“Primary Wonder”

Problems connecting to the internet prevent me from posting what I have written on our laptop.  Being restricted to an iPad provides the opportunity to share one of my all-time favorite poems:

PRIMARY WONDER

Days pass when I forget the mystery.

Problems insoluble and problems offering

their own ignored solutions

jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber

along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing

their colored clothes; caps and bells.

And then

once more the quiet mystery

is present to me, the throng’s clamor

recedes: the mystery

that there is anything, anything at all,

let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

rather than void: and that, 0 Lord,

Creator, Hallowed one, You still,

hour by hour sustain it.

— Denise Levertov

When Its No Fun Anymore

Prayer is easy only for beginners and those who are already saints. During all the long years in between, it is difficult. Why? Because prayer has the same inner dynamic as love, and love is sweet only in its initial stage, when we first fall in love, and again in its final, mature stage. In between, love is hard work, dogged fidelity, and needs willful commitment beyond what is normally provided by our emotions and imagination. 

As we grow deeper and more mature in our relationships, reality begins to dispel all illusion. According to Ronald Rolheiser, it’s not that we become disillusioned with the one we love, but we begin to recognize that many of our warm thoughts and feelings we thought were about the “other” were really about ourselves – What we thought was prayer was partly a spell of enchantment about ourselves.

At this critical moment of recognition in any relationship, disillusionment sets in. It’s easy to believe we were wrong, misguided, deluded in feeling as we did. Here Rolheiser is brilliant: Disillusionment is a good thing. It’s the dispelling of an illusion. Disillusionment in love is actually a maturing moment in our lives!

In the spiritual life this is when we typically stop praying. Oh, we likely will not call it that. We are apt to disguise our avoidance with excuses or explanations – not enough time, just taking a break, my work is my prayer, too busy serving others. Fill in the blank! We will fight tenaciously to cling to our familiar preconceptions, a pleasing appearance, “reward” as the economy of grace, and our self-satisfied illusion.

What is needed when the bottom falls out – and it will – is just the opposite. We need to just show-up, minus warm thoughts and feelings, stripped of our enchantment with ourselves. Rolheiser sees this as the beginning of maturity. When we say, “I no longer know how to love,” or “I no longer know how to pray,” then we begin to really understand and grow in our capacity to love and pray.

These words of admonition and encouragement brought me back to something I first heard fifteen years ago as a reflection during Evening Prayer at St John the Evangelist (Anglican) Monastery in Cambridge, MA. It is a text I keep nearby and resort to with some regularity:

Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then, can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again–then, at last, we are ready to worship God.

_____________________

Initial quote and following references to Ronald Rolheiser are from Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013, pp 45-6. Final quote about “Silence” is from Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent. Cowley Publications, 1998.

Bottoms Up!

We don’t need much proof. Margaret Meade didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. She just had a gift for putting it in eloquent language: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Just look at Pope Francis! My brother retired from a thirty-year career in the Army. After Francis’ trip to the Middle East, Fred commented on June 10 to a post I had made here. He described the Pope’s visit as “a major event which will contribute far more to world peace than all the armies and diplomats have in recent years.”

But there seems to be an essential corollary to Meade’s incisive summation and to the potential expressed in the papal visit. True leaders appreciate this fact: real change has to bubble up from the grassroots. Decrees from on-high are typically ignored, as well they should be. Meade captured this in crediting “thoughtful, committed citizens” for the change the world needs.

With that as my prompt, and inspired by my brother, I decided to engage in some “bottoms up” action. Yesterday I chose to participate in Sunday liturgy at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church. My motivation was to give grass-roots expression to that which Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew expressed in their joint statement from Jerusalem:

Our fraternal encounter today is a new and necessary step on the journey towards the unity to which only the Holy Spirit can lead us, that of communion in legitimate diversity…

Thus we affirm once again that the theological dialogue does not seek a theological lowest common denominator on which to reach a compromise, but is rather about deepening one’s grasp of the whole truth that Christ has given to his Church, a truth that we never cease to understand better… Hence, we affirm together that our faithfulness to the Lord demands fraternal encounter and true dialogue.

United in our intentions, … we call upon all Christians, together with believers of every religious tradition and all people of good will, to recognize the urgency of the hour that compels us to seek the reconciliation and unity of the human family…”

The pope and patriarch are not telling us anything we don’t already know! We need wise leadership to give us proof by their actions that what we know we need is in fact possible. We, the grassroots, have a reciprocal obligation to change our ways and adjust our attitudes. We need to shake things up like the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Pentecost Prayer service at the Vatican changed dynamics.

