Powerful As the Stream

Observation leads me to conclude that I am not alone in wanting to be in charge. Others seem to share my control issues as well. Yes, I like to feel important. Much to my chagrin, family and friends have plenty of evidence to counter my feelings of superiority and perfectionism.

A conversation after posting Perfection Unbound [link] last Sunday showed there was need for clarification.  You may recall that I wrote: “Despite my delusions of grandeur and flights into self-sufficiency, I’m not as special as I think nor as singular as I want to imagine. My friends and family simply know how to slip beneath my well-defended public persona.”

I then went on to suggest that too many of us easily and willingly “fall into one of religion’s most subtle and seductive pitfalls — using spirituality to comfort our egos or to validate our pre-conceived view of the world. We pervert Christianity to serve our needs rather than affirm its core assertion that salvation comes through dying to our over-sized egos.”

That generated some blow-back as well it should. Too many people walk around having been shamed into thinking too little of themselves. Abuse of power by folks who like to be in control or have an exalted sense of their own rectitude and virtue — typically an over-compensation for their own poor self-esteem and feelings of powerlessness — can really victimize other people.

I’m grateful for the blow-back because it allows for an essential clarification — between a healthy self-worth and appreciation for one’s inalienable dignity on one hand, and an unbridled individualism, trust in self-interest as a reliable moral guide and pursuit of only slightly veiled ego-gratification on the other. Here is the essential distinction: there is a huge difference between un-redeemed egos and healthy self-worth.

Here’s the rub as I see it. As I wrote on Sunday, there’s too much contemporary preoccupation with shallow, feel-good, power-of-positive-thinking “spirituality” being marketed to ego-driven consumers. Sadly, this also comes from “Christian” sources as well as pop-culture.

Virtually all world religions are unanimous in teaching that we must put our ego-selves to death! Trust me, this is very hard to do when you’re already “perfect”! None of us — again, not one of us — want to hear that.  Too often our churches don’t want to hear or teach that message either.  Rather, they maneuver to be in charge as arbitrators of “truth” and assert control by enforcing their preferred definition.

Some of the responses to Sunday’s post expanded upon and expressed better what I was struggling to say. For example, I had cited Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa’s invitation to consider pouring tea into a cup. The cup must be lower than the teapot. If the cup is not lower than the pot, the tea will not end up in the cup.

A friend generously shared another citation that offers more than enough food for thought for those of us who wrestle with our need to be in control or want to be in charge:

All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power. If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.

To this, let the Church say… AMEN!

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My friend who shared the final quote indicated it was from “Tao Te Ching: A New English Version” translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Is It Just Me or What?

Does anyone else think this is odd? Or, it is just me?

While waiting to taken to the airport for a return flight to MSP I occupied time by paging through a typical “summer issue” catalogue of attractive home furnishings. The items focused on color, comfort and casual. This one happened to be from “grandinroad” but could have been from any number of others in this market niche.

Something seemed oddly unsettling despite the ease with which the mostly patio and poolside items invited relaxation and rest. Not until page 46 did I get a sense for the dis-ease I was sensing. Not until then did a single, solitary human being appear amid all the creature comforts. He — again alone — would reappear on page 50. What are they selling? What appeals to consumers?

Three real live dogs and a puppy debut on pages 60-61 dedicated to “doggone fun.” The same woman in four different swimsuit poses is the only other human being to be found in this 96 page catalogue. She appears on page 90.

Does anyone else have questions about this? What does this say about our culture? About what sells and what people are “purchasing”?

I’ve had a marvelous week in PHX celebrating a birthday, a wedding anniversary and reconnecting with my three-generational AZ family. Some of our socializing and partying was poolside and on the patio. Each visit here is cherished and a gift.

Still, perusing this catalogue makes me even more eager to get back to my husband and Jeb the Dog in MSP.

Shameless Self-Promotion

People ask, “Who reads your blog?”

Certainly I know some regulars. Truth is, I don’t know. There is a statistical meter that registers how many people read a particular post but not their names or location. Generally, the site gets about 35 “hits.” Once is a while this explodes to 75 or more.

The biggest surprise is the few comments posted on the site itself. Most people who respond are people I know and do so via an email or face-to-face.

My brother in Florida tells me I’m too “churchy.” He’s asked me to stop “preaching”. Family members have been telling me that long before I had a blog!

Some people tell me they read regularly but I use too many big words. That too is a criticism I’ve heard many times in other contexts.

My closest friends and some family are more honest, “Richard, sometimes I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.”  I take that critique more seriously!

