Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Who doesn’t like the musical, Annie? It’s theme song, Tomorrow is one of those melodies engrained somewhere in the recesses of our minds that surfaces just when we seem to need encouragement the most!

Well tomorrow — Tuesday, September 1 — really is a special day. When Pope Francis released his prophetic encyclical on ecology and the environment – Laudato si – back on June 18th, a leading Orthodox bishop who had been asked to help present the document, said: “I should like to mention that the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided as early as 1989 to devote the 1st of September of each year to praying for the environment.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon then made a request: “Might this not become a date for such prayer for all Christians? This would mark a step towards further closeness among them.” So what’s the Pope to do? Of course, he followed suit by endorsing what the Orthodox Church has been doing for 25 years!

Most of the recommendations I’ve seen for tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation strike me as disembodied, cerebral, too “vertical” — focusing on “saying” prayers or going to church. Seriously, isn’t that just the sort of heavenly-minded spirituality that has got us into the bifurcated mess we find ourselves in?

So here are a few more creation-centered ways of marking a day that is to refocus our attention on the Earth and how all life is intertwined:

  • Sing “Tomorrow, Tomorrow, the sun’ll come out tomorrow” along with Annie. Be child-like again — the way you were playing outside in nature when you were a kid! Here is a YouTube [link]. Consider: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Mark 10:15
  • Sit aside running water (we have a creek 3 blocks away). Listen to the gurgle. Wonder at the leaf floating atop the passing water. Imagine the stream’s source, it’s destination. What’s all this got to do with your Baptism (or ceremonial washing common to all world religions)?
  • Walk around your block — actually any place will do. This time get out of your head and dismiss every thought about what you have to do next. Just consider what you see. Pay attention. Attend to nature’s persistent poking forth. Marvel at the minuscule. Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air — just consider them, resist making this about you and your worries. Simply consider what you see — as they are, for what they are!
  • Go get yourself a Fall plant from the Garden Store. Fantastic purple-blue asters are coming into our markets right now. Reverently transform your yard with autumn splendor. As you dig the hole and carefully pat down the earth around your favorite Fall selection, remember that human, humus and humility all share the same root-word.
  • Spend some time — whatever you have — getting the following poem into your bones. It is surely as relevant today as when Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote it in the 1880s:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Finally, just be grateful. Say, “WOW… Thanks!”  If tomorrow’s World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation gets more us us doing that it will have been a rousing success.

Needing to Knead

My last post already confessed to my compulsion for needing the last word. Yes, that’s a well-ingrained fault that warrants my continuous attention (not always successfully). But there are other reasons I don’t want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest.

There’s a reason this blog is named, Kneading Bread! Watching my mother knead countless batches of flour, yeast and water I learned that her labor was not just about the bread. As growth enabled me to deduce patterns I discovered something quite interesting. On those days my mother chose to bake bread — often indulging a little extra energy really getting-into the kneading, I began to recognize it wasn’t primarily about the bread or our family’s love of her good food!

Yes, this blog enables me to wrestle with ideas and issues of importance to me and topics I believe to be of spiritual and social importance. If it’s not obvious, I “need to knead” this batch of ingredients the world regularly plops in front of us to see what comes of it, to discover what value it holds for our health and well-being.

But Kneading Bread is intended to be something more, more than my personal playground for having the last word or indulging my fiercely defended opinions! No, my purpose would fall short if posts failed to stimulate reflection or provoke the reader to wrestle with your own values, beliefs, convictions, commitments and ways of acting in community. As my mother demonstrated, it’s as much about the laborious act of kneading as it is about savoring the finished product!

She also demonstrated in countless ways that there are always exceptions to any rule. That’s true today. Sometimes you come across a quote that is so incisive, so well-crafted, so true it would be wrong to do a thing to it. Today is such a day!  I can do no better. On my best days, I wish I could say it so well:

We have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume, and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We talk about our ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God, We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true, and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful, and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.

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These prophetic words were written by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. I came to them via my friend Sheila Wilson’s Facebook posting. The only citation I can give is what Sheila gave. It is from Chittister’s book, What Does It Mean to Be Human? In a way, a specific page reference is unnecessary — anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading!

The Final Word

People tell me I like to talk. Sometimes I talk too much. One of my core faults is always wanting to have the last word. Hidden in here may be one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog.

Yes, I do like shake-’em-up conversations, especially with people who are more curious about next questions than needing to have pat answers. Sometimes I toss out strong opinions hoping to elicit an equally strong response.

Nothing is more disappointing than to have someone back-off. Well, actually, there is something more disheartening — that is to have someone recite pious palliatives, hide behind doctrinaire opinions or bolster their closed-mindedness by only getting their information from like-minded ideologues.

My ideal dinner party would be a table with Krista Tippet surrounded by five guests of her choosing from her Public Radio program, On Being. In a setting like that I would never have the last word. I would be more than satisfied if I could leave with a whole new set of provocative questions. But I digress.

The primary inspiration for this post was happening upon a sermon recently preached by a minister of the Uniting Church (Methodist/Reformed) in Swansea, Australia. His Scripture reference is the Beatitudes.

