Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ransom the Captives

This image of Our Lady of Good Remedy portrays Mary, the God-bearer, holding the infant Christ on her lap while handing a bag of money to St. John de Mattha, founder of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians).  The money is to be used to ransom prisoners in keeping with Jesus' announcement of his mission:  
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Is 58:6, 61:1-2)
Recalling Jesus' proclamation, the Trinitarians' motto is "Glory to you O Trinity and release to the captives."  God is glorified when the oppressed are liberated.  Originally, the Trinitarians ransomed slaves and Christians captured during the Crusades.  Today, the Trinitarians focus on victims of human rights abuses.  In the United States, their ministry is primarily one of welcoming immigrants from Latin America.

I was reminded of the importance of their witness by a report on NPR's Morning Edition program.  It turns out that Arizona's recent anti-immigrant legislation was the product of the for-profit, private prison industry.  Anticipating immigrant detention as their next big market, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) essentially wrote and named the Arizona law that would allow police to lock-up people they stop who cannot prove that they are in this country legally.  

Through a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of conservative state legislators, organizations and corporations such as Exxon-Mobil, tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc., and the National Rifle Association, CCA drafted Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the Orwellian named "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act."  Some 200 companies pay thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like Tea-partier Russell Pearce, who sponsored the bill in the Arizona State Senate.

In fact, 24 members of the Arizona State Senate are member of ALEC.  And 30 of the bills 36 co-sponsors received campaign contributions from CCA and other prison companies and lobbyists.  Creating prisons is big money and prisoners have now become investment opportunities.  The privatization of the prison system has created a huge incentive to criminalize large sections of the population.  With so many black men already imprisoned in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the population, I guess brown men, women, and children are the new hot prison commodity.

Anti-immigration sentiment is thinly disguised racism manipulated to make a few people rich at the expense of a lot of poor people of color.  This isn't about justice or the rule of law.  This is about greed. 

The Courts need to uphold the decision that this law is unconstitutional, and the Congress needs to pass humane, comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  And we need to get private companies out of the prison system so that the public good rather than profit can once again determine policy making. 

Otherwise, we are going to need a whole lot more Trinitarians.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fearless Faith

It seems that the first words out the mouth of any angel is "Don't be afraid."  What separates us most from God and from each other is our fear.  Moving past our fear is a prerequisite for attaining to the love of God that is our heart's deepest desire.  Mature faith is fear-less.

Not that there aren't plenty of reasons to be afraid: politicians and preachers are quick to bring them to our attention and use them to their own advantage. Economic insecurity in this time of recession, terrorist threats both real and imagined, the frightening reality of global climate change, the reactionary imperialism that desperately seeks to deny and delay the decline of the Pax Americana; all these and more create a climate of fear that is difficult to resist. 

Our own age puts me in mind of the end of the Roman empire.  The 5th. Century, too, was a time of globalization, multiculturalism, and ecological devastation.  Both the external threat of "barbarian" invasion and the internal threat of social disintegration loomed large.  It, too, was a time of religious diversity and upheaval.

It is not coincidental that the spirituality of the desert monks of Egypt and Syria came to full flower at this time. In an age of fear and uncertainty, the need for wise spiritual guidance gave rise to the teaching of the abbas and ammas, beautifully captured in John Cassian's Conferences.  Among their most salient contributions to our own time is the reminder that, while we must begin with the acknowledgment of our fear, we can not stop there. Blessed Chaeremon said:

Three things keep men from giving themselves over to sin.  There is the fear either of hell or of earthly laws.  There is the hope and the desire for the kingdom of heaven.  Or there is the attraction of good itself and the love of virtue . . . All three seem to tend toward the one end.  They summon us to abstain from everything unlawful.  But they differ from one another in their degree of excellence . . . The third is particularly characteristic of God and those who have really taken the image and likeness of God unto themselves.  For only God does good, not out of fear nor in hopes of reward but simply out of love of goodness. (Conference X.6)

Faith may begin with fear - the desire to avoid punishment or secure a reward.  But this is an infantile spiritual stage.  Chaeremon, citing the parable of the prodigal son, sees this stage as appropriate to a slave mentality, but not for those who have realized their identity as children of God whom the Father welcomes with open arms.  So fear has its place; we must acknowledge its reality.  But we are invited to move beyond it.

Then we can move on to the stage of love for 'there is no fearfulness in love.  Indeed perfect love expels fear, because to fear is to expect punishment and anyone who is afraid is still not perfect in love.  So we are to love because God first loved us' (I Jn 4:18-19).  Therefore in no other way can we rise up to true perfection.  God loved us first and this was for no other reason than that we should be saved and so we ought to love Him solely for His love of us. For this reason we should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue. (Conference X.7)

There is, finally, just being in love for love's sake.  When we embrace our identity as God's beloved, there is no longer anything to fear, nothing to defend, no one to appease or impress.  Punishment and reward are transcended.

If with God's help and without a presumptuous reliance on his own efforts someone comes to win this condition, he will pass over to the status of an adopted son.  He will leave behind servility with its fear.  He will leave aside the mercenary hope of reward, a hope which seeks a reward and not the goodness of the giver. There will be no more fear, no more desiring.  Instead, there will be forever the love which never fails.(Conference X.9)

Fear is real.  It is inescapable.  It provides us with valuable information about the reality of the world and of our interior state.  But we don't need to cling to it or be defined by it.  And we certainly shouldn't use fear as a club to dominate and manipulate others.  Rather, our fear can move us to seek that love that liberates us so that we can live with awareness, freedom, and compassion.

In whatever small, hidden, humble ways we can, we are called to invite people to give themselves to the slow work of God within them, such that they can become agents of God’s liberating love in the world.  Fearless faith is not an escape from the responsibility to ameliorate suffering.  In the words of Blessed Moses:
As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails.  Their workings here would not be necessary were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick.  These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all.  As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will. (Conference I.10)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hamlet on Alcatraz

Hamlet:  Denmark's a prison.

Rosencrantz:  Then is the world one.

Hamlet:  A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

Rosencrantz:  We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet:  Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.  To me it is a prison.

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)

Last night Denmark was a prison - or at least a former prison - during the We Players performance of Hamlet on Alcatraz Island.  In collaboration with the National Park Service, producers Lauren Dietrich Chavez and Ava Roy have staged a haunting and provocative production of Shakespeare's great tragedy.  What is unique about this production is its site-specific nature, with each scene enacted on a different part of the island - many previously restricted from public access.  What better place to witness descent into madness?  The gifted ensemble makes the most of this powerful setting to underscore the play's themes of ambition, rivalry, violence, vengeance, and forgiveness. 

What was most striking was the way in which the cycle of violence depicted in the play led inevitably to various forms of bondage, including resentment, suspicion, delusion, and death.  The world can become our prison when trapped in the vicious circle of rivalry, violence, and retribution.  Can we break this cycle?  Are we doomed to perpetuate its prison-making dynamic?  Or is there a way out?  Perhaps - if we learn to practice justice and reconciliation before it is too late.

If you are in the Bay Area, be sure to experience Hamlet as you have never seen it before.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Silence and Speech

Recently I was visiting with my friend, Steve, and his 19 month-old son, Kieran.  I've seen Kieran almost weekly since his birth and it has been amazing to see how quickly he grows and changes.  This last visit he was vigorously ordering Steve about, with a particular interest in commanding "Daddy crawl" and then, as his father scooted about on hands and knees, delightedly pushing him from behind.  "Mommy up!" was another favorite, reminding me of my own son's cry of "Uppie" when he wanted to be carried.

I remarked to Steve that it was fascinating to observe Kieran exploring the power of words to make things happen.  Steve responded that Kieran also is learning, less happily, that words don't always secure what we want.  Indeed!

