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!

Here is a discipline that requires a good deal of re-adjustment for many of us:  not being special, or set apart, but just being one person in a gathering, or a community.

We spend so much of our time trying to distinguish ourselves.  Often, we need to draw attention to ourselves, or to what we have created, in order to keep our business going, to market what we have to share, to let the bosses and shareholders know that we are doing our jobs.   It also becomes a habit – we want to stand out and be special.  Shine that spot light right on me, please!

Any of us can get stuck, sometimes.   We all know those who do workshops or write books, or preach sermons, and come to think of themselves as the ones with the answers.  We may even fall into this sort of pattern ourselves.  Friends initiate a conversation, and, instead of joining in, we give advice, or answer the question we have decided they are asking.

In the realm of inter-religious and inter-cultural relations, I can put myself forward as the one who brings people who are different together, rather than simply be another one of those people who is different, one who happens to want to connect with the others.

There are in fact many ways to maintain the distance between ourselves and the “others” — even when we are ostensibly working to bring groups or communities together!

Often what is needed in a situation of alientation or disconnection is not a better approach or a different program, but the practice of being one among the many.  This includes the discipline of coming along-side others, dropping (at least for this time) all the pretended and actual things that might divide us from them.  It involves the practice of listening, with its intricate blend of humility, active and respectful questioning, and safeguarding of boundaries.   And it calls for participating without the aim of always controlling, capturing or directing the conversation or activity.

When practising being one among many, it is easy to be run over by those who have other agendas.  But the integrity of this kind of presence is felt by others; it is a tangiblly different way of being with the others.   It cannot be faked–the fake version is readily detected.   And because it has integrity, being one among many can slowly change the equation, and make possible connections and events that would not otherwise have happened.  It is also so important for me  — to breathe and just be present.

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?

During the Ash Wednesday liturgy, our pastor characterized the proceedings as both “bizarre” and “intensely practical.”  Bizarre, because on this day the church reminds all of us that we are going to die, while doing its best, during the rest of the year, to ignore or minimize this reality.  Practical, because we are invited into a holy Lent, that is, to step into a more intentional practice of our religion–whether it be regular prayer, more giving, fasting, doing justice or living in loving-kindness with our neighbors.

While it may be bizarre to tell people “Remember that from dust you come, and to dust you will return,”  I think it is most salutary and necessary to receive this message.  It is, after all, in the realm of real life and death in which we are, or are not, faithful; it is for living abundantly and joyfully in reality that our traditions prepare us, or fail to prepare us.

But reality is, for many of us human beings, not an easy place in which to stay and live.  We are happy to visit it a number of times each year, perhaps, but to remain for sustained periods in our own reality, and the realities of this world??  Even though we know (if we are not politicians!) that it is only in the realm of the realities of our lives that possibility and change is to be found, we all too often avoid reality.  It is, after all, a place of suffering, confusion, challenges, obstacles, violence, loneliness, etc., etc.

Rather than stay out in this harsh, but real, wilderness, very many of us turn, or turn back, to the fleshpots of Egpyt.  The Kingdoms of Distraction and their purveyors and servants are right there to welcome us.

Some turn to the Kingdom of addictions of various kinds, including working without limits.  Others tend to less harmful distractions, for example, to the Kingdom of buying stuff, or to the Realm of all-consuming engagement in certain activities or sports.

The Kingdom of Distraction that distresses me the most is that of non-stop television, radio and internet “information”, opinion and story.  How many of us allow ourselves to be swept into mass distraction of this kind?  Some stay tuned in to this stream of distraction all the time!  Personally, I most easily fall into the distractions of games –crosswords, sudoko, Free Cell, solitaire– and the distraction of the web, particularly the vortex of Facebook.

I worry about a country like the USA, in which so many citizens, including myself, spend so much time in the Kingdoms of Distraction.  For centuries, after all, decisions affecting public life have been made by a few, while the public has been distracted with bread and circuses.  Now the bread and circus routines, the Kingdoms of Distraction are so much more invasve and pervasive and effective.  Carving out times and places for people to spend time in contact with each other and with the realities of life is more necessary than ever.

