Jacques. I've wanted to revisit the first recipe I used from back in the San Francisco days in the incomparable Tassajara Bread Book so... we shall see. What a delight: a full day of practice, waiting, music, quiet and the staff of life.

Two hours later: my, my does this bread RISE! I have had to delay grooving on the bass until all the bread kneading is complete. And, as is always the case but never the same way twice, there was a bread-baking surprise: the "sponge" overflowed the bowl! I had a hunch it might happen and made preparations, but still...what a mess? Such is one of the gifts of this spiritual practice: it is the feminine - or at least the domestic - version of Robert Pirsig's zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Please note that I say "feminine" reservedly, in much the manner that Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, Carl Jung and Gunila Norris use it, a reference to the inward arts of discernment. Ms Mueller-Nelson writes in To Dance with God:

As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of become and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a live of value, necessary to real transformation. 

Things don't always go as the recipe indicates, right? You can count on this with every loaf of bread, you just never know what the surprise is going to be. Trusting that it will happen comes with practice. Ms. Norris puts it like this:


When the yeast is added
we will see 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 don not have control...

When the yeast is added
to the sweet and the salty,
the skin-temperature,
warm-blooded water, we will sense
the irrepressible and how it moves
into the very cells of our bodies,
into the blood and marrow. We are
flesh and we are vulnerable...

When the yeast is added -
the impulsive, the unmanageable,
the free - we know we will be
moved. Every part of the mixture!
The inert l ump of dough will come alive,
will expand and yield. We will be lifted
out of ourselves, beyond ourselves,
We will be worked...

An hour later still: In the two months I've returned to baking, mostly I've been asked to practice and relearn the art of waiting: waiting for the yeast to rise (but sometimes not) - waiting to discover the right temperature for the water and the right process for adding salt and oil - waiting to discover the right temperature for the dough to rise (and failing at least as often as I win) - waiting to grasp how the very size of the bread pan can make a huge difference. In other words, learning how to wait long enough to see and trust the details of the recipe that have been time-tested rather than blustering forward without inadequate preparation. It is an earthy exercise in going slowly. And the more I practice doing just this, the more my anxiety rests. One of the genuinely learned souls of this disciple is Wendell Berry who gave shape and form to this wisdom in his small book of poems, A Small Porch.

The long cold drives life inward
into shelter, into the body, into
limits of strength and time.

Out of darkness day comes.
The earth now white, the trees bear
bright new foliage of snow,

beautiful, yes. "Beautiful, but hell!"
Junior Wright said, wading
in knee-deep snow to feed

the snowbound cattle. We were young
then and really didn't mind.
This morning, half a century

later, under the beautiful trees,
beautiful truly, repaying much,
I dig out the paths again,

renewing again the pattern of home
life grown old in this place
and many times renewed. Continuing

my difficult study, I remind myself
again: "Take no thought for tomorrow."

To my heart, this is Advent spirituality - trusting a mystery greater than self to be true - and quietly moving into its blessing. I've already relearned that you can not - or must not - rush the bread any more than a bass player can rush the groove.  "As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation."  

Nearly four hours after I started the baking processI still haven't picked
up my instrument. So much for today being ALL about the bass. There's still loaves to shape. And bake. Maybe I'll get some music in before our recording, but maybe not. That's yet another truth this bread-baking spirituality of Advent prayer keeps asking me to honor: I really can't do two things at once. Hell, I can barely think of two things at the same time, let alone multi-task. So, as the loaves rise, I'm listening to the tunes we'll be playing tonight and later this week. And moving my fingers as if I were actually practicing the tune. Trusting that this will be sufficient. 

Listening to these tunes, a thought arises: should this bread come out well, I'll be able to share a loaf - and won't that be wonderful Like brother Berry said:
Continuing my difficult study, I remind myself again: "Take no thought for tomorrow." (NOTE: they're ALMOST done - looking great - but taking an extra 10 minutes to fully bake. And the road goes on forever...)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

walking into the darkness with trust...

When I look back in time at the ripening of my heart - the deepening of my spiritual practices and the awareness of the sacred within the ordinary - I see my increased comfort with darkness. Mystery. Unknowing. I have known two seasons of what some call the dark night of the soul. They have been profound and even illuminating in an upside down way. More consistently, however, is an incremental appreciation of the via negativa - the apophatic path of knowing - a spirituality of silence and waiting given a Western expression by John Henry Newman, the 19th century poet and priest:


They watch for Christ
who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind,
who are awake, alive, quick-sighted...
who look for him in all that happens, and
who would not be surprised
who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed,
if they found that he was coming at once...
This then is to watch:
to be detached from what is present, and
to live in what is unseen. 

