These Times

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

This winsome melody of the popular Shaker tune filled our space and perfectly expressed the sentiment of the moment. We had gathered to celebrate friendship and send Susan and Claudia forth to their new home in Rhode Island. Love and letting go are polarities of life.

In most other times and settings — times like ours — such lilting tunes seem better left to a more sentimental time. Too often today we feel disconnected from community, kin and country. These are not simple times. The weight of scandal and complicity within core institutions of church and politics ensnare us, rendering us desolate. Seems ours are not “times of love and delight” this Shaker melody celebrates.

Today at Tuesday morning prayer group, someone expressed a petition with the clarity and precision befitting of a Shaker meeting. He asked for the grace “to live well in these in-between times, times when we witness the dying of that which is already dead; but a time that yields no clarity, offers no assurance of that which is laboring to be born, the new life in us that desires to be lived.”

The prayer was perfect, poignant, one might even say pregnant! Isn’t that where we find ourselves — amid the discomfort of these in-between times, witnessing the death of that which is all but dead, powerless to deliver that life which comes in its own time, as it wills!

This is not only the place we find ourselves — this is the only time we have! As with all times, this is a moment of gift, our time of grace. This morning’s petition finds fulfillment in our living precisely within these contradictions, amid the tension, our labor pangs, holding the poles of paradox, in our ever-present now, the only time we are given…

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
  To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
  Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

This Most Contradictory of Seasons

The bottom is about to drop out! We’ve been living on borrowed time. Still reluctant to face reality, it is what it is.

It’s not as if we haven’t been warned — today’s high in Minneapolis is to be 57; tomorrow’s temp is forecast to be 22! The redolent release of Fall is past. We are in for a full-bore collapse into the depths of winter.

We Minnesotans pride ourselves in being of hearty stock. Each year we enter this season with a conflicted mixture of reluctance and pride, reenactment of a familiar script and rehearsal for an even bigger drama that lies ahead.

Natives counsel new arrivals to our state with sage advice — learn to play in it; skating, cross-country skiing, show-shoeing, ice-fishing, “walk” the lakes. Those of Scandinavian descent advise the rest of us, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Through Minnesota’s own expression of “natural selection” those of less hearty stock concoct veiled excuses to bail. Their loss!

What the uninformed protest as “harsh” Minnesota winters actually preserves our famed North Woods. Quail and other wildlife need snow cover to burrow into for cozy quarters. You haven’t truly relaxed until you know the solitude of cross-country skiing across of a frozen lake encircled with verdant pine, sentinel birch and the silhouettes of naked bur oak. A good hard winter is also nature’s best defense against the devastation of Emerald Ash Bore and the invasive Asian beetle. Then there is the hearth — that place where hearts are warmed, friendship deepens, and love finds expression.

So why such resistance? Why this talk of the bottom falling out? Why such reluctance and resignation? …a hunker-down survivalist stoicism? …the insistent urge to escape? Some seem captive to the sparseness of winter, afflicted with tunnel vision, willing to wallow in a life of hibernation. They appear constitutionally incapable of embracing beauty, recognizing promise, and plumbing life’s depths.

But is not this hardness of heart an unyielding refusal to change, a fear of any disruption to preferred routines, a denial of the passage of time, a poverty of imagination? We can too easily and stubbornly hold the promise for any potential future in a straight-jacket of our own making.

You need not be a privileged Minnesotan to embrace the offering of this sparsest of seasons. Our lives are also lived according to passages not made of uniform chronology. At any time of year we may bear the brunt of loss, the trauma of a potentially terminal diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship. Thankfully not all disruptions to the way things are, or want them to be, are as harsh or traumatic. We must engage them all to their depths if we are to fully live.