A special friend and highly regarded journalist advised me early on about readers. She said, “Of course, you hope people will want to read what you write. But don’t write for them. Write for yourself because you have something to say.” Her admonition resonates with my motivations so I have tried to remain faithful to her wise counsel.

Readership is not insignificant to my purpose, however. I write because I care passionately about life, God, other people and this creation. I hope never to come across as doctrinaire or a know-it-all. Yet, I do have a perspective that I hope will at least be received as well-considered. I do not aspire to make converts! Mostly, I want to provoke thinking, stimulate conversation and inspire action about things that matter.

Some longtime, faithful readers will detect a change in tone since Kneading Bread debuted in January 2014. This is the result of me learning this craft better, a sincere effort to take seriously the feedback I’ve received, but also the fact that I am in a very different place today than I was eighteen months ago. I hope you agree that Kneading Bread is also better as a result.

All this having been said, there remains the necessary but nettlesome matter of the fine art of shameless self-promotion. That is to say, if you like what you see here please tell others and direct them to the site. Invite them to select the “Follow” option that generally appears near the bottom or click the “Subscribe by Email” icon in the right-hand column.

For despite my professed disinterest in numbers, writing for 75 rather than 35 would feed my still robust ego needs.  To all of you who have read through to this point I express my sincere thanks.

Planting Season

A simple yet enduring consolation has recurred during events this weekend in El Salvador. My godson-nephew, Tom and I had the good fortune to pray at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1997. Back then, his “final” resting place was a modest marble box aside a nondescript hallway in the basement of the Cathedral. A groundskeeper had to unlock the building for the two of us.  We entered by the side door and were alone in paying our respects.

Even then, we anticipated the huge popular celebration the world witnessed on Saturday attesting that Romero is “Blessed” and a deserving exemplar of Christian faith. Given the ecclesial and political climate at the time, my only question was whether I would live to see the day.  All the more, our quiet, solitary, inauspicious moment shared by this uncle and his godson remains a singular grace.

Given Saturday’s massive crowds and effusive expressions of faith, we do well to remember who this man was and the values for which he gave his life. We can do no better than to recall what is popularly known as “Romero’s Prayer”:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.

Although popularly attributed to Oscar Romero, columnist Margery Egan has clarified its true origin. The prayer-poem was actually written by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, MI and spoken in a homily by his friend, the late Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit. Dearden used the prayer in a Mass for departed priests in November 1979, a year before Romero’s 1980 assassination. Thereafter — and for good reason — the poem was renamed as Romero’s prayer.

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You can read more by Margery Egan at the CRUX website. I have the site bookmarked and consult it regularly. You may wish to do the same at: http://www.cruxnow.com/

Perfection Unbound

Only my very dearest friends and some intimate family members can get by with it. Only they have garnered sufficient trust and credibility to speak the truth to me in love. Still, they choose to speak the truth in riddles.

Sometimes it comes out as sarcastic humor… “You know what’s wrong with you? Nothing, you’re perfect!” It has taken me nearly 65 years to recognize they are not joking, to decipher the loving yet urgent message they are trying to pointedly deliver.

Despite my delusions of grandeur and flights into self-sufficiency, I’m not as special as I think nor as singular as I want to imagine. My friends and family simply know how to slip beneath my well-defended public persona. My guess is I am not alone in such exalted self-assessment. This must make it very hard for God to be God!

Consider this… In cherishing our faith and dutifully practicing our religion we easily, willingly and all too frequently fall into one of religion’s most subtle and seductive pitfalls — using spirituality to comfort our egos or to validate our pre-conceived view of the world. We pervert Christianity to serve our needs rather than affirm its core assertion that salvation comes through dying to our over-sized egos.

With a lifetime of practice, my defenses handily domesticate much of what I claim to profess. I squirm at the preposterous proposition that I may have faults. I deftly shift responsibility, “Someone else died for me, so I don’t need to!”

Sorry, it doesn’t seem to work that way! Despite the contemporary preoccupation with so much shallow, feel-good, power-of-positive-thinking “spirituality” virtually all world religions are unanimous in teaching that we must put our ego-selves to death!  Trust me, this is very hard to do when you’re already “perfect”!

Western culture does not take easily to the heretical proposition that there is anything greater than the “self”, a moral code other than self-interest, or question the sufficiency of material goods to satisfy. All the more reason a deceptively simple and homey image disarmed me with its invitation to grow in humility. It will challenge any whose family and friends might want to lovingly suggest we can be “full of ourselves.”

