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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.

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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.

 

 

 

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”  I’ve heard that this is an Irish proverb, but whatever its source, it gives voice to the attitude that made an interfaith project succeed.

Thinking Together was the name given to a project of the World Council of Churches brought into being by Hans Ucko, Anant Rambachan and a few others.  The idea was to bring together a group of 15-20 scholar/practitioners from 5 of the world’s religious traditions, and from different parts of the globe, for sustained conversation on matters of common concern.  I was honored to be included.

This could have been a recipe for more dry-as-dust academic trading of papers and responses, etc., but it was not.

One of the reasons this effort worked was that the people chosen as participants were 1) deeply knowledgeable regarding their own traditions; 2) knew at least one other tradition other than their own; 3) practiced as faithful members of their own tradition; and 4) had experience in interreligious dialogue.  In addition, each of the participants was able to be critical of their own tradition, as well as comfortable in it.  All were attuned to, and appreciative of, the cultural diversities within their own religious family, and able to navigate cultural differences in engagement with one another.

While this may sound like enough, there were a few participants in the course of the 10 or 12 years of this project who did not work out, and were not invited to return, because they brought conversation to a standstill, or into a knot.

We learned –again– that what was and is needed for thinking together to actually take place is the attitude of the Irish proverb:  We need each other.  In order to live.

This is a basic affirmation, that the Thinking Together group made, even though I’m not sure we ever talked about it directly.  It is the affirmation expressed so clearly in the title of a book by Wesley Ariarajah, one of our number: Not Without My Neighbor.   Each of us believed that our traditions have to have room for our neighbors.  More, we were convinced that unless our traditions can honor and appreciate our neighbors, they are inadequate, not truly realized or rightly understood.

It is only in the shelter of each other that religious people, too, can live and flourish.

One product of our time together has finally been published.  It’s called Religious Conversion: Religion Scholars Thinking Together, edited by Shanta Premawardhana, and  published this year  by Wiley.  See http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118972376.html

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….

 

Like the day of an equinox, memory is half light, and half dark.

I began thinking about memory, and the many ways in which memories shape us, during the commemoration of September 11, 2001.  Many memories were shared that held up loss, violence, and confusion. Other memories illuminated the sense of being spared, and the sweetness of life, of still having loved ones.  One of my own strongest memories of that morning is of my denial:  Going about my business in San Francisco, with Judith at home in NYC, it took about 6 hours for me to stop my programmed movements, and let the realities of what was happening get to me.  What we remember of that day, and of other days, shapes us.

Memories are not just spontaneous events, though they sometimes come to us unbidden.  Memories are also things that all of us use in building an understanding of who we are.

Memory, and specific cultural, ethnic or national memories, are used, as well, as social tools:  Specific memories can be used to incite anger or resistance; to move groups to solidarity and action; to invigorate faith or communal participation; to prompt reflection or invite change.  Which memories are repeated by leaders, and put forward by media, affect how we feel and what we may do in any situation.

In most of our religious communities, there are also practices that call us to remember who we are, or what has been given us.  These usually help us to re-member ourselves as well, that is, to understand again how we are part of one another, of this community, and related to God, or Ultimate Reality.

Unfortunately, we can and do use memories, even religious memories, to reinforce divisions, and to perpetuate the sense of being victims, or outsiders.  We also use them to recall experiences in which divisions have been overcome, and times of being welcome or safe.

Memories of trauma, and of being spared in the midst of violence and chaos, are especially strong; they make a deep, and lasting, mark on us.  Memories of trauma can be so powerful that those carrying them often try various ways to forget, or bury them.  It is common, too, for those who have endured trauma to get stuck in the memories – they “play” them over and over, and continually re-member themselves back into the trauma, until their suffering becomes a controlling (sometimes unacknowledged) part of who they are.

To build relationships, or to overcome conflict, we have to welcome and understand both the darkness and the light that the memories of those involved (and our own memories!) bring and carry.  Dwelling too much in the light, or in the dark, will leave us stuck.

A (true) story from the Summer of 1998 0r ’99:  At lunch time one day, an American Muslim Imam was listening to a Palestinian Muslim Imam say that he would be sure to tell his children everything that had happened to him, and the violence he and his family had endured in the Occupied Territories.  He wanted them to know who had done this to them!  The American Muslim, an African American who had grown up in segregation, insisted that he should not do that.  He could not do that if he wanted to give his children a less hate-filled basis for living.  Islam was about turning from such hatred, not passing it on!  Their conversation was urgent, and deeply engaged.

In the years that followed, that Palestinian Muslim turned away from the hate that his memories of violence had fueled in him.  He took part in dialogue with American Jews and Christians, and preached coexistence and peace.  Then the U.S. government, urged on by certain persons who kept repeating the reports of what this man had done in the more distant past, took away his green card, and deported him.

Memory can be used for darkness, and it can be used for light.

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?

Recently, I’ve been trying to read The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully, by Joan Chittister.  I find it a very uneven book:  insightful in some places, it seems shallow or rigid in others.  I think I have finally put my finger on what bothers me about it.