I absolutely do not want to sound preachy, pedantic or like a know-it-all. However, I do feel a passionate urgency. For your convenience and encouragement, here are some ways we can give our prophetic leaders a grassroots foundation on which to build:

  • Prayerfully reflect upon the relatively short Joint Declaration by Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (25 May, 2014). It is only ten paragraphs long and is available [link].
  • Read Patriarch Bartholomew’s Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (2008). I ordered my copy from the used book section on Amazon for $2.58 plus $3.99 postage.   Better yet, host a book club discussion with friends who share your interest.
  • Go to Sunday liturgy at your local Greek Orthodox Church. Be prepared for a rich cultural experience and a service that is likely to last 90 minutes. I went asking that God remove all that divides us, for the grace of curiosity and gift “of communion in legitimate diversity”. True confession: I left with sensory overload (not a bad thing) and did not have the energy to plunge into “coffee hour” – next time!

Let’s never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed folks can change the world from the bottom up. Indeed, it’s the only thing that really will. Let’s give our leadership legs to stand on!  We can be the change the world needs!

Our Fathers

What are we to say of our fathers? Mine wasn’t perfect – none are, I suspect. When I turned 40, the age he was when I was born, I suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the man. What must it have been like to be the sole bread-winner for a wife and ten children? I buckled at the prospect. He did not.

Married in 1931, the Great Depression and WWII prevented him and my mother from “getting off the farm” until 1945. How they managed to “keep the farm” during those hard early years – when so many other good people had not – continues to amaze me.

We had our scrapes. What son or daughter doesn’t? I recall announcing at dinner that I was going to protest a Presidential campaign rally of George Wallace. He said, “No, you’re not.” I said, “Yes, I am!” Back and forth we went, horns locked.

Experienced parent that he was he announced, “This is what we are going to do… we will both go! We will sit in our seats. We won’t cheer or in any way express approval. However, we will not be part of an organized protest.” Together we went.

We witnessed those I would have been with taking folding chairs over their backs. The violence made national news. Though it took years to temper my impetuous zeal and admit his more mature wisdom, I never again doubted whether he would “be there” for me.

Who among us would not like to relive, perhaps re-script, certain episodes with our dads. Today, I am still in search of a hamburger to rival those I shared with him as an 8-year-old in cafes of small Nebraska towns when I accompanied him as a sales rep for a farm implement company. Oh, the conversation we’d have!

About a year before he died we shared another meal. I took the risk of asking what he wanted me to say about him at his funeral. His eyes shot up, “What?” “Look,” I said, “I’m going to be there and will probably have something to say. Most people don’t get the chance to say what they want said about them. What do you want me to say?”

Composing himself, he thought for a moment. “First of all, you better be there!” Then he said, “Tell them I wasn’t perfect… I made my mistakes. Tell them I’m sorry. But, tell them I tried my best and have loved them more than they will ever know.”

Dads aren’t perfect. But, then, who’d want to be the daughter or son of a perfect parent! We honor them best by growing into the woman or man we were born to be. In this we become more like them.

Dad has been gone more than 21 years now. Fathers Day without him never gets any easier – just different. There are times I am certain of his attentive presence. At other times I would give the world to share an experience or tap his wisdom.

This year I am especially grateful for the way he taught me to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

A Death Too Many

Do students still read The Diary of Anne Frank in school? For our generation it was chilling and fresh. Less than twenty years had passed since the 14-year-old had been betrayed, deported to Auschwitz and died in the Bergen-Belsen camp just a few weeks before it was liberated in 1945. Yesterday would have been Anne Frank’s 85th birthday.

With the naiveté and innocence characteristic of youth we thought we were studying the horrors of the Holocaust. Only much later did I recognize that a youthful Anne presents herself as the picture of indomitable hope, if not happiness. It now seems incongruous.

Although she was held hostage in hiding, Anne felt secure. She had the solidarity of family although there was precious little more than an oak branch visible through a solitary window to break the monotony of each day. She wrote with youthful idealism and imagined a bright future.

Her diary stops with a stark sentence: “This is where Anne’s diary ends.” Anne was prevented from writing after she was imprisoned in the concentration camp. We remember her still youthful spirit and grieve that one so full and free did not live to celebrate her 85 years.

Students reading The Diary of Anne Frank today bear the ignominious distinction of being hostages in a way my generation never had to imagine. American students today – along with their families – fear school is where their life stories may end.