Mary Oliver lives on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod and has long been our most loyal chronicler of life’s fury, simplicity, sparseness and sublime beauty. Her poem, On Winter’s Margin captures both the timeless potential and promise of this most contradictory of seasons:

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

What’s Really on My Mind; What’s Really Going On

You’re correct… I haven’t been blogging much recently. Part of the reason is that I have felt constricted by a presumed obligation to write “for others” and not for myself. Would my honest curiosities and musings be too raw, too honest? Would anyone else really care? I’ve heard the blank response from my family (perhaps the only ones caring enough or willing to tell me), “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Well, today is different! Here’s what’s on my mind, the stuff I really want to talk about, what I’m really wrestling with inside. It’s from an email I just sent to a dear soul-mate friend with whom I had a long overdue phone conversation last evening. I offer it here with the simple desire to transparently “let others in” and with a faint hope that something, anything, will be of interest — maybe even helpful — to someone else. Here’s what’s been on my mind and what I really want to write…

Thanks for the great conversation. Really good to reconnect. It’s triggered a few more thoughts prompted by recalling that I had not spoken of a key awareness central to the “shift in consciousness” I’m aware of HAPPENING TO ME. And that last part is critical… happening to me.

I used to interpret the likes of Stephen Fowler and such behavioral psychologists as if we/I somehow had the ability or responsibility to “recraft” or even “recreate” our sense of meaning (e.g., our understanding of God, our “faith” as if it were some sort of volitional act). No!!! Now I’m recognizing that this “reformulation” is something that happens TO US, is done FOR US, is given (grace).

This is why talking with you is so important. I don’t create or craft the “shift in consciousness”. I don’t do the work. It’s done to us, for us!!! Nevertheless, speaking about it clarifies the experience (sheer gift) and enables me to recognize it, to RECEIVE IT! Thanks, buddy!

Another recognition from the past couple months of my wrestling with what felt like depression (dark night?)… the institutional church (in my case, the Society of Jesus but compounded by the global clergy sex abuse crisis that triggers my PTSD) betrayed me. Charlottesville and the pardoning of the AZ sheriff, etc. further sends me over the edge because it to also triggers my sense of betrayal.

I’ve both a BA and MA in Political Science, I worked for the Nebraska Legislature for 4 years, been a delegate to state Democratic conventions, staffed a district Congressional office (all before entering the SJ). I taught American Government as a regent, did a summer internship in DC with Network, spent three years doing human rights advocacy at the Jesuit Conference again in DC. I could be fairly described as having been a “Faith & Justice” Jesuit (I would be honored by such an epilation).

Trump and our thoroughly dysfunctional Congress feels to me like wholesale betrayal (not to mention the racist and fascist undertow and allusions) by the institutions of government — our “public life”, really — paralleling the earlier betrayal by the church. In other words our public institutions have proven themselves to be wholly undeserving/unworthy of the faith I/we presumed I/we could place in them.

This is the context in which I experienced the killing on July 15 of our neighbor, Justine Damond, by a Minneapolis police officer. She had called 911 for help — actually she was reporting what she feared was a sexual assault in the back alley. She was doing what she trusted was the correct and right thing to do. Those who were invested with the public trust to “protect” us shot her! (Welcome to the world of Black America!!!!).

Again, those in whom we thought we could place our trust proved, not only to be unworthy of trust, but abusive. In sum, the core institutions of our culture — the very foundations for my sense of meaning and trust — have proven to be bankrupt and even a source of betrayal.

That’s the context for my outrage about “God never gives us more than we can handle” bullshit and my passionate insistence, “Oh yes He does, AND THAT’S PRECISELY THE POINT!!!” I/we don’t reformulate or recreate “our” concept of God or recompose our understanding of faith. It’s done FOR US, TO US. My best way to give expression to the experience is that “We are BIRTHED into it!”

BTW, I hope you noticed that I used male specific language to describe God just above. That was choiceful and deliberate! Even our politically correct language and tip-toeing around our God-talk for fear of “offending” someone else’s sensibilities — or that gender-specific language somehow “limits” or “constrains” God — is fairly bankrupt in itself (if not a pile of bullshit — but we dare not say that out loud, do we😨😱😃👍👏👌)?

Maybe the reason I don’t blog very much any more is because this is really the stuff I want to write about. And I’m aware that most people wouldn’t know what the hell I’m talking about (I hope that’s not as elitist as it sounds). And for those who do, they’d take it as a cognitive exercise, an “academic” speculation, a Lonerganian “insight” we think we can “comprehend” in our 30s. And the truth is it’s just the opposite.

It’s not something we comprehend or “command” as as if we were strategically moving pieces in a cosmic game of chess! Every shift in consciousness is done to us, for us, is wholly given! We are continuously re-birthed when the womb in which we have found so much security and nourishment is found to be inadequate (i.e., “not-God”), actually idolatrous. When God gives us (i.e., invites, teases, nudges us to experience) more than we can handle!!!

