Monday, September 5, 2016

dance me to the end of love...

It would appear that every culture - and spirituality - has an honored place for wandering within it. It is most likely a minority report, to be sure, but it is real. While listening to Krista Tippett's interview with the "wandering poet" Naomi Shihab Nye yesterday, Ms. Nye spoke of a girl from Yokohama, Japan who wrote saying:

... here in Japan, we have a concept called ‘yutori.’” And it is spaciousness. It’s a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around. Or — and then she gave all these different definitions of what yutori was to her. But one of them was — and after you read a poem just knowing you can hold it, you can be in that space of the poem. And it can hold you in its space. And you don’t have to explain it. You don’t have to paraphrase it. You just hold it, and it allows you to see differently. And I just love that. I mean, I think that’s what I’ve been trying to say all these years.

You don't have to explain it - you just hold it - and it allows you to see differently. Like the poet Naomi, I just love that, too. Such is certainly the space I find myself in - or at least wandering towards - most days. I am too anxious by nature to be there naturally. I have equally been too conditioned by striving for success in the eyes of the Western Christian congregations I have served. Everyone, I suspect, has their own roadblocks, yes? So rather than give in to shame or resentment, let me note that incrementally I see how the wisdom of wandering in the wilderness has grown within me. It informs the way I preach and teach. It guides my pastoral care. It shapes the way I evaluate each day. Did I show up fully or almost fully awake? Did I spend time in the spaciousness of my time - even if I don't understand it? Did I listen? And it takes practice: quiet, regular, tender practice.

My contemplative tradition teaches that the focus of deep living involves taking a long, loving look at what is real. This isn't automatic. This renders quick or harsh judgments irrelevant and cruel. This honors both the grace I need every day while helping me share some of it with others.  Leonard Cohen has a song covered by Madeleine Peyroux, "Dance Me to the End of Love," that evokes all of this - and more.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

tears and laughter and letting go of bullshit...

We sat on le petit balcon last night and wept - for different reasons, to be
sure - but there were real tears for us both on our last night in Montréal. I was more effusive. Di was more cautious and tender. Such is part of our respective natures, n'est-ce pas? And yet the challenge for us both now is how to claim the spirit of les flâneurs during what is likely our last year of parish ministry? How do we create time to wander and explore?  Wait, watch and listen carefully to the world around us, the people we meet, loved ones who matter profoundly as well as the very Spirit of God?

I know the complexity of this challenge is one of the reasons for my tears: I am so weary of the bullshit. When I was a younger clergy person, I was not only willing to endure more BS because I had a long view, but because it goes with the territory of building relationships of trust. Not that there is much tolerance for clergy bullshit in a local, middle class congregation. That is both soundly rejected and professionally penalized. No, I mean clergy are expected to take shit as par for the course because, after all, we are women and men of God who should model the essence of Jesus in public. If, however, we really shared the essence of Jesus - who never tolerated BS but always called it out in the hope of true healing - our folk would be shocked and we would be unemployable. So most of us learn to eat it, deal with it and find ways to hold on to a modicum of inner integrity as the years roll by. Afterall, we're building trust and lasting relationships, right?

My problem is that I have run out of gas. And tolerance. And empathy. Real relationships of love and depth are more important to me as I have less time in front of me than behind. Having seen precious souls die too young - or with too much unresolved baggage - has also diminished my BS quotient. As I have nurtured a commitment to flâneurie, I find I no longer have much of a long view: if it doesn't lead to love and hope right now, I want to move on. Others can tread water and waste time, and that is their right, but I want to taste and feel the living presence of God's kingdom as fully as I can right now. 

On our way home today, we listened to Krista Tippett's interview with Naomi Shihab Nye. So much that was said that spoke to my heart... so much that urged me to make peace with this moment. And live it fully. Not longing to be elsewhere. Or doing something different. But just living and loving fully right now - beyond the bullshit - and trusting that that is enough. That's what I hear in this poem.

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

saying good-bye...

Tonight is our last night à Montréal for at least a few months and it has been
a luxuriously lazy time of wandering, resting, feasting and listening to one another. Today, rather than head off to a part of the city we hadn't yet visited, we slept until 11 am, ate a leisurely breakfast on le petit balcon and then took four hours to walk slowly through our Mile End neighborhood. We bought fresh herbs on Rue Bernard and talked to the owner about Donald Trump: quelle horror! 