Tuesday’s shooting in Oregon is at least the 74th instance of shots being fired on school grounds or in school buildings in the last 18 months. There have been at least 37 school shootings in 2014, which is just barely half over. We are on pace for nearly one shooting per week since the horror in Newtown, CT.

Georgia, which passed an expansive pro-gun law this year, has been site of the most incidents, with 10 shootings reported. Florida was next, with seven. Tennessee claimed five, and North Carolina and California was home to four each. Atlanta was the only city that had three. Shootings across 31 states have made this a truly national travesty.

What sort of society has America become? What horrors are we willing to tolerate? What will end our collective sense of denial? When is enough enough?

In no way do I equate the incalculable tragedy of the Holocaust with the insanity of gun violence in America. I do want to hold up the example of one, solitary young life. We collectively grieve the death of Anne Frank because, together, we came to know her.

Emilio Hoffman is the 14-year-old who was shot dead in Oregon.  Police are still looking for a relationship between Emilio and his killer.  Emilio’s generation lives within a different sort of hiding.  Our national betrayal of them is equally horrendous.

Are we so fragmented as a nation that our students must study within protective custody? …that the death of even one, solitary student in our schools is not one death too many?

Clearly, America is not exempt to social insanity! We have long past the realm of legal rights – we are living a moral obscenity. What hath freedom wrought?

Get a Grip

Again, a favorite poem. Perhaps you have someone special with whom you would care to share it for Fathers Day…

 
Sign for my Father Who Stressed the Bunt

On the rough diamond,
the hand-cut field below the dog lot and barn,
we rehearsed the strict technique
of bunting. I watched from the infield,
the mound, the backstop
as your left hand climbed the bat, your legs
and shoulders squared toward the pitcher.
You could drop it like a seed
down either baseline. I admired your style,
but not enough to take my eyes off the bank
that served as our center-field fence.
 
Years passed, three leagues of organized ball,
no few lives.   I could homer
into the garden beyond the bank,
into the left-field lot of Carmichael Motors,
and still you stressed the same technique,
the crouch and spring, the lead arm absorbing
just enough impact. The whole tiresome pitch
about basics never changing,
and I never learned what you were laying down.
 
Like a hand brushed across the bill of a cap,
let this be the sign
I’m getting a grip on the sacrifice.
 

– David Bottoms

______________________
The poem first appeared in David Bottoms’ 1983 collection,  In a U-Haul North of Damascus.  I discovered it in A Good Man: Fathers and Sons in Poetry and Prose, ed. Irv Broughton. NY: Ballantine Books, 1993. p. 104.

A Master Teacher

Yesterday Jeb the Dog did what he does every day of the year – he took me for a walk around Minnehaha Creek. Whether blustery cold on a typical December day, rainy as usual in April or exquisitely perfect as it was yesterday Jeb is ecstatic because he knows how much I appreciate what he shares with me each day.

Four o’clock sun sent long shafts through cascading willows. A snapping turtle, big as a turkey platter, stubbornly refused Jeb’s excited and extended self-introduction. Delicate violets and pert bluebells have given way to substantial growth below an intensely green canopy. Frighteningly fast currents compensate with sounds seldom heard on the generally somnolent creek. Off-leash in violation of city ordinance, Jeb flashes a telling glance, “This is paradise!”

Science validates the primordial explosion of creative energy that got things going 13.7 billion years ago. Ten billion years later a second creative burst hatched life on Earth. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. (Gen 1:12-13)

The truth of this story lies deeply planted in the air we breathe and our very bones. On the fourth day God created the sun and moon. Living creatures took to the air and swam in the sea on the fifth day. All the many creatures that move upon the ground – certainly the forebears of that stubborn snapping turtle – made their debut on the sixth day. Throughout, God remains quite pleased and affirmed that all is very, very good!

Yesterday it was as if Jeb were taking me to that precise hour on the sixth day – that majestic moment when God’s fecundity is awash and extravagant, that pregnant moment just before humankind appears on the scene. Science now documents this period — between the dawn of life on the third day and right before humanity’s dramatic debut later on the sixth day — lasting for about three billion years.

The Psalmist evokes praise for this cosmic time in recalling For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) We cannot help but wonder about the spiritual meaning and moral significance of this pristine epoch prior to humankind – a world drenched with vibrant diversity and teeming vitality! How are we to reverence this heritage which resides in our bones and saturates the air we breathe?