I may prefer another word rather than detached: in this I am not in agreement with the old master, preferring instead to use relinquished in relationship to our present moment in time. To watch, then, becomes an intentional letting go of my addiction to certainty so that the darkness might mature. Or evolve and become its fullest self. This is how mystics speak of contemplation: not as navel-gazing or obsessively withdrawing from reality; but, rather, as creating space on a regular basis to take a long, loving look at reality. To listen and feel the truth beyond the obvious. To practice trusting the unforced rhythms of grace even when there is no discernible evidence . Barbara Brown Taylor confesses in her marvelous book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, that she has:

learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light... new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. If I have any expertise, it is in the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God and at the same time shame over my inability to speak of God without a thousand qualifiers, doubt about the health of my soul, and barely suppressed contempt for those who have no such qualms. These are the areas of my proficiency.

The via negativa is a humble spiritual path than honors doubt. It encourages questions. And practices silence rather than proclamation. In Western Christianity the via negativia and the via positiva - the apophatic and kataphatic practices -both  find expression in the liturgical year. The Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Feast of the Resurrection on Easter morning honors the obscurity of God's loving presence as well as the bold and bright albeit equally undefinable blessings of new life. 

A similar cycle takes place in the spiritual journey of Advent into Christmas and
then Epiphany. Advent takes place in the night. In the silence. In the mystery. It asks us to practice waiting which is likely the reasons Americans ignore it. One of the spiritual formation master teachers of our generation, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, writes that the practices of Advent are qualitatively feminine. By living into them we all learn about balancing the inward/outward journey. We find ways to honor both the holy feminine and the sacred masculine, too. She note in her brilliant To Dance with God, that in the West:

our masculine confines want to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right and delay an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting.  So we build Concorde airplanes, drink instant coffee, roll out green plastic and call it turf, and reach for the phone before we reach for the pen. (NOTE: this was written before the advent of so-called smart phones!) The more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry. The tempt of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life - it has ore to do with our being unable to wait. But waiting is unpractical time, good for nothing but mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of become and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a live of value, necessary to real transformation. 

Advent is my favorite time in the church calendar. It is saturated in mystery. Its music hints at the holy and lures me gently away from busyness without ever being pushy or brash. It is all about chants and candles, rather than trumpets and bonfires. It invites us to the birth of a baby whose very vulnerability tells a truth about the Lord if we're willing to watch and wait. And Advent into Christmas happens at night. A prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, A Litany of Darkness and Light, offers an apophatic corrective to the triumphalistic proclamations of so much of Western Christianity.

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 led them to where the Christ-child lay. Int the darkness of night, desert peoples find relief from the cruel, relentless heat of the sun. In the blessed desert darkness, Mary and Joseph were able to flee with the infant Jesus to safety in Egypt. In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed and restored, healed and renewed. In the darkness of sleep, dreams rise up. God spoke to Jacob and Joseph through dreams - and God is still speaking. In the solitude of darkness, we sometimes remember those who need God's presence ins a special way - the sick, the unemployed, the bereaved, the persecuted, the homeless, those who are demoralized and discouraged, those whose fear has turned to cynicism, those whose vulnerability has become bitterness... Sometimes, in the solitude of darkness, our own fears and concerns, our hopes and visions, rise to the surface. We come face to face with ourselves and with the road that lies ahead of us. And in that same darkness, we find companionship for the journey. We know you are with us, O God, yet we still await your coming. In the darkness that contains both our hopelessness and our expectancy, we watch for a sign of your hope.

Tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday in the Western Church - the close of the Christian year - the Sunday before Advent begins. It asks me to give up my desire for quick solutions and magic bullets. Christ lives as Messiah not because of race, class, gender or power, but because he chooses the way of quiet compassion for all of us. He shares small moments of tenderness with those in need and then asks that we do likewise. "Follow me" he teaches, "and your joy shall be full." Complete. It is the logic of his upside down kingdom that helps us grasp that by giving we receive, that by dying we find true life, and by living into the via negativia we are filled from the inside out.

Friday, November 23, 2018

cherishing christ the king day before advent...