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity sayeth the Lord!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “I should be glad of another death.”

😎😃😉🤡🤓 Smile… this is all very Good News!

Mustering Gratitude

Everything was perfect… a sunny afternoon in August, the scenic-byway along the Mississippi, light traffic making the drive even more leisurely, blissful solitude. All foretelling my destination… three unencumbered days basking in the silent, spacious rhythms of the Trappist monastery.

Then she appeared — mature, strong, beautiful, lithesome, her stature confirmed in the confidence with which she cocked her head. How can anything so graceful be a threat? How can a creature so singularly at one with her environment possibly be a danger?

It happened so fast, no more than a few seconds. Ballerina legs coming to an abrupt stop. Bulbous eyes signaling fright, foretelling terror. A frantic pause to let the first car pass. Then an impulsive choice amid confusion, an instinctive response to fear, a fateful leap toward her final destination.

A resonant thud was the sole consequence of my desperate efforts to break. In a split second all the mirror reflected was a whirlwind of gray gravel on the far shoulder. A flash of self-inventory overtook the shock of the moment. “I’m fine. Everything’s okay. What’s there to do but keep going? Did this really happen?”

Now, it’s a week later. Perhaps this majestic deer was not a danger, never a threat any more than I am a danger or a threat. Certainly there is a hint of Eden lurking along the Mississippi in mid-August. Places of spacious solitude are there to enfold and refresh us. None of this is of our own creation. It’s all given. Everything is gift, everything!

Each nanosecond before my impact with hard reality has been replayed many times. Yes, I would choose the scenic-byway again. Yes, I’m a good driver — even the insurance company agrees this was simply an accident for which I am not culpable. But ultimately we all come to learn, begrudgingly, that we are not in the driver’s seat.

It’s an illusion to believe we are in control of our lives. That’s not to say we do not have tremendous potential, talent, skill, abilities as well as obligations and responsibilities. But one of the hardest lessons we must learn is that we are not God. Such myopic delusion only leads to exhaustion or failure — a living hell.

Yielding our fates to the impetuosity of roadside deer, even acknowledging our inherent powerlessness, runs the risk of fatalistic resignation or nihilism. Doesn’t have to and it shouldn’t! That’s only the result if we fail to recognize beauty, embrace love and celebrate the majesty of creation — if we choose not to take the scenic-byway! If we fail to see everything as gift; yes, everything!

It’s all so much grander than our puny egos deluding ourselves with whatever we can muster. It’s all so much bigger and better when we yield control, when our most heartfelt prayer ends up becoming, “You’re God. I’m not. Thank you!”

 

 

 

 

When Prelude Becomes the Symphony

Yesterday Kate was leading a brief meditation prior to a group of us visiting with residents at Episcopal Homes, a residence for seniors. She began with a centering exercise quite common and helpful for entering prayer. Kate invited us to settle comfortably into our chairs, quiet from the myriad of sounds, breathe in/breathe out, attend to the beating of our hearts.

In the past such “centering” has been a prelude to prayer, dispositional, setting the stage. Yesterday was perceptibly different.

The generic straight-back chair morphed into the myriad of people — the web of generations past as well as present companions — who hold and support our life and efforts.

Letting go of the cacophony of muted sounds in our urban environment, a feeling of reassurance arose. We could disengage for this time because the “buzz” was testimony to a web of activity providing for our well-being.

Breathing opened to something beyond a reflexive physical rhythm. The movement of air — in and out — carried the assurance of bounty that continuously flows to us, unmerited, gratuitous.

The beat of my heart spoke quietly of God’s own life which imperceptibly carries us — each of us, all of us, every bit of creation, holding all in being as a loving parent remains bonded with a child.

Yesterday was gift. It need not be analyzed, explained or idealized. It is meant to be simply received, our exhale whispering gratitude.

How Men Feel

Men rarely risk sharing their feelings with other men or willingly acknowledge vulnerability. We’d rather polish a persona of strength, self-confidence and invincibility. This seriously constrains our capacity to live a full life — not to mention that it gets really exhausting!

