Tuesday, January 29, 2019

i've always liked it slow...

The snow is starting to fall in the Berkshires - again - and soon these hills will become still and seemingly tranquil for a spell. This is when the woods become desert-like to me: serene and quiet. Every morning I prayerfully read the affairs of the world in both the NY Times and Guardian before sitting in silent reflection. As Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating have taught: without nourishing the practice of quieting our inner voices, it is impossible to hear the still, small voice of God's grace. In fact, without cultivating a contemplative discipline, most of us are unable to consistently live as peace-makers in a world wrapped in brokenness. There is beauty to be discerned, to be sure, but without a way of taming our anxieties, we will be anything but a non-anxious presence thrashing about in a sea of tumult. Cynthia Bourgeault, wisdom keeper in the mystical Christian tradition, recently put it like this in a daily mailing from the Center for Contemplation and Action: 

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity, this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him. This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, how do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.

"Putting on the mind of Christ" is one way to describe making a spiritual practice part of our life's journey. Tending to the soul, what Elizabeth O'Connor called our "inward journey," is how non-dual thinking ripens within us. It is how we move towards serenity and gravitas, spiritual maturity as well as a measure of quiet humility and humor in our everyday experiences. In my world, Bourgeault et al are right on the money when they remind us that Western Christianity in all its variations has forsaken the "mind of Jesus" and the value of "right practice" (orthopraxis) for "right belief" (orthodoxy.) Small wonder so many of us flounder within our various addictions, obsessions and anxieties. One of my favorite spiritual guides, the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, articulated his own failings in the spiritual life like this - and his words ring true for me, too.

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.

Most of us have never been taught this upside-down way of opening our hearts
to the God who seeks us out by name. We have been given rules and abstract theological constructs; we have been shown how to attend worship, receive Holy Communion, and recite the proscribed payers; and we have been offered a spirituality of observation rather than participation. A way of doing church where the congregation congregates and the minister ministers. It is like professional football: we enter, we pay, we watch and then we leave. Perhaps we've been entertained in the process, but nothing really changes. There is no discipline, reflection, intimacy or contemplation involved. There are no practices to train our hearts and minds in the way of God's grace. There is no guidance in how to "enter the kingdom of God" that was at the core of Christ's ministry. And there certainly is no silence where we might learn how to distinguish our inner cacophony from God's quiet songs. Sr. Joan Chittister of the Benedictine tradition got it right when she wrote: "It is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to quiet so that the quiet of God can be brought to consciousness."

Bourgeault goes on to quote scholar Jim Marion's insights re: the metaphorical wisdom of Jesus when he teaches: "the kingdom of Heaven is within you... and at hand." She writes:

Many Christians, particularly those of a more evangelical persuasion, assume that the Kingdom of Heaven means the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved.” But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself specifically contradicts it when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now)... (Suggesting that) you don’t die into it; you awaken into it. Others have equated the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia. The Kingdom of Heaven would be a realm of peace and justice, where human beings lived together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets... (but) Jesus specifically rejected this meaning. When his followers wanted to proclaim him the Messiah, the divinely anointed king of Israel who would inaugurate the reign of God’s justice upon the earth, Jesus shrank from all that and said, strongly and unequivocally, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Jim Marion’s wonderfully insightful and contemporary suggestion is that the Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place. Marion suggests specifically that the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing a state we would nowadays call “nondual consciousness” or “unitive consciousness.” The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. These are indeed Jesus’ two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does.

No separation between humans - of any race, religion, gender or experience - and no separation between the holy and our humanity. All of life, death, faith, religion, politics, prayer, culture, friendship, love, hate, war, peace, and sexuality are connected. "To everything there is a season," sings the wise elder of Ecclesiastes, "and a time for every purpose under heaven." Or to use the contemporary language of the recovery movement that celebrates a way of living through our wounds and into God's peace: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Bourgeault adds:

When Jesus talks about Oneness, he is not speaking in an Eastern sense about an equivalency of being, such that I am in and of myself divine. Rather, what he has in mind is a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other... There is no separation between humans and God because of this mutual inter-abiding which expresses the indivisible reality of divine love. We flow into God—and God into us—because it is the nature of love to flow. And as we give ourselves into one another in this fashion... The whole and the part live together in mutual, loving reciprocity, each belonging to the other and dependent on the other to show forth the fullness of love. 

