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This last Sunday, the day on which Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint, Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?”.  (The title is, I suppose, an attempt to be provocative in a cute, bumper-sticker sort of way.)  His argument is that followers of the world’s religions too often take stands that are the very opposite of those of the religious “founders,” and/or become tangled up in being right about beliefs and ideas, rather than being dedicated to the practice of compassion and the pursuit of justice.

Image result for free image of Mother Teresa

Kristof writes, “I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. … It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral, temple or mosque, but rather a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, a rabbi battling for Palestinians’ human rights — they fill me with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.”

Well, no, Mr. Kristof, that is not “religion.”  That is the fruit of religion.  But in order to have the fruit, you have to tend the tree or plant that produces it.

What inspires “the faithful” to run those kitchens and shelters?  What gives those doctors the motivation and perseverance to do what they do, or provides the strength to the rabbi to keep on fighting for Palestinian human rights?  Why did Mother Teresa do what she did?  Where did Martin Luther King, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, or Dorothy Day find the support and inspiration for their actions?

I am aware that some scientists posit altruistic behavior as something that is “hardwired” in the human brain, and others argue that it is rather a dimension of behavior that owes more to the evolutionary process.  But it is just not the case that people are compassionate and committed to the establishment of justice in human society without a structure that encourages and supports them.

The “doctrine” and “bureaucracy” of religious traditions, which are certainly capable of ensnaring people in grim and self-referential bogs, have come to be intellectually dismissed and widely discarded.  It is fashionable to walk away from religions these days.  But, when not made captive to extremisms or rigid certainties of various kinds, doctrine, “ancient rituals” and religious institutions are the sources or storehouses of inspiration and of ethical discernment,  and the systems of support by which religions plant and nurture acts of goodness, and leadership for justice.

Mr. Kristof,  like so many others,  seems to approach good and just works much like many of us in the U.S. approach food: just go to the store and get the good stuff–never mind about where it comes from, who tends to it, and how it is raised.   But just as we cannot have good food without caring and responsible growers, so we cannot have the acts of goodness we admire and need without loving cultivation.

The cultivation of this human crop involves ideas (even doctrines!), ethical reasoning, teaching, and the life of a community that can and will support compassionate and just action.  Religious traditions, when they are working, have been created to do this cultivation.  Let’s not cut out, or detach ourselves from,  the thinking and support they provide; or, if we do, let’s not wonder that the way of life that results is less loving, and less just.

Here we are in December, the last dance of 2015, with the 8 days of Hanukkah and the 4 weeks of Advent taking to the floor, orchids in bloom in the oak tree, snow coming to the north country;  and the band playing on.

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Thor c. 1000 Reykjavik

Frankly, I find December difficult.  The banality of the global culture of consumption and display comes out in full force, especially here in the U.S.  At the same time, our most profound celebrations of light in the darkness arrive. And all of the violence of our time seems just that much more visible.

The inevitable car sporting antlers and a red “nose” jars loose so many questions in my mind that I miss the humor in it.  Is this person genuinely happy about, and eager to add to, all of the terrible Christmas music and wreaths and candy canes and tinsel that seem to be everywhere?  Or is she poking fun at all of that?  Is he embracing the bog of distraction of the season? Or is she thumbing her nose in a gesture of defiance?  And why am I upset by it all?

Part of my reaction is certainly personal.  I’ll spare you the psychological details, except to say that I am particularly susceptible to distraction, and struggle to stay focused.   Paying attention to the ordinary, actual life we are given is not easy–especially in December– when there are so many ways to divert oneself and get lost in the promises and sparkle, in the rants and emotional rides, in the coveting and comfort-seeking all around us.

“We are none of us very good at attention,” says Fr. Laurence Freeman, “because our minds wander and we live in probably the most distracted culture that has ever existed in history.  Distraction has always been a problem for human beings, but we’ve mastered the art of distraction.  Our TV, our internet, our phones, our constant snacking, our constant running around, our constant mental and visual stimulation…. So, you either give up and run away, or you decide you are going to start developing [the] quality of attention.” (From “Street Wise,” a talk given at Camillus House in Miami, 2/7/2014)

What I need in December, and year-round for that matter, is to defy the usual in order to pay attention to the ordinary-

Sainte Foy a Conques

Sainte Foy a Conques

-to life as it really is.  I need to inure myself to the beckonings and busyness that surround us, in order to rest in the presence.

