For All the Saints

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago a German priest and scholar of theology got sufficiently riled up with the injustice he saw in the Church to write out his complaints and post them for public comment in a way that changed the course of western history.

I took a class last spring – History of the Western Christian Tradition – that was my first introduction to Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. Had heard of them, of course, but hadn’t actually read them.

Gen-Xer that I am, I couldn’t help thinking how very similar they are to a string of linked sentences on Twitter. Was the University chapel door the sixteenth-century version of social media? Perhaps so. Luther’s theses – written in Latin, of course – were soon translated into the vernacular and circulated widely, thanks to the recently-developed printing press and, as we say, one thing led to another.

It was of course more complicated than that. I wrote a short paper on it, several months ago, that I can’t figure out where I filed – so I am telling this story from memory with all the imperfection that implies. There are lots of places you can go look it up, if you are more interested in facts than stories.

There was another story circulating in the news today, about how Pope Francis had made an ecumenical visit to the Lutheran World Federation in observance of the beginning of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a powerful symbolic gesture; a good story. What we do with that story? It remains to be seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for both rebels and reformers. I had a conversation the other day with a colleague whose call has led them away from the institutional process into a vibrant lay community ministry which is taking an exciting turn that’s not my story to tell. We talked about transforming the world, doing the work of ministry – and the challenges and benefits of doing that outside the institutional system versus within it.

I have written before that I am an institutionalist. I believe in creating systems that endure – and also in transforming the systems as we inherit them into systems that will adapt and endure long beyond our time. Even, perhaps, adapting by taking forms we cannot now imagine and do not recognize.

I am sure that the historical Martin Luther would raise his eyebrows, at least, at some of the things that contemporary Unitarian Universalism says and does in the name of liberal religion. There are countless generations between us, each new wave of reformers building on the foundations laid before them – and rearranging the bricks into a new structure for a new time.

We contemporary UUs disavow and discard our Christian heritage at our own peril. By neglecting reflection on the errors and excesses of our history, we risk repeating them at their worst. I think about that a lot, and about that line from Leonard Cohen:

There is a crack, a crack in everything:
That’s where the light gets in.

I want to say, don’t be afraid of breaking things. Sometimes things need to break first, so that the pieces may be used for something better. But I would be preaching to myself.

Posted in Reflections

October Rain

There is a front or something passing; I can hear the rain against the roof tonight. We need it. There was hardly any snow to speak of last winter, which has left this area in drought this water year. Tonight’s storm is unlikely to make up for it much.

But it is autumn, well past the equinox now; the leaves have again gone from deep green to golden green to orange to fluttering on the wet wind.

Winter, as they say, is coming.

I miss blogging, but I feel like I have not got anything much to say. Life continues to be life in all the usual ways. Late-season road construction has chewed up all of the ways in and out of my neighborhood, to my vast annoyance. Personal friends on Facebook have been getting a play-by-play on how to give medication to a cat. Spouse and I picked apples last weekend and there will soon be pie.

Internship is going smoothly so far. I preached there a couple of weeks ago and will do it again in December. Then there will be the January trip to Chicago – only a few days, this time – and then back here for more internship, and in the spring more CPE, and soon after that beginning in earnest the massive bundle of paperwork that will lead to the end of the credentialing tunnel. But not yet. It all seems very remote, somehow – and also inevitable, at the end of this chain of small steps.

And so I am listening to the rattle of rain against the roof, late at night, and the sounds of the other living creatures in this house, large and small, all snoring in their large and small ways.

It is good enough.

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Wild Chicory

A poem, in lieu of all the things I did not write this summer:

Wild chicory

I love wild chicory, she said. It grows
Exactly where it wants, and nowhere else.

And it is so: the tangled stems unfold,
Turning their eyes to greet the morning sun,
Defiant blue under the summer sky,
Heedless of order that I would impose
Upon this bit of earth.

I would have mowed
Sooner, but there were post-vacation wasps
Needing to be evicted from the wall,
Tangles of creeping bindweed, crisping grass –
One thing led to another till the yard
Filled with impertinent upstarts:
As early dandelions are to spring,
So is to August the wild chicory.

I love wild chicory, she said. It grows
Exactly where it wants, and nowhere else.

Close up shot of a purpleish-blue flower with many petals on a narrow square stem.

Posted in Reflections

August Already

Where has the summer gone?

As I write this I realize it’s been over a month since I posted anything. It’s been that kind of summer – rich, full, busy, with lots to think about and not nearly enough time for writing. Well, you know. I have all the same time that anyone else does, but I have been doing things other than writing (or at least blogging) with it.