Even so, words can be powerful.  They can create or destroy.  As the Letter of James puts it, "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire." (James 3:5b-6)  In his book, Spaces for the Sacred, Philip Sheldrake reminds us of the importance of the practice of silence as a prelude to what Buddhists refer to as "right speech."  Edifying speech emerges from silence.
The monastic tradition from its origins has witnessed to the truth that it is important to take care with words.  Language without thought can be misunderstood and destructive.  'One of the old men said, "In the beginning, when we came together, we spoke to the good of souls, we advanced and ascended to heaven; now when we come together we fall into slander, and we drag one another to hell.'"  A key to monastic spirituality is the centrality of discernment and this applies above all to speech.  This enables the person to distinguish between language that is destructive and language that brings life.  Words, most of all, only have value it they are an expression of a life of integrity.  An old man said, 'Spiritual work is essential, it is for this we have come to the desert.  It is very hard to teach with the mouth that which one does not practise in the body.'  Silence, therefore, is not anti-social nor self-punishment but a necessary reticence in order to correct over-hasty or unproductive speech. (pp. 105-106)
Perhaps this is why Master Eckhart famously said that "Nothing is so much like God as silence."  It from the place of contemplative insight and awareness that we gain the perspective we need to speak rightly and well - or not at all.  It is from the abyss of silence that the creative Word - and word - emerges. 

In a sense, then, our use of language is a continual opportunity to practice discernment, the cultivation of a wide-open awareness of the presence and will of God in our lives.  Each speech act can be an expression of prayer, an alignment of our will and our lives with that which is life-giving.  All speech, like prayer, has the capacity to give expression to the deepest desire of the heart for wholeness.

Speech-as-prayer operates in the middle voice, to borrow an analogy from grammar.  As Eugene Peterson notes,
When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: "I counsel my friend."  When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: "I am counseled by my friend."  When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: "I take counsel."  Most of our speech is divided between active and passive; either I act or I am acted upon.  But there are moments, and they are those in which we are most distinctively human, when such a contrast is not satisfactory:  two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other . . .

We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice).  We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice).  Prayer takes place in the middle voice.  (The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 103-104)
What Peterson says of the language of prayer is ideally how all our speech should operate: as a means of fostering relationships free of domination or submission.  Such speech is concerned with truth and not simply with power.  It must emerge from silence (however brief) such that the thread of the conversation or action that God has initiated can be joined.  It is a speaking-with-God that requires listening.  And listening takes time.

It is precisely this refusal to listen, the impatience of our speech, that is undermining the civility and truthfulness of discourse in our culture.  We use language to manipulate and divide rather than to con-verse, literally to be turned toward, live, or remain with another.  This was exemplified most recently in the controversy surrounding the willful misrepresentation of the words of Shirley Sherrod and subsequent reactions to it.  A life-giving speech about racial reconciliation and healing was distorted to promote the political advantage of those who benefit from racial discord, triggering a reactive response that was equally impatient with truth in its haste to preserve the appearance of political correctness.

This debasement of language obscures the lives, needs, and hopes of actual people.  It represents and reinforces a loss of connection with reality.  If we are to recover that connection, we must regain a capacity for silence, for listening, and for speaking in the middle voice.  Then our language might just serve the construction of a shared world of meaning, a speaking "with" rather than simply "to" or "about," much less "against."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: The Contemplative Pastor

I'm a little bit embarrassed to confess that I've only just now read Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  It is one of those books that countless people have told me I "should" read.  Now I know why.  Thanks to a wise friend and mentor who recently sent me a copy, it has arrived at the right time.  

Peterson is a Presbyterian pastor, author, teacher, and poet.  He has penned more than 30 books in the areas of biblical studies, pastoral theology, and spirituality.  He was the founding pastor of a congregation in Maryland where he served for 29 years before leaving to teach at Regent College in Vancouver.  What he has to say is rooted deeply in his experience of prayer, study, and listening; which are, he argues, the essential tasks of ordained ministry.

In this book, Peterson's concern is to recapture a sense of the essential work of ordained ministry: being a "pastor."  Writing in the late 1980s, he argued that the understanding and practice of pastoring was "defined by parody and diluted by opportunism." (p. 15)  When clergy are not considered quaint and even rather silly, almost as useless as they are harmless, they are seen as predatory parasites.  Between the huckstering of televangelists and the scandals of clergy sexual abuse, little has transpired in the past twenty years to dramatically shift that perception.

At the same time, there is something of an identity crisis among clergy, many of whom feel relegated to being little more than managers of religious businesses; the parish as franchise providing a standardized packaged product to spiritual consumers. Sinking beneath the high tide of institutional decline among mainline Protestant denominations, the pressures upon pastors to increase revenues - to become financially sustainable - are enormous.  It takes some effort to remember what congregations - and pastors - are for. 

For Peterson, the recovery of the "forgotten art" of the "cure of souls" is the solid, high ground upon which pastors must stand in the face of the forces eroding their sense of integrity and purpose.
Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays.  The context changed:  instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer.  The manner changed:  instead of proclamation, there was conversation.  But the work was the same:  discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.

This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls.  The primary sense of cura in Latin is "care," with undertones of "cure."  The soul is the essence of the human personality.  The cure of souls, then, is the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane.  It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential. (p.57)
Peterson contrasts this with "running a church," the reduction of pastoral work to institutional duties.  Now, such duties are necessary, but they are not sufficient for, much less central to, pastoral work.  The cure of souls does not exclude the managerial and programmatic, but it makes them subservient to the cultivation of "a way of life that uses weekday tasks, encounters, and situations as the raw material for teaching prayer, developing faith, and preparing for a good death." (p. 59)

The contrast between "the cure of souls" and "running a church" is sharpened by several examples.  "In running the church, I seize the initiative.  I take charge . . . By contrast, the cure of souls is a cultivated awareness that God has already seized the initiative . . . Running the church questions are:  What do we do?  How can we get things going again?  Cure of souls questions are:  What has God been doing here?  What traces of grace can I discern in this life?  What history of love can I read in this group?  What has God set in motion that I can get in on?"  (pp. 60-61).

The contrast also can be noted by the way in which we use language.  "Running the church" language is descriptive and motivational - it is the language perfected by advertising.  It is about trying to get people to understand and do something.  "But in the cure of souls I am far more interested in who people are and who they are becoming in Christ than I am in what they know or what they are doing." (p. 62)
We have, of course, much to teach and much to get done, but our primary task is to be.  The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore, is conversation and prayer.  Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected.  It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited - the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer. (p. 63)
Finally, the focus of running a church is on solving problems; the cure of souls on cultivating gratitude and wonder.  Peterson quotes Gabriel Marcel, who wrote that life is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be explored.  Problems are endless, and their resolution a full-time job.  If we get "hooked" by continual problem solving, we will miss the primary responsibility of pastors, which is to invite people into the scary but ultimately more satisfying experience of the numinous.  The focus of pastors is to be "guides through the mysteries." (p. 64)

What this means for pastors is that we need to get clear about our purpose and our priorities.  Peterson confirms a suspicion I have had for some time that while not all spiritual directors need to be clergy, clergy need to be spiritual directors.  Along with Peterson,
I want to cultivate my relationship with God.  I want all of life to be intimate - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously - with the God who made, directs, and loves me.  And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer.  I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wondering if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying.  I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name.  I don't want to dispense mimeographed hand-outs that describe God's business; I want to witness out of my own experience.  I don't want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. (pp. 19-20)
Don't we all want such a person to be our pastor?  Don't we wish to be such a person?  The Contemplative Pastor is a reminder of our deepest desire and a hedge against the forces that erode our willingness to nurture that desire.  I recommend this book to clergy and laity, especially those whose congregations are in transition.  It provides a helpful nudge to look beyond clergy job descriptions and resumes to grasp the heart of the matter.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Irrevocable Grace

I'm in a fallow period: in between cures, as they say.  It is a humbling experience, and a little bit scary.  Cut loose from the normal routines of pastoral ministry, I am thrown back upon the present moment and forced to confront myself without the trappings of role or office.  Who am I?  What does it mean to be a priest - especially one without a pulpit or altar?  Being "in transition" feels at times as if my self-image has been punctured and my identity is slowly leaking out.  What will remain?

Then, like a thirsty man discovering an oasis in the desert,  I stumble upon today's lesson from Paul's Letter to the Romans: "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable." What a relief!  Priesthood isn't my possession, it is God's gift.  I don't own it.  I can't control it, manipulate it, or bend it to my will (I can try to, but, my oh my, at what cost!).  It is more akin to a renewable source of energy, always available if I willingly undertake to honor and maintain the conditions necessary for its ongoing life.  The gifts and calling of God are inexhaustible.  Grace is irrevocable.

