Tuesday, January 15, 2019

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 Solstice, heading to Brooklyn to worship and celebrate Christmas with our young family there, getting back home to meet a variety of sicknesses, hospital visits and challenges, and finally sharing a quiet feast with our Plainfield loved ones. In truth, I give thanks to God for all of it: the hospital folks were wonderful, our families have been so tender and real, L'Arche is always a joy and, despite our sickness, we are both on the mend. So what's NOT to give thanks for?!? (BTW I just got a note that my brilliant and compassionate Brooklyn buddy, Pam, is writing a blog post about the hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God," written in the midst plague  and the tumult of the 30 years war in Germany. It is noted that Pastor Rinkart often performed over 50 funerals a day during that hell. Now THAT is real thanksgiving!)

It was a year ago this week that I brought my pastoral ministry to a close. We took two weeks to be away in the desert last year - and it was holy ground. We also sensed the need for more intentionality and did another retreat in May. Eight months into this "year of beholding" what God is bringing into our midst a few truths are rising to the surface: the absolute importance of nurturing and being nurtured by our loved ones, the importance of solitude and contemplation in these brutal times, sharing small acts of beauty and compassion consistently in a broken culture, and returning thanks to God often. The late Henri Nouwen once wrote:

For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.

Now, more than ever before, the truth of being God's beloved is swelling up within and asking that we honor it as foundational. So, we are going to take a little time away again for rest and renewal. I probably will not be posting anything for the next two weeks. Who knows? It will just be a quiet time for walking and talking, soaking up a bit of sun, and resting with a few dear friends in one of the sweetest places in all creation. This morning on The Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor posted this poem by Barbara Crooker. I think she gets it right...

Ordinary Life
This was a day when nothing happened,
the children went off to school
remembering their books, lunches, gloves.
All morning, the baby and I built block stacks
in the squares of light on the floor.
And lunch blended into naptime,
I cleaned out kitchen cupboards,
one of those jobs that never gets done,
then sat in a circle of sunlight
and drank ginger tea,
watched the birds at the feeder
jostle over lunch’s little scraps.
A pheasant strutted from the hedgerow,
preened and flashed his jeweled head.
Now a chicken roasts in the pan,
and the children return,
the murmur of their stories dappling the air.
I peel carrots and potatoes without paring my thumb.
We listen together for your wheels on the drive.
Grace before bread.
And at the table, actual conversation,
no bickering or pokes.
And then, the drift into homework.
The baby goes to his cars, drives them
along the sofa’s ridges and hills.
Leaning by the counter, we steal a long slow kiss,
tasting of coffee and cream.
The chicken’s diminished to skin and skeleton,
the moon to a comma, a sliver of white,
but this has been a day of grace
in the dead of winter,
the hard cold knuckle of the year,
a day that unwrapped itself
like an unexpected gift,
and the stars turn on,
order themselves
into the winter night.

Thanks be to God, indeed.

Monday, January 14, 2019

a host of sultry, swampy TV show theme songs...

The first time I heard the theme song to "Peter Gunn" I was hooked: it was the best thing on TV back in the day. Since that time I have become a connoisseur of sultry, swampy TV theme songs.

Nobody besides Elvis wore eye make-up better than Raymond Burr in "Perry Mason" and his theme song always set the stage for one hour of pure bourgeois 1950s noir television complete with horns and piano triplets.

Four others have become favorites since that time: the various incarnations of each season of "The Wire" brought new interpretations of a killer theme song. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, The Neville Brothers and Steve Earle all gave superlative takes on this winner.

The Canadian police procedural, "Da Vinci's Inquest" had a real winner with its sultry horns and syncopated groove. It was a show I couldn't get enough of for a variety of reasons...

By now it should be abundantly clear that I am a sucker for noir trumpets, moody piano and a downbeat groove for a TV theme song. And the 1988 show, "Midnight Caller," always caught my attention.

And the current winner, in my decidedly skewed world, is the theme song from the British show, "Luther." 
There may be better theme songs but none are as edgy, sultry and swampy as these (save those I posted yesterday.)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

genre bending tunes from barns courtney, kenny chesney and more...

Today I need to take a break from serious spirituality and jump head first into a few new tunes (and two old ones) that grab me where I live. The first is"Glitter and Gold" by Barns Courtney. It opens the British TV "Safe" that is currently running on Netflix and I LOVE it. Anything swampy that combines rock guitars with a hip hop beat just melts me from the inside out everytime.

I know this groove isn't for everyone, but it works for me. There is danger and darkness here mixed with an ominous vulnerability that is explosive. The way I hear it, this young man is in way over his head and may not make it out alive. It started out pretty but went south real fast. It strikes me as the perfect song  for our season of Trumpian madness.

