If there is anyone who models the evolution of the spirit, allows for old worlds to fall away in order that new ones take their place, it is Barbara Brown Taylor.

In the latest Christian Century series on “How my mind has changed” she did it again. You can read it for yourself;

 

Solitude as Art

Posted: June 25, 2020 in Uncategorized

“Solitude as Art” is the title of James A. Smith’s editorial in the latest issue of Image Magazine (105). It is an outstanding piece.

He states at the beginning, “We have lost loved ones; lost confidence in our institutions; lost both community and privacy; lost sanity and the simple things that give joy. Many of us have lost the mental bandwidth to dream and make. Can we find something in all this loss?”

And then he pivots. He turns to Stephen Batchelor and his book The Art of Solitude. The premise is stunning and timely: Just because you’ve been forced into solitude, even with those you love, that does not mean you know what to do with it. In fact, Improperly armed, it can work against you, undermine you, shred you. More demons of the restless soul may appear than angels. Solitude can be a graveyard.

“There is more to solitude than being alone,” Batchelor writes. “Solitude is an art.”

Which means that unless a cultivated inner life is not already developed before the pandemic strikes, that forced isolation can be more curse than blessing. But if one already works with the quiet spaces of the spirit those same spaces might represent an interior castle, to borrow imagery from Teresa of Avila.

The best outcome of the art of solitude might be a paradox. Again, quoting Batchelor:

“Here lies the paradox of solitude. Look long and hard enough at yourself in isolation and suddenly you will see the rest of humanity staring back. Sustained aloneness brings you to a tipping point where the pendulum of life returns you to others.”

 

 

 

 

 

picklesIt’s the first of the most elementary questions considered by any freshman philosophy major: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Why indeed? I asked the same thing of pickles.

Why is there a pickle rather than not a pickle?

First of all, we have to backtrack to the source. Why is there a cucumber rather than not? And why vegetables rather than none? And why plants rather than none?

So many pickles start their lives as cucumbers (but not all because you can pickle anything). You might wonder about the intervening steps that moved identity from one to the other. Of course, many cucumbers remain as they are, unaltered. I ate one just yesterday in my salad.

But neither cucumbers nor pickles voluntarily give themselves to my cause. We have not asked for their permission or consent. The cucumber was grown to eat and was eaten. If the meaning of its existence exceeds more than my need for eating it, I cannot say a word about what that might be.  We now see through a darkened glass.

The pickle, whether dill or sweet, is another matter. It comes as the direct result of the natural order of things being altered by human freedom and creativity. The cucumber is changed by adding other natural substances – dill seeds, cloves, garlic, mustard seed, celery seed, black peppercorn, and other spices of one’s choice to a vinegar and water brine. Over time it transforms a cucumber into the lovely pickle on your hamburger. Human creativity combines a variety of natural elements to make something novel – a pickle.

I had one for lunch just today.

Was my delicious, sour, crunchy pickle from God? Well, yes, by every element that came together in its creation.

But how do you explain the role of the humans who did the mixing – mortal or divine? Yes. Both. The pickle is a co-creation of God and humanity. And since human consciousness, especially the capacity of creation, exists as a part of the collective, universal consciousness, that’s divine, too.

So God made pickles. And we steward them.

And why is there a pickle rather than not a pickle?

When you tell me why there is something rather than nothing, then I’ll fess up.

My Fellow Americans:

It would trivialize our present course of events to say that America is passing through difficult times. Of course, we are. But difficult times are not the same for everyone. For many Americans these difficult times are not new; they have repeated over and over again throughout time. The death of this one black man beneath the knee of white authority in Minneapolis is, however terrible, not unique. His death is part of a repeating story, a moral abomination that began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow and segregation, and has been enforced by unequal laws and regular vigilante violence through our history. Sadly, the hard won successes of the Civil Rights movement have only been partially achieved. Our work is not over and we are compelled to move toward a more perfect union.

America is indeed passing through difficult times, more difficult for some than others. Together, the pandemic with its death, grief and loss of employment, and the suffering and death of George Floyd and others before him have left us shaken and sad. We so feel the depth of this injustice and loss. And most importantly, people of good will everywhere want to remedy it.

There will be no peace without justice, and we know that. People should be expressing their outrage and grief and many have taken to the streets to demonstrate the seriousness of this cause all across our nation. This right to free expression is safe guarded under our Constitution. But more than that, we know that this is a moral issue. The ones who have transgressed will be held accountable. Every police department everywhere will need to reexamine its own culture in relationship to the community, especially communities of color. We also know that the destructive actions of some in law enforcement in no way represents the majority of these public servants.