About a month ago I completed my first unit of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, as I’ve mentioned before. It was a very different experience this time around, compared to my unsuccessful attempt elsewhere two years ago; after last time I had expected that I was not at all suited to serve as a chaplain, but this time I fell in love with the work. I’m delighted to be staying on as a very occasional on-call chaplain, at least for the next few months – it means a little gas money, and opportunities to practice my vocation. That I am here, doing this, is a bit of inexplicable grace and wonder.

Continue reading

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Summer Solstice reflection

This post is developed from a spoken reflection from notes that I offered to my CPE colleagues in prayer time on Wednesday, in observance of the solstice, which occurred Tuesday.

Breathe in… Breathe out…
Settle into your body…
Feet resting on the floor…
Chair supporting your weight…

I would like to invite you in, into the earth-centered part of my spiritual practice, in honor of the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the solar year. For us in the global north, this was yesterday.

We are probably more familiar with the winter solstice, its associations with Christmas and the secular New Year: the rebirth of the sun, the coming of God into the world, the return of light in the season of deepest darkness… And just a note – Hannukah isn’t about the solstice, it has its own (historical) story – but even so, it falls in the same dark corner of the year, and that story too is one of light shining in the darkness and hope against all odds.

It’s a powerful story, the light that begins to grow in the deepest darkness. That one’s easy. Humans like that story.

But that’s the OTHER solstice – the one six months from now, at least in this hemisphere.

For pagan folks, it’s no less important to celebrate the return of the darkness: the shadow that begins to grow at the point of brightest light.

This one can be harder sometimes to understand. Our contemporary culture, the one we’re all embedded in, idolizes growth, expansion. Onward and upward! Bigger! Faster! Better! More!

But we can’t keep growing forever. It doesn’t work that way.

Unregulated growth in the cells of body is a hallmark of cancer. The wild abundant flourishing of microorganisms means illness for the patient whose body they infect.

Out in the world, unchecked growth – the insatiable quest for more – leads us to overpopulation… resource depletion… pollution… colonialism… mass consumption… addiction… economic injustice at the amoral hands of the free market…

We can’t keep growing forever.

Contemporary pagan practice offers another way. Not necessarily better, but a different approach, a different way to tell the story. Ours is a spiritual system rooted in balance: not static balance, but the dynamic balance of the cycles of the living world.

The sun rises… and it also sets.
The moon waxes.. and then it wanes.
The tides rise and fall.

The seasons turn, each after the next.
Seeds sprout. Flowers bloom. Fruit ripens. Seeds fall.

Air goes in and out with each cycle of the breath.
Blood goes round and round with each pulse of the heart.

We are born. We grow. We change. We live.
And eventually, we die.
The molecules that make up our bodies return to the world, and our spirits are released to whatever happens next.

The thing about cycles is that they circle back onto themselves. There’s a rhythm, a pattern that has no beginning, and no ending. Or, maybe better, every point in the cycle is the ending of what was, and the beginning of what is to come.

Let us sit for a moment with the seed of the darkness that begins to grow in the brightest moment of light, with the peak of the wave just before it begins to fall, with the pause between the in breath and the out breath; with every ending that is also a beginning.

God that we know by countless names,
Eternal Mystery,
You who are above and below,
Within and beyond,
Be here now: hear our prayer….

Posted in Reflections

Breathing Spaces

I’ve fallen quiet again, despite my good intentions to blog regularly; several of the concerns occupying my attention are situations that I am keeping in my personal, private sphere at least for now. There are a lot of things worth talking about – the Orlando shooting, the Stanford rape case, the ongoing systemic violence that reemerges over and over again in a thousand ugly ways – and a lot of people talking about them, but I am not one of them.

In my moments of weakness I wonder, a lot, whether it reveals me to be a “bad” minister or an unworthy human being, that I am not right up front and center with eloquent words about each and every thing that is worthy of our collective attention, our rage, our grief, our solidarity. There is no shortage of words, though. Many colleagues and friends are quick to respond to the headlines that clench our bellies with terror and bring tears of rage to our eyes.

I have, at the moment, nothing to say. Nothing to say, at least, that has not already been said a hundred or a thousand times, the words repeated with each violent tragedy until they become absurd and meaningless, a chorus of thoughts-and-prayers that slowly morphs into a post-traumatic version of the “Chicken Chicken Chicken” video. *

Like I said, I might be a bad minister…

Okay then, I am a bad minister, or at least one who is also a human being whose sharp-edged sense of humor surfaces when the mitigating tenderness gets scraped a bit thin. This is what I got, world: nothin’. I got nothin’. Hollow and brittle as a glass jar with just the thinnest scraping of peanut butter coating the walls, passing for full and secretly empty.

I am again at a loss for words. Not this $#!@ again, I mutter, self-censoring my profanity on the internet. I crack wise. My shoulders tense up, then sag under the weight of each breath.