On the day after  Thanksgiving in the USA - a time when many, but not all of my sisters and brothers head out to the malls for Black Friday adventures in consumption, while still others start to decorate their homes for Christmas - I found myself mulling over this quotation from Jean Vanier of L'Arche. For a host of reasons, I've never been much for going to the mall for a Christmas shopping buzz nor am I interested in decorating the house before Christ the King Sunday. At this stage in life, I want to live and let live so I've mostly given up doctrinaire positions on Advent, Christmas consumerism, carols and all the rest. 

I know I am still a bit of a liturgical snob at this season of the year, but I don't want to be. I find an exaggerated albeit inverted beauty at work in the rush of the malls. And while I prefer to nourish a bit of waiting, and hold off until Advent is here, Christmas decorations are filled with the hopes and fears of those who display them. So, go for it. Still, this quote from Vanier caught my attention. 


One of the signs that a community is alive can be found in material things. Cleanliness, furnishings, the way flowers are arranged and meals prepared, are among the things which reflect the quality of people's hearts. Some people may find material chores irksome; they would prefer to use their time to talk and be with others. They haven't yet realized that the thousand and one small things that have to be done each day, the cycle of dirtying and cleaning, were given by God to enable us to communicate through matter. Cooking and washing floors can become a way of showing our love for others. It is celebration to be able to give.

Creating, shaping, sharing and giving beauty to another in this culture at this moment in time strikes me as a revolutionary and counter-cultural act of radical love. To create or share something beautiful, you see, can never be a random act of kindness. It must be intentional. Sure we can do compassionate things spontaneously. And the more we share such generosity, the more likely we'll be able to stand and deliver when it really matters. But bringing beauty, tenderness and creativity into our every day lives demands something deeper. It is costly. It requires a commitment. It demands discipline, practice and trust. The Epistle of St. James puts it like this: Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. (James 5:7) I am so grateful for this earthy image of the farmer as spiritual director: patience is nourished and practiced, cultivated and watered and can never be rushed. It is the model for how we share creativity, beauty and compassion in this world. Not randomly, but intentionally.

Perhaps that is why I cherish the liturgical celebration of Christ the King or what some call the Realm of Christ Sunday. It comes a week before Advent officially begins. And while the iconography of this feast may look triumphal to the novice, it is all about the upside-down realm of God. Where the first shall be last, where children become our spiritual directors, where the marginalized bring healing to the powerful, and where servanthood define the heart of leadership. Three texts from the New Testament move me to honor Christ the King Sunday as the core of what faithfulness means for me. 

+ Matthew 9: 11-13:
"Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” asked some of the religious leaders of the day. But when Jesus heard this questions, he replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but the broken.”

+ John 15: 9-13:

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." 

+ Matthew 25: 34-40:
"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’


My practice in this in-between time after Thanksgiving but before Advent has become one of extra solitude. No crowds, shopping or decorations for me. I need to practice savoring the darkness so that I might discern the light. I need to wait and ask the Lord for patience because organically I want to rush to the conclusion. I need to sit and be still until the soil of my heart is ready to receive the small and often obscure gift of the Christ Child. Today I give thanks for the silence of this day. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

a year of gratitude...

Dianne is in the kitchen making cranberry sauce. I have gathered the herbs to make stuffing with home made bread. When I exit the kitchen, she'll return to work on pumpkin pie. Then its on to roasting our small turkey for a quiet, late afternoon Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat. George Winston is on the CD and life feels gentle, slow and restful. Last night before sleep, Di said, "I like you better in retirement. I really like how you are without all the anxiety, stress, resentment and BS of ministry." I have to agree: I like me more now, too! 

Deep rest and tenderness is at the heart of this year of gratitude. In reviewing my calendar for the past 12 months, a few insights bubble up to the surface. Once there was a time for engagement and now it is a time for solitude. Once it was the time for ministry and now it is a time for family. I might even go so far as to say once there was a time for war and conflict but now it is a time for all types of peace. I like the reworking of a First Nations prayer by Angeles Aiden, who writes:
Gratitude before me,
gratitude behind me,
gratitude to the left of me,
gratitude to the right of me,
gratitude above me,
gratitude below me,
gratitude within me,
gratitude all around me.

After a year of part-time ministry, I clearly discerned that it was time to bring it all to a close. Those who read this blog regularly know that it has taken me a full year to grasp the significance of this change. Sometimes, I fear, I've been a broken record pondering, listening, wrestling, fussing and sorting out what this new chapter in my life really means for me, my family and my service to God. When I printed out a summary of last year's events, a few truths were confirmed:

+ First, going deeper with my family.  I now have the time and space to simply be with our grandchildren. We are at work to discern a rhythm for regular monthly visits. So as I look towards the new year, this will be priority number one.