Isn’t it always in the mess and poverty and darkness, in the confusion of unsolved problems, in doing the laundry or the dishes or tending to babies or puppies, that we find light and new life?  Can the extraordinary–the light, the presence of God, hope, awareness–take shape anywhere else than in the ordinary?

In his introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton writes:

The [monks] had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves….  The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves.  They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage….

We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster.  But our world is different from theirs.  Our involvement in it is more complete.  Our danger is far more desperate….  We cannot do exactly what they did.  But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God…. we need to learn from these men [and women] of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown. (pp. 23-24)

So, amid the oh-so familiar, but deeply alien, compulsions of this December, I send you love.  I’m here working at paying attention so that I don’t miss this ordinary life, or its transformation–or any other miracles!

 

Remember, if you do not want to receive this blog, just ask  me to take your name off the list.  We can communicate in other ways.

 

 

 

My friend Roger is dying in Chicago.  I am dying, but much, much more slowly, here in Sarasota, Florida.  I have years to go, and things to say and do; Roger has much to say, but very little time, and less energy, to do so.

Roger asked me to come to see him recently.  I went, with fear clouding my mind and heart.  I have long feared death, and dying even more; so I was not sure what I could offer him that could be of any benefit– of any use, really–to him.

Actually, it was all very simple and straightforward:  He wanted to see me, and we spent time together, talking, listening to music, holding each other’s hands, eating meals and popsicles and drinking cranberry tea.

There we were, two friends, very much alive, though at different points in our lives.  We had met in High School, when we were both 15 or so, and his musicality and humor drew me to him, even as his truthfulness made him a safe companion for me.  His living is every bit as intense and complex and beautiful now as it has ever been; and my life is not diminished by his going, but called forth.

Early morning moon

Early morning moon

Roger was at Stonewall, and acted up well before the organization of that name got going.  He was also a concert harpsichordist, who brought the music of the Baroque French repertoire, and of Scarlatti, to life.  He found his way out of addiction into sobriety, and told those of us at a 12-step meeting in his home one night during my visit about his own fears of, and readiness for, his onward journey into death and beyond.  Ahead he sees beauty and starlight and joy.  He is giving us the gift of sharing this part of his journey.

“Get up, Stand up, Don’t give up the fight!” says the Bob Marley song;  Roger stood up long ago, and only his body is lying down now.  He is not, and has not, been overcome by fear.

All of this leads me to rise up with him, and to renew my work of teaching and seeing and truth-telling as I am able.  To move out of my self-imposed silence.   “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” said Martin Luther King, Jr.  There are so many things that matter going on now that it is tempting to stay silent, not to add to the cacophony and floods of information and opinion that swirl around us.  There are many things that are not worth sharing.  But…but, maybe, communicating one true thing, one beautiful thing, as one sees it, can make some difference to someone, as well as to myself.

 

 

 

 

???????????????????????????????Does the very idea of a “new year” give you just a little taste of hope?  We draw a totally artificial and arbitrary line in time, then celebrate a totally made-up passage from the old to the new, and, in the process, remind ourselves that something different is always possible.

New Year celebration is almost embarrassingly obvious and trite–or so it usually seems to me.  But I think the truth is that I need to be embarrassed about this.

I mean, it is actually true that each day is a brand new day.  And that the only moment that we have is this moment.  And so on.  And on.  And on.  The triteness of the sentiments–or maybe it is the triteness of how they are presented?–so often blinds me to the truth that is there in the very ordinariness of these things.

The universe is endlessly cyclical.  It seems to contain a relentless entropy.  Human error and the ravenous appetite of the powers and principalities are real.  And there is no exit from all of this but the one common exit of death.

And yet, this whole reality is also shot through with countless moments of newness.   I can see new cells growing and healing the cut I inflicted on myself in the kitchen the other day.  The orchids quietly flower.  Clouds come and go.  Thoughts and perceptions assemble themselves in new ways, even perhaps with new ingredients.

I am finding hope in the tiny possibilities of newness.  And just now I find that I am ready to be renewed. I am ready to pay attention to the possibilities, and to nurture some of the tiny seeds that are –suddenly– here.  I am ready for some newness, and allowing hope some room.

In 2013, many things came to completion and/or an end in my life.  For me, the year was largely devoted to allowing the old to come to an end, and to lying fallow.  The one big exception has been beginning to paint in watercolor and acrylic.  You may have noticed my cointinuing absence; I know that it surprised some.

Now I am ready to cross over into newness — slowly, if possible!