Not long ago an acquaintance asked out loud: "What can I do to find meaning, passion and zest in my life? I am dried up. I've tried everything from education and yoga to sex, alcohol, politics and busyness. And still I wind up empty. and exhausted. Sad, afraid and hopeless. Help!" I know a lot of people hitting their 40s who are saying the same things. I believe that their words and the feelings below them are part of the way God's calls out to us in love. I believe the songs, movies, poems and TV shows of culture that are saturated in alienation are part of the way the holy is searching to bring us home, too. Like Nouwen said, "I wonder (now) 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 (God)?” Our personal stories hold the clues. Our experiences and wounds have something profound and healing to teach us. For what we know and say is not disconnected from what God is trying to tell us. But first we need to share our story - in an honest, audible and vulnerable way - with those grounded in God's love. Who have experienced similar deserts of despair - and know from the inside out that the wilderness is not the end of the journey. Sue Pickering, Anglican priest and spiritual director in New Zealand, offers a quiet and sober word of hope:

So many of us are stuck on the present day (reality) of materialism and busyness, cut off from a sanctuary of the spirit where we can be truly nurtured and grow strong. Some people may have a distant awareness of (sacred) things... Young or old, they may have heard stories of people touched by God and wondered how they might feel that same sense of connection, or whether there could be an credibility in such accounts; they may - or may not - be aware of a longing in their deepest being for something more, something other,which we might name the fullness of life in relationship with God. Others may have had some encounter with that something other but, lacking an appropriate vocabulary or a listener who could help them hold and deepen the experience and engage with the questions it raises, have let that instant of deep connection sink into the background of their minds. The more real than real becomes overlaid with the sediment of the clamoring voices and daily routines around them. (Pickering, Spiritual Direction)

Part of what I heard for myself in the silence of the Sonoran desert this past week is similar to what I sense St. Paul discovered about himself while wandering through his own wilderness. It is what I experience every time I make the effort to quietly walk through our local Wal-Mart and just listen and/or assist those bewildered folk who seem all alone and overwhelmed. It has something to do with just listening to and praying for others. St. Paul put it like this: When I was a child I acted like a child and did childish things. But now that I have moved beyond childhood, its time to listen, speak and act like an adult... who knows that three things remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. Simple acts of love. Tender acts of love. With time, patience and space to listen rather than judge. To keep putting on the mind of Christ and accepting his open heart rather than just my own clenched and anxious fists. St. Leonard Cohen is singing this inside my head these days...

Monday, January 28, 2019

john prine, robbie robertson and u2 walk into a bar...

Two vastly different songs are swirling around my soul these days: "Summer's End" by John Prine and "Take Your Partner by the Hand" by Robbie Robertson. The first hails from Prine's 2018 masterpiece, The Tree of Forgiveness.  The second closes Robertson's sound montage of 1998; a First Nation's trip hop compilation called, Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy. Aesthetically they are as different as night is from day. Intuitively, however, they are kindred spirits evoking a longing to belong that echoes throughout our alienated and lonely culture.

In his first collection of original tunes in over a decade, Prine has created a song cycle every bit as rich and and discerning at Leonard Cohen's closing album: You Want It Darker. Cohen's 2016 finale prophetically announced what many of us have experienced during the current regime: a grim sense of reality infused with passion and despair that still honors a numinous spirituality that shines a ray of hope into our suffering. "Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall," he chanted just 19 days before his death. Rolling Stone noted that Darker is: "a realistically grim, spiritually radiant and deeply poetic world view, generally spiked with a romantic thrum and an existential wink" (https://www. rollingstone.com/ music/music-album-reviews/review-leonard-cohens-you-want-it-darker-possibly-his-darkest-lp-yet-110031/) It is Cohen's celebration of the clash between our wounds and our deepest quest for love.