+ Second, expanding my commitment to L'Arche Ottawa. I was in Ottawa 8 times last year and twice in Montreal. Serving on the Spirituality Committee gives me a chance to contribute my time and talent - writing, liturgy and music - and it feeds my soul. L'Arche is how my outward journey with God takes shape and form in my "retirement" days.

+ Third, creating and sharing new music. Hal and I started to rehearse in earnest in January 2018. We've played a series of open mics, competitions, farmers markets and shows ever since. We've expanded the band, too. And at the end of this month, we'll play the big stage at Infinity Music Hall in Norfolk, CT. 

+ And fourth, learning to say yes and no. I sensed that I needed more time
for quiet. This meant saying no to a variety of public commitments that I have valued and supported. It was hard saying these good-byes - very hard - especially in our era of violence and incivility. Nevertheless, if to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven, now was my season for solitude. 

In gratitude and thanksgiving I give thanks to God for this year and all of its blessings and challenges. I have sorted out - and given away - tons of books, record albums and CDs. I have disposed of decades of sermons and church papers. I have learned to make fatoosh (a truly delicious Lebanese salad) and returned to bread baking. I have found a way of being engaged and alone that works for my soul. I have had lots of time with Di and Lucie. I have started to relearn the spirituality of the seasons. And I am rested and at peace.

Autumn
and our hearts
are seeking grace.
All around us
nature bids us
change.
Accept and give thanks
for falling
into surrender.
Into trust
that we will be held
and our brokenness
made whole

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I love thanksgiving - even as I hate the lies...

I love Thanksgiving. I don't love the sanitized, romantic mythology that has shaped this feast day. I hate the genocidal reality of it that runs through my veins as a privileged, white American Protestant. And yet, like many other people of a variety of faiths, sacramental celebrations that give shape and form to our deepest values are powerful and important. No nation, tribe, race, gender or religion is free from sin. We have all fallen short of the glory of God albeit in different ways. Thanksgiving Day gives us the chance to own these failures, ask for God's forgiveness, open our hearts and minds to the truth of our collective history, and then renew our embodied commitment to compassion and justice as repentant people. 

I know this isn't how Thanksgiving is usually celebrated. More often than not, it is a holiday of gluttony. Women, as a rule, are expected to cook and clean so that their families can overeat, fall asleep to various football games on TV, and then eat turkey sandwiches for supper. Some mark Thanksgiving as the beginning of their Christmas shopping frenzy. And still others rediscover their loneliness without friends or family to welcome them to a feast. I grew up with all of this as normative - including the racist mythology and lies I learned in both elementary school and church - in Congregationalist New England. And yet I trust that there is a deeper and more noble truth taking place among us at Thanksgiving, too. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set me on this path upon hearing his words at the March on Washington's "I Have a Dream" speech: 

We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.


Tom Hayden's, The Love of Possession is Like a Disease with Them; Dee Brown's, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Carol Hanish's, The Personal is Political; Erich Fromm's, Escape from Freedom; Dick Gregory's, No More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History; Howard Zinn's, A Peoples History of the United States; James Loween's, Lies My Teacher Told Me; and Angela Davis' Women, Race and Class: all helped me sort out the deeper truths from the lies. And then I heard it all come together, history and truth synthesized in poetry, by Langston Hughes:

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.”) 

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? 
am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, 
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. 
I am the red man driven from the land, 
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— 
And finding only the same old stupid plan 
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak...

Pete Seeger helped me. So did Dylan and Baez. Same goes for Patrick Sky, Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert. Phil Ochs, Odetta, Tom Paxton and Richie Havens, too as well as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron, the Last Poets and Aretha Franklyn. And let's not forget Frank Zappa. All of these artists came together in the work of  Bruce Springsteen who made the correction of our history an essential ingredient to popular culture.  

All and each of these wisdom seekers have incrementally helped me let go of the idealized mythology of America's founding I inherited. At the same time, they have given artistic shape to our shared longing for authentic community. They have taught me that Thanksgiving is endemic to every culture. Some celebrate feasts that honor Mother Earth and the abundance of the fall harvest. That's part of how I honor this holiday today. Others make it a festival of coexistence and respect - and that rings true to me, too. A variety of religious traditions have reclaimed Thanksgiving for interfaith gatherings - and I believe these celebrations are crucial. And little by little, we are finding other new/old ways to reconsider the real American experience: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

My hope for you as you enter this holy day is that you do so with with an open heart and a compassionate mind. May the gravitas of this moment in time be present in your feasting. May your own vulnerability and need for others be honored. And may gratitude grow among you so that our quest for a more perfect union matures.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

my ways are not your ways...