It is good for me to experience this time as a reminder that we are saved by faith, not by works.  "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."  How quick I am to think myself exempt from this truth.  "Who, me, disobedient?  In need of forgiveness and mercy?  Dependent upon the grace of God?  Maybe those poor souls I'm supposed to help, but not me!  I've earned my place at the table."  But the truth is that, like everyone else, I am dependent upon the mercy of God. Even my gifts and calling are given by Another, and not of my own making.

What a relief!  God makes use even of my disobedience, by limitations, my arrogance, my sense of entitlement, as an opportunity to reveal his irrevocable mercy.   The gifts and calling are not mine, that is true.  But they are a renewable resource from which I can draw again and again.  I can refuse them, but they can not be taken from me. Neither is the "use" of them a garuantee of my salvation, the justification of my existence.  That, too, is God's gift.

St. Paul reminds us that this is true for Jews- "and so all Israel will be saved" - it is true for Christians; it is true for me and for you.  Our short term disobedience, brokenness, even uselessness is, by the grace of God, in the service of a long-term, indeed, unending, experience of mercy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Derrick Jensen: Civilization and Enlightenment

Derrick Jensen is one of the most provocative philosophers and activists working today. I'm rereading his two volume work, Endgame. This will give you a taste of what he is up to. He is a voice literally crying in what is left of the wilderness. We need to listen.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

After Apocalypse

The New York Times today reports - this is news? - that the oil industry is heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers:

When the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform set off the worst oil spill at sea in American history, it was flying the flag of the Marshall Islands. Registering there allowed the rig’s owner to significantly reduce its American taxes.  
The owner, Transocean, moved its corporate headquarters from Houston to the Cayman Islands in 1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008, maneuvers that also helped it avoid taxes.
At the same time, BP was reaping sizable tax benefits from leasing the rig. According to a letter sent in June to the Senate Finance Committee, the company used a tax break for the oil industry to write off 70 percent of the rent for Deepwater Horizon — a deduction of more than $225,000 a day since the lease began.

With federal officials now considering a new tax on petroleum production to pay for the cleanup, the industry is fighting the measure, warning that it will lead to job losses and higher gasoline prices, as well as an increased dependence on foreign oil.

But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.

According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, released in 2005, capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry.

And for many small and midsize oil companies, the tax on capital investments is so low that it is more than eliminated by various credits. These companies’ returns on those investments are often higher after taxes than before.
What the article doesn't reveal is why these subsidies continue in the face of the manifest greed and ecological suicide it represents.  In his book, Endgame, Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, Derrick Jensen tells us why.

The United States economy is dependent on oil from the Middle East, South America, and around the world.  American lives are dependent on it: the agricultural infrastructure - from gasoline to pesticides - rests on the foundation of oil and natural gas.  It's not too much to say that we eat refined and transformed oil. (p. 104)
This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that oil is a nonrenewable resource that is becoming rapidly depleted.  Hence, the attempts to extract it with high-risk methods from difficult-to-reach sources - such as deep sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Discovery of oil and gas peaked in the 1960s, and the situation has deteriorated enough that by now the world consumes more than three times as much oil each year as is discovered.  Do you think the oil industry is aware of oil field depletion?  Of course. Its their business.  Why do you think no new supertankers have been built for twenty years?  A report written for oil industry insiders and priced at $32,000 per copy concludes that world oil production and supply peaked in 2000, and will decline to half by 2025.  The report predicts large and permanent increases in oil prices for the very near future. (p. 111)
The government subsidizes the oil industry directly through tax policies and indirectly through its military presence in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, in part to keep down the cost of our insatiable thirst for it; or, at least, to keep the costs hidden from view.

Our entire economic system is based on these subsidies, from agriculture to manufacturing to energy.  Especially energy.  That's why oil is so cheap right now.  Just including the cost of the Persian Gulf military presence - for which we taxpayers foot the bill - would at least double the price of oil.  The thing that scares me even more than monetary subsidies, however, are the hidden subsidies that can never be accounted for.  Can you put a price tag on global warming?  Can you put a price on a pristine lake or river?  The so-called economic view of our planet and life is anti-life. (pp. 112-113)
Eventually, quite possibly within my lifetime, the oil is going to run out.  Even before then it will become so prohibitive in cost as to be inaccessible.  So why does the government continue to subsidize the oil industry?  Because its scarred shitless about what the end of oil means for our way of life and will do anything in its power - no matter the cost to human beings or to the planet upon which all life depends - to keep it flowing for as long as possible.

Our government is subsidizing oil in a self-defeating attempt to buy time; self-defeating, because its pro-growth economic policies only promote oil consumption and hasten the eventual collapse of the fossil fuel economy.  I don't know if our leaders - like the rest of us - are in denial about this looming crash or clinging to a technological panacea or both.  So, we tootle along with business as usual while the planet burns and the clock is ticking.

Industrial civilization is not sustainable. Our energy consumption is overshooting the carrying-capacity of the planet and creating a toxic stew in its wake.  We are in a no-win race to see which comes first: the collapse of industrial civilization or the collapse of the ecosytems it is destroying, which is another way of saying the same thing.  Jensen argues that the only question for us is the extent to which we can mitigate the violence and degradation that this collapse will entail, and begin to plant the seeds of a sustainable culture.

Jensen challenges us to squarely face the consequences of our choices.  He is worth quoting at length:

We all face choices.  We can have ice caps and polar bears, or we can have automobiles.  We can have dams or we can have salmon.  We can have irrigated wine from Mendocino and Sonoma counties, or we can have the Russian and Eel Rivers.  We can have oil from beneath the oceans, or we can have whales.  We can have cardboard boxes or we can have living forests.  We can have computers and cancer clusters from the manufacture of those computers, or we can have neither.  We can have electricity and a world devastated by mining, or we can have neither (and don't give me any nonsense about solar: you'll need copper for wiring, silicon for pohotvaltaics, metals and plastics for appliances, which need to be manufactured and then transported to your home, and so on.  Even solar electrical energy can never be sustainable because electricity and all its accoutrements require an industrial infrastructure.)  We an have fruits, vegetables, and coffee brought to the U.S. from Latin America, or we can have at least somewhat intact human and nonhuman communities throughout that region . . . We can have civilization - too often called the highest form of social organization - that spreads (I would say metastasizes) to all parts of the globe, or we can have a multiplicity of autonomous cultures each uniquely adapted to the land from which it springs.  We can have cities and all they imply, or we can have a livable planet.  We can have "progress" and history, or we can have sustainability.  We can have civilization, or we can have at least the possibility of a way of life not based on the violent theft of resources. 
We can't have it all.  The belief that we can is one of the things that has driven us to this awful place . . . To pretend that civilization can exist without destroying its own landbase and the landbases and cultures of others is to be entirely ignorant of history, biology, thermodynamics, morality, and self-preservation. And it is to have paid absolutely no attention to the past six thousand years. (pp. 148-149)
This is quite an indictment.  It raises all kinds of questions that we would rather avoid.  But we can't.  It is time for us to begin to imagine what kind of life is possible, what kind of cultural is desirable, after apocalypse.  Beginning from a very different set of assumptions, Alasdair MacIntyre came to a similar - now, seemingly prophetic - conclusion in his After Virtue:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us  . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are not waiting for Godot, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict. (p. 263)
It is not the intellectual and moral life, but life itself, with which we must be concerned.  And we cannot wait for this new and improved St. Benedict.  It is up to us.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mood Altering Substances

Today I was feeling a little down as a took my morning walk around Lake Merritt.  As I was walking, I decided to offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving by naming all the people in my life for whom I am grateful.  This readily filled the hour or so it takes me to get around the lake. 

By the time I got back home, my spirit was soaring.  Movement plus gratitude equals a natural high.  I recommend it the next time you are walking, hiking, swimming, biking, or running (so long as you can do so safely!).  Our moods are largely a function of our thoughts, and our thoughts are subject to the direction of our attention.  Prayer is a form of attention.  Feeling follows focus. 