We spent time finding small gifts for our loved ones. And a substantial session in Libairie Drawn and Quarterly, a mostly graphic novel publishing house and independent book store  (Check them out @ (https://www. sipped cucumber-based cocktails at the Bishop and Bag Pub's terrasse, shopped for handmade gnocchi and walked street after beautiful, residential street admiring small gardens and children playing on the sidewalks. In time, we napped, read and ate on our balcony before getting packed for our return home.

Every time we leave Montréal I am filled with melancholia. Last year, at the close of our 4+ month sabbatical, I had full-blown panic attacks. I want to live here. (Or someplace very much like this.) The Canadian groove makes sense to my heart and soul. I also know that just as I was called to ministry in 1968, after 35 years of ordained service, I sense myself being called out of it, too. That was my hunch last summer and another year of active ministry has confirmed it. 

Still, tomorrow we head back. I love road trips with Dianne. We talk a lot, listen to Krista Tippett podcasts and stop at places that capture our fancy along the way. It often takes way too long to get home because if we pass through a small town that feels interesting, we stop and go for a walk. Maybe get tea and a muffin, too. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? The weather here has not been effected by the impending hurricane. Truth is, I don't even know what is happening in that realm as I haven't heard or seen the news in over 10 days.

I have prayed. And rested and read and practiced guitar. I have also given thought about how to share my love and energy in whatever time remains. I trust that is enough. I have another week of vacation, too - and for that I give thanks. There will be yet another quick road trip this time next week to my nephew's wedding in Maryland. We will come home to a freshly painted house as well. But, truth be told, I really wish we were staying.

Friday, September 2, 2016

and now I have a tattoo - and it only took me 36 years to make it happen

All of my adult life I have wanted a tattoo - and earrings.  When I turned 40 I got my first earring en route to my brother Phil's wedding.  When I was divorced I got my second piercing a few years later. And scored my third hole on the day Dianne and I were wed. Ever since I saw Al Pacino in "Serpico" I wanted a hoop - and it only took me 20+ years to make it happen.

Same has been true with tattoos - I have wanted a discrete and relevant symbol - since about 1980. But mostly I've been too chicken shit and professionally self-conscious to make it happen. But today, like the old song for women about "when I am old I will wear purple" says, today I bit the bullet and got myself the tattoo of my dreams.

Now here's the thing about the tattoo: it was another landmark of sorts for me - a rite of passage, if you will - having to do with being old enough and confident enough to finally do precisely what I want. So, after visiting Vieux-Montréal today - where I got my wedding ring refitted (we got new ones last year for our 20th anniversary and it never quite worked right for me) and going with Di to the language training center she will attend after the New Year to prepare for assisting Syrian refugees - we made our way to a salon de tatuage on Boulevard St. Laurent. And when the young receptionist said, "Do you want to do that now?" it was a sign - and I went for it.

As I perused the artist's photograph book I was taken by how dark and sad most tattoos are:  lots of violence, blood and anger. So much of the Goth/metal world is saturated in this darkness so I was apprehensive. And, let's face it, I'm a weenie who hates pain. When the artist appeared I thought, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph what am I doing here?" He had never heard of a Jerusalem Cross but we found one on-line and in a few minutes he came back with an imprint. I ran out to the ATM knowing if I didn't do it now it would be another five years of procrastination and minor self-loathing, so hurried back to pay him and off we went.

It was an intricate process in a state of the art studio. Thank God cuz I've been in what seem like dens of iniquity and hepatitis C infections before. And he kept me talking so that I would be minorly distracted. And while it felt like a child was scraping me with an open diaper pin, he was professional, very conscientious and sweet. We talked about music and when he said, "I really don't know anything about jazz" i nearly laughed out loud (but didn't because I didn't want him to make a curvy line.) It was obvious from his body of tattoos that he was a metal head - and more. But he was so gentle and sincere I loved his craftsmanship.

And now I am the proud and grateful owner of a serious Jerusalem Cross on my right arm marking me with the five wounds of Jesus. This symbolizes yet another step in my ministry beyond the traditional church. After we return, I truly don't know where all of this is going but I trust that as one door closes another certainly opens - and through it all I am very, very blessed. We came back to our Mile End digs, sat on le petit balcon listening to Stan Getz and sipping French wine. Another milestone has taken place and it feels so right.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

listening rather than doing...

Last night I finished Julian Barnes' new novel, The Noise of Time, a fictionalized rendering of the ups and downs of Dmitri Shostakovich. Having never read Barnes before I was curious - and not disappointed at all. It is a moving and insightful paean to an artist committed to the creation of beauty while caught in the web of communist ideology and its vicious terror. This quote called out to me:

"When truth-speaking became impossible - because it led to immediate death - it had to be disguised. In Jewish folk music, despair is disguised as the dance. And so, truth's disguise (in Soviet Russia) was irony. Because the tyrant's ear is rarely turned to hear it. The previous generation - those Old Bolsheviks who had made the Revolution - hadn't understood this, which was partly why so many of them perished. His generation had grasped it more instinctively..."

