Right Here in the Neighborhood

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood! This contemporary rendering of John 1:14 posted by a friend on Facebook really caught my attention.

Words can express beauty, possibility, purpose. They can just as well be used to stone others, too often judge or even demean. When someone moves into the neighborhood we spontaneously want to know what we have in common — how are they just like us? Will they “fit in” to become good neighbors. Would we want our children playing with theirs?

What if they are not just like us? What if they speak English as a second language? …with an accent? What if their food comes from a different store because my supermarket carries only a small selection of what they prefer? Am I in any way put off by a neighbor wearing a burka? Do I recognize this reaction as my issue, not theirs?

We who call ourselves Christian would do well to come up with a contemporary rendering of the Good Samaritan story. How do I live with people who are not like me? People who may not even share my Sacred Scriptures or who understand them differently?  How does my faith instruct, prepare and dispose me to “be neighbor” to those different from myself?

Just like the Word of God our words can easily, and too frequently, be used as a weapon rather than a welcome. The sacred Word and our words are too often used to build walls and close doors. They can also be used as God intends — to open minds, give direction, share wisdom.

Church of Sweden Bishop Krister Stendahl (1921 – 2008) suggested three brilliant guidelines for being a better neighbor, using words to build community rather than barriers or walls:

  • When trying to understand another, ask those who love and adhere to this way of life rather than to their critics.
  • Don’t compare your “best” to another’s “worst.”
  • Leave room for “holy envy” — something beautiful about that person’s religious practice they have and we don’t.

Too often we Christians use our sacred words to compete or convert one another to our way of thinking. Did not the Word become human to confirm and complete God’s way of loving?

Rather than looking upon others as potential converts to our narrow way of seeing the world, are we not to receive the “other” as neighbor — welcome and needed companions bearing unique and precious gifts along the Way?

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My source for Krister Stendahl’s “rules” is Barbara Brown Taylor who spoke of them in a retreat presentation on August 3 in Minneapolis.

Absence Explained

Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Does it? I often just forget whatever is absent. The absence of something annoying might be a long-awaited relief! We might even learn that we live perfectly well without something and no longer care about whatever it provided.

My hope after being absent from these posts for more than a week is that you will welcome the return. It may be asking too much to presume the absence was even noted. Noted or not, I’m back and trust these ruminations are received with continuing interest.

An explanation is in order. Barbara Brown Taylor and John Philip Newell were in town leading a retreat from Sunday, August 2 thru Wednesday, August 5. Either would have had me beating a path to their door. Having both co-facilitate was a feast beyond imagining. My absence from these pages is due largely to the fact that my time and spirit were preoccupied and engaged.

Dubbed Seeking the Sacred Thread, the retreat more than fulfilled its promise to illuminate with clarity and grace the questions and hopes we carry, weaving together sacred threads of the Christian household with other wisdom traditions, focusing on the healing of God’s people and all creation. I’m still ruminating over its richness.

Rather than attempting an impossible “grand synthesis” or over-verbalizing what was often experienced as sheer grace, I will keep it simple. Here are five “sacred threads” which I am still holding, hoping they take deeper hold of me:

  • Seek the light at the farthest edge of darkness — deepest night holds the fullest promise of dawn.
  • “There are seeds in the rottenest of apples!” -Bede Griffiths
  • “Only when we are playful can Divinity get serious with us.” Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Our deepest longing is for belonging… BE longing!
  • There is no room for two — die to yourself in Love’s presence or Love will die in your presence.

Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

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Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.