The substance of our attention is mood altering.  What we pay attention to matters.  I need to remember to pay more attention to the experience of joy, as well as the experience of suffering, in the world.  Both are real, and both are deserving of my energy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Work Done Secretly

St. John of the Cross, 16th. Century Carmelite Monk

From St. John of the Cross' Sayings of Light and Love:

"God is more pleased by one work, however small, done secretly without desire that it be known, than a thousand done with desire that men know of them. The person who works for God with pure love cares nothing about whether men see him, but does not even seek that God Himself know of them. Such a person would not cease to render God the same services, with the same joy and purity of love, even if God were never to know of them."

What could be more counter-cultural than this sentiment? It is my good fortune to have encountered such souls. I recall having dinner with my husband in a restaurant some years ago, when I noticed a member of my parish at the time - a well-known theologian - walk into the restaurant with a woman and her children. We had walked passed the same family on our way into the place. They had been sitting on the sidewalk, passively begging for assistance.

Without much ado, our theologian friend got them a table, spoke quietly to the waitress, and handed her some cash. He then left just as unobtrusively as he had arrived. The family enjoyed a good meal. What our friend didn't know is that we, too, had been fed spiritually by his example.

Of course, his generous action wasn't done for me or for him. It was done for the glory of God, which is the human being fully alive, including those human beings that we so easily walked past on the street eager to fill our own bellies. The kingdom of God is established on the basis of such hidden labors and the movements they create for justice and peace. For every Dr. King or Mother Teresa there are thousands upon thousands of these humble souls bearing them - and the world - upon their shoulders.

One of the most beautiful examples of this truth is the work of City Slicker Farms in West Oakland. They are creating urban farms and gardens in one of the most economically and environmentally exploited communities in the Bay Area, providing food security and building a healthy, sustainable economy. This emerging alternative food production and distribution network, focused on those most in need, is quietly fomenting a revolution; a nonviolent secession from the global economy so that families no longer need beg outside of restaurants.

Learn more about urban farming in Oakland here.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How do I know God's will?

I don’t always know God’s will in advance or all at once. It is something I discern incrementally, moment by moment as I pay attention to what is going on within me and around me. I find that prayer and meditation help to foster this attentiveness, and prepare me to respond intuitively to situations as they arise. Sometimes there is just a felt-sense of "rightness."

Often I need the help of others to discern God’s will. I invite their prayer and feedback. Study of Scripture and other spiritual writings also inform my understanding of God’s will, as I meditate on how others have experienced and responded to God (or failed to do so).

My baseline for discernment is the consequences of my decisions and actions: whether or not they promote peace, love, joy, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, patience, self-control and generosity. When I don't get it "right," God is able even to make use of my failings.

I am growing in my ability to trust God’s will for me even when I don’t know what it is. Its fulfillment depends less on my knowledge than on my faithfulness. If I am open and vulnerable then I can be usable for God.

Too often, my energy is consumed with questions like, "What am I meant to do with my life?," which can be an expression of ego - a sense of entitlement to some grand and self-satisfying purpose in life. This can prevent me from paying attention to what is right in front of me. When I am able to remove the "ego-blinders," God's will is plain to see in the dailiness of life. There always is some small way in which I can be of service to others. And that is enough.

This stance of humility and openness to what is given in the moment is more important than the "correctness" of any particular decision or action. God doesn't play hide and seek with us; life isn't a guessing game. I think it is me who makes it harder than it really is.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Saying Good-bye

I have been spending a lot of time in the past several weeks saying "good-bye" to the people of the parish I serve. My last Sunday with them will be this weekend, July 4. After more than six years, I'm discovering that how I take leave may be as important as any of the work I've done with them.

The congregation has known about my resignation for about two months. At first, I thought this was going to feel like a long, drawn-out leave-taking. Instead, the weeks have passed quickly enough, and I've appreciated being able to take my time packing my office, handing off work, and visiting with folks to bring closure to our time together.

We've been intentional about this transition. Entering into this period mindfully, open to receiving whatever is given, has been a wonderful gift. I've heard stories about how people's lives have been changed here, and discovered seeds I didn't even know I had planted taking root and growing. We've acknowledged failings and experienced forgiveness. Noticing the slow, patient, often hidden work of God - in me as well as in the congregation - has been one of the joys of this time of shared memory and reflection.

It also has been both gratifying and humbling to see how well ministry moves forward without me. That is not to say that my part here has been insignificant, but simply to recognize that I have been part of a larger movement of the Spirit in this place that preceded me and will go on quite well without me. I'm grateful to be able to leave with strong leadership in place and an atmosphere of trust in God and in the future. That is a credit to the transparency that has marked our way of being together.

We devote time to the things that matter to us the most. I hope that the time we've taken to say "good-bye" is received as a token of love, an expression of gratitude, and a sign of health and hope. Letting go is not always easy, but our vulnerability in this time of transition is an opening to love. The invitation to be held in that love is the final gift we have been able to offer one another: the greatest of all gifts, as St. Paul tells us, and the most enduring. Thank you.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Love Slaves for Jesus

Rembrandt, Paul in prison

“Freedom” is on everybody’s lips, especially this week between Pride Sunday and Independence Day. Like motherhood and apple pie, we are all for it. Some even die for the sake of freedom. But what is freedom and how do we experience it?

I like St. Paul’s take: Freedom is not the capacity to choose between this and that desire, but rather the capacity to choose love. We experience freedom by becoming a love slave for Jesus. Jesus has given us his Spirit so that we might be free – “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free” might be a better translation.(1) Freedom is life in the Spirit, living completely transparent to God so that love can flow through us.

Julian of Norwich describes free persons as those “who are so attached to God that there can be no created thing between God and themselves.”(2) We recognize this freedom when we become aware that our desire for God is greater than our desire for anything else. This freedom is intrinsic to our being; as we come to live more and more in this realm of freedom we are grasped by love, and love gradually determines all of our choices. We become aware of the invitations to love and of our desire to respond to them with our whole heart.

But as Blessed Julian recognized, we can become attached to other things to the detriment of our freedom. It doesn’t really matter if the things are good or bad in themselves; it is our attachment to them that can get in the way of love. I’ve known parents who are deeply attached to their children such that they can’t bear for them to be hurt or to fail. Their children are perfectly fine – and quite lovable. It is the attachment, the inability to differentiate themselves from their children that obscures their perceptions and renders them unfree and unable to respond to the promptings of love. Instead they smother them and pressure them to succeed, all the while convinced that they are protecting them and securing their future.

We see the results of our attachment to the fossil-fuel based economy unfolding in the expanding swath of death-dealing oil covering the Gulf of Mexico. In our addiction to this form of energy and the lifestyle it affords us, we are no longer free to love – to choose a sustainable form of economy that preserves and nurtures the natural and cultural bases of both freedom and health upon which all life depends. Fossil fuel is neither good nor bad in itself. It is our attachment to it that obscures our desire for God and the freedom of life in the Spirit.

At the very least, our desire for God can help us to acknowledge the areas of unfreedom in our lives. Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty writes that “At times we may need to acknowledge that we don’t even want to consider the possibility of freedom in a particular choice. We may recognize that we are ‘hooked’ in a particular way and prefer to stay that way. This acknowledgement of our unfree self to God may be our greatest act of trust.”(3) At such times as this, perhaps the most we can do is pray for the willingness to become free.

When we are vulnerable with God in this way, our desire for God eventually brings us into the realm of freedom so that we can risk the changes that love demands. Sr. Rose Mary tells two stories that beautifully illustrate this. She recalls a woman who shared with her about her addiction to smoking. “It got so bad that this addiction began to dictate most of her decisions – whom she would spend her time with, where she would travel, and so on. Then her sister became very ill and was dying in a hospital. The woman wanted to be with her sister every minute but she constantly found herself leaving the room and spending a lot of time getting to a place where she could smoke. Finally she said to herself, ‘That’s enough; this smoking is taking me away from what I want most.’ And she quit.”