Yesterday was a quiet day for bread baking, music practice and the journey inward. Today will be much the same. In fact, stillness and seclusion will shape the rest of this week. The last one was full and public so this one has to be quiet and wrapped in solitude. After nearly 40 years of stumbling, I have found a balance that works for me. To be fully engaged with others, I need comparable times with silence in the gentle stillness of my home. 

How many times, however, have I read about the ebb and flow that Jesus practiced? With the people for a spell, then away to the mountains in seclusion. In the fullness of community, then alone by the sea. Or in the desert. How many retreats have I attended that were all about balance only to discover that I still didn't know how to make it so? And how many books have I read and purchased about discerning the right rhythm to my own inward/outward journey only to become overwhelmed and anxious rather than grounded and open? How many times have I prayed and claimed these words from the prophet of ancient Israel, Isaiah, only to forget them?

Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water! Are you penniless?
Come anyway—buy and eat! Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
Buy without money—everything’s free! Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy? Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest. Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.


Perhaps that's why I've taken up bread baking again as prayer. I tried a new recipe over the weekend that failed spectacularly. I am sure that both our house and the oven were too cold for the yeast. So, like another failed experiment, this one is becoming stuffing for our Thanksgiving turkey. Oh well,"to everything there is a season" right? But besides there not being enough warmth, I realized that I was also too distracted to do justice to my baking. I have long treasured the way Gertrud Mueller-Nelson puts it in her exquisite description of the work of Advent? 

As in pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a life of value. 
(To Dance with God, p. 62)
   
Yesterday, I set aside time to return to a time-tested recipe. Making certain to attended to both the directions and the temperature, these loaves were crusty, fully risen and delicious. Funny what happens when I do not rush. When I pay attention. When I set time aside to simply be in the moment. Henri Nouwen speaks of this as practicing an active waiting.

How do we wait for God? We wait with patience. But patience does not mean passivity. Waiting patiently is not like waiting for the bus to come, the rain to stop, or the sun to rise. It is an active waiting in which we live the present moment to the full in order to find there the signs of the One we are waiting for. The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior which means "to suffer." Waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, tasting it to the full, and letting the seeds that are sown in the ground on which we stand grow into strong plants. Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God's glorious coming. (Henri Nouwen)

The poet, Pat Schneider, offers a comparable call to contemplation in her poem, The Patience of Ordinary Things.

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

It takes dedication and time to notice the splendor and the patience of ordinary things. A colleague and friend who is a protoge of Fr. Richard Rohr once told me that Rohr had discerned that the best way he could use his gifts and life to advance the cause of justice and compassion was to train contemporary people in the ways of contemplation. Unless modern women and men know the rest of God's grace from the insight out, he concluded, they will always be frantic and anxious. And this inner chaos does nothing to advance the cause of peace and integrity in the world. Rather, it exaggerates what is broken and passes it on to the third and fourth generations. 

This has been my discernment, too. It is why I've chosen this year to try out the old Celtic Advent - a full 40 days of quiet waiting before Christmas - as a time of befriending the darkness and the work of active waiting. Nouwen is right that the practice of patience is a form of suffering. It is why Advent became a mini penitential season in the church year. But it is not senseless suffering or wasted time. Ms. Mueller-Nelson writes that our sacrifices "are a means to make us holy."

Sacre ficere means to make holy and holy means hale, healthy and whole. We want to make this time holy and be made whole. And it is not easy to do...(That is why) during Advent, we are invited to vulnerable to our longings and open to our hope. Like the pregnant mother who counts the days till her labor and prepares little things for the child on the way, we, too, count the days and increase the light as we light our candles and prepare our gifts. (p. 64)

Besides the bread, I'm using a small Celtic Advent altar in our front room to call me into the stillness. In a few weeks, the autumn corn and pumpkins will give way to a wreath of evergreens. This, too, is a quiet reminder of the movement of the seasons as well as the warmth of God's light in the darkness. In every era there is pain, violence, dread and despair. Just read the birth narratives of Jesus in the gospels or the trials experienced by the early church in the letters of St. Paul. At the same time, there continues to be a light within the darkness and grace beyond our grief. As the snow continues to spread a blanket of silence in our part of the world, my heart turns to the closing verses of Isaiah 55:

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.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

behold the beauty of the Lord...