I got hooked on this sound 20 years ago the very first time I heard the opening credits of The Sopranos. Again, not everyone's cup of tea, but man was the writing hot, the action wild and the moral ambiguities of that era personified with precision. Both soundtrack CDs are worth the effort even after all these years. Not only do they evoke the mood, but explore a wide range of tunes from Sinatra and Pickett to Big Momma Thorton and hip hop. Brilliant.

The TV show "Justified" added a bluegrass twist to the gangster/rock/hip hop thing in a way that struck me as ironic and earthy. It is "genre bending" in all the right ways and has now become mainstream in Nashville as the 2018 hit by Kenny Chesney "Get Along" documents. 

There's always been a close connection between white Country and black RnB and Gospel. It was not coincidence that the first three 45s Elvis recorded took an African American blues and made it hillbilly and then took a country and western standard and turned it inside out to become soulful. The King's time hanging out on Beale Street didn't hurt him one iota. So Chesney is just paying it forward on "Get Along."
And don't forget that Chuck Berry returned the favor by taking white country licks and kicking them up a notch for his first major hit "Maybelline." Back in those early days, as Woody Guthrie liked to say, there was no plagiarism - we stole from everybody!

I would be remiss not to wrap this up with the mother of all genre-benders: Hound Dog by Big Momma Thorton. Elvis reworked it completely, making it sassy and playful in a way that worked across the racial divide. But it was built on this in-your-face blues that continues to communicate all these years later.   
Happy listening.

Friday, January 11, 2019

prayer, bread and music - pathways into the sacred part five

NOTE: This is the fifth and final reflection on prayer, spirituality, transformation and going deeper by faith. In previous postings, I have spoken of my way of prayer as needing both descriptive words for the holy (kataphatic prayers) as well as silence and emptiness, too (apophatic spirituality.) It is a marriage of West and East. My consideration of bread as my current spiritual director is an earthy description about watching, waiting, patience, failure, humility and joy. And today's words re: music suggest that it is my way into the ecstatic presence of the holy.

Yesterday I did something I haven't considered once in the year since I entered retirement: I lay down in the late afternoon to  watch TV. I saw that Netflix was running "Springsteen on Broadway" and that's all she wrote. I was down! Ok, I had just been knocked out with that wicked cold sweeping the Northeast right now and felt wrung out wet and hung up to dry. Sick or not, watching TV in the day light still struck me as indulgent and a bit selfish. But, oh well, there I was wrapped in a blanket with a box of tissues checking out the Boss. 

His opening song, as cognoscenti know, had to be "Growin' Up" and he did it right with stories in the middle just like the old days. He even closed it out on his acoustic guitar with the historic chord changes that signaled a transition into another rocker. For those who have followed since the 70s, you could almost hear in your head: "Bye, bye New Jersey, I became ai---r borne..." before "Rosalita" turned everything up to 11. But in 2019 there's no mistaking Bruce for "a cosmic kid in full costume dress." He's 69 year old. Still trim and agile, mind you, but with wrinkles and a touch of gray in that hipster's elder haircut. As I settled in and the opening monologue became a song, my tears started to flow at the chorus: "When they said, sit down, I stood up... oh growin' up!"

These tears surprised me. They always do, but shouldn't, because they've been flowing since I first saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in February 1964. Yet even after all these years, these tears still take me by surprise - and awaken me again to the transcendent. Music that evokes tears connects me to a love and beauty - a sorrow and awe, too -  that's been woven into the fabric of every day life by God. For a moment I feel things simple and sublime. Agonizing and 
ecstatic. Ordinary and extraordinary, both promise and reward for an electric moment in time - and then its gone again. Not lost forever, but beyond my control and ownership. Frederick Buechner helped me honor the wisdom within the tears that music unlocks for me when he wrote:

YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

Fr. Ed Hays gave me other words in "The Prayer of Tears," in his small book Pray All Ways. "Crying, while embarrassing, is also an honest and incarnational or bodily prayer," he notes, "that reaches the ear and the heart of God."

Tears are powerful prayers for they possess the power to move heaven. Tears perform numerous functions besides being the most powerful of all languages. Tears are able to express that which is beyond the power of words... Tears are the prayer-beads of all of us, men and women, because they arise from a fullness of the heart.  Such an overflowing of the heart can be the result of great sorrow, but also great joy... What happens naturally is usually good and also right. When this experience comes, we should not listen to the inner voice that condemns crying or attempts to make us feel shame for tears. We do not ask to be excused when we laugh, why should we when we cry? We don't attempt to suppress laughter, why should we attempt to shut off our tears? Perhaps we should explore more ways to laugh and cry as we worship God. (pp. 34-36)