“Then there is the story of Dr. Annalena Tonelli, who has dedicated her life to the health of the people of Somalia. She is quoted as saying, ‘I am desperately in love with TB patients . . . I want to be poor up to the last day of my life . . . I would never be able to render service if I had clothes and furniture and all the things which are normal for our society.’ These are seemingly very different examples with very different consequences. The point is, however, that a very particular love in a concrete circumstance evoked a specific face of freedom for each of these women.”(4)

In both of these instances, we see how freedom is ordered toward the good of others and brings us more deeply into connection with them, into community. Our desire for God brings us into the realm of freedom, not simply as an interior receptivity to love but into a communal space in which love shapes action. Through love we become slaves of one another and create a community of the free.

St. Paul describes the tension between freedom and unfreedom as life in the Spirit vs. life in the Flesh. The contrast that Paul develops between the Spirit and the Flesh – “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” – is a contrast between the community of the free, those whose lives are vivified by the Spirit of Christ, and those whose lives are enslaved by self-interest without regard for the common good. The “flesh” here is not understood as the body, but rather is reified as a cosmic force or disruptive energy that undermines the health of the community.

Paul is addressing a community – not individuals – and when he speaks of virtues such as love, joy, peace, generosity, etc. and vices such as enmity, strife, jealousy, quarrels, dissensions and factions, he is speaking about characteristics that indicate whether freedom or self-interest is operative at the level of community. More than that, he is arguing that such vices render community impossible: “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”(5)

Spirit and flesh are not abstract, disembodied entities, but vital energies that give shape to our collective endeavors. For St. Paul, freedom is not a matter of individuals choosing a way of life but rather the realm of existence determined by the Spirit of Christ; only within that realm can we be truly free, and authentic community is possible only when animated by such freedom. Freedom is life in the Spirit.

To put it another way, we might say that individual freedom is possible only in such a community, where self-giving love for the sake of the common good triumphs over self-interested exploitation. “For you were called to freedom brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another; take care that you are not consumed by one another.”(6)

If we wish to avoid consuming one another – and the planet – we must have the courage to acknowledge our attachments, the barriers to love that bind us. The trick with attachments is not to deny them or to renounce them; both these strategies only bind us more tightly to them. What we must do is see them for what they are in light of our deeper and more profound desire for God.

Sr. Rose Mary again: “We cannot make ourselves free. We can only pray to live into freedom, seeking God even in the midst of our attachments. In the process we may realize that John of the Cross is right when he says that we come to God through what we love and desire. We may find that our attachments are the vehicles of God’s purifying love in our lives. They are the means through which God burns away the impurities of lesser loves until we are but one pure flame . . . We live in the ashes of our freedom.”(7)

The ashes of our freedom are the ego-centric attachments that burn away in the heat of our desire for God. What remains is a passionate engagement with love’s work in the world, the world that God loved so much that he sent his son, Jesus, to set us free to share in this love. In the realm of freedom, we desire as God desires and act as agents of God’s love. St. Paul described his own experience of this state when he wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”(8)

The realm of freedom can be thought of as the querencia. “In bull fighting there is a place in the ring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place, he stops running and gathers his full strength. He is no longer afraid . . . It is the job of the matador to know where this sanctuary lies, to be sure the bull does not have time to occupy his place of wholeness.”

“This safe place for a bull is called the querencia. For humans the querencia is the safe place in our inner world . . . When a person finds their querencia, in full view of the matador, they are calm and peaceful. Wise. They have gathered their strength around them.”(9) Our attachments are like the matador, driving us to and fro so that we cannot claim the realm of freedom in our lives. When we realize that freedom, we can look the matador in the eye without fear. We can choose to live from the deep center of our being, where the living water of love wells up spontaneously and overflows into our lives.

I would agree with St. Paul, however, that the querencia is not only the experience of interior freedom, but is also a realm of freedom in history. The querencia is the community of the free who engage love’s work together for the common good. We need the dynamic interaction of contemplation and communion, interior freedom and communal action, to realize the gifts of the Spirit in our world.

The querencia for human beings is an integrative experience of the spiritual and material, individual and communal, dimensions of life. It is not a private or personal experience, but a profoundly shared realization of the radical interdependence of the whole creation. It is an awakening of the heart to compassion (for ourselves and others) and a quickening of the feet to march for justice (for all).

In my own experience, I have found it much easier to look the matador in the eye with the help of others. One of the great blessings of being the rector of St. John’s is that you have been the querencia for me, the realm of freedom, the place where I can gather my strength, calm my nerves, and realize again love’s claim upon me and the world. You have invited me again and again to let go the attachments that inhibit freedom, and to commit them to the living flame of our desire for God. You have taught me what it is to be a love slave for Jesus.

As I prepare to leave you, my only wish is that you continue to experience the querencia in your life together, and find the inspiration to extend it in an ever widening circle of love until the Spirit God renews the face of the whole earth. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”(10) Amen.

(1) See J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), pp. 446-447 for this translation of Gal. 5:1.
(2) Quoted in Rose Mary Dougherty, Discernment: a path to spiritual awakening (New York: Paulist Press, 2009), p. 29.
(3) Dougherty, p. 31
(4) Dougherty, p. 32
(5) Galatians 5:16-21.
(6) Galatians 5:13-15.
(7) Dougherty, Discernment, p. 38.
(8) Galatians 2:20.
(9) Quoted in Dougherty, pp. 23-24.
(10) Galatians 5:1.

Friday, June 25, 2010


I am re-reading Rose Mary Dougherty's beautiful book, Discernment: a path to spiritual awakening. It is the distillation of the teaching of one of the great living spiritual guides of our time. Sr. Rose Mary, SSND is a Roman Catholic religious and a Zen Buddhist sensei, who has taught at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation for many years. She melds together Ignatian, Carmelite, Quaker, and Zen spirituality, refined in the furnace of her own spiritual practice. When she says that "We live in the ashes of our freedom," she is speaking from experience. All the dross has been burned away to reveal the living flame of love in her simple, yet profound, reflections.

While Doughtery provides a basic grounding in traditional understandings of discernment and the practices that aid in the cultivation of a discerning heart, the essence of her teaching is the conviction that discernment is a way of life rooted in prayer. Discernment is not so much a method(s) for making decisions as it is a fundamental orientation of ourselves towards God. "The habit of discernment is an attitude of listening to God in all of life. We might also describe it as a posture of openness to God in all of life or simply as prayerfulness." (p. 22)

The purpose of discernment is not about self-knowledge as an end-in-itself, or about making the "right" choices in life. Its purpose is the experience of freedom to love. "Discernment is ultimately about love. It is about seeing in the moment, the loving action and compassionate action that is mine and having the freedom to respond and to act . . . That love gradually determines all our choices. We begin to awaken to the invitations issued by love and are ready to respond out of the authenticity of our being." (p. 29-30). Dougherty helps to illumine the sources of our "unfreedom," the barriers to love, and uncover our deepest desire for "an unrestricted love in all of life." (p. 28).

This book is a wonderful resource for pastors and spiritual directors, and the six short chapters would serve well as the focus of a book study, perhaps during Lent. I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to nurture his or her desire for God.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Saying Good-bye

July 4 will be my last Sunday as rector at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. The congregation is moving to a part-time rector position, possibly yoked with another congregation(s) in the future. I have been aware of this development for some time, and have supported it whole-heartedly as the right decision for reasons of mission and stewardship. At the same time, I am clear that I am not called to serve in such a capacity. So, it is time to say good-bye and move on, with an enormous sense of gratitude and accomplishment.

The more than six years spent at St. John's has been profoundly formative for me as a priest and a human being. I've experienced much healing and growth thanks to the spiritual maturity and gentle forbearance of the people there. My own prayer life has blossomed, I've embraced a call to the ministry of spiritual direction, and I have been affirmed in my vocation as a parish priest. I've learned to accept my limits, let go, and accept forgiveness. And so much more.

I'm not sure yet what God has in store for me yet, but I trust it will be better than I could ask for or imagine. It always is - even if it is not always easy.

As I say good-bye to St. John's, I also am saying good-bye to meditatio. This blog has been a wonderful creative outlet, a format with which I am still experimenting. I will continue the experiment at Theo's. You are welcome to join me there.