Perhaps one of the reasons I mistrust ideologues of any hue - from the current crop of Bernie Bros and Trumpites to the humorless advocates of les cause célèbres du jour - is the violence and pain they cast upon others in their relentless pursuit of peace and justice. Not that our work for healing the wounds of the world should cease. Nor do I think it futile. Not ever. But I have become clear that such engagement takes place best on a human scale like Carrie Newcomer's "three feet rule." And unless it is saturated with an abundance of humility and swimming in more than a little humor, I grow worried. Yesterday, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote about the way our best intentions are perverted by our soul's infection with affluenza:

Living in this consumer-driven world, we are all deeply infected by what some call “affluenza,” a toxic and blinding disease with the basic assumption that more is always better and more of self is always good. It is fair to say that such invisible assumptions of any culture are as toxic and as blinding as the so-called “hot sins” of drunkards and prostitutes, though they are much harder to recognize as “sin” because we are all inside the same agreed-upon bubble.

He notes that for many in the West, this is what St. John warned about when speaking of "the world." "The world" is the system - the dominant organizing ideology of our day - that shapes and breaks us all. In another passage, Rohr writes that so long as we remain addicted to or enslaved by "the system," we serve it and advance it even while attempting to change it. Like Star Trek's "Borg" pronounces:  resistance is futile... prepare to be assimilated. 

Mature spirituality creates willing people instead of willful people. We slowly unfold in response to love and grace and freedom, rather than in mere reaction to the illusions of others. Without this insight, religion largely creates rigid, unhappy, and judgmental people. When we try to take charge of our own “enlightenment,” when we try to be fully in control of our own “purity” and superiority, our attitude becomes pushing and demanding—ego assertion, even if it looks like religious ego assertion. I think is what so many people rightly dislike and mistrust about religious people: in the name of the good, will power creates a well-disguised bad. Jesus was a master and genius at recognizing this problem.

Immature religion creates people who know what they are against, but have a very poor sense of what they are for. They are against sin, always as they narrowly define it; but they are seldom for love or actually for anything except the status quo where they think they are in control. This is indeed “the world” and will never get them very far if they are trapped within it—unless they recognize this same world as pervaded with heaven. For me, this is the genius of the Gospel. The world is good in its wholeness, but our little portion of separated parts is never the whole, so we must leave our addiction to the system to discover the Empire of God. We must always let go of full control over the parts to love and accept the whole.

To embody an alternative, therefore, we begin within. Some speak of grace, others of being born from above (or again) while still others celebrate a sense of detachment and inner rest nourished through meditation. Whatever the origin, the truth remains: our core must experience and trust the new/old truth that each individual is sacred and worthy of dignity and love.  

If you do not discover this deep inherent meaning, then everything else
will finally disappoint you, driving your obsession with more. As the Twelve Steppers wisely say, “You only need more and more of what is not working.” As a Divine creation, you have an intrinsic meaning, an irreplaceable worth. Once you can fully accept that inherent dignity in yourself, your happiness is henceforth an inside job, and you will naturally hand it on to others too, because the Source is now infinite and you are finally connected to your Source.

Our inner healing - or refreshment - is essential if we're to unplug from the consumer culture.  Without this, we exist in a binary world of winners and losers.  To triumph for ourselves or our cause requires others to lose. And to stay on top guarantees that we act in ways that cause others to fail. Such is the origin of oppression, cruelty and addiction: we are not satisfied with enough but crave more and more. And here's where the upside-down wisdom tradition of the 12 Steps is illuminating. Something that is working - satisfying and enriching - does not require more. If it is pleasing, beautiful or just, we don't need a new one. "If something is already making you happy, you don’t need more of it. The fact that you need more and more and better and better of almost everything tells me that the commodity culture isn’t working." (Rohr) Until we are satisfied, content, at rest with what is within ourselves, we will wound the world - unconsciously at times, but also with intention at others - until our last breath is snuffed out by those stronger than ourselves. Such is the logic and inherent deadly contradiction of our consumer culture.