On the wall behind my desk - the place where I spend the most time each day - are three obvious interpretations of Jesus celebrating what I know as the Eucharist - and a few that are more abstract. Each hails from a different time in my life and a different culture, yet all evoke a common truth: being together at a meal, whatever meal that might be, is holy ground. Eucharist has always been for me both a time of inner renewal and a rehearsal for how I ache to live my ordinary, walking around life.
St. Paul taught his early communities that they were to live in the world as a living sacrifice:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12: 1-2, The Message)

I hear those words as an invitation to live as those who follow Jesus. Christ knew how to let the Holy Spirit be his guide in the most mundane experiences. And because most of life is spent in the valley rather than the mountain top, the Words of faith become Flesh when we do likewise. Trusting God's grace in the small moments of life rather than the demands of culture, habit, fear, pride, addiction, desire, or wounds. No wonder the early Church reinvented the Greek word liturgy to define our order of worship. Liturgy means doing and practicing "the work of the people." Worship, therefore, is simultaneously a humble opening of our hearts to the Lord of heaven and earth, and, a rehearsal for how we will trust grace in all things. What we give to God in worship, we give to one another afterwards. And what we study on the Sabbath is how we share the love of the Spirit once the celebration has ended.

My oldest Eucharistic art work comes from El Salvador in the late 1970s. Informed by the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero's conversion from a privatized faith to one of radical social justice and compassion, it uses the folk idiom of peasants to honor the Lord's presence within and among us. The artists eventually formed a small collective to let their faith and art advance the cause of economic justice for those at the bottom of society. This painting is visually vibrant and alive - a witness to hope and trust - despite the suffering shared every day. It is not accidental that the beauty is carved and painted upon ordinary scrap wood as a way to embody the transformational nature of grace. In so many ways, this small icon gives shape and form to the foolishness of living in the world as Christ's disciples. St. Paul put it like this: The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe... we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for some and foolishness to others, but to those who are called, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (I Corinthians 1)

The second painting comes from the North American artist/author Tommie Depaola. It, too, takes a Latin American liberation theology motif to tell us that
equality before the Lord can shape our work for social and economic equality in the world. Women, men and children gather with their priest as equal servants of Jesus around the table of blessing. And what happens around the table becomes the community's vision for social transformation. We act as one body at the Lord's Supper. We have different gifts and different work; different joys and different sorrows; different hopes, dreams and opportunities. But as one body we share one faith, one baptism, and one hope born of our love for the one God made flesh in Jesus Christ. This is the table of abundance . It is a foretaste of a world living within the balance of the holy. A line from the United Church of Christ Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving puts it like this: We give thanks to you, O God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth the creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.

The third visual call to Eucharist comes from the Abbey in Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, Quebec. Another visual style speaks to me of the heart of St. John's gospel: love one another as I the Lord have loved you. We are to be servants. Friends. Those who are willing to be tender and trusting. Yes, the style is more somber than the others. There is a plaintiveness to the faces that recognize life's anguish. At the same time, the inner quietness of this painting captures Christ's presence in both our trial and rejoicing. Ironically, it makes me think of the United Church of Christ's early statement of faith which read in part: In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself. He bestows upon us his Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. He calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be his servants in the service of all, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.

The Reformed tradition of my childhood and youth did not value visual prayers. For hundreds of years, sacred art was discouraged. It was forbidden as idolatry. In time, the rules softened and some sacramental art found its way into our sanctuaries. My heart always felt parched in the austere simplicity of the churches of my childhood. I was drawn to the mystical splendor of the Anglicans smells and bells, the iconostasis of Eastern Orthodoxy, and the stone chapels of Irish and French Roman Catholicism. My spirituality is sacramental and knows that "in the beginning God created the world and called it good." The late Henri Nouwen, who lived his final decade as part of the L'Arche Toronto Daybreak community, put it like this in his small but potent book on icons:

...icons speak of a God not hidden in the dazzling splendor of the divine light but reaching out to a world yearning for freedom... (in these works of spiritual art) we have become the privileged recipients of the mystery that had remained hidden in God for ages. We have become as intimately connected to God as Jesus is. We have truly been made children of God. (Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons, pp. 76-77)
This morning we listened in joy to the liturgical chant of Anglican choir music. We prayed the words of the old liturgy and sang the Creed set to the early American tune "Holy Manna." Later I baked bread and we set out our week to be one of balance and beauty. Psalm 27 gets it right: One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.

thanks be to god...

The past four weeks have been full to overflowing: time in Ottawa with our dear L'Arche community, walking in the snow on the Winter Sol...