Music is my pathway into the ecstatic love God holds for each and all of us. It is how I taste holiness within my humanity. It is my encounter with Pentecost. Oh sometimes the Spirit has embraced me in worship. And sometimes in nature or at the births of my children and grandchildren. I weep for joy, happiness and sorrow in the movies, too. But music is where I have been opened over and again to awe and lament; solidarity beyond time, race and gender; hope greater than my fear or shame. Music is a sacred gift leading me into the mystery of God's love beyond words, limits, comprehension, or religion. I trust that St. John's prologue points to what I have experienced when he writes a midrash on Genesis 1 in the first chapter of his gospel: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

In "Logos, A Jewish Word in John's Prologue as Midrash"(see Amy-Jill Levine The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pp. 546-549) Daniel Boyarin notes that "in the first centuries of the Christian era, the idea of the Word (Gk Logos) was known in some Greek philosophical circles as a link connecting the Transcendent /Divine with humanity and the terrestrial. For Jews, the idea of this link between heaven and earth, whether called by the Greek Logos or
Sophia (wisdom) or by the Aramaic Memra (word) permeated first and second century thought... (the opening words of John are therefore) not a hymn but a midrash, that is, not a poem, but a homily on Genesis 1:3-5." In other words, spirit, flesh, and imagination are united just as heaven and earth embrace in God's shalom or as justice and peace kiss. (Psalm 85) 

Fr. Richard Rohr and the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgault both insist upon this unitive reading of scripture and spirituality, too. Biblicists, literalists, and those who separate the holy from our humanity have long misread the mystical wisdom of Jesus in John 14:6. When Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (we must be clear that) Jesus is not talking about joining or privileging any group; he is describing the way by which all religions must allow matter and spirit to operate as one, which indeed is the universal way for all people." (Center for Action and Contemplation, Daily Reflections, December 30, 2018)

To be open to the transcendent love of God in times of violence and brokenness is complicated. "We live in a world of madness" wrote Elie Wiesel. "We are witnesses to this madness, too." In Ariel Burger's review of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom she states that the late professor recognized that when we report on the madness we have encounter,ed "(we, too) appear to others to be mad." If we normalize the madness, we are accomplices with evil. If we rail against it, we are marginalized.

If you look away from suffering, you become complicit, a bystander. Silence never helps the victims, only the victimizers. If you do look, you risk madness. Faced with such a choice, madness is the better option. It is a better option because at least you will not be on the side of the killers...  The ones who recognize the coming of evil, of oppression, are often seen as madmen. They are attuned to a reality that most people do not see, to a vision of a world without hatred, a messianic vision. They live for this vision, and they are so sensitive to whatever threatens it that, unlike others, they react immediately. They are usually the first to raise the alarm. (pp. 111, 113-115).
For me, music is an alternative to marginalization, silence or collaboration with the madness. At its best music creates, protects, deepens and shares beauty in the manner of Dostoevsky who madly proclaimed: "Beauty can save the world." Music opens my soul to the presence of holy and human suffering, joy, hope, love, loss, anguish and communion in an embodied way. Playing music for others puts me in relationship with God and creation as I trust a love that is greater than the madness.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

prayer, bread and music - part four

NOTE: This is the fourth of five reflections on my own personal spiritual practises. Starting on January 1, 2019 I began by noting that every one's inner journey by faith is messy, complicated, riddled with both pain and blessing. No one goes deeper in the Spirit simply; this journey always asks us to die to something in order for new life to be born. On January 3rd I posted that my conviction re: all healthy spiritualities and religions is that they strengthen love - a love that must be awakened and nurtured both within and beyond ourselves - for love is what brings meaning to our existence. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, I tried to summarize why and how prayer matters: prayer trains us to rest in silence and mystery, it asks us to face our wounded and false selves honestly, and then to listen and wait for God's grace and healing presence that arrives in God's own time. Today I hope to articulate why and how bread became one of my spiritual directors in pursuit of truth, tenderness and trust. And later this week I will finish up writing about my encounters with music as a wisdom teacher.

Joy Mead writes a poem in my favorite book from the Community of Iona, The One Loaf, that speaks to the spirituality of bread for me:

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

In a pyramid in Egypt

a few grains of wheat
lay surrounded by death
- dormant for thousands of years.
They waited quietly
until the time was right,
until the life impulse
was awakened by the good earth,
warmed by the sun
and ready to dance
in the bread of tomorrow.

Her description matches my experience - with bread and sacred living - it is earthy, crusty, messy, demanding and time-consuming and nourishing all at once. In fact, it would not be overstating the case to say that for the past year bread has become a spiritual director of sorts for me. Right now I am waiting for the "sponge" part of bread baking to occur. It is step one in the Tassajara Bread Book (my go-to guide since the early 70s) and takes a two full hours. Mixing lukewarm water with baker's yeast, honey and flour that has been sifted and stirred into the bowl one cup at a time, eventually forms a sponge. If said sponge is successful, it will double its size. If the yeast has been wounded in the process, however, it will die and you best start again. If it rises, more flour is added and kneaded at least 100 turns. More waiting, rising, punching down and repeating follows before the loaves are even ready to be formed and eventually baked.