The very same text are the Gospel verses Russ and I have coincidentally chosen for our wedding service. As an exercise in not needing to have the last word, here is a link to a marvelous sermon preached by a Reformed minister half a world away… [link]

We would be honored to have his be the final Word preached at our marriage ceremony.

Failing Forgiveness

Recently, I deeply hurt a dear family member. My well rehearsed self-defensiveness easily shifts into excuses and rationalization: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” A reflexive, limp, “I’m sorry!” “Here’s what I really meant…” In the back of my mind I also sprinkle in a good dose of “Oh, get over it!” “You’re too thin-skinned.” “You misinterpreted what I meant.”

I easily nurse grudges or smugly assert my innocence, all with a heavy dose of moral superiority. “Me? Why I would never willingly hurt anyone!” This has been my default position for most of my 65 years.

And, it doesn’t work! In fact, it isolates and hardens us. Ultimately, it turns us bitter — the sort of arrogant curmudgeons no one wants to be around. Even we discover we are not in very good company when we increasingly find ourselves alone.

Coincidental to my recent family incident the University of Minnesota was going through a major publicity nightmare and scandal. The Athletic Director had been forced to resign after sexually harassing two colleagues at a mid-summer gathering of top university administrators. Yes, alcohol was involved. Yes, his “excuse” was inept. Yes his “apology” was predictably lame.

Apologies must be about the person who has been hurt, not about protecting our backsides or rehabilitating our reputations! We concoct an amazing assortment of avoidance strategies which are really more about self-forgiveness. According to a really fine op-ed in the Star Tribune about the dismal response by Mr Teague and University leadership, such self-defensiveness sabotages any hope for recovery or rehabilitation.

James E. Lukaszewski’s op-ed convincingly describes the essential pieces of an effective apology:

  • Regret — an explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  • Responsibility — an unconditional declarative acceptance and recognition that my wrongful behavior and acknowledgment that there is no excuse for it.
  • Restitution — an offer of help or assistance to the person I have hurt, followed up by action beyond “I’m sorry,” and conduct that takes responsibility to make the situation right.
  • Repentance — explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused pain and suffering for which I am genuinely sorry; language that recognizes that I cause serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage.
  • Direct request for forgiveness — “I was wrong, I hurt you and I ask you to forgive me.”

Reading these words admonishing the Athletic Director and University felt like red-hot coals being heaped on my head. Despite my self-righteous efforts to keep the need for an effective apology theoretical and about others, I felt exposed and incriminated.

My gut was confirming what Lukaszewski claimed.  Admitting that I have done something hurtful and requesting forgiveness is damn hard! Maybe that’s why it is so rarely done, at least with sincerity and effectiveness. Though 65 years of moral evasiveness have taught me the same truth, the hottest coal of all was his final admonition: “Skip even one step, and you simply fail.”

You fail! Not just in this instance. Not just with this family member, neighbor, colleague. We fail — as human beings, the kind of people others want to be around, the sort of person I’d want to be with when I’m all alone!

__________________

The August 10, 2015 op-ed in the Star Tribune is available [here]. In his essay, James E. Lukaszewski credits his source as The Five Languages of Apology, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

Judge Not

I’d like to say I’ve given up, but I haven’t. I’d like to say I’ve stopped trying to figure out what makes people tick — why they act the way they do, say what they say (or not!), believe what they believe. But, I can’t!

People continue to baffle me, confound me, sometimes disappointment me. There is some truth in the adage: “Do as I say not as I do!” But that isn’t even always true. People disappoint, act poorly, sometimes their words — or their silence — is deeply hurtful.

Mr Hall, my senior English teacher at Creighton Prep, would be shocked to hear me say this but good literature, novels and short stories help us wrestle with the bumps and bruises of living in families, neighborhoods and with colleagues. What Thomas Merton had to say about famed Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor is a case in point:

The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O’Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled. The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem. … Her crazy people , while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity. In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics. The “good,” the “right,” the “kind” do all the harm. “Love” is a force for destruction, and “truth” is the best way to tell a lie.

That’s my read of our current situation — and I don’t just mean Presidential politics! O’Connor was getting at something much deeper, persistent and endemic in the human character. Merton goes on to observe that O’Connor’s true-to-life characters place us…

on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against the reasonable zombie. We are against everything he stands for. We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, ‘scientific’ answers he has for everything. In him, science is so right that it is a disaster.

Isn’t that all too true? My resounding YES! to O’Connor and Merton’s experience had me inserting “morals” for the word scientific and “morality” for science. Some of the most confounding and disappointing people are those who are so certain of their “moral” answers that their “morality” is a disaster.

Right and wrong — judging others — is perilous terrane. Yet, some of us persist in shining bright lights on others’ lives and behaviors. Jesus warned against such Pharisaic preoccupation calling the best of the lot “whitened sepulchers.” Psychologists have long correlated this propensity with a terrific fear of shining that same light on our own lives.

I try not to judge lest I be judged. But sometimes we are judged anyway — and by people who say they care about us. Sometimes other people’s words, actions, even their silence communicate a heavy moralistic judgment. The wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the world’s great religious traditions, the teaching of Jesus Christ all shed important light on this persistent human propensity — unanimous in its condemnation.