We thank all leaders who are counseling safe, orderly and peaceful marches. We also know that the extremist groups that want to tear us apart with their hateful rhetoric and destructive actions do not represent the majority of our citizens. Violence undermines the strong message of justice that needs to be heard and acted upon.

As we go about the hard work of healing the painful wounds of our people in their many dimensions, I call upon all Americans to join together as we move together:

Join together to honestly address the most difficult aspects of our common life.

Join together to find a better way forward.

Join together to support all those who feel the weight of loss.

Join together to overcome any of the remnants of hate and discrimination.

This is not the American way and we will overcome it.

Though simple words can neither correct all error nor make the way forward clear, I trust that we will make it through as we encourage one another to call upon our higher angels, to draw upon our best inclinations and not the worst, to reach toward the original and never-fulfilled vision that our land will be one of justice and liberty for all.

This is our solemn hope and fervent prayer.

God bless us all as we strive for exactly that.

When we chose our daughter’s name, Savannah, I was just slightly aware of its biological overtones; it was a place where the forest met the plains. In later years I discovered another term that was more specific – the ecotone.

An ecotone is a region of transition between two distinct biological communities. The interesting thing about an ecotone is that it is defined by its overlaps, much like some of the crossover spaces in a Venn diagram. The space where they overlap is qualitatively different because it includes divergent elements simultaneously. So does an ecotone.

As a space at the margins, an ecotone contains elements of all the biological communities that overlap. As such, it often hosts unique interconnecting species and multiple varieties of plant life. It is rich with possibility.

The same kind of space may be created at the borders, margins and edges of human communities, especially when those communities are in constant or critical conflict. We call it a third space, a designated space where two may come together under new meditated terms. And as a result the two communities are able to create something new.

In the recent social unrest, the result of repeating and long-term violence on the part of white people in roles of authority killing or oppressing people of color, immediate polarization formed. Though the thing opposed was oppression, battle lines were formed. This often include actual and metaphorical lines between police and protesters.

Extremist groups always exploit social unrest by throwing gasoline on the fire; they want to ratchet up conflict for their own purposes. So, outside elements agitated and set actual and emotional fires to make it more than peaceful protest.

When extreme polarization takes place between social groups and competing narratives, what is often most needed is an ecotone, a third space where, as Rumi has said, “When your notions of wrongdoing and rightdoing are over, go to a field and I will meet you there.” In other words, I’ll meet you in the Savannah.

We saw evidence of this on the part of many people in the protests throughout the country. Most conspicuous where police who created an ecotone through their own behavior – walking with protesters, taking a knee with protesters, having a meal and conversation with protesters. They created a third space and said, directly or indirectly, “We are with you in your grief and concerns; we think it’s wrong and want it changed, too.”

Other people created third spaces of social conversation where the many voices could be heard and hearts healed. Courageous mayors stood before their people, named the unmistakable evil, and pledged to change. That changed the landscape.

When ecotones are fostered new life may grow in unexpected ways. Most of our great transformations are created at the edges, in the margins and in the places where forest meets the plains.

May we find them. May we search them out. May we create them. May we invite others to join us in that field.

In the year 1968 I was in High school in Wichita, Kansas. In addition to everything else that preoccupied a young adolescent male, the world as we knew it was exploding around us. Vietnam. Civil Rights movement. Kent State. The murders of MLK and Bobby Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The old world was breaking down. The new, unknown one was being born amidst violent labor pains.

At school we had race riots. The place exploded. Lock downs. Fights in the hallways and cafeteria. The National Guard was called in. They had to bus us home mid-day, twice. Anarchy reigned.

It so happened that in the midst of those race riots I had a trumpet lesson at Wichita State University with Walter Myers, the principle trumpet player for the Wichita symphony. I was way out of my league and must have known somebody to get me into his studio.

Imagine a young highschooler trying to process race riots with his trumpet teacher. When he asked how I was doing I ranted on about what was happening, the ravings of one who hadn’t much thought things through. I remember during my rant watching Mr. Myers walk over to his window, turn his back to me, and look out toward the commons. And once I was done, he quietly said, “All this is the result of generations of racism and discrimination. What we see now is the culmination of generations of hatred.”

So ends the lesson. The moral lesson, that is. And then the trumpet lesson began.

It stopped me in my tracks, his simple statement. And they rumbled around in my young head, these words of a wise mentor. It was indeed the culmination of a long, painful and continuing story. It never took much to light that fuse.

Only later did I put together our legacy of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation and ongoing discrimination. Only later did it occur to me how much blood was spilled to right those wrongs. And yet, the wrongs continued. They do today.