Thank you St. John's, and thank you all who've dropped in here from time to time. May God bless you and keep you.

En-Gulfed in the Need for Community

Watching the horror unfold in the Gulf of Mexico has been deeply troubling. For me, it is much more than an industrial "accident," an unfortunate but necessary risk to preserve our way of life. It is a potent reminder that this way of life is killing the planet.

As prophets like Wendell Berry have proclaimed for many years now, the industrial economy is not sustainable; it is, in fact, the source of much of our cultural and natural dis-ease. In a 1991 essay, Conservation and Local Economy, Berry wrote that "The aims of production, profit, efficiency, economic growth and technological progress imply . . . no social or ecological standards, and in practice they submit to none. But there is another set of aims that does imply a standard, and these aims are freedom (which is pretty much a synonym for personal and local self-sufficiency), pleasure (that is, our gladness to be alive), and longevity or sustainability (by which we signify our wish that human freedom and pleasure may last). The standard implied by all of these aims is health. They depend ultimately and in escapably on the health of nature; the idea that freedom and pleasure can last long in a diseased world is preposterous. But these good things depend also on the health of human culture, and human culture is to a considerable extent the knowledge of economic and other domestic procedures - that is, ways of work, pleasure, and education - that preserve the health of nature."

The standard of health is what Christians refer to as "salvation" - health in its ultimate, cosmic dimension. Too often, we have thought of salvation as something reserved for human beings sometime in the future in some other world. We forget that Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is among us and that we should pray for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. St. Paul picks up this theme, seeing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as encompassing the end of the "old creation" and its death-dealing ways, and the birth of a new creation. John's Gospel tell us that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17)

This world whose salvation (health) God desires encompasses far more than human beings. St. Paul, again, "For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross." (Col. 1:19-20) God's love exemplied in Christ's self-offering in solidarity with a suffering world is for the healing of the whole creation.

When St. Paul speaks of the creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, groaning in labor pains (Rom. 8:18ff), I believe he is giving poetic expression to the hope of the earth for a human community ordered to the standard of health. The earth is groaning still in anticipation of such a community, children of God committed to saving the earth from its bondage to decay.

As Berry reminds us, "Community, then, is an indispensable term in any discussion of the connection between people and land [and, we must add, sea]. A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between the human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included."

Questions about deep sea drilling and the viability of a fossil-fuel based economy as a whole must be answered in terms of this comprehensive vision of community. A truly inclusive community, which the Church aspires to be, must recognize sea turtles and plankton and marsh lands as neighbors too. It is in defense of these neighbors, groaning in agony, that we are called to act today as the people of God. Only then will the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Royal Rape: David, BP & the Prophetic Counter-Narrative

You may be old enough – or watch enough late night television – to have seen the 1951 movie version of 2 Samuel Chapters 11 & 12, starring Gregory Peck as David and Susan Hayward as Bathsheba. The film depicts a love affair gone wrong, consensual adultery leading to political intrigue and murder, but ultimately redeemed by true love. David and Bathsheba may be naughty, but they look fabulous! Sex, violence, and religion: what could be more entertaining?

Yet, even this is a highly sanitized telling of the story, much like the versions we learned as children in Sunday school. Even translators and scholars of this text from 2 Samuel often attempt to make it more palatable to our moral sensibilities. My Revised Standard Version translation inserts a summary heading at the beginning of Chapter Eleven which reads: “David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba.” But is this really just a tale of marital infidelity?

It is tempting to read the story of David and Bathsheba in this way, but doing so requires us to forget that David isn’t just anybody: he is a king. It also requires us to ignore the Biblical text itself, which sets this story within a larger narrative of systematic violence. At the heart of this story is the contrast between the stories we tell to justify structures of sin, and the alternative story into which God wishes to invite us.

The story of David and Bathsheba is not a story of longing and fulfillment, but a story about rape – a royal rape that sheds light on a larger pattern of violence that is simply taken for granted. As Walter Brueggemann helpfully observes, “the narrative of sexuality is framed by a larger military narrative.”(1)

2 Samuel Chapter 11 opens by setting the stage this way: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him: they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” It was spring, the most propitious time for a military campaign, and so David – or at least his army – did what kings do. It is no more unusual than the beginning of spring baseball training. The narrative concludes at the end of Chapter 12 with Joab calling David in to deliver the final coup de grace to the defeated Ammonites so that he can take credit for the victory. Such violence is simply the way of the world.

It is within the context of business-as-usual violence that the rape of Bathsheba unfolds. The narrative is terse and to the point: David saw, he summoned, he violated, and then he sent back home. There is no crisis of conscience, no “should I or shouldn’t I.” I am tempted to speculate that David’s rape of Bathsheba was a way of vicariously participating in the orgy of violence being unleashed by his troops as they ravaged the Ammonites. At any rate, his violation of her was not about love or even sex, really; but rather the elixir of power and control. David is exercising his royal prerogative, reflecting the normalcy of this culture of violence.

When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David begins an almost comical effort at a cover-up. Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, is recalled from the front and encouraged in every way possible to have sex with his wife. Ironically, it is this foreigner – Uriah is a Hittite, not an Israelite – who demonstrates a sense of military honor and refuses to enjoy any liberties while his brothers are fighting and dying. David finally decides to send him back to the front and delivers the following order to Joab: “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” And that is exactly what happened.

David’s rape of Bathsheba and its cover-up are simply part of the structure of violence justified for the sake of political order, social harmony, and united opposition to one’s enemies. Upon learning from Joab that Uriah is dead, David responds, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack upon the city, and overthrow it.” For David, it is not violence or murder that is troubling, but rather loss of face and of control.

That is the story that David told himself about himself and his world. But it is not the end of the story; or, rather, there is another story to be told about David and his world – and our world. It is the story that God wants to tell us: which brings us to the prophecy of Nathan.

Remember that prophecy is not so much about telling the future as it is about telling the truth; seeing ourselves as we really are. The story that God seeks to tell is a truthful version of events. Prophets seek to free us from our denial and our illusions so that we can respond appropriately to reality.

2 Samuel Chapter 12 begins by informing us that what David had done displeased the Lord. As William Willimon notes, “At this verse occurs a collision of two narratives: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the ‘real world’ and a second narrative about [God’s] counter plans for the world.” (2) Nathan appears on the scene to skillfully proclaim this counter-narrative in such a way as to lead David into the truth. The story could not possibly be more different.

In David’s account, the focus is all on him. Violence and exploitation are justified means to the end of maintaining power. The victims of this violence are marginal to the story – they have little emotional depth or voice. They are pawns. In Nathan’s parable, the poor victims come to the fore, and are given a humanity and dignity that contrasts with the selfish greed of the rich man. “In the prophetic counter-narrative, we notice people and economic circumstances that official, royal narratives teach us to ignore.”(3)

Here, we see most clearly that David’s sin is not simply a matter of personal failing, though it is that, too. His sin is not just about a sexual peccadillo, or even the murderous cover-up. It is about his complicity in a whole way of seeing and operating in the world as if amoral will-to-power defined reality, leaving nothing but invisible victims and triumphant oppressors. His sin is fundamentally his acceptance of this culture of violence, and his abuse of religion to justify it.

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel . . . I rescued you . . . I gave you your master’s house . . . and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” Nathan’s wake-up call to David is a reminder that reality is about covenantal relationship. We are not at the center of reality; God is. We are entitled to nothing, and yet God has given us everything. Our lives are meant to be ordered to the reception and preservation of this gracious gift.

David had become mesmerized by the seductive illusion of mastery – the idea that one can bend the universe to one’s own will without regard for consequences. Anything which undermines this illusion must be denied, excluded, or destroyed; thus the royal narrative that justifies violence to maintain order.

The prophetic narrative provides an alternative vision of reality as a gift to be received, a beautiful yet fragile interconnected whole of which we are but a part. Our call is not to mastery, but to conforming our lives and our will to the requirements of living in harmony with reality. This is the Biblical idea of covenantal relationship, the realization of our responsibility for the common good of the whole creation. God has blessed us with the gift of life and we are called to nurture that gift for all by cultivating justice, health and peace. Nathan recalls David to this sacred covenantal reality.