This is the place theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson takes us as well in Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. Once we encounter the primordial community of life which is equally God’s creation we recognize that our disregard constitutes a grievous omission if not an unspeakable sin.  How can we remain blithely self-centered, ravenously ungrateful, wantonly destructive?

That snapping turtle, the verdant trees and a cascading creek have much to teach. I am eager for Jeb the Dog, my master teacher, to take me for another lesson. I have a lot to learn!

____________________

That incisive image of “unspeakable sin” is directly from Elizabeth Johnson whose book I am now reading and which I highly recommend to any who care to wade through a bit of academic theologizing to get to the spiritual nourishment which we all need.

Believe It or Not!

Some things just need to be believed in order to be seen!

I chuckled in disbelief. Are we so blind? Are our cultural filters so thick and our beliefs so constricted that we cannot see what just happened?

Yet, it went virtually unreported in the American media. No one I heard or read – with only one obscure exception – even alluded to the significance of what just happened.

Is this the sort of incredulity Mary Magdalene felt as she ran from the tomb to tell the frightened disciples whom she had just encountered? Is this the uncontainable impulse that transformed those gathered in the Upper Room into bold messengers?

What did you see or hear about the Prayer for Peace at the Vatican 48 hours ago on Pentecost Sunday? CNN World reported it as “Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres pray with Pope Francis for Mideast peace” [link]. American media did a typically adequate job covering the historic gathering. But it was predictable in content and routine in style, almost tired edging toward trite.

Watch the video for yourself! What do you see? Here is the [link] again. CNN World is as good and representative as any. Even the Catholic News Service was equally narrow in its perspective — perhaps that can be presumed, though not excused, given its “Roman” self interests.

Do you notice Patriarch Bartholomew? He appears three times in the video coverage but remains unmentioned, seemingly as incidental as the musical interlude. Wait a minute! Does anyone recognize how monumentally significant his presence is?

It was within my own lifetime (1964) that the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople lifted their 900 year-long excommunication of each other. Today they are partners in ministry and referring to each other as “brothers”. What we saw on Sunday at the Vatican was virtually inconceivable on the day most of us reading this blog were born.

Media seems oblivious to the shift in tectonic plates we just saw. Yet, that shift portends great hope for the future of Christian unity and how Christians understand ourselves as “church”. Partisan obstinacies and political intransigence are not the sole preserve of nation-states! On a practical level, think of the potential this “united front” holds for the protection of the struggling Christian minority in the Middle East.

Watch the video again. Listen and look even more carefully this time [link]. It took an obscure secondary reference on Twitter for me to learn something totally missed by American media — For the first time in history, Islamic prayers were offered and readings from the Quran were proclaimed at the Vatican! It took a staff writer from Al Arabyia News – Middle East to bring that to my awareness [link].  That in itself is a huge step forward toward world peace.  This in itself transforms all future Inter-Faith dialogue.  Imagine its potential for improving relations between peoples of differing faiths.

Yes, some things need to be believed to be seen. But they are true! The world is changing – too often the pace is excruciatingly slow and the evidence imperceptible. But God is persistent, patient and insistent.

We have reason to believe!

What Difference Does It Make?

Know that experience of meeting people who seem like kindred spirits? Some people just immediately feel like soul mates! Conversation flows easily around topics of substance and mutual interest. I had that experience over the last few days.

Doug and Sheila live in Chicago and were in MSP for the wedding of their son. We share many friends in common and their reputation as missionaries in Mali, West Africa had already gained my admiration. The fact they were parenting three young sons at the same time heightened my curiosity.

A small dinner for six provided a rare opportunity for more personal sharing.  Doug now works with congregations in the U.S. around issues of inter-cultural communication. I was amazed by the wisdom with which he placed conditions on the “Golden Rule.” Isn’t doing onto others as you would have them do onto you one thing all great religions share in common? Didn’t Jesus himself teach this as the very bedrock of a moral life?

But, think about it in the context of Christian mission! Doug helped me see how ethnocentric and self-referential this can become in a cross cultural setting. Instead he proposed something much better, something known as the “Platinum Rule”: Do onto others as they would do unto themselves!

It’s not easy to improve upon Jesus but something tells me he’s thinking, “Gee, wish I had said that!” I believe Jesus taught the Platinum Rule by his actions and way with people. Doug just has a gift for putting a better spin on Jesus’ own words than Jesus did himself.