The riots we now see in Minneapolis are not about nothing; they are about the public lynching of a black man by white men in power. It is a repeating story. It happens over and over and over again in a multiplicity of forms. So when the cafeteria in my high school, or the streets of Ferguson or the fires of Minneapolis ignite, we shouldn’t be surprised. As Mr. Myers said, “All this is the result of generations of racism.”

As bad as riots and looting are, we have to ask ourselves over and over: Why is this happening?

And then we have to stop making excuses. White people started and have continued this American plague. We are the ones who must stop it.

When you watch the murder of a black man on the pavement, the knee of a white officer on his neck until he dies, you are witnessing a modern day lynching. Not everyone does this, of course, including policemen. But white culture excuses, allows and enables it to continue. Justice is not equal. And we know it.

Compare, two things, if you will: the execution of a black man under the knee of a white man with a black man taking a knee in a football game to protest the ongoing genocide of black people. One is born of violent hatred. The other of indignant peaceful protest. We know which one is moral, though we often attack the protester more than we do the ones committing the violence. The Black Lives Matter movement is about this – recognizing open season on black people. Surfacing it. Not letting it go.

Call this a four-century long pandemic of racism. Every so often there is an outbreak and we have to create a social pause and administer vaccines, waiting for the next outbreak.

It doesn’t take much to ignite a fuse. And the pile of black powder is enormous. It has been growing a grain at a time.

So remember when you watch the latest footage of riots in Minneapolis that it’s not really about the riots. It’s about what causes the riots. People fighting for their lives.

Imagine what it would be like if, like Mr. Myers, we took a moment to gaze out the window. There is more out there in the void than we want to admit, so much that is oh so uncomfortable. But if we dare face it, the work can begin, including urgent work on our collective tarnished souls.

 

At first, the rise of a pandemic elicits shock, dismay, and denial. We struggle to get our heads around the idea that plagues move about by their own volition, catching rides on their hosts, which are us. After we cross the threshold into the full realization that our ordinary life is about to be interrupted, we settle in for the long ride. We witness suffering and death as the result of the virus.  And then we realize the second order of suffering, the consequences of plague. Not one society throughout history that was visited by plague did not also experience social and economic collapse. Those twins ride together.

After the society mucks about in the middle passages of plague – after humor wears thin, the statistics become numbing, efforts at inspiration feel tired, the preoccupation with health precautions wearisome, the decimation of the workplace fills us with dread – a new wave of emotions and responses emerge.

People become resolved to passivity, to freezing in place, like trapped beasts. Others flee the scene of the crime, often into fantasy, creating all manner of fanciful conspiracy theories to make simple something that is complex. And others give into rage; they give full voice to their frustration with emotional displays and irrational accusation, usually accompanied by threats against those who seem responsible for their suffering. Politicos know how to manipulate these people for their own purposes.

It’s the virus that is responsible. But it’s hard to lash out at a virus.

The middle passages often engender simplistic, either-or thinking among those who are under maximum stress and do not have the wherewithal to hold several complex ideas in their minds at the same time.  Some have said that this territory in the liminal domain is the most threatening to one of our most vital resources: Imagination.

It is often a lack of imagination that dwarfs innovative and creative responses in times of emergency. When imagination is crushed, what is left is dualistic, either-or thinking, and the lining up of this and that on a line across from each other.

Of course, in complex situations the answer is never this or that. But a lack of imagination always makes room for this or that.

What is required most in a moment like this are new waves of visionary imagination. This imagination does not downplay suffering, minimize loss or threat, or attribute blame through fanciful conspiracies. The rebirth of imagination looks to the future for answers. Morphing and reshaping ways of living that move toward that new vision. Call it a new heaven and new earth, to borrow Biblical language. And you can’t move toward a new future, a different one, without imagining it in the first place.

Moving from either-or to both-and. Resisting simple exclusive solutions to complex problems. Daring to not run, not collapse, and not slug your neighbor to make it work.

Rather, recapturing lost imagination. It’s one of our greatest gifts. And probably why we have survived this long already.

We all cherry pick from the larger Christian canon of scriptures. We choose our favorites, usually the ones that confirm something we already believe. When done extensively, we form a smaller “canon within the canon,” a Bible within the Bible. Entire Christian movements rest on one portion of scripture or another, which makes debate about what is central to the faith so difficult; we appeal to different authority sources.

Of course, I do it, too. And in fact, it is necessary. We actually need to establish a hierarchy of truth within and among the scriptures because they often come into conflict. One highest authority must be identified to curate all the rest. For one it might be the justice teachings of the prophets. For another the teachings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Another may appeal to the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I know people, however, who define their entire theology with no more than three or four disparate scriptural verses.