We, too, are apt to forget this covenantal reality and become mesmerized by the royal narrative of mastery, the illusion of invulnerability, and the culture of violence to which it gives rise. Our Presiding Bishop, in her recent pastoral letter reminds us of the prophetic counter-narrative. She writes that,

“The still unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is good evidence of the interconnectedness of the whole. [This disaster] has its origins in this nation’s addiction to oil, uninhibited growth, and consumerism, as well as old-fashioned greed and what [our] tradition calls hubris and idolatry. Our collective sins are being visited on those who have had little or no part in them: birds, marine mammals, the tiny plants and animals that constitute the base of the vast food chain in the Gulf, and on which a major part of the seafood production of the United States depends. Our sins are being visited on the fishers of southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, who seek to feed their families with the proceeds of what they catch each day. Our sins will expose New Orleans and other coastal cities to the increased likelihood of devastating floods, as the marshes that constitute the shrinking margin of storm protection continue to disappear, fouled and killed by oil.”

“There is no place to go ‘away’ from these consequences; there is no ultimate escape on this planet. The effects at a distance may seem minor or tolerable, but the cumulative effect is not. We are all connected, we will all suffer the consequences of this tragic disaster in the Gulf, and we must wake up and put a stop to the kind of robber baron behavior we supposedly regulated out of existence a hundred years ago. Our lives, and the liveliness of the entire planet, depend on it.”(4)

British Petroleum’s rape of the Gulf of Mexico was not an “accident,” anymore than David’s rape of Bathsheba was a “lapse of judgment.” It is an expression of the royal narrative that justifies exploitation in the name of order; in this case, preserving the fossil-fuel economy for profit without regard for consequences. BP’s behavior was a “necessary” risk justified by the illusion of unlimited economic growth, entirely consistent with the larger pattern of ecological violence culminating in global climate change.

David’s illusion of military mastery, the unlimited extension of Israel’s power without regard for the common good, unleashed a cycle of violence that tore his family apart, incited civil war, and eventually led to the destruction and exile of Israel at the hands of even more ambitious imperial powers. Nathan’s prophetic reminder brought David to repentance, but the consequences of his actions remained with him and his people for generations to come.

Even if the Biblical prophetic counter-narrative offered by Bishop Katharine brings us to repentance and amendment of life – and I pray it will – the consequences of our actions will remain with us for many generations as well. We must repent of the illusion of mastery and relinquish our sense of entitlement to exploit the earth to preserve unsustainable lifestyles. Not only the quality, but the very possibility of life is at stake. We must remember our covenantal responsibility to the whole, and renew our sense of wonder and gratitude.

Ours is the first generation of humans to have pictures of the earth viewed from space. It is this image of the whole that we must contemplate, internalize, and act upon; ever-mindful of the beauty and mystery of this precious blue-green orb wrapped in white clouds set against the magnificent background of endless darkness. What a priceless gift! May God give us the grace to receive it with humility and care for it responsibly. (5)

(1) Walter Brueggemann, “Abuse of Command: Exploiting Power for Sexual Gratification,” Sojourners Magazine (July/August, 1997).

(2) William Willimon, “A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin,” Theology Today (Vol. 50, No. 2, July 1993), p. 224.

(3) Willimon, p. 224.

(4) The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, “A Lesson from the Gulf oil spill: We are all connected,” Episcopal Life Weekly at

(5) I'm grateful to Bishop Marc Andrus for his insight into the icon of the earth as image of the whole.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


This morning’s Scripture readings included two conversion stories: the Acts of the Apostles’ account of Saul’s dramatic transformation on the road to Damascus, and the Gospel of John’s account of Peter’s life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ. Saul, the persecutor of the new Christian movement, becomes Paul, the movement’s most energetic and prolific leader. Simon, the disciple who denied and abandoned the crucified Jesus, becomes Peter, the rock upon which the risen Jesus builds the church.

These are powerful, inspiring stories that teach us a good deal about the experience of conversion, and the ways in which we resist conversion. I want to spend some time this morning drawing out these lessons. But first, I want to caution against a reading of these stories that understands conversion as a singular event rather than a life-long experience. Conversion is often depicted as a dramatic turning point, a decision for God that completely changes one’s life. It marks the movement from one identity to another; we become a different person, signified by the taking of a new name.

I would like to suggest that such an understanding of conversion is at best a partial misreading of these stories, one that obscures rather than illuminates the full scope of conversion. While the experience of conversion certainly can include particularly memorable moments of insight or transformation, such moments are part of an ongoing process that is always at work within us. Conversion is the hidden, slow work of God drawing us into deeper awareness of our gifts and limitations so that we can be made usable for God; awakening us to our desire for God, our desire to be fully alive and to live in love. (1)

From this perspective, it is not so much that conversion changes us into something that we were not, but rather is the patient unfolding or shaping of the potential for life and love that was always present in us. This is reflected in the teaching of St. Irenaeus, the 2nd Century theologian who wrote,

It is not you that shapes God,
It is God that shapes you.
If then you are the work of God,
Await the hand of the artist
Who does all things in due season.
Offer God your heart, soft and tractable,
And keep the form in which
The artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
Lest you grow hard and lose
The imprint of God’s fingers.

We are created in the image of God, bearing the imprint of God’s fingers. Conversion is God’s work in us to reveal the divine image in all its glory, but it also requires a willingness on our part to be shaped by God. We can be soft and tractable before God, or we can harden our hearts. Conversion is what happens when God’s work and our willingness meet together.

When that meeting together happens, especially after a period of resistance to God’s slow work in us, we can experience it as a dramatic breakthrough. That is, I think, what we find reflected in the dramatic episodes of Saul and Peter’s life-long conversions recounted in today’s Scripture lessons. But the groundwork for that breakthrough, which may take years to establish, and the fruit that the breakthrough must bear in the remainder of our lives if it is reflective of genuine conversion, and not simply the reinforcement of self-centered ego; all this too is conversion.

The 30 seconds of a powerful earthquake do not just happen out of nowhere; there are subtle but profound movements taking place beneath the surface for many years in advance; the event and its aftershocks establish a different pattern of life, a realignment of forces seen and unseen that endures for many years to come. That is what conversion is like.

Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus is a poignant reminder that conversion is God’s work, not ours. Like all too many religious people, Saul was under the illusion that conversion was his job – that by force of will he could become holy and make others holy as well. When we believe we are responsible for our own and other people’s conversion, we can end up breathing threats and murder against the forces that resist our attempts at conversion – both the forces within us and around us.

Feeling responsible for your own salvation, not to mention that of the world, creates tremendous anxiety, and the inevitable failure one experiences trying to do so, gives rise to fear and hatred of the forces of resistance that “cause” our failure. The attempt to compartmentalize our failure from our need to be perfect leads to an unbearable crisis that is either internalized or projected outward or both. We kill what we can’t convert in order to feel justified.

Saul was bound by this dynamic, hating what he couldn’t control or fix in himself and others. The breakthrough for him came when he stopped projecting his own resistance to God’s work of conversion on to others, and became willing to submit to the very thing he was persecuting: the mercy of God whose forgiveness and acceptance takes the form of the Risen Christ.

Saul became willing to look into the mirror provided by his “enemies” and saw his own reflection there; but then he looked a little deeper, and saw the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. His conversion struck him blind; his normal way of seeing things became darkened so that that he could be given a new perception of reality consonant with God’s desire for him to be fully alive and in love. It was through the healing touch of Ananias, the willingness to accept the love of the enemy, that God gave new sight to Saul.

As Rose Mary Dougherty notes, at the center of conversion is the destruction of our own image of God in order to allow God to be God for us; a God who is not only other than we are but is also other than we want God to be. It is in this acceptance, lived at the daily level of our own experience, that a person begins to awaken to the process of conversion. (2)

A God who simply reinforces our self-righteousness is no God at all, but simply the projection of our ego. And submission to such a God is not conversion, but narcissism. Perhaps the surest sign of conversion is humility, a willingness to let go of one’s self-image and image of God, realizing that one no longer has anything to protect or defend because all is entrusted to God’s loving will for us and for others.