It takes me 5+ hours to bake our bread. In-between there are bowls to wash, floors to sweep, hands to scrape and a lot of waiting. You have to become comfortable with so-called unproductive time if you want a good loaf. As noted elsewhere, this unproductive time is the overlooked and currently undervalued quotidian wisdom of the sacred feminine. Gertrude Mueller-Nelson distills it best when she says: "The tempo of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life... and more to do with being unable to wait.. (for to us) waiting has become
unpractical time, good for nothing."

(And yet waiting) is 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 what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmer, 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, necessary to transformation. (To Dance with God, p. 64)

To learn how to rest in the silence in prayer, I needed to return to the forgotten feminine art of baking bread. Every week since last January, ultimately for one full day, I set time aside for bread. At first I tried to multi-task but wound up destroying the bread and getting sticky dough all over my computer key board. Because I am slow to learn and essentially stubborn, I kept trying different tasks while working on the bread: vacuuming, dusting, down-sizing my books and records, paying bills, running errands or taking Lucie for a walk. But my incidental activities kept getting interrupted by the quiet bread. It is an insistent instructor. So finally in about September, it became clear that I needed to set aside one day without much else to do if I wanted to learn what the bread was trying to teach me. Things like how to pay attention to the dough. Or finish one task before taking on another. Or how part of the rising process (90 minutes) is adequate for some writing, but anything less just muddles my concentration and violates the gift of waiting.

Waiting and patience are essential for compassion. And intimacy with the holy in our humanity. Call it mindfulness or contemplation, learning to be at rest in my self in real time is the only way I notice where God is - especially in those still, small voice invitations. Or in those people and places I can so easily overlook as inconsequential while I do my self-centered, important tasks. Stillness is how the Spirit teaches me to let go of not only my wounds but also my privilege as a bourgeois white guy. One of the Psalms says, "Be still and know... that I am God." And that you are not! And that the way of God, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, is not your way. Not the frantic, multi-tasking, obsessive and greed driven way of Western culture. "Let go and let God" is how some have phrased it in the 12 Step movement. Absolutely essential to live as a tender, non-anxious presence in this crazy world.

To be honest, I'm still not very good at it. Last weekend Di found herself in agony with a particularly virulent stomach virus. One thing led to another and we needed an ambulance to get her to the emergency room. I was trying to be present - and loving - and I kept hearing my fear come out like anger. That was, of course, the last thing she needed. And every time I heard myself sounding gruff I hated it. So I would work on my breathing/centering prayer as we sat and waited without any control over a miserable situation. And as one hour became two and eventually nine before the pain was addressed, there was a lot of time for me to practice. And blow it again. And kick myself and ask for forgiveness and try once more. "Be still... and know." Absolutely critical.

Bread baking is showing me how much I ache to be in control - even when I know that acceptance is all that is being offered. In this, bread is a quietly consistent mentor in the ways of humility. To date I have been successful with only two types of bread - a whole wheat loaf and a simple crusty white bread - as all my other experiments have failed. Interestingly, my failures are all related to not really paying close enough attention. One spectacular looking set of white loaves tasted like crap because I omitted the salt. The first few loaves were poorly formed because I had no idea that the size of the pan determines how high the bread will rise - and this matters if you're making loaves for sandwiches or breakfast. Too many times I either killed the yeast with water that was too cold or too hot. Sometimes I killed it with an oven that was too hot. None of those loaves rose - and had to become humble croûtons and bird food. 

Bread has taught me what previous spiritual directors had hoped I would learn: failure is essential to ripening. It is, in fact, how the Eastern Orthodox tradition interprets the story of Adam and Eve: we were created less than perfect so that we might learn from our mistakes and incrementally become more holy. St. Ireneaus insisted that what the West condemns as sinful is actually part of the divine plan for our spiritual maturation. Divinization is part of the formation of faith in that realm and makes a whole lot of sense to me. God knows I have been asked to learn a lot from my bread  - and that is the point. My friends in AA like to say: "If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always got!" Baking has helped me become a little more accepting of missing the mark and a lot more aware that failure is a sacred part of faithful living.

