What’s God Up To, Now?

How many Christian churches do you know that are next door to a Muslim mosque? Each time I round the corner of 18th & Lyndale Avenues on Minneapolis’ Northside, past the mosque’s muted gold and vibrant blue minaret, a wave of warmth and satisfaction washes over me. Despite headlines suggesting the opposite, this is the “real” America, who we are at our best and as it should be!

The relationship between our two communities is amicable and respectful. Given that Christians celebrate Sundays and Muslims gather on Fridays, our spontaneous interactions remain limited. But our hearts are open and we envision greater dialogue and seek out ways to join forces in service of our neighborhood and city.

Yesterday was even more exceptional. We were celebrating First Communion Sunday and Easter flourishes still adorn the church. Pews were full with extended families exuberant to mark this significant moment in the lives of excited children. Outside flowering trees, tulips, daffodils and fresh yellow-green foliage offset the crystal blue sky.

An off-handed comment by my husband shattered my revelry, “First Communion is a really big deal for Catholics!” His innocence — naïveté more than anything — caught me completely off guard. He was viewing this moment with a different pair of eyes. He wasn’t raised Catholic! He doesn’t have the Catholic symbols and sensibilities imprinted in his psyche. Wow… How easy it is to presume so much even about someone I know so well!

As the liturgy continued, his observation and my embedded assumptions filtered my experience of the celebration. Serving on the council for his Episcopal church, he is not ignorant nor uncaring about the Christian faith! We shouldn’t dismiss my husband’s religious perceptions and sensibilities too quickly.

What about our Muslim neighbors down the street.? What sense would our language about eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood make to them? What about Father, Son and Holy Spirit? What would they hear? How would they see what we so readily take for granted and presume about the God of all creation?

Still, I walked toward our parked car in the direction of the mosque at the end of the liturgy with deep gratitude and confident excitement — God isn’t done with us yet! In fact, God still has a lot of work to do if this good creation is to be brought to fulfillment. That realization itself carries a pretty fair rendering of the Good News and is reason for hope.

I made my First Communion fifty-eight years ago! Nevertheless, the remembering we do at every Eucharist holds the same potential — in fact, has the very purpose — to “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews, every arrogance, idolatry, patriarchy, or religious fundamentalism that would justify the erasure or diminishment of persons, any person, in the name of God.”

First Communion Sunday at the Church of the Ascension on the Northside of Minneapolis will not generate headlines. But if we perceive how we are constituted at such moments, who we become at Christ’s initiative, we recognize a privileged point of convergence — an encounter with God, the one God of all peoples, no exceptions!
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After returning home from this liturgy I picked up a book I have been savoring, Sophia; The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2009). I stumbled upon the “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews” quote on page 210.

Too Many Losers

Know the difference between winners and losers? Winners are those who have failed more than losers! No, this isn’t some clever turn of a phrase. It’s the truth! Yes, winners somehow overcome their fear of failure. Or, they let go of their need to be in control or to appear perfect.

Winners are those who understand they will fail — again and again. More importantly, winners accept — even invite — imperfection, mistakes and failure as part of the process of growing, living, learning. It’s as if winners somehow turn fear on its head by indulging the freedom to fail. They seem to live by some liberating appreciation that winning really is more fun than losing!

Case in point… I’m a really crappy swimmer. I’m scared to death of water. I could probably “save myself” but I make very effort never to find out. Pools are not fun places for me — I’m not in control, paralyzed by fear, avoiding any risk of “jumping” into deep water! Imagine how much fun I have missed because of my fear of failure, unwillingness to make a mistake, of not being “perfect.”

Here’s a true confession… this distinction between winners and losers came to me while reading about Thomas Merton’s fascination with Zen Buddhism and Russian Orthodox theology. While critically noting what he judges to be “mistakes”, Merton expresses admiration for each tradition’s willingness to ask bold questions and rend “profound insights into the real meaning of Christianity — insights which we simply cannot ignore.”

Perhaps his ability to admit his own limitations and partial understanding, Merton appreciated Buddhism and Orthodoxy’s freedom to make mistakes “in order to say something great and worthy of God.” He muses, “One wonders if our theological cautiousness is not after all the sign of a fatal coldness of heart, an awful sterility born of fear, or of despair.”

Yesterday Pope Francis gave us a picture of what this might look like in the concrete while a guest at a large Lutheran church in Rome. A Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man told him of her pain in not being able to take communion together in each other’s churches.