What I would like to suggest today, in light of varied responses to COVID-19, is that the Religious Right actually read the apostle Paul. Of course, they narrowly quote him quite often, even as they ignore extensive sections of his letters that don’t settle well with what they already believe. It’s time for these Bible believing souls to stop avoiding the writing of their star apostle, Paul, and read all of him.

A good place to begin is with his first letter to the Corinthian community (which we discover is actually his second). This occasional letter is sent to a community ensconced in great conflict. They had divided into factions based on loyalties to particular leaders. Paul wisely counseled that they should seek a more excellent way and let go of their false alliances.

One of those factions was comprised of people who claimed a higher or superior spirituality. They claimed special knowledge or wisdom. And this position of spiritual superiority led to pride, which is always damaging to the community.

Temples to a pantheon of gods existed in this Roman outpost and a regular part of that worship included burnt animal sacrifices. This would have been taboo for Christians, of course, because it smacked of idolatry. The interesting thing is that they always burned just a portion of the animal, retaining the majority of it for the market. Call it a blue light special or a discount rack for meat already offered to idols. For some Christians eating this meat was tantamount to cavorting with false gods, a tainted meal that corrupted as much as it was corrupted.

But not for the superior knowledge people. They knew that those gods were figments of the imagination, a nothing among nothings. And so the meat offered to something unreal was not tainted at all. Their superior wisdom led them to a cavalier approach to eating this meat. But for their less enlightened brothers and sisters this represented something that threatened the foundations of their faith.

As far as theology goes, Paul was more aligned with the enlightened bunch. He didn’t believe in the real substance of those idols either. The meat offered to imaginary idols represented no ethical dilemma for him. But to his enlightened friends he offered some  shocking counsel.

Not everyone is where you are. For many of your brothers or sisters this is a deal-breaker. So hear this:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (I Cor 8:9) Your actions, based in your supposedly superior philosophy or spirituality, may actually do harm. “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” (I Cor 8:11) And if you are harming them you are violating Christ’s way of love.

And what is the prescription?

“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (I Cor 8:13)

The transferable ethical principle is clear enough:  Even though the thing or practice represents no threat to me personally, I will, for the sake of love of brother and sister, voluntarily limit my freedom for the good of the many.

In the Christian way of love, my personal freedom is secondary to the law of love.

In the time of a pandemic a Christian soul should inquire after what is the most loving thing to do for the most people. One asks what behavior of mine might harm a brother or sister or cause them to stumble. One asks what personal freedoms should I voluntarily relinquish for the sake of the greater good. One asks how our behavior, though seemingly not a threat to us directly, might be a threat to others who are more vulnerable.

And that’s why the Christian Right should read all of Paul, especially I Corinthians 8.

The greatest Christian questions of our time do not revolve around the exercise of rights – whether my Christian college should be able to meet when social distancing is essential, whether I should limit my movement in social spaces, and even whether I should resist the very health practices that will restore our society and world to health because of personal hardship for me.

We all experience hardship and compassionate societies help those who are passing through those waters to make it through.

Rather, Christians should avoid exemplifying the worst of the “knowledge party” in the Corinthian community, the party that insisted that the exercise of their rights or freedom was more important than the well-being of the neighbor.

Christian young people should read I Corinthians 8 and conclude the obvious: “If my gathering in large groups on spring break or at the mega church or at the university or on the beach causes my neighbor to stumble, then I will not engage in that for their sake.”

Christian virtue is not demonstrated by converging on cities closed for the public good and shouting about their rights to go buy lawn fertilizer at the hardware store. Buying lawn fertilizer is not more important that your grandmother’s health and possible death. Real Christian love doesn’t do that. Real Christian love limits personal freedoms for the sake of the vulnerable, like the Paul’s Corinthians who could refuse to eat meat offered to idols even if they knew it didn’t mean a thing. All for the sake of the other.

Imagine the Christian teaching and influence that could take place on the part of Christian college presidents, high profile pastors of evangelical churches, and supposedly pro-life movements, if they took this ethical principle embedded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community seriously.

The world might even look on and conclude that there actually is something to this Christian thing, that it is not just one more group using its power to get what it wants.

 

Stories at Six Feet

Posted: April 18, 2020 in Uncategorized

And now for the first installment of … Stories at Six Feet (stories shared and received at the minimum physical margin):

Today we walked the KATY trail amid soft sunshine and a gentle breeze, the river flowing like it didn’t have a problem in the world, which of course it doesn’t. We met friends on a similar walk and started swapping stories. His was much more interesting.