Two other truths have become real for me in this year of returning to bread baking: first, beyond my inward and outward prayers, I am starting to see the whole baking process as a metaphor for living as bread; and second, how the bread of the Eucharist guides my hopes and dreams.  In her small collection of meditations on loving and transformation, Becoming Bread, Gunilla Norris writes: 

When a loaf of bread is taken out of the oven, it is hot and moist. It is laid on the breadboard and the kitchen fills with yeasty fragrance. Much has happened for this bread to have come into being - and more will continue to happen.  We smell the bread. We see its brown patina and touch the crust. Warmth comes to our fingertips. We experience the bread as we do our loving... with all our senses. To be here, on the breadboard, this loaf as gone through fire. Soon it will be consumed and give nourishment. And then it will be forgotten... we, too, must go through fire to become ourselves, to become sustenance for each other and for life itself. We are each a part of the mystery... love and bread. It breaks. It crumbles. It nourishes. We share it. Bread comes from grain, from earth, from rain, from summer and light, from labor and threshing. Bread of comfort, of necessity, of sorrow. Bread that brings life. Fresh bread. Stale bread. Bread crumbs. We are all of that. (pp. 4-5)

In my spiritual life, I have chosen to follow and embody the way of Jesus. There are many reasons including the hope I trust and have experienced in what some know as the Paschal Mystery (how new life often emerges out of the various forms of death in the world.) My commitment has been strengthened by the mystical, loving presence of Jesus within my heart. And it has been given shape and form by a rhythm of living that Jesus described for his friends when he said: I am the bread of life. This is the practice of Eucharistic spirituality. The late Henri Nouwen articulated it with clarity in his small book, Life of the Beloved. He writes that there are four, inter-related themes to living as bread for the world.

+ First, we are taken. Or called. Or invited or claimed by God. This happens before we are born. In God's love we are claimed as beloved. We don't earn this or own it. Many of us don't believe it. Or at least wrestle with its beauty all the days of our lives. But first there is God's love within us. Our life as bread is to be an instrument of tender compassion. Just as the Eucharistic bread is taken by the celebrant at Holy Communion, so our lives have been claimed by God, filled with love and invited to be a source of divine love in the real world.

+ Second, we are blessed. Our ordinary beings are loved profoundly by God, filled with Spirit and saturated with grace. We do not have to be special. Or powerful. Or rich or wise. In fact, it is in the small acts of sharing love. Not by our doing, but by God's love. When we trust this, we become like the bread raised at Eucharist, an ordinary body that can spread nourishment to the world. God's blessing within becomes an outward and visible sign of grace in the world. Without trusting this blessing within, we know only fear, shame and anxiety. 

+ Third, we are broken. All of us are wounded. Leonard Cohen sings that "there is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Nouwen writes: 

The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity.

The bread of the Eucharist is torn in order to be shared. Our wounds are not only how we learn, our brokenness is how we live in solidarity and openness with one another. When we know the wisdom of our wounds, then our sharing is filled with healing and hope.

+ Finally, fourth, we are shared: given away to others - never to be hoarded - always to be gifts. When we have been called, blessed and made aware of the wisdom of our wounds, we are ready to live a life for others. One that brings us joy as we live sharing love in simple ways. An old Welsh legend recorded in Donna Sinclair's excellent The Spirituality of Bread says it well:

It seems that Christ went into a bakery and asked for some bead. The baker immediately put a piece of dough into the oven. But her daughter felt she was too generous, took it out, cut off half of it, and put it back into the oven. It immediately grew into an enormous loaf, while the inhospitable daughter began to hoot in surprise. She had been turned into an owl (a practice long associated with Demeter who was famous for changing those with whom she was annoyed into owls.) From this story, one could draw any number of conclusions:

+  If a stranger asks for bread, be generous.
+ Be kind to stray owls: you don't know whose daughter they might be.
+ Don't mess with bread that's already in the oven.
+ Obey your mother at all times - especially if she is the baker.
+ Keep your door locked if you're too rude to share.

But my favorite is this: be alert, because the sacred might be at your door. Or at your dinner table, where friend gather and talk and make a doorway into a world where our souls are honored. (The Spirituality of Bread, pp. 153/155)

In this past year of entering into the journey of retirement, I returned to a new commitment to prayer. I spent a great deal of time resting in silence - listening for the still small voice of the holy calling me towards new ways of tenderness - and renewing my connection to L'Arche, my loved ones, and making new music in a harsh and often cruel world. All the while I have been mentored by bread that speaks to me being taken, blessed, broken and shared by God for love in this crazy world.

pictures mostly from today's baking time: January 8, 2019 11:40 AM - 6:45 PM

Sunday, January 6, 2019

prayer, bread and music - part three

NOTE: This is part three of a five part series re: spirituality and going deeper into the blessings of grace. Please see the previous posts for context. Later this week I will share my thoughts on bread and music. Today I'll consider what I mean by prayer.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major liturgical celebrations in the Christian realm. It is also the Feast of the Nativity according to the calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics. I will always carry with me the sounds of an Orthodox choir rehearsing on the Eve of this feast day back in 1984. It was in then Leningrad (now restored to St. Petersburg) at about 7 pm. The air was frigid and dark. I was leading a group of 25 youth and their parents (as well as 20 other adults from the local community college in Saginaw, MI) on a pilgrimage of understanding to the former Soviet Union. Entering the candle lit Sanctuary with about ten students and a few parents was a moment of mystery: the a capella music rose towards the Sanctuary's dome, the incense and candles surrounded us in a sweet diffused light, and the young women who spoke English greeted us as sisters and brothers from part of a once long, lost wing of their beloved family. For half an hour our hearts were full to overflowing with comfort and joy as East kissed West and Christmas embraced Epiphany for a moment in time. 