Saul became Paul – not just in a moment on the road to Damascus – we need only read Paul’s letters to know that! It took time, in fits and starts, for Paul to integrate and give expression to the reality of God’s love in his life and ministry. He moved away from threats and murder toward rhetoric and persuasion and finally, martyrdom. Paul’s life was messy, like ours. He struggled with issues of authority, community norms and discipline, setting healthy boundaries and breaking barriers to love. Saints aren’t perfect; they are people who realize and accept their imperfection so that they can become usable for God. Saul, who was willing to kill what he could not convert, became Paul, who gave his life for the sake of the conversion to which he willingly submitted.

It is our attention to the process of conversion in ourselves, our willingness to submit to God’s slow, hidden work in us, that is the most profound witness to God’s reality and love that we can offer others. The work of God in us is a gentle invitation to accept our gifts and limitations, a movement of self-acceptance and a willingness to reach beyond what we are now, consonant with our desire for God. We cannot convert ourselves, much less others. But we can accept God’s invitation to love and make of our lives an invitation to undergo conversion.

It is Peter’s acceptance of this invitation to love that is so moving in the Gospel story we heard today. The story of his encounter with the Risen Jesus is a beautiful portrayal of the power of love as a motivating factor in conversion, of which we may not even be aware. When we awaken to love, the process of conversion moves to a deeper level.

If Saul resisted conversion because of his anxiety and fear, it seems to me that Peter resisted conversion out of a sense of hopelessness and despair. After denying any relationship with Jesus and abandoning him to his death, Peter is in mourning. He is grieving the loss of Jesus, and the loss of his own integrity.

In the story preserved in John’s Gospel, Peter returns to Galilee and to his old life as a fisherman. I wonder which was more painful for Peter: the fact that Jesus didn’t turn out to be who Peter hoped he would be, or the fact that Peter turned out to be less than what he had aspired to become himself. After all, he had told Jesus that he would give his life for him.

Here again, we see a dying to self-image and dying of one’s image of God at work in the process of conversion. This process is nothing less than the living of the Paschal mystery, the passing from death to life, in our daily lives. In the ordinariness of his “old” life, in his coming to terms with failure and sin, Peter is undergoing conversion.

What seems like hopelessness and despair is preparing Peter, like Saul, to see in a new way. Jesus appears to Peter on the beach, not instantly recognizable, but vaguely and hauntingly familiar. A spark of hope is renewed – “Could it really be Jesus?” – and so Peter dives into the water and races toward shore.

It is important to pay attention to spontaneous responses. Peter probably realized more about his love for Jesus in his unselfconscious jumping into the water and swimming ashore than he could ever realize even after years of reflecting on their relationship. (3) Underneath Peter’s hopelessness and despair was an enduring love, a desire for God revealed in the face of Jesus, just waiting to come to life again.

In that instant of recognition, or at least desire to see, Peter awakened to love and became willing to allow it to becoming the motivating force in his life. Simply accepting our deep, but often unacknowledged desire for God, can transform our lives in ways we could not otherwise imagine. That isn’t to say that abandoning ourselves to love is easy or painless. Peter’s encounter with the Risen Jesus, his Beloved, demanded acknowledgement and integration of his previous betrayals; three affirmations of love to match three denials.

Conversion is an abandonment to love, but this also means an abandonment of our own securities, allowing ourselves to be led into a deeper trust that encompasses the painful as well as the joyful dimensions of our lives. (4) Peter lays it all before Jesus, and in entrusting himself to this love is given a new vocation: to feed and tend the sheep, to become a leader in loving others. Conversion leads Peter from isolation back into community. Conversion is never just about my relationship with Jesus, but also my relationship with everything else and the hard work of welcoming the reign of God in community.

Conversion is consent to the patient work of God making us into his image. It requires humility and trust. As Isaac Pennington describes it, our part is simply to let go:

Be no more than God hath made thee.
Give over thine own willing;
Give over thine own running;
Give over thine own desiring to know or to be anything,
And sink down to the seed
Which God sows in thy heart,
And let that grow in thee,
And be in thee,
And breathe in thee,
And act in thee,
And thou shalt find by sweet experience
That the Lord knows that,
And loves and owns that,
And will lead it to the inheritance of life,
Which is God’s portion.


(1) I'm indebted to Sr. Rose Mary Dougherty, SSND for the following remarks, based on her talk on "conversion" given at the January 2009 Shalem Institute Residency Program.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Haiku Prayer

As part of the Shalem Institute's Spiritual Guidance Program residency, we've been exploring Haiku poetry as a contemplative practice. In its Zen Buddhist roots, it is a skillful means for fostering wide open, non-dual awareness of the present moment. The essence of the form is to move beyond ego into a more expansive consciousness of what is real. It is a practice of co-inherence, an experience of communion.

Haiku is direct, simple, and evocative, giving expression to what is: right here, right now. Saturday night I shared Evensong with a tree:

Setting sun,
moss in glory
praising God.

The next morning I walked along the creek bed, newly alive with the spring thaw.

Water skips,
rocks shimmer.
Listen! Song.

Noticing the ground - and the sound - beneath my feet:

Snow crunch,
woven leaves;
Way opens.

Occasionally, we experience what Tilden Edwards calls participative seeing, beyond the subject-object split. We are simply alive in God, in the is-ness of it all. How different life can be when we act from this contemplative orientation. As Kathleen Norris notes in The Cloister Walk: "Poets understand that they do not know what they mean, and that this is their strength . . . writing teaches us to recognize when we have reached the limits of language, and our knowing, and are dependent on our senses to 'know' for us."

Haiku is a way of "knowing" by "unknowing" - letting go of our discursive, analytical ordering of experience so as to simply be in it. It cultivates a more subtle, interior spiritual sense. Our culture, awash in meaningless materialism and on the verge of global ecological collapse, desperately needs to recover this contemplative way of knowing, and feeling, and acting.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Prayer and Desire

As I prepare for our Lenten observance, I reread James Alison's Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology today. It is a brilliant interpretation of the New Testament teaching about prayer, emphasizing Matthew 6:1-18 (part of which appears as the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday) with more than a glance at Luke's "importunate widow" (Luke 18:1-8) and a couple of all-too-brief, but provocative, observations about the "Our Father."

In essence, Alison argues that the anthropology operative in the New Testament assumes that human beings are constituted by their relationships all the way through, so to speak. This "I" is much more highly malleable that it is comfortable to admit. And even more difficult: it is not the "I" that has desires, it is desire that forms and sustains the "I." The "I" is something like a snapshot in time of the relationships that preexist it and one of whose symptoms it is . . .

. . . in this picture, prayer is going to start from the presupposition that we all desire according to the desire of the other. It is going to raise the question: Yes, but which other? We know that their is a social other which gives us desire and moves us the way and that. But is there Another Other, who is not part ofthe social other, and who has an entirely different pattern of desire into which it is seeking to induct us? That of course is the great Hebrew question, the discovery of God who is not-one-of-the-gods, and our texts on prayer are part of our way into becoming part of the great Hebrew answer. (Alison, p. 4)

Prayer, then, becomes the way in which we "detox" from the identity we have taken from the social other, so as to become capable of taking on an identity formed by God. It becomes the urgent reason why we need to pray: so as to allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike we ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition, unlike the social other and its violent traps, to gain access to re-creating us from within, to giving us a "self," an "I of desire" that is in fact a constant flow of treasure. We are asking, in fact to become a symptom of [God's] pattern of desire, rather than that of the social other which ties us up into becoming so much less. (Alison, p. 18)

It isn't that "I" have desires, but that desires make me who "I" am. Here we find the principle expressed by St. John of the Cross: we become like the object of our love. At the evening of life, you will be examined in love. Learn to love as God desires to be loved and abandon your own way of acting. ("Sayings of Light and Love," 57) Prayer is the techne by which we learn to love as God desires, to become what God desires; one who desires God. And so prayer is a kind of death - the way of the Cross - in which our old "I" is crucified with Christ so that we can be raised up into eternal life, the desire of God and the desire for God.

Be careful what you pray for, indeed.