And I pray.

Image is a carved wooden sculpture of the "Weeping Buddha" - a muscular male figured seated cross-legged and bent over with his face hidden in his hands.

I pray for the aching of the world, for the healing of the wounded, for the comfort of the grieving.

For the mending of shattered sanctuary and the reopening of old wounds of the spirit.

For all of us whose guts clench, knowing the fear that comes when identity is also liability; when we are reminded that living our lives fully includes the risk of losing everything.

For the caregivers, of whom I know so many now; shuffling their own burdens of fear and loss and rage to gather the shards and mend the tatters, knowing that the work always remains unfinished.

For all our fractally complex intersections.

I don’t understand hate very well. But I am human too. I get suffering. And I have learned to acknowledge my own capacity to turn my unsoothed suffering – my pain, my fear – into sharp-edged anger. Whether I turn the spiky bits in on myself, or out into the world, it still hurts.

Things shatter and leave sharp edges. It is so easy, so very easy, to lash out, to push the suffering away, onto somebody else. Those people. Whichever ones they are, and the opportunities are legion and rife for politicization. I do not think I am going to list them here; it would be unfair to leave someone out. We are all in this together, this suffering and causing one another to suffer.

The impulse either to fix suffering, or to declare it unfixable and ignore it, is powerful. It underlies so much of what is aching and wrong, at whatever self-similar scale – personal, familial, institutional, cultural. It is so hard to stay present, to neither fight nor run, and hold the suffering moment as long as possible without burning ourselves up in the process. And yet to not at least try is to acquiesce to the violence of the system. There is no sure victory, only the choice between defiance and defeat.

I would like to have an easy answer, some pastoral comfort or prophetic wisdom to put here. But I got nothin’.

* You don’t remember the “Chicken Chicken Chicken” video? Here it is, if you want a raucous absurdity break.

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I am puttering around in spirals today. This is a very typical work pattern for me that can drive linear thinkers (like my beloved Spouse) absolutely nuts.

What happens is something like this:

I go out in the yard because it’s not hot yet and I’ve been meaning to do stuff. I pull a few weeds. I realize I want the scissors to trim dead flower heads.

I go in the house to get the scissors from the kitchen. En route I notice some scarves hanging on the staircase that need to go down into the basement. I pick them up and go down the basement stairs and hang them in the off-season closet.

While the basement closet is open, I pull some boxes in and out and gather up an armful of clothes that I haven’t worn in a couple of years, to bring them up to the porch and put them in the box for the next rummage sale. (We have an ongoing “next rummage sale” box on the porch that periodically gets donated to the Boy Scouts or the UU church, depending on who is next having one.)

When I get back to the front porch with the clothes I remember wanting the scissors to dead-head the flowers, and I go back into the kitchen.

I somehow bypass the kitchen and go sit in the chair in the back sunroom, where all the art supplies have migrated from the basement, many months ago when it was too cold to paint downstairs. Perhaps I put a few touches on a work in progress, or maybe I sign and finish something that’s been lingering around unfinished since last winter, when I last made time to paint. I look out the window at the dense green summer wall that was a lacy mesh of winter branches last time I looked there. I realize that what this canvas wants is collage, but all the art paper is upstairs where I last used it.

I go upstairs and dislodge the cat from the computer (she sleeps on it; I think because it is warm) and look to see what’s happened on FaceBook. A post from a friend reminds me that I really need to look at my calendar and figure out what assignment is due next for CPE, or perhaps that I ought to make travel arrangements for some upcoming event. And then there is the daily jigsaw, and the sudoku… and I realize that I am bored with that and need to do laundry. Which I gather up to take down to the basement.

Except that when I get to the kitchen I remember that I wanted the scissors, to dead-head the spent daffodils in the front yard…

And so it goes, today, and my other days off. Lots of things being half done in tiny increments. Eventually, somehow, most of the important parts get done. The papers get written – with lots and lots of reminders to myself that there are next steps; I probably talk about doing them a lot more than I actually do them. The weeds get pulled and the shrubs get trimmed and the lawn gets mowed… eventually. And there is always laundry in some stage of the process.

I am learning to accept that this is just how I get things done; that the fluid mosaic of a pebble beach is also a legitimate way of being earth. We are not all granite monoliths nor need we be. We are not all straight timber but winding vines and swaying grasses also have worth. It goes deeper than not needing to be perfect; I am beginning to sense – if not to grasp – that the aggregate of countless imperfections is far greater, more beautiful, more resilient, more holy than any single perfect whole.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to go back to the kitchen and get the scissors and go into the front yard and dead-head last month’s daffodils. Or something like that.

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