In the West, Epiphany marks the arrival of the Magi - mystical Gentiles who came to pay homage to the baby Messiah in the manger - while in the East the "revelation" of this feast is more about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist - a sacred affirmation announced by the Holy Spirit proclaiming the reign of God's beloved. In Western Christianity, Epiphany comes at the close of the 12 days of Christmas. It also opens the celebrations of festivities that culminate in Mardi Gras before the fasting of Lent. In the East, this festival takes place on January 19 followed by five Sundays anticipating Lent including: Zacchaeus Sunday, Publican and Pharisee Sunday, Prodigal Son Sunday, Final Judgment /Meatfare Sunday (the start of the Lenten fast from meat),Forgiveness/ Chessefare Sunday (and the start of the Eastern equivalent of Mardi Gras with rich foods eaten in abundance before all the remains are burned in anticipation of the fast of the Great Lent itself.) 

My heart cherishes the way the Eastern Christian tradition mixes food, weather and prayer with the sacred calendar. Feasting and fasting are part of an old tradition that pre-dates the Church, of course, but so what? My more austere Reformed upbringing knew nothing of the liturgical calendar nor the sensual /ascetic ways of growing in holy trust that it teaches. It was well into my early 20s before I began exploring this realm - and now I continue to find ways to take it deeper. I suspect that is why I have defined my spiritual practices with the words prayer, bread and music. 

There have been different articulations of this Trinity over the years including solitude, hospitality and celebration as well as silence, sound and communion. Whichever way I cast the words, however, its been more suggestive than definitive. Having experimented with a variety of formulations, today I sense that my words are simply small, one word poems that evoke the soul of what has become my incarnational and sacramental spirituality: prayer, bread and music. 

PRAYER: the inward/outward practices of listening, responding and experiencing to the holy. My practice with prayer has multiple layers. In some ways, prayer is about how I live and "see" the holy in all things. It includes contemplative prayer, spiritual friendships, study, reflection and worship. It is saturated with silence as well as the sounds of songs, Psalms and traditional liturgy.

Like most children, my first experience with prayer began at home and then in public worship at church. Learning to be still in the company of others, to look inward and beyond myself for short periods, and to make the sounds of tradition part of my memory bank was an important training ground. In time, I heard the hymns of worship as vehicles for prayer. My prayers went deeper when I learned to memorize not only the Lord's Prayer of my Reformed training, but also Hail Mary, psalms, and liturgical chants like the Gloria, Doxology and the blessing of Aaron. These have become trusted tools that take my heart to a safe place for times of reflection. In recent years I have learned to use prayer beads and my breath to focus my inward journey, too. These resources belong to kataphatic spirituality: the "via positivia" where thought, word, liturgy, linear theology, sound and images of the holy inform, guide and shape the life of faith. It is a decidedly Western approach to the inward journey and seeks to help us know the way of the Lord descriptively.

Another way of participating in this journey is the "via negativia" - an apophatic spirituality - that refuses to name or describe the sacred, but rather seeks to experience it. This begins as the way of silence. The gospel stories point to this path whenever Jesus steps away from his active life and retreats to the mountains, sea, desert or other empty places in private to be still and wait upon the the Lord. Visiting Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, spending time in study and prayer at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in NY, and later reading Henri Nouwen's devotional book on praying with icons, awakened a hunger to go deeper into silence. I yearned to know how to pray with my eyes. I ached to experience the presence of the holy more authentically. I used the mantra-like Jesus Prayer throughout the day to awaken an awareness of the sacred in my ordinary consciousness. The sung meditations of Taize prayer became another trusted friend on this journey. So, too the work Fr. Thomas Keating shared with centering prayer. This reintroduction of apophatic and contemplative spirituality to Western Christianity revived the mystical wisdom of Christianity to our various traditions after nearly 500 years of banishment.

Silent, contemplative prayer opened my heart to a new way of being. I was trained and encouraged to practice it by my spiritual director Fr. Jim O'Donnell in Cleveland. He loved engaging my  intellect. He helped me explore the interface of spirituality and theology. But mostly he insisted that it was impossible to think my way into transformation. Nor could I stay locked in my head if I wanted to live into the depth of God's grace. In time he asked me to practice "sitting quietly alone two times each day until I experienced being held in the palm of God's hands." It took a few months - and a lot of frustration and resistance, too - but one night it happened. Not in an earth-shattering way. And not like a a romantic, mountain top revelation. It was more like a still, small voice. Quietly, without fanfare, I realized that I was resting in the protection of God's love. 