When he was a little boy he lived in England and was about six years old as the 2nd World War drew to a close. It was Christmas eve and the family was gathered in the living room making merry. They were surprised by a knock at the door. When they opened the door they looked out upon an American soldier who had just pulled up in a jeep. He was holding a gas can. The soldier asked if they knew where he could get some petrol. The young man’s father said that they could go down the way about two blocks because there was a station on the corner. “It’s closed now,” said his father, “but if you knock on the door the owner is a good man and he’ll open up and fill your can.”

Just before the soldier went back to the jeep he pointed to a German officer sitting in the jeep and asked, “Could you please watch over him while I get the gas? He’s in custody.”

The parents looked at each other for a moment and then his mother said, “Well, of course, he can stay with us while you are running your errand. Invite him in.” And he did come in. The German soldier looked on as the family decorated for Christmas, putting out presents and preparing the Christmas treats.

When it came time to light the candles on the tree they invited the German officer to help light them and he did.

“Mind you, I was just six years old, but I have this memory of lighting the candles on the tree and this German soldier in his full dress uniform bending down and lighting the bottom tier of candles, smiling as he did so.”

Pretty soon the GI returned with his jeep, mission accomplished, gas in the tank.

“When it was time for the German officer to leave,” my senior friend continued, “he opened the door, turned to face us, clicked his boot heels together, and tipped the bill of his hat in a quick bow. We watched him drive away into the snowy night and after shutting the door we sang Christmas carols.”

 

Farewell to Papa

Posted: April 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

Memory is a funny thing. The farther you are away from the events the foggier the outlines of the story. On the other hand, some features and images become more vivid and distinct. That’s how it is for me as I traveled back to the memory I dreamed about last night.

It really was years ago, back when I was a young man with a young man’s life. For a time I lived and worked in a county seat town as the pastor of a medium sized church. I was the only minister, surrounded by a few part time support staff. And being the chief cook and bottle washer is a fine way to understand all the facets of a place and learn how it all works.

This little town had and has a wide variety of people occupying different stations in life. There are locals who’ve lived there forever. Infrastructure people like teachers who moved in to provide social services. Retirees move to this town and tourists show up during certain times of the year. The well-heeled ones build a second home there or buy a condo, keeping their first homes in the city. It’s all there, mashed up together. Which is another reason that it is a good place for a young man to test his wings.

One day I received a call – and this is the foggy part – from a daughter whose father was ready to be baptized. I didn’t know them from Adam. It was a cold call. But I agreed to come out to their house where Papa was spending his final days in his dying bed. If that phone call was foggy, the arrival at the single-wide trailer up the county road was not. Long before the time of GPS, I navigated by landmarks: just past the country church, on the left, before the Y in the road. After I pulled up and parked the car, I walked through dogs and rusting equipment to the wooden front steps.

The eldest daughter answered the door, and after some niceties she invited me in. It was a small, dark living room and a velvet picture of Elvis hung on the wall over the couch.

“You can come on back, Papa’s ready,” she said. And she led me through the narrow hallway to the back bedroom where Papa was. He smiled when I came in and patted the side of the bed for me to sit down. He was propped up against a few pillows. And after we we talked about life, the end of life, lasting things, eternal things, daughter brought in a basin of water with a towel.

After I poured the water over his old, bald, wrinkly head, water mixed with words about Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he kept his eyes closed for the longest time. We said a prayer and before long I was walking back through the dogs and equipment to my car.

Perhaps a week later I received another call. It was the eldest daughter again. Papa had died. Would I do the funeral?

We met at the cemetery beside the country church I passed the first time I visited them. There was the mortuary tent over the grave and the row of folding chairs. I don’t even remember what I said because it was probably many of the same scriptures and prayers always used at such occasions, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But what I do remember happened afterwards.

After the ceremony itself, people started moving away from the grave, taking flowers, meeting in little groups and chatting. All except one, the eldest daughter who had called me the first time, and the second time, who welcomed me into the living room and brought the basin of water and towel to Papa in the bedroom. She remained, sitting quietly, looking at the casket, her shoulders lifting in perfect rhythm with her quiet sobs. The rest of the family seemed to know that she needed to be there, by herself.

In time, a young granddaughter, maybe six or seven years old, moved in front of her grandmother and just stood there, waiting to be noticed. In a moment, this oldest daughter of Papa looked up into the eyes of her granddaughter and embraced her. She wept as she clutched her small shoulders. This granddaughter did not recoil. She did not move. She made herself entirely, perfectly available to her grandmother weeping for loss of her father.

This eldest daughter of Papa held her granddaughter as though embracing her own soul. Perhaps she was doing exactly that.