The story is attributed to the Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa. The master invites us to consider pouring tea into a cup. The cup must be lower than the teapot. If the cup is not lower than the pot, the tea will not end up in the cup. It could just as well have come from Jesus — if we would be “perfect” we must deny ourselves, the one who would be greatest will become least.

Stealthily family, friends and other religions conspire to reveal what it is about my own faith I am so reluctant to profess.

____________

I came upon the story attributed to Chogyam Trungpa in The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living by Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko.  Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY: 2015., p. 29.

Her Outlandish Spectacle

Too much knowledge can be a huge encumbrance — book-learning can just as well imprison the mind as liberate. Our challenge is not to become anti-intellectual but to recognize just how stultifying “intelligent” conversation has become. We seek fresh wisdom, relevant answers. Too often, we resort to tired formulations that leave us gasping for air or dozing off to sleep.

Where is God? Who is God? Or, more urgently, IS God? Try as we might, our increasingly agnostic culture cannot summarily dismiss these questions. Just as humans are incapable of constructing a rational proof for the existence of God, avowed skeptics are equally inept in summarily dismissing God from our imagination. Our ability to think, reason and create delude us — we readily and rightly believe we are god-like; we easily and erroneously conclude we are free of God.

Human knowledge, rational argument, academic theology — necessary and ennobling as they remain — will never satisfy our deepest curiosity. Our insatiable hunger is not a question of existence but of meaning. Where is God? Who is God? If God, then who am I?

We are less perplexed by God’s questionable existence than by God’s confounding absence. No one expresses our current human predicament better than Barbara Brown Taylor:

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.

God eludes our efforts to make of him an “object” of human knowledge. Of much greater consequence, we risk idolatry whenever we make God into an “object” of our prayer or worship. No wonder so many of our religious practices and dogmatic  formations leave us gasping for air or stupefied beyond belief. As Barbara Brown Taylor appropriately laments, “there is great famine in our land.”

What are we to do? Where is our hope? Is faith in God credible? Answers will come less from academic theology and creedal formulations. This Pentecost weekend, just as at the first, we have the invitation to be surprised, caught off-guard, utterly liberated from our descriptive assaults upon God.

The self-giving Spirit among us — Holy Wisdom, Sophia, the feminine face of God — is not rational, objective or theoretical. Rather, her outlandish spectacle reveals a timeless, untamable God who is relational, communal, intimate, unitive. If there is any lesson to be learned it is that of vigilant humility — especially among theologians, bishops, pastors or any of the rest of us who would ultimately “define” or feel compelled to “defend” God.

For then and perhaps only then can God be God.

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The quote from Barbara Brown Taylor is from When God is Silent, Cowley Publications, 1998, p., 17.

Getting Caught

Fishing bores me to tears. This is heretical in Minnesota and risks ostracization. My defense is that this kid from Nebraska simply came to water and lakes too late to develop any affinity. My spiritual bond with creation is more grounded — planting trees, tending a vegetable garden, composting, walks with Jeb the Dog, the silent symphony of dawn.

Yet, I am not so dry-docked as to be incapable of appreciating a good fishing metaphor. One came from Christopher Pramuk who brilliantly invites us to look at fishing from the perspective of the fish! Maybe fishing doesn’t have to be as boring as it seems.

Imagine the fisher’s lure flashing, dancing, singing in the waters just in front of you, alluring you. Lunging forward, just as you’ve gotten her wholly into your rapacious mouth, just as you think you have gotten her, you discover that it is you who have been gotten. The fisher captures you, your whole self, and will not let you go.

God is like that! God initiates, pursues, allures us. We may think it is otherwise — we are deluded. We may dutifully recite our favorite “prayers” and enact our sacred rites and rituals. But ultimately it is God who ensnares us, it is God who initiates.

Whether fishing or planting, we merely attend — or not — to God’s enticements. It is God, as Pramuk’s fishing metaphor reminds us, who “dances and sings before us, shining from within all things, refusing to be domesticated.”

Perhaps here is the key to my aversion to fishing. Creatures of the deep defy domestication! Fish will always beguile me with their wildness and other-worldliness. Planting, gardening, composting appeal to my need to direct, control and define my world. To the degree this is true, I risk isolation from God. I resist being caught. I remain captive in my own idolatry about who God is and how God is to behave.

Still, God allures — her silent symphony from the deep is beginning to dawn on me.

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References may be found in At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine by Christopher Pramuk.  Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2015., p. 64.