John Prine is every bit as honest, humble and humorous as Cohen but he mixes it all up with what Rolling Stone calls his history of being a smart ass. This dude loves to laugh as well as cry, savor the sweetness of love even while lamenting its passing. He robustly pokes fun at his own morality - and ours, too - but does it with such tenderness that you can't help but sing along. I've been loving his songs like "Angel from Montgomery" and "Sam Stone" since the early 70s. In a sweaty college gymnasium in rural North Carolina, my brother and sister joined me for a Kris Kristofferson concert. During the magic of that night he introduced us all "to the hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, Jesus died for nothing I suppose." Brilliant in every way possible - and Prine continues to deliver in spades again for the sheer joy of making sweet soul music. Here he sings "of his hopes about reuniting with his departed loved ones, kissing a pretty girl on the Tilt-a-Whirl, and opening up a nightclub in heaven called the Tree of Forgiveness, which I’d imagine as a place not unlike Levon Helm's barn. I hope Prine does. And I hope I get there eventually, so I can take him up on the... the promised pint of Smithwick’s" when our life has run its course. (https://www. rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/review-john-prine-keeps-finding-fresh-revelations-on-tree-of-forgiveness-628390/)

As I listened to "Summer's End" I heard a lot of truth rolled into 3:42: there's a gentle lament about missing the mark, the passing of time and disappointing those we love; as well as a prayerful, melodic invitation to a grace and renewal that makes all things new. Prine never ignores our pain, but he knows that there is a love greater than death, too. "Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face" wrote St. Paul. "Three things remain: faith, hope and love - and the greatest is love." Just try not to sing along with the chorus: "Come on home, come on home, you don't have to be alone, just come on home." This is the best of American roots song writing. It moves the heart. It is easy to sing. And it strengthens our best hopes and dreams. I love it - and I bet you will, too.

Now jump back in time 20 years for "Take Your Partner By the Hand" my favorite tune on an exquisite album inspired by Canadian Aboriginal music. 

There is nothing "popular" or "commercial" about "Partner" nor is the album immediately accessible to those yearning for the days of "Cripple Creek" or "The Weight." In The Band, Robertson rarely sang. Why would he with the likes of Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel as mates? And while the debate continues re: did Robertson rip off Levon - probably yes - this song cycle is truly unique. It mixes British techno grooves with Canadian First Nations chants. It links contemporary Native American vocalists like Rita Coolidge and Joanne Shenandoah with trip hop rhythms and percussion. And through it all, the piercing guitar of Robertson is mixed into his other worldly vocal incantations to evoke a reality that never separates heaven from earth or faith from suffering. As one critic put it, this is music that expresses what it feels like to "straddle two cultures: the underworld of redboy and the overworld of white dominance." It is about assimilation and longing, resentment and resistance, anger and love.

That is perhaps why the closing track, "Take Your Partner by the Hand" grabbed my attention.  A woman enters a club to dance and perhaps hook-up. She doesn't speak. The weird and wild ones come before her only to be dismissed silently. 

At the club they circle around some sex goddess like vultures
Flashbulbs popping
Like bees around their queen
She is completely indifferent to all the commotion
And orders some mango tango ice cream by sign language
She's approached by some wild-eyed poet drunk with love
I like her easy refusal, the way she shakes her head
She lives these days in the attic of an old dance hall
That's been shut down for years
And swears there's times when she can hear feet shuffling below
And can see the shadows swaying, moving to the music

All around her, on an elevator to nowhere, she aches for meaning. For a connection. For love in a world that feels like she's "stuck in traffic, crosstown, the stress of not moving. She described it as like being locked in a car with a madman behind the wheel and the radio tuned to static." But inside her being she longs "to take a partner by the hand... what's so hard to understand?" I hear this song as part one of "Summer's End." This is what it feels and sounds like to be assaulted by alienation. It hurts. It aches. And below everything is a yearning "to come on home" in one way or another.