Recently, an opportunity to risk presented itself. It was as if my friend and I had reached a certain tipping point — we’d either go deeper, admitting the truth of our lives, or we’d stall-out and our friendship would flounder amid trivialities. Thankfully, my friend risked honesty, transparency, vulnerability within the safe parameters we’d put in place over years of light-hearted banter.

As with all forms of human intimacy some details are simply too personal, private, even sacred to be shared outside the relationship. That’s the case here. In fact, safe parameters built over time create the very trust needed for transparent honesty and deep human intimacy. Rare and difficult as all this may be, it’s wonderfully priceless when it occurs.

A couple lingering ruminations from our conversation may be shared, however. They certainly are not offered as incontrovertible “truth”. Rather, they are offered to stimulate curiosity and a sense of wonder about what happens when we risk honesty, share feelings and admit vulnerabilities.

Prescinding from the specific emotions or “secrets” men generally try so hard to keep hidden, my friend and I asked how we might disengage from the straight-jacket in which repressed feelings hold us. Acknowledging that we had such a problem appeared as the necessary first step — allowing what’s buried alive to see the light of day!

Then, what? That’s where our curiosity and wonder remain piqued. Though typical males often find it difficult to reveal a full spectrum of deep emotion, feelings unexpressed remain very much alive beneath the surface! How do we disarm their seismic force while tapping into their potential power, strength and capacity to transform our lives? Sounds so simple, even prosaic, but it comes down to letting go of control. 

Most folks often confuse control with power. They are not the same thing!  Risking honesty and transparency my friend gave-up control, or even more explicitly, disarmed the paralyzing control his fear, anger and repressed emotions had over him. By relinquishing control my friend paradoxically found true strength, real power and abilities beyond his imaging.

All of the great wisdom traditions of the world seem to proclaim in one way or another what we experienced. The Apostle Paul provides a Christian expression when he writes: “…power is perfected in weakness… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9f).

It’s one thing to praise these words from the safe distance of pious platitudes or Sunday sermons. It’s a whole other thing to get them into your bones, giving them flesh. Of this I am more than certain.

 

 

 

 

Antidote for What Ails America

“Vulgar! He’s simply vulgar.” comments my neighbor from the driver’s seat of her car as we enjoyed a spontaneous conversation in the alley. Shocked, appalled, outraged are equally good words to describe our reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Now I’m getting scared, simply scared!

Polls suggest the actual election of Trump to be our President is still remote. But as improbable as that may be I’m still feeling overwhelmed, grieved and frightened. Why? Because that which Donald Trump personifies will not be resolved on Election Day. Neither will resolution be achieved by the election of Hillary Clinton.

It will likely come as a profound disappointment to the man, but what we are witnessing ultimately isn’t about Donald Trump. No, this isn’t about slapping the “Trump” brand across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! Rather, it’s about the deep pain, festering resentment even, that resides in homes across America. And this national despair cuts across gender, race and socio-economic groups.

So what are we to do? Build higher walls to further insulate ourselves? Move to Cape Brenton Island, Canada? Buy a gun? Fear, resentment and desperation may be the source of such considerations. But they merely exacerbate the problem we must address.

So, what are we to do? Well, first of all we must never give up. Somehow, we simply must restore trust in one another to reweave the social fabric of our nation. There is no easy fix. This will not happen on Election Day 2016. No, our work is much more arduous and will take more than our lifetime. But begin we must.

But, what? What can we do that will make any difference? Yes, vote! But that’s hardly enough to counter the vulgarity that has overtaken America. Yes, it would be easy — but an abrogation of personal responsibility — to assume this is about an election and the “majority” expressing its collective will on November 8. That’s simply delusional.

Conservative pundit David Brooks has his finger on the pulse of America and points us in the right direction:

…first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.

As is often the case with matters that really count, our answer resides within a huge paradox. Rather than building walls, leaving the country or buying a gun our way forward opens by doing the exact opposite. The antidote for what ails America lies in tearing down walls, reinvesting in our communities, disarming ourselves.

Sounds a whole lot like once again becoming brother, sister, neighbor to one another; caring for the orphan, widow and outcast; welcoming the stranger; loving our neighbor as ourselves.
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You may read David Brooks’ insightful and provocative much more extensive analysis at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0