045  “Modern Western culture is largely shorn of attentiveness to both habitat and habitus [way or habit of living].  Where we live–to what we are rooted–no longer defines who we are.  We have learned to distrust all disciplines of formative spiritual tradition, with their communal ways of perceiving the world.  We have realized, in the end, the ‘free individual’ at the expense of a network of interrelated meanings.”  – B.C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Among the reasons for choosing to live in a tiny village in France, such as Limeuil, from which we returned recently,  might be to reside in a place that still pays attention to where it is, as well as the long-woven patterns of a way of life.  But you don’t have to go to France, or to a quiet medieval village–or to a village in Indonesia or Cameroon– to live in this way (though elsewhere the food, and especially the fruits and vegetables,  may not be as good!)  We all can live in relation to the habitats in which we find ourselves, and with the ways of living we have received and with which we wrestle.

I’m thinking about this in part because we are surrounded by so many people who are living un-rooted lives, with no care for our environment, with no sense of obligation to the communities on which they in fact depend, with disdain for history and little or no concern for the future.  We are tempted to do the same.  And we all live–at least here in the United States–in a media environment that promotes sensation, the latest trend, and variations on the idea that you can reach out and get for yourself everything you need without the hassles of dealing with other people, governments, laws, seasons, etc.  Even our National Public Radio station trumpets the claim that “every story begins with you.”   To my mind this avid embrace of self as all-sufficient, and the discarding of our need for rooting ourselves, are dangerous and profoundly unrealistic.

But I am also struck by how much is to be gained if we were to practice this sort of attentiveness with one another.  Understanding begins when I am invited to enter into your life, and allow myself to spend time in your environment and context, and take time to experience your habitus –your ways of thinking, your community, your practices of living.  When you ask me to cross over for a time into your habitat and habitus, and I do, I enter a little way into your world, your vision, your life.  When I invite you in, the same is true.  As long as we enter with respect, and without crashing around in each other’s “house”, we are both enlarged and blessed.

We can abide with one another, formed by and forming our traditions, taking up our places on the earth.

When Judith and I lived on the upper West Side of Manhattan, there was one street guy who would almost always have a picture frame hanging around his neck.  “I’ve been framed!” he would yell to passers-by.  And of course, in many ways he was right: Those of us seeing him on the street did in fact put him in a frame, mostly of our own making.

This same man would often walk Judith home from a shift as an auxillary NYPD officer, so that she would be safe on the way.  Was that what any of us would have pictured in our framing of him?

What’s on my mind at the beginning of this Holy Week, is what we may allow, or prevent, by the ways in which we frame our own lives.

If we frame every day with “the news”, if we begin and end each day with a new influx of information, what happens to how we see the world?  If our chosen frame surrounds us with facts, factoids and pieces of events, how does that affect us?  If we frame our time by attending to what this and that expert, or other person, thinks about this and that, what happens to the quality and content of our own thinking about these things?

If we plug into Facebook first and last thing every day, what happens to our understanding of community?  Do our expectations about relationships change?   Do we still have the deeper, slower conversations with friends?  or the civic interactions about the places where we actually live?

If  I frame my week with a sabbath, or religious practice of whatever kind, how does my week change?  When I frame my year by participation in a calendar of holy days, how is this affecting me?  If I frame my day with prayer or meditation, does my life go differently than if I do not do so?

My mind and heart work well, but are unruly.  My thinking can and does jump all over the place when left to its own devices.  And my feelings, being feelings, are tidal, or like the clouds here in Florida–always in motion. No news in any of that.

I need to provide myself ways to frame my days that keep me connected to the world and people outside myself, but also nurture what it is I have to give and to be.  I need to be sure the frame I provide myself is not hindering my own flourishing, or blocking out others who I want to have in the picture with me.  Because I am framing myself and what I do.

I’m interested to hear what any of you have thought or done about this part of living….

 

Some of you reading this may have been hurt by me, this past year, as I did what I am going to try to describe in this post.  I am sorry if this is the case for you, and I can offer, in response, only a thought from Audre Lorde: “Caring for [oneself] is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This is my first blog post since September. It has been, for me, a long “season” of silence, as well as general retreat.

It began with six weeks “away” — in another country, in another climate, in and out of another language and culture, other rhythms.  I slept a lot, walked along the river and along ancient city streets, became a regular at the open air markets.  I stood in front of paintings until their colors sank in, or I had heard all that I could hear from them.  I stepped out of the ways I had been living and understanding my life, and, in the process, came home to my “stripped-down” self again.