I’ll be taking a break from Facebook and from computer games during this Lenten season, to try to see what I’ve been distracting myself from.  How are you dealing with distractions in your own practice?

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.

It’s been noted by many that we humans live as much in a web of words as we do in an ecosystem of air, water, and living things.  Cut off from either the stories and words with which we understand ourselves, or the physical sources of life, we shrivel.

But sometimes the river of words overflows the banks, and inundates a gathering of people.  There is such a thing as too many words.  I just returned from a national “dialogue” event which was nearly swept away by words, so I am once again thinking about this.

In the course of two days, there were to be two presentations, two responses to those presentations, and two text study sessions.  Not an unusual set up, allowing each community to offer a presentation on a topic, and also to lead a study on related texts from their religious tradition.  This time, however, the responders did not respond to what was presented, and one of the text-study leaders took more than the time alloted to give an additional presentation.  So, we ended up with 5 presentations, and one text study.  The sessions devoted to processing all of this input were too short to get to much more than more talk about the concepts, rather than exchange about what they had to do with our lives, or why they mattered to us.  I found it deadening.

Dialogue requires silence as well as words; deep listening, and time to allow what has been said to resonate within, as part of the process of engagement.  This is especially true, I think, in a culture such as ours, so crammed with noise, images and information– a flood of words and pictures that come at us from so many different sources that orientation is distorted and actual communication nearly jammed.

Dialogue does not have to be this way, but it takes careful attention to limit the river of words and allow the other parts of communing to have their place.

I came away craving silence, as I realize that I often do.  And so, I turned again to Rumi:

I see the face that was my home.

My loving says, I will let go of everything for that.

My soul bgins to keep rhythm as if music is playing.

My reason says, What do you call this cypress-energy that straightens what was bent double?

All things change in this presence.  Armenians and Turks no longer know which is which.

Soul keeps unfolding inward.  The body leaves the body.

A wealth you cannot imagine flows through you.

Do not consider what strangers say.  Be secluded in your secret heart-house, that bowl of silence.

Talking, no matter how humble seeming, is really a kind of bragging.

Let silence be the art you practice.

(“I See the Face”, in Coleman Barks, Rumi: Bridge to the Soul (ghazal 122, Furuzanfar’s Kulliyat’e Shams (Tehran: 1957-66)))

At midnight yesterday morning, Samoa switched time zones, moving from one side of the International Dateline to the other.  They went from 23:59 on Thursday, December 29, to 0:00 on Saturday, December 31st.  (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16351377 )  They did this in order to make it more possible to interact with, and travel to and from, Australia and New Zealand.  As a community, they adoped a new marker of time to maximize possibilities.

In the greater scheme of things, this is a very small story.  But it helps me think about what I need–and perhaps what we humans need–to actually embrace and live out new possibilities as individuals and as communities.

During this Advent and Christmas season, I have been thinking a lot about possibilities.  That is, I’ve been looking for new paths for myself, and new social configurations that might lead us beyond the damaging, unjust, and inhuman structures that are presently constricting our lives as societies.

But Advent is about the coming of a particular possibility – God with us; the expectation of Advent is the longing and waiting for incarnation.  And Christmas, though it has been descibed by some modern theologian or preacher (whose name I forget) as “the birth of possibility itself,” is again about God entering into our world, and only secondarily about us.  It is a sign–the vision that Mary sings can become reality.  I embrace the incarnation as a revelation of God and God’s nature at the heart of my life and my faith.  And I do look for how I am called to incarnate God as a member of Christ’s body.

This year, though, I also want the celebration of a New Year –the communal moving from one set of numbers to the next–in order to welcome new possibilities.  The year we are entering might not be better than this last one was, though you and I probably hope that it will be so.  All we know for certain is that, at least in some small ways, or through unexpected events, it will be different.  Even though we know that so many things will remain dreadfully,  or routinely, or with any luck,  the same, somehow, the new numbers suggest that things can also be new.

While New Year’s resolutions are almost sure to prove un-helpful, maybe marking a time as a time for new possibilities might help us move toward them.  The New Year is celebrated by so many all around the world — might it be a global and pan-cultural, pan-religious ritual to mark a time for all of us to find some new possibilities for our selves, our religious communities, our countries and our planet?