Conversation with Sheila was equally stimulating. We discovered a mutual affection for Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor. Her book An Altar in the World had stopped each of us dead in our tracks. Shortly after returning from a one-week mission trip to Haiti the book pierced my sense of self-congratulatory virtue: “Our community with them is human community,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “yet who could be better equipped to pop the locks on our prisons than people in whom we see nothing of ourselves?”(p. 94)

I recognized that Sheila knows in her bones what Barbara Brown Taylor meant in quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image, for only then can we see past our own reflections in the mirror to a God we did not make up.”(p. 100)  She has lived this with greater intentionality than I probably ever will!

Sheila would be the first to admit her struggles and share how extremely challenging mission service in Mali was for her and for her family. But the fact remains that for ten years – not just my seven days – they labored to live what Barbara Brown Taylor counsels: “The assignment is to get over your self … the assignment is to love the God you did not make up with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and the second is like unto it: to love the neighbor you also did not make up as if that person were your own strange and particular self.” (p. 105)

Does it make a difference to go to Haiti for a week? …to Mali for ten years? Are we ever able to step outside of our own cultural bias long enough to do onto others as they would have us do unto them? Gospel preachers like Barbara Brown Taylor — but also people like Doug and Sheila — nudge us to see the mutual reciprocity essential for any such encounter.

Perhaps the vital question is not about the difference we make in Haiti or Mali. Rather, this is a rare moment when the Gospel challenges us to be more self-referential – what conversion does Mali or Haiti work in us? This alone protects us from being self-congratulatory purveyors of cultural bias or blind-guides looking to form clones of ourselves.

In a topsy-turvy world where the first are last and the last first, the only mission worthy of the Gospel is a life of mutual love and deferential service that reverences the truth that we are indeed kindred spirits, soul mates at the deepest level, equally members of one human family sharing a common home.

Intolerable Cost of Ignorance

I don’t know what I was thinking – apparently, I wasn’t. It just never occurred to me! Objectively speaking I am fortunate to have been given a pretty decent education.  Call it blinders or tunnel-vision, the fact is my perspective on world cultures, other religions or the great wisdom traditions is dismally shallow. My knowledge is narrow and sectarian.

This weekend is a case in point… Isn’t Pentecost the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and thus the founding of the church? Well, yes. But it’s really so much more! It’s never occurred to me before that the apostles weren’t just sitting around together because they were afraid, waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up.

Pentecost is not a Christian invention. The disciples were gathered together in fidelity to the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks! It is the second of the three major Jewish pilgrimage festivals, the others being Passover and Sukkoth (commemorating the wandering in the desert).

Although it also is the time when first fruits were brought to the Temple, Shavu’ot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jews count from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavu’ot, 49 days to celebrate the vital connection between Passover and Shavu’ot. The festival is also known as Pentecost, because it falls on the 50th day.

The period from Passover to Shavu’ot is marked by great anticipation! Passover freed God’s chosen people physically from bondage. The giving of the Torah on Shavu’ot redeems them “spiritually” by establishing the terms of their covenant relationship with God.

I wish I had known this earlier! Overlays with Christianity are so obvious and rich. Ignorance has resulted in too much suffering and missed opportunities! Really too bad — my loss!

It is significant that Shavu’ot is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. Rabbis point out that Jews are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, it is to be received every day. Isn’t this true for all of us?

We can start fresh by fostering a climate of genuine curiosity and committing ourselves to become better listeners. Let’s also foster the even nobler human impulse – typically “maternal” – to instinctively seek reconciliation in a family and gather all the children together as one.

What better place to begin than in the spirit of the prayer for peace at the Vatican. It begins on Pentecost at 12 noon in Minneapolis, 7 p.m. in Rome. The inspiring text of the service has been released and is available [here]. 

At our home we will be lighting a candle as described in my [post] last Wednesday. Despite the marvelous prayers available in the “official” program given on the link above, I am drawn to the simple Prayer to the Holy Spirit I learned as a kid:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy Your consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew and Presidents Abbas and Peres will plant an olive tree in the Vatican Gardens at the conclusion of their prayer service. We have been planning to replace a wild rose bush in our garden along the street. We will do that on Pentecost with more intentionality, dedicating it to peace in Jerusalem and among the three great religions that make up the family of Abraham.

The cost of our ignorance is intolerable. The price of sectarian narrowness and tunnel-vision is death. We must get over it!

O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise.

___________

This year Shavu’ot was commemorated from Tuesday evening, June 3 through Thursday evening, June 5.