Such is the blessing of contemplative prayer. It is experiential. It is of the heart not the head. It is slow-moving and unlocks grace from within and beyond. It awakes you to the promise of a transformed life. Letting go of self, we learn to die to what is false and honor what is true in real time. I like the way Rohr articulates the essence of this journey:

All prayer disciplines are somehow trying to get head and heart and
body to work as one, and that changes one’s thinking rather entirely. “The concentration of attention in the heart—this is the starting point of prayer,” says St. Theophane the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian mystic. Any other “handler” of your experience, including the rational mind or even mere intellectual theology, eventually distorts and destroys the beauty and healing power of the Big Truth. The second principle is that truth is on some level always beautiful—and healing—to those who honestly want truth. Big Truth cannot be angry, antagonistic, or forced on anyone, or it will inherently distort the message (as the common belief in a punitive God has done for centuries). The good, the true, and the beautiful are always their own best argument for themselves, by themselves, and in themselves. Such beauty, or inner coherence, is a deep inner knowing that both evokes the soul and even pulls the soul into All Oneness. Incarnation is beauty, and beauty always needs to be incarnate, that is specific, concrete, particular. We need to experience very particular, soul-evoking goodness in order to be shaken into what many call “realization.” It is often a momentary shock where you know you have been moved to a different plane of awareness.

Today my inward journey celebrates silence while also making time for the joy of spoken liturgy, worship, confession, prayers of petition and song. Both inward paths help me wander into my inner wilderness and practice letting go of control by trust. In still times and emptiness I begin to own my obsessions and name my pain. Rohr is truly persuasive when he teaches us that until our personal and collective pain is transformed by love, we will continue to inflict it upon others.

Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing: we must go down before we even know what up is. In terms of the ego, most religions teach in some way that all must “die before they die.” Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to both destabilize and reveal our arrogance, our separateness, and our lack of compassion. I define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”  When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. 
Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity... If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. Mature religion is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t keep handing the pain on to the next generation. 
This is my practice of the inward journey. There are many others and I don't pretend to know what works best for others. This discovery requires a ton of trial and error - and it is all good. Let me suggest a few resources that I have found valuable in my quest.

+ Dakota by Kathleen Norris
+ Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
+ Pray All Ways by Edward Hays
+ The Other Side of Silence by Morton Kelsey
+ Listening to Your Life by Frederick Beuchner
+ Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
+ Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen
+ Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr
+ Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
+ The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault

Thursday, January 3, 2019

prayer, bread and music - part two

NOTE: This is part two of a series re: spirituality and growing deeper. The first appeared on January 1, 2019 under the title, Honoring the Start of 2019: Prayer, Bread and Music - Part One (https://rj-when lovecomestotown.blogspot. com/2019/01/honoring-start-of-2019-prayer-bread-and.html)
This morning I was at the public library picking up a few mystery novels to enjoy over the next two weeks. While chatting-up the librarian, he mentioned that I had a 10 cent fine. "Are you ok with me taking care of that next time as I don't have any change on me?" He smiled and said, "It won't go any where or get any bigger. No problem." At which point I felt a tap on my shoulder, "Would this help?" asked a woman of a certain age with a soft smile. She was handing me a dime. "You're too kind," I replied, "and what a grand way to pay it forward at the start of a New Year. Thank you." For a few seconds, we shared a sense of shalom at it hung in the silence between us. Then just as quickly as we recognized its presence, it was gone. I waved good-bye and headed out to my car, she smiled again and the librarian said quietly, "May I help whose next?"

It is my conviction and experience that little acts of compassion like this take place all over creation at every hour of every day. They are mostly small and usually hidden, meaning very little in isolation but contributing to the collective beauty and well-being of God's creation like it was in the beginning. Intuitively, whether we are consciously cultivating a spiritual life or not, I choose to trust that the image of God within us reminds us that we have a part to play in holding together the social fabric of our society. 

It can always be punctured or wounded, to be sure. Sometimes some of us are in such pain that we lose touch with our true selves and violate this sacred calling. The anguish we inflict on those we love - or on innocent victims - is staggering. Having been part of four local congregations and two social justice organizing movements over the past 40 years, I have seen excruciating human depravity and the consequences of unspeakable vengeance. Having been pastor to combat vets from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars, it is clear that whenever personal wounds become widespread through the perversion of truth and the manufacture and manipulation of fear, social chaos combines with unconscionable acts of violence to rule the day. Yet even when human suffering is massive and savagery lurks just beyond the shadows of consciousness, cruelty will never define the core of the human experience. For in the beginning we were created in the image of God. And God's mercy and steadfast love endure forever both within us and beyond, too. Victor Frank's words about surviving the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Kaufering and Türkheim warrant our consideration:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way... It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.                     Man's Search for Meaning