In dealing with the many dimensions of this challenging journey of aging, Chittister often paints pictures of how one’s experience and understanding of  “Adjustment” or “Fulfillment”, or other topics, change.  In doing this, she frequently focuses on only one experience of the topic at hand–sometimes a very conventional one–and often in a way that suggests that it is this way for everyone.

Partly, this is a matter of her writing style, which is awkward, and veers from oddly poetic passages to descriptions of imagined lives that are not, in fact, very thoroughly, or humanly, imagined.

But the larger problem is that she fails to leave much room in the perspectives she presents for individual variations, and not enough room for real empathy or accompaniment.  The result is a sense of distance:  Too often, she may pin down just how a certain type of person encounters a certain issue, but there is no sense that she is there with that person, or with us, in dealing with this part of life.  The result of this distance is that she ends up presenting views of things that have very little, or no, room in them for movement, or for shared journey.

In living with others, and especially when we engage in the intentional nurturing of relationships between those of different culture, religion, or conviction, we need a perspecitve that has a lot of room in it.  Very often, those working to build or repair relationships are the ones who need to bring such a perspective.

In situations of conflict, alientation or estrangement, those involved often view their situation from a perspecitve that does not have much room, if any, for the others to change or welcome or understand.  The perspective that offers room to breathe and move and venture often has to come, at least at first, from an outsider.  Or, better, the view with room for the others emerges from some few gifted leaders, and can be supported by a relationship builder.

The view with room for the others is essential.  I don’t think real engagement or change is possible without it.

 

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!

Is this a good title for a book or collection of essays on building interfaith and inter-cultural relations?

When I was in France, I actually did an outline of a book.  It has changed since then.  But that is part of the practice, I think:  building and living in such relationships requires the ability to create as we move along together.

I’ve been looking again at books that have really nourished me in my own work of building relationships.  One is We Make the Road by Walking, which is the record of conversations between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire.  It touches on many topics, but two related emphases come up repeatedly.  First, be prepared to radically alter, or even discard, whatever theoretical framework you prepared ahead of time, in order to get, and to keep, learning underway.  And second, the path of movement into change is a path discovered together with those involved, and in the doing.  Lots of trial and error; no one person necessarily in control or steering; requiring the practice of welcoming new insights, otherness, and creative lurches ahead.

Another important book for me is The Moral Imagination: the Art and Soul of Peacebuilding, by John Paul Lederach.  In this book, Lederach asks, “What disciplines, if they were not present, would make peacebuilding impossible.    He finds that these disciplines are “relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity, and risk.”  The book looks at these in detail as that which lies behind or along-side the analysis, techniques, and the sheer work of peace-building, bringing it to life.

I think that these sorts of attitudes and practices also are central to the building of authentic engagement between those of different religions, cultures and ethnicities.   And to me, “vulnerability” describes what all of these, and a few additional, disciplines require; vulnerability is their source, or at least necessary for their actual practice.  And together these disciplines, and the vulnerability at their heart, shape what might even be called a spirituality, or way, to interfaith and intercultural engagement.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change,” says Brene Brown, in her latest TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html

Vulnerability is also the birthplace of relationship and creative engagement among peoples.  This is what I want to explore and describe.

What do you think?  Does the title work for you?

Last night I was checking the voice mail messages, and came upon this one:

…(silence) … click…click…  “Hello, this is Newt Gingrich.  I’m sorry I missed you…. ”

I was shocked on multiple levels by this machine-generated political message on our answering device.

First, I was shocked, as I always am, by the contemporary assumption that it is all right for a company or a politician to invade what I still think of as “my space” with a recorded intrusion.  What happened to privacy?  Do the callers really think that I, or anyone, will sit still while a robot spouts a line?  Do people actually listen to such things?

Secondly, I was shocked that I, pretty near to being a “blue dog Democrat,” would get a call from Gingrich.  I know that there are a lot of Republicans in my adopted state of Florida, but they obviously do not have a list, and are not even checking it once.  Perhaps they are this desperate.

One can only hope that this is the case, because the deeper reason why this message shocked me is that, there, on my phone, was one of the most effective purveyors of violent and demeaning rhetoric to be found in today’s political circus!  I felt that I should wash out the phone, and check myself for signs of infection.

As Thich Nhat Hanh discusses in many of his books, we human beings nurture certain seeds in our hearts and minds by what we take into ourselves.  We can feed and strengthen the seeds of anger and violence that are within us by the TV shows, news and movies that we watch, by the web-sites we visit, by the conversations that we have, by what and how we eat, etc.  I think he is right.  And I think most of us do this unconsciously–that is, without thinking much about it, we are feeding our pet peeves and angers and unreasonable opinions with the “food” that makes them stronger.

What is so disturbing about Gingrich and some of the other “politicians” operating these days, is their feeding of the anger and violence that is lying not far beneath the surface in our society.  They are fanning the fire, for the sake of votes that will give them power.  Many say that this is “just rhetoric” and that such people, if elected, will not really behave as they speak.  But I think we are seeing these days just how untrue this assumption is.

Politicans playing wth anger and violence–and with fear–are not new, of course.  I just think that I, and other people of faith, rooted in traditions that fairly consistently speak of peace, need to find ways to speak out about this.