I've been where Robertson is in this song. I am saying I know the fractured reality of a First Nations person in this crazy racist world. And I have no interest in cultural appropriation. But remember how Eddie Rabbit once put it? "Looking for love in ALL the wrong places?" Coming of age in the 60s and 70s when the promise of fulfillment and satisfaction became obsessed with sex - and then cocaine and later cash - I've chased that empty dream. But below it all, beyond the shame and failure and wounds,the quest is still about
 love, right? "Partner" is a haunting and sad song but it suggests a universal longing in much the way U2 did on "Dirty Day."
Everywhere I look these days I see God calling out to us to pay attention to real love. The connections are vivid for those with eyes to see...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

silence, sunlight and settling into god's grace...

For the past 10 days we were settling into the silence and sunshine of the Sonoran desert. Tucson is a place I served for 10 years as pastor and a place saturated in friendships and love. Most of our visit was given over to quiet reflection and walking. We saw a few of our dearest friends - but by no means all - and took in a little jazz, too. We feasted on the best Mexican food in creation and found ourselves nourished by the eclectic visual splendor of the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of this part of the world. We rested. We prayed. We walked and we talked. It was a perfect winter retreat.
Nothing opens my heart like hiking amidst saguaro cacti and ocotillo in the complete silence of this desert. Tucson may only be 10 miles away, bustling with beauty in its sleepy city splendor, but its presence becomes irrelevant once you enter the serenity of the foothills of the Rincon Mountains. At this time of year the sun is bright and the air is cool. The vegetation is plush in preparation for the scalding summer. And, thanks be to God, the snakes are still sleeping. 

What remains is the near total absence of sound. Such tranquility is almost unheard of in the 24/7 hustle of contemporary culture. In the old days, we would become enveloped in quietude and big sky a few times every week. It was soul food, to be sure, and I miss it. Sometimes, after a deep snow, a walk in the woods evokes a similar stillness - but its not the same. Small wonder that the mothers and fathers of Christian contemplation headed for the desert when the way of Jesus was co-opted by empire in the third century of the common era.

As I spent time in the silence - and the glorious Sonoran sun - my heart kept returning to a few insights from Fr. Henri Nouwen. The first has to do with my small but authentic place in this moment in time. Nouwen, who wrestled with his own calling, slowly came to accept that he was afraid of being real in the world. Real - and vulnerable. Real - and needy. Real - and broken. Real - and loving, wise and precious. Perhaps that is true for many of us - especially those of us who have been wounded - so that we do not fully trust that God loves us into being and that we have a sacred place in creation.

Not being welcome is your greatest fear. It connects with your birth fear, your fear of not being welcome in this life, and your death fear, your fear of not being welcome in the life after this. It is the deep-seated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived. Here you are facing the core of the spiritual battle. Are you going to give in to the forces of darkness that say you are not welcome in this life, or can you trust the voice of the One who came not to condemn you but to set you free from fear? You have to choose life. At every moment you have to decide to trust the voice that says, “I love you. I knit you together in your mother’s womb” (Psalms 139: 13). Everything Jesus is saying to you can be summarized in the words “Know that you are welcome.” Jesus offers you his own most intimate life with the Father. (Nouwen)

Last year, when we went to Tucson for rest and reflection, I had the chance to ponder the significance of my ministry in the desert. I had just retired from our church in New England and was questioning why any of it mattered. Over and again on that trip God brought me into conversations with some of the people who shared the small blessings of that decade with me.
I was reminded of how we followed Christ's lead to became a safe and loving place for the GLBTQ community in Tucson. One trans person told me before we departed, "In the queer world many don't get - or honor - trans people. Especially trans people of faith. We're included, but only begrudgingly. But here, in this church, we felt loved: your love, God's love, the community's love. And we came to trust that we belonged." If nothing else happened during that decade, "Dayenu!" That would have been enough. But there was also a vibrant worship ministry of contemplation and the arts. A progressive and strong formation ministry for youth, children and families of all types. And a wildly creative  lay ministry of pastoral care that broke down the walls of traditional clericalism. And the celebration of Eucharist EVERY Sunday.  I left Tucson giving thanks to God.