In one of modernity's worst encounters, Frankl testifies to what others before and after him have learned to trust, too: love wins. Not in naiveté, never easily or gratuitously, but nevertheless consistently, persistently and dependably. I think of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran in the killing fields of Cambodia. Or Nelson Mandela imprisoned in South Africa. I think of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fannie Lou Hamer in the USA. Or Mallala Yousafzai in Pakistan. Or young Bana Alabed blogging for peace from Syria even as the regime's bombs fell. Each and all confirm in their own way the wisdom that St. Paul describes in I Corinthians 13:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

Which brings me back to the worldwide organic commitment to sharing small acts of compassion on a daily basis: it is part of our DNA. It is both the how and the why of our creation. And the more we trust our truest self - our original self, the reality of compassion and tenderness that has been placed in our core since before there was time - the more we can live from the heart. This means that there is less energy for our wounded (or false) self to be actively hurtful in our lives - and  so more justice, trust, beauty and solidarity. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it well:

From the very beginning, faith, hope, and love are planted deep within our nature—indeed they are our very nature (Romans 5:5, 8:14-17). But we have to awaken, allow, and advance this core identity by saying a conscious yes to it and drawing upon it as a reliable and Absolute Source. The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything. When we see the image of God where we are not accustomed to seeing the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own. For the planet and for all living beings to move forward, we can rely on nothing less than an inherent original goodness and a universally shared dignity. Only then can we build, because the foundation is strong, and is itself good.

A friend on Facebook sent me another meme that cuts to the chase like this:
Spirituality is no longer abstract. Rather, it is the practice of finding our true and original self and strengthening that self inwardly and outwardly. There are, of course, a variety of ways to do this. The disciplines or practices of living from our heart and caring for our soul are how the words of wisdom become flesh. In my Christian tradition there are a host of spiritual paths to explore. In my next post I will share what I have discerned to date as the three, broad practices that work best for me: prayer, bread and music. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

honoring the start of 2019: prayer, bread and music - part one

An insightful meme showed up on FB that resonates with what I've been mulling over for this post at the close of 2018.
This is often how most of us feel about our faith journey: others look like they have ups and downs - and do - even as they move towards greater spiritual insight and maturity. In reality, however, this drawing needs to be corrected so that the lower picture reads: EVERYONE'S spiritual journey. Confusion, chaos, pain, joy, hope, fear, love, hate, dreams and deeds that are both good and bad are the truth for each of us - and every family, too. In reality, I think this meme is closer to the truth.
I recall like it was last week a conversation with the then Senior Minister of my first church in Saginaw, MI. It was perhaps six months after I started my ordained ministry in the local church. We were driving to a retreat house for two days of planning when he asked, "So what's the most important insight you've gleaned so far since leaving seminary?" It didn't take long for me to blurt out, "Oh, man, I am stunned by how much pain everyone is carrying around. On the surface, people look like they've got it all together. But with a little time and a little trust, the wounds just below the surface start pouring out." We finished our drive in silence.

Less than a year later I had the privilege of spending a week of study at the Hazelden Center in Minnesota. A middle aged couple sponsored me so that I might learn how to be present with addicts seeking to share a fourth and fifth step in the 12 Step process. The couple knew the prominence of pain in the human condition - and how often we mask it with alcohol and other diversions - as they were actively recovering alcoholics themselves. After our group was welcomed by the Hazelden staff, our first assignment was to spend some time constructing an honest gen-o-gram of our own family's history with addiction. I went back four generations and saw for the first time the depth and breadth of dis-ease and substance abuse that shaped my lineage. It was humbling and unsettling to objectively look at the pain, wounds, denial, damage and confusion in my family that I had accepted as normal. It was frightening, too to realize that I had not escaped the consequences of the sins (wounds) of my mothers and fathers that were now being "visited upon the third and fourth generation." (Exodus 20) At the end of the week, I sought out counseling and spiritual direction for the first time. The words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30 took on new significance:

I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days...

Candidly, I felt more like this drawing than Moses although we were both at the edge of the wilderness and close to the promised land. After that seminar it was clear that if I didn't live into and through my wounds, I would never be able to discover their wisdom.

Since that time, my spiritual journey has rested upon four touch stones:

  • To give names to the wounds within so that I might learn their wisdom
  • To trust that God's mysterious grace can transform my pain into embodied compassion for myself and others
  • To practice contemplation as the pathway to peace 
  • To be quietly present with others so that when they are ready to explore the wisdom of their wounds I can share a few clues
This journey has shown me that my suffering need not be useless: grace, honesty and patience can bring to birth a bit of humility and a measure of illumination. Part two of this reflection will suggest that the resources I have embraced as essential are prayer, bread and music.

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...