Today both Di and I are moving slowly in the beauty of this morning. We have no plans whatsoever except to rest. For at least this moment, if feels right to simply be and learn to trust this wisdom. It is not one I can embrace easily here because there is always so much to do and see. But the more I practice resting and listening to my body, the more I know God's cure for my soul is grace rather than gathering up more experiences. Time and again, the Scriptures whisper:  be still - and know that I am God.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

stunned and grateful...

Another thing that captivates me about being in Montréal is the relative safety of this place: last night I was walking back to our apartment at 1:30 AM when two young women about 22 rode past on bicycles. I was stunned. They then proceeded to the intersection, paused for a short conversation as if this were the most natural thing in the world (and it is) before turning away and heading home in opposite directions. So much for my country's claim of "home of the brave and land of the free," yes? Most women I know are necessarily wary of harassment and other dangers while travelling even with friends - and almost never alone after dark.I wanted to snap a quick picture of this scene just to authenticate my claim, but even the thought of an old guy shooting pix of young women is just a little too creepy for all involved.
I did, however, return thanks to God.

You see, over the span of nine years of extended visits, the scariest thing to happen came during the Rufus Wainwright concert opening the Jazz Festival when the enormous crowd surged and pulsed in a way that made us flee. Too many people. Too claustrophobic. Too much alcohol in too many sweaty bodies. I've closed down jazz clubs @ 3 AM and wandered home by myself without a hint of fear. Well, ok maybe the first two years I was nervous but not any more. And even the denizens of the dark who are still out talking and smoking on the street at that hour don't lurk or threaten. Crimes against people are simply not the priority they are in the USA.

That said, today is going to be a slow one as we lay around the shanty, momma and... well, you know the rest. It is a sleepy, cloudy day and after a few days of rigorous flâneurie the rhythm of hour suggests a time to slow
down even more. So, we'll buy a few local bagels, some tea and sundries and then crash-out on the terrasse with its tiny white lights and Zen meditation chairs for lazy reading and music.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

listening, wondering and wandering in mile end...

Alors maintenant, il commence... we are settled in our AirBnB apartment in the Mile End neighborhood of Montréal and totally ready for some true flâneurie. Our apartment is owned by a Ph.D. engineer who specializes in water 
management. Judging from the markers on a world map on the wall, she has been to Africa, Eastern and Southern Europe, South America and is now in residence in Korea. What a privilege to stay in her place while she is away and take in her kindness and beauty.

Yesterday we walked through the neighborhood for about two hours before dinner and then another area afterwards: what a great locale! There are hipsters and Hassids, Anglophones and Francophones, old timers and little people in strollers, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and nones, too. I know that many communities exemplify being un beau mélange and yet I find the scope and pace of life here humane and accessible. Its scale is grand enough for bold diversity, but never so big as to overwhelm and diminish. 

At dinner on our first night I was thinking out loud about why I am so attracted to Montréal. Certainly the size of this city and its groove are factors, "but so are the psychological and emotional challenges of the language barrier" said Dianne. "For much of your childhood - and all of your career - you've been the guy in charge. The man with the plan. The one expected to make things happen and be in control. But here, even when it is uncomfortable, that simply cannot be so." Very interesting, yes? Being here I get to experience simply being, listening very carefully is a humbling and joyful spiritual discipline as is just going with the flow, without any pretense of control. Not only am I free from the expectations of others, I am liberated from my own obsessions because of my limited vocabulary. Not long ago I came across this quote from the late Henri Nouwen that speaks to me on many levels:

My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go 'higher up,' and the most-used argument was: 'You can do so much good there, for so many people.' But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. Jesus says: 'Anyone who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). He also says: 'Unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18:3). Finally he says: "You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt; among you this is not to happen. No, anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:25-28).

This is the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless - toward all who ask for compassion. What do they have to offer? Not success, popularity, or power, but the joy and peace of the children of God.

Both Dianne and I continue to move in this direction - she with a calling to teach English to Syrian refugees and me with an aching to connect with L'Arche - but this has been true for the past 15 years, too. In another dinner time conversation (or maybe it was in the ride here from the Townships) she said, "The trajectory of your ministry keeps getting more focused." To which I suggested, "Maybe more intimate is more accurate." And that's what it feels like to me: smaller, more geared towards simple relationships with lots of time for tender love and listening, alongside quiet prayer and liturgy. Nouwen also observed that:

We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness, and inner peace come from giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others. That truth, however, is usually discovered when we are confronted with our brokenness.

Today, after walking downtown for about four hours, I give thanks to God that our time of quiet wandering and careful questioning and listening continues. Soon we'll head out to take in some local jazz at a small Francophone club that became our favorite haunt during last year's sabbatical. And tomorrow... could be tattoo time!