This year the desert helped quiet me long enough to "hear" God's loving songs concerning our time in New England - and maybe discern some clues about our future, too. It takes me a long, long time to grasp what has been accomplished in the slow work of ministry. I need a ton of solitude to let my inner doubts, fears, shames and ego needs dry-up long enough to affirm the still small voice of grace. The late Eugene Peterson liked to paraphrase Nietzsche by calling this "a long obedience." 

And in that truth I came to realize that our time in New England may have been at least as vibrant as our time in Tucson. Nearly ten years ago. when the recession rocked our financial equilibrium, we began exploring alternative uses of our real estate: rather than just take up space and drain our resources, we wondered if our property might become assets for compassion, worship, culture and contemplation. Things move slowly in a church's culture, but I give thanks to God that my original suggestion - born of our research in England and Scotland - is bearing fruit in ways that will strengthen the arts as well as the congregation for years to come. For nearly a decade we shaped a cutting edge synthesis of music, art and prayer in worship as well as community building. We forged an alliance with GLBTQ young people, brought to birth the county's first faith-based community organizing coalition for regional justice. And turned upside down our tradition's overly linear intellectual elitism for a spirituality that was heart-centered and contemplative. For five years we also celebrated a small, reflective midday Eucharist on Wednesdays at noon. We laughed and wept together, we prayed and listened carefully as our hearts were opened to the God who "wants to find us as much as we want to find God."

It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. Yes, God needs me as much as I need God. God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn’t move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them. I am beginning to now see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the One who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding. (Nouwen)

NOTE: Let me be clear that I know that in every phase of ministry there are gross mistakes, wounds, failures and sins in addition to the blessings. I know that in my 40 odd years of service, I made my share and hurt some of the people I loved, too. What I can see now, however, is that the wounds are always mixed into the blessings. In fact, they can lead us into insight and a degree of humility as well if we're willing to learn the wisdom of our wounds. I am so grateful for the forgiveness I have experienced and shared with my colleagues and friends as we continued to explore our lives of faith together even through the hard time.

And now that my formal ministry in the local church is over, this year's desert sojourn offered us a few clues about what might come next. Clearly I am to spend some time as anam cara - spiritual companion - for a few folks who are eager to go deeper into the ways of silence and prayer. If I have heard anything in the stillness, it is this: we are ALL God's beloved. We may not trust this. Or know how to rest in this truth. We may vacillate a thousand times each day with it, too. But regardless of our abilities, histories or traditions, there is an essential 
spiritual truth we need to reclaim and honor: we are the Lord's beloved. Nouwen hits it out of the park again when he writes:

Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. . . . As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” . . . My dark side says, “I am no good. . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.” Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.

For me, after beholding what the Lord has shown me during this year of being still, the path of tenderness is more important than ever. Vanier, Nouwen, Rohr, Bourgault and Keating have a lot to teach me as I live into my three score and seven years in 2019. We will need to close-up this house and find new space as a part of this awareness. We will be asked to trust more boldly and let God's grace quiet our fears. And we will be blessed to find new/old ways of strengthening the love that is closest to our hearts while we have the wherewithal to do so. 

Now it is time for me to go get our precious, neurotic dog, Lucie, and bring her home. There is laundry to do and floors to clean. Later this week I'll have the chance to join my sweet Louie at choir practice (he's singing in NYC even as I write.) So let me share one last quote from Nouwen by way of closure:

"Do not be afraid, have no fear," is the voice we most need to hear. This voice was heard by Zechariah when Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, appeared to him in the temple and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son; this voice was heard by Mary when the same angel entered her house in Nazareth and announced that she would conceive, bear a child, and name him Jesus; this voice was also heard by the women who came to the tomb and saw that the stone was rolled away. “Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.” The voice uttering these words sounds all through history as the voice of God’s messengers, be they angels or saints. It is the voice that announces a whole new way of being, a being in the house of love, the house of the Lord. . . . The house of love is not simply a place in the afterlife, a place in heaven beyond this world. Jesus offers us this house right in the midst of our anxious world.

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 croĆ»tons 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

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...