Saying “life is bigger than explanations and interpretations,” Francis suggested that we should not be held captive by abstract theological principles. Ultimately, we are each bound to follow our well-informed, mature moral conscience.

“It is a question that each person must answer for themselves,” Francis said, suggesting that even the church’s authority is below that of God’s in such personal matters. Francis offered a pastoral response to the woman: “There is one baptism, one faith, one Lord, so talk to the Lord and move forward. I dare not, I cannot, say more.”

Live! Jump in! Swim!  “Pick up your mat and walk!” Or expressed in yet another way, “love casts out all fear.”  In that grace, we are set free.  In this truth, we are all winners!
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My reference to Thomas Merton quotes Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Liturgical Press, 2015. p. 12.
You may read the Reuters report of Pope Francis’ visit to the Lutheran Church in Rome [here].

Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
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The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

Beyond Our Imagining

“The truly wise understand what they don’t know!” Somewhere along the line someone said that at a time when I was developmentally ready to hear it. Somehow it seems to encapsulate what education is all about. It’s probably a pretty decent summation of what makes for a full and contented life.

It’s when I’ve been pushed outside the comfort of the nest — as an eagle does for her young — that I have learned to fly.  Remember swimming lessons? … how hard it was to just jump in?  My “personal best” encounter with terror was sky-diving from 15,000 feet.

All such experiences shape us to be the people we eventually become.  Surely one of the most profound influences upon my character development and core values was my involvement with an inner-city youth group during my early teens.  Otherwise my youth looked pretty much like episodes from Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show.

My present life in a “desirable” south Minneapolis neighborhood is still pretty much a promo for white, middle class 1950s values. I need to intentionally shake things up from time to keep a grip on reality.

I’m reminded of this necessity every time we take the bus/light-rail to and from the airport rather than a taxi or the airport shuttle. Such forays outside of our comfort zone repeatedly show us a city, even a neighborhood, significantly different from the one that lives in our imagination.

All this came flashing back while reading David Brooks. Here’s what triggered my curiosity about what really made a difference in my education, what’s truly made a difference in my life:

Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

So how do we get to be wise? By getting outside of our social enclaves of folks just like us. By riding the bus and seeing people who do not aspire to be our clones and whose pursuit of the American Dream is other than our personal narrative. By deliberately entering that “no man’s land” where we feel some cultural turbulence and our preconceived ideas can get shaken-up.  It’s when we have our eyes, ears and hearts wide open that we know we are fully alive.

This is hard, even risky. We don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that will challenge our “security”, threaten our “truth”. But a clutched fist cannot receive what others have to give. We squander life’s invitation to understand what we truly don’t know!

We end up worshipping a God of our own creation rather than a God whose creation is beyond our imagining.

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The quote is from The Road to Character by David Brooks.  New York: Random House. 2015. Kindle edition at #295.

Seeing Each Other’s Naked Hearts

Not much time! In a rush! Participating in a great two-day symposium and need to be back for a 9 a.m. conference. No time to write. So here are a few thought, themes or quotes so far…

Christianity has always drawn on sources outside itself to better express/understand itself. Examples: St. Augustine with Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle. You could say that with contemporary liberation theology and Karl Marx but that is too laden with political baggage to be helpful for a popular audience right now.

The apostle Thomas arrived in present-day India in 52 BC. That’s before Christianity arrived in Rome. Think about that and consider implications if you dare!

Relationship is constitutive of God (e.g., God as Trinity). Religious dialogue is a journey of friendship rather than a convergence of ideas.

Even the tent of Abraham is too small to contain (constrain?) God.

Diversity and difference are NOT a deficiency or an unfortunate reality. Diversity and difference are in fact a blessing intended by God. Differences endure because they speak wisdom.

When it comes to knowing God, we are all seekers and servants.

If you care to pursue education, you commit yourself to being a global citizen, not an accidental tourist!

And, here’s one of my favorites… a quote written for a different context and applicable to so many aspects of life. Hearing it in the context of inter-religious, multi-faith dialogue is a good reminder that what we are ultimately talking about is living richly, fully, in community. It’s a quote from Tennessee Williams:

Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.

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The symposium is titled: Christian Faith in a Multi-Faith World and is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Inter-Faith Learning, a collaborative endeavor of the University of St. Thomas and Saint John’s University which shares a common curriculum with the College of Saint Benedict. The center sponsors programs at these three institutions and elsewhere throughout Minnesota, carrying out its mission to promote dialogue, friendship and service among people of various religions.

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.