“Just stop.”  That was the verbal version of the message I received.  It came, first, through my body and my “heart”, then into thought and rational articulation.  I realized that, in order to move forward as I now was, and was now called to be, I had to just stop doing what I had been doing.

This, of course, is nothing new.  It was not even new for me.  It was simply my latest experience of the tried and true slogan of all recovery programs: “If you do what you did, you’ll get what you got.”  Just stop… and DO things anew.

When I returned to Sarasota and my every-day life, I wrestled with various demons–some of them personal, and some that come with our culture’s current framing of what it means to be retired.   But I did just stop doing many things that I had been doing.  In particular, I just stopped assuming that I had to be productive, or that I had to hold on to the kind of recognized achievement and position I have had in the past.  Practically, I pulled back from almost all of the engagements I had gotten myself into, and began to do only what I was sure my new life–my life now–was to include.

In the course of doing this, I know that I have confused people, who were expecting me to act on earlier interests and commitments; and I have exited relationships  without adequate explanation (though I tried).

But if I am to offer anything to others, other than the real gifts of caring and prayer, it can only be what has, and  is, solidly taking root and shape in me, now.

Confession:  Today I skipped a meeting of Peace River Presbytery.

This is the eclessial body that acts as a kind of communal bishop for the Presbyterian congregations in this area.  Ministers (teaching elders) and a nearly equal number of ruling elders get together for worship, study, and making decisions about church life.  Among many other things, they approve persons for ministry, and try to discern what God would have us do in this place.

The very last thing I needed to do today was to go to a day-long meeting.  It did not qualify as self-care in any way, and hardly seemed a sensible way to spend 6 1/2 hours.

I thought to myself, “Well, today this small piece of the communal bishop will not be present. That can’t really be much different than what happens when the power of bishop is vested in an individual, and that person is not totally present when making decisions.”

But I’m not sure that I was right about that, even though the thought amused me.  In the first place, being part of such a communal undertaking is actually an highly unusual opportunity, and there is a kind of obligation to show up to make it work –and an odd kind of honor just to participate in the cumbersome, messy beauty of the thing.  More importantly, the absence of any member is actually significant.

Without the discernment of this, your humble servant, or any of the others, the full discernment mechanism of our church here in this place is missing a piece.  And without the voice of a particular piece of the whole, distortions in the communal chorus can more easily begin.

This is not about me being so important or insightful or eloquent.  Rather, it is about the nature of wholeness in a community.  Each person’s presence and voice is needed, and should be wanted, so that it becomes less possible for the loudest and most privileged voices to dominate, and that much more possible for that which is new and needed to break through.

In situations of violence, estrangement, or lack of trust, individual missing pieces can have an evern greater impact on what is possible.  Getting people to show up, and to keep showing up, matters.

So, I did what I needed to do for myself today, but I am aware that, as a result, I did not haul my piece of the puzzle to the table.

Would results have been different had I gone?  Who will ever know?

Rain is pounding down in sheets, as it does here in South Florida on many summer afternoons.  Amidst the rain, a visiting cormorant is still sitting under the spray of the fountain, where it has been for the last few hours, its head now tucked into the feathers on its shoulder.

Last week, in the arid Black Hills of South Dakota, I was sitting with my cousins, feeling the day growing hotter and drier.  It was a gift to be together, especially since, for us, it is rare to be in one place and have time to live in our family connectedness.

I found myself saying what was on my mind.  I said that I feel concerned about what is happening to the things that take time.  In a society in which there is so much emphasis on speed; in an economy in which doing a lot in less and less time seems to have more value than quality; in an intellectual millieu in which having and getting information gets more attention than actual thinking or reflection; surrounded by media that are speeded up, and urge us toward more– what will happen to those things that take time?

Learning takes time.  Healing takes time.  Growing takes time.  Thinking about issues of public policy takes time.  Building relationships that are flexible and resilient takes time.   Even making a good meal takes time.

Being a family of educators and counsellors of various sorts, we were readily able to identify ways in which our work is affected, and made more difficult, by these currents that would have us NOT take time for important things and central parts of life.

The occasion that had brought us together was the marriage of one of their children.  (Creating an intimate relationship together surely ranks very high on the list of the things that take time!  Maybe this was the underlying factor prompting me to think about all of this.)  Later that day, the wedding ceremony itself took place, and, surprisingly, but aptly, the text was from “The Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Love, fidelity and time are required for so many, many things to become real (and not just temporary play-things) in our lives.  May the happy couple, and all of us, take all of the time we need!