More and more, experience is teaching me the wisdom and urgency of Jesus’ confounding warning about the Last Judgment. How sad it will be for those so certain about what was right and good for others to hear the Judge say, “I do not know you!”

______________

The first quote by Thomas Merton about Flannery O’Connor is from his book, Mystics and Zen Masters, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, # 259.  The second Merton quote is from #260 of the same work.

Tubs, Tissue Paper and Umbrellas

The clerk at CVS had just spoken of his fear that the roof was going to blow off during the storm front that had just passed. Now we navigated some of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes consolidated in the Target parking lot. Though unspoken we both tried to dismiss concern about the weather for our outdoor wedding three weeks to the day.

Antique baskets for the table and altar flowers need to be packed carefully. We were in search of tissue paper and solid plastic tubs. The price of plain white tissue paper — neatly folded and encased in crystal clear cellophane — could rattle the rafters!

“Do we have paper towels at home? We could use paper towels and they’d be right there ready to go at the wedding.” Once again, the ingenuity of the man I love shone forth.  We moved on from paper to plastic.

Who knew storage tubs came in so many sizes and could be marketed for so many distinct purposes? The price caused us to ask if cardboard boxes might serve as well. We even considered emptying tubs we already have tucked away in the basement for this one-time wedding use. In the end we bought two more imagining additional uses, protestations that we already have too much stuff not withstanding!

Target’s automated doors swung open to a world awash in infinite shades of gray. Thankfully the rain had stopped, the wind had subsided. Remnants of a white and green umbrella obstinately poked from the trash bin near the exit, certainly a casualty of the recent rattling storm. Being the unabashed dumpster-diver that I am, of course it required my inspection.

“Honey, you are not taking stuff home from the Target trash bin!” Mortification washed across his face as he distanced himself from me.

“But, look, it’s perfectly good… three of the pins just need to be reattached”, proudly claiming new-found treasure, feeling satisfied in my ability to repair and reuse. Besides, at 65 I am long past caring what others think of me retrieving what someone else too quickly trashes.

One thing I am not so good at is keeping my spirituality firmly grounded in the stuff of life. For example, last week regulars here read this only slightly veiled self-revelation of my own conviction:

The monk … feels in a confused way that he must live within a certain ill-defined ecclesiological space, at a point where the partitions erected by the separation have not prevailed and where already those walls are yielding which, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev said one day, certainly do not rise all the way to heaven.

I can hear my bother-in-law John saying, “What the hell does that mean!?!”

So, my apologies for the many times I get too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. Yet, never will I apologize for reveling in such wisdom. It’s the way I’m wired. Besides, the intellectual and mystical tradition of the church is also a place to find God and to be pursued as well as cherished.

But my personal need for spiritual growth is to keep myself grounded in the equal wisdom of spiritual giants like Wendell Berry. Regular readers will recall that I quoted the Kentucky farmer two weeks ago:

No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.

My brother-in-law would say, “Amen to that, brother!”

Tubs, tissue paper and umbrellas are more than utilitarian. They reveal values, priorities, how connected we are with the physical world, revealing our true spirituality! Preparing for a marriage has a way of bringing this to the forefront — perhaps we all need to renew our covenant of love with the creation that makes it all possible.

________

The reference to “the monk” recalls my August 20 post and is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf, p. 128.  The Wendell Berry quote was first cited here in an August 12 post.

Put On Your Chicken Wire

A good friend knew our conversation would not be easy. The topic she wanted to discuss was difficult, potentially painful. She did not want to be confrontational — rather, she intended to play fair!

She said, “Time to put on you chicken wire.”

“What?” I said, not having a clue what she meant.

“Put on your chicken wire! You have a right to feel safe, protected and maintain your integrity. But you need to hear what I have to say. Most of us throw up our defenses, walling off any meaningful dialogue. Putting on your chicken wire allows you to feel safe — it will also help you take in what I have to say.”

Ironically, Jane’s approach actually made me eager to engage a tough conversation about difficult stuff. Right from the get-go I felt respected, empowered and willing to look at my culpability without reacting defensively. We both began porous rather than hardened.

The conversation that ensued was animated, emotional and true testimony to an enduring friendship. It concluded with an honest embrace and a commitment to touch base again in a couple of weeks.

Now, days later, I still walk around with my chicken wire in tact. It may just stay as part of my permanent attire. It’s a great way to engage others from a position of safety, integrity. Yesterday — with chicken wire securely in place — I negotiated the always challenging (for me, at least) weekend checkout lines a Costco. Chicken wire has become my new necessity for negotiating life’s inevitable conflicts.

First of all, Jane’s approach was strong, appropriate and inspired. The part of her approach which only became apparent in the conversation is that chicken wire required Jane to “give” what she had to say in pieces that would fit through my open spaces. It had to come in sizes I could take in. Same from my side. I had to say what I had to give in pieces that fit her capacity to receive as well.

Who knew!?! Chicken wire! Solution to innumerable human challenges. One of life’s enduring necessities.