Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Blast from my Past - Instars and Other Times - 1978

INSTARS AND OTHER TIMES                                                                 1978

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; 
You will come to a great city 
That has expected your return for years.

W.H.Auden

The idea of "connection" was charged with mysterious significance for Thomas Merton.

David SteindlRast, O.S.B.


After the Kiwanis Show I decided I didn't want to be a salesman any longer. That was in April and, six months later, in the winter of 1974, 1 returned to Davis as a parttime student. Before the quarter started I drove up to visit "the House," a freeform counseling and support center between the health center and the high-rise dorms. It was warm for late winter and the counselorincharge was outside working on his Volkswagen. He wore denim jeans and a blue shirt embroidered with a peace symbol on the shoulders. He had a ponytail and a beard. We talked and I told him I was worried about coming back to college and being older. Were there other students like me on the campus and would there be a place for me? He squatted down to look closely at a part of the engine that was lying on the grass next to his car and then turned to look at me, "Don't worry about fitting in here, it is a big campus and there are a lot of different people. You don't have to worry about it." He turned back to replace a greasy part on his car. "You should see some of the Bozos we have around here." I folded my arms: "Are you really able to help these Bozos who come to you for help?" He looked surprised as he stood up and started to scratch his neck. "Hell man," he said, "I don't know. I'm just another Bozo." I looked at my watch and realized that I had to get back to Fairfield. As I walked over to the parking lot I wondered about it; were we all a bunch of Bozos?

Shortly after New Years I moved to Davis. First to the Americana Apartments on F street, which looked like a 1954 convalescent hospital, and then in the spring to a new apartment at Oxford Parkside on Wake Forest Drive. Winter Quarter I took English 45 [Critical Reading of Poetry], and Religious Studies 137 [Religious Biography], where I learned about Hagiography and Gandhi in Africa and Luther in sitting meditation. I dropped English. Spring quarter I took an English class and an American Studies class on Religion. I dropped English but the class in American Studies was different. The professor spent the first day talking about what the class might be covering, He wasn't sure. It would depend what people wanted to read or learn about. Last year several students had done a presentation to the class on the bars of Davis, using slides and tape. He asked if there were any questions and told a guy with glasses in the first row that the syllabus wasn't ready yet. Then a woman in the front row asked about his own religious beliefs. I was surprised about that. But Dave Wilson smiled and proceeded to answer her. I don't remember exactly what he said but I remember thinking he was good. He was standing there in front of these students on the first day of class and he wasn't acting like a teacher. He was saying things I had often hopes to hear in church, but he didn't sound like a churchman; he was really smart but he didn't sound like an academic, he could have passed for a fireman. And his face kept changing; first he would be smiling and quoting Jonathan Edwards, and then he would frown and talk about the way his body felt after a day walking in the mountains. You could watch him think. There were a few other questions and then it was ten-fifty and time to end the class.

I stayed in that class and we talked about the Noosphere and Ben Franklin as a Saint and norm versus normative and "signals of transcendence" and plausibility structures and we read Poor Richard's Almanac and The Exorcist and A Rumor of Angels. I wrote a final exam about a friend who went through several radical changes in self-image, without once looking at the possibilities of living outside of an image.  The paper was well written and a bit snide, and I got an A for it.

I spent the summer of 1974 pleasantly. I played a lot of tennis and worked part-time and went camping with a friend who had a trailer on a new lake near Nevada City. We would play tennis at the club in the morning and swim in the afternoon at a beach with metal umbrellas next to the clubhouse. I reread Jaws that summer. When the summer was over I decided to enrol as a full-time student and I registered for two classes in English, one in Human Sexuality and an Introduction to American Studies. In late September I returned to Davis. .

I went to the Library early on the first day of classes and I was in the browsing room looking for the newest issue of Punch when Lorraine spoke to me. She was the woman who had sat in the front row on the first day of Dave's class the previous spring. We talked about being older students and she said she was adjusting to it. Then we went up to the American Studies Library on the eighth floor of Sproul Hall, where they had a corner room full of books and some comfortable chairs and coffee for the students. And we sat and drank coffee and talked with several people whom I had met before about F. Scott and Zelda and sex roles and company towns and folk music and then I dropped all my class except one and added several classes in American Studies and changed my major.

American Studies 45 was a small class and was conducted as a seminar. I looked at the other students who were sitting on the builtin sofa that hugged the walls in the new "soft" classroom in Olson Hall. When I ate on Campus I usually went to the Memorial Union Dining Commons. These people went to the coffee house. The class had team teachers; Merline, who looked like a cross between Ava Gardner as an intellectual and an earth mother, and Jay, who was from the East. My first assignment was due in three weeks.

That fall I found a roommate with an apartment in a complex at 1905 Anderson who was interested in tennis and sex. He left every morning at six for a few sets before class and every Friday he would leave for a weekend of protracted debauchery in Marin County which he would tell me about every Sunday night, in detail. I spent a lot of time reading at the Library that quarter.

The evening before my first paper was due for 45 1 went to the coffee house. People were sitting reflectively on the glass porch as I sat down with my coffee and started rereading the section of the text I was to write on. I wasn't sure how to write the paper. There had been three papers presented so far. the first had been scholarly, the second was a "pop" story and the third was about how the author was unable to write about what he wanted to write. That paper was taken the most seriously. I decided to combine all three styles. I wrote about Shirley Temple and intersubjective sedimentation and family dinners with an undertone of anomie. That was one of the words we were using that fall in 45 and 140A. We were talking about inner and other and tradition and non-directed. We read Social Construction of Reality and Grand Theory and Small is Beautiful and Thomas Szaz and R.D.Lang and "Boyology." We talked about roles and realities and students and teachers and group dynamics. And that was when Jay was tap dancing in front of the eastern windows in the hallway in the eighth floor of Sproul Hall and I realized that we had a rather odd reputation with some People in the English department.

Although we didn't have a white Christmas that year, I came down with a hot gall bladder and took incompletes in both 45 and 140A. The surgery was set for February and I asked for winter quarter incompletes in March. Bob Meredith said that if I would repeat his 140B class the following fall there would be no problem, but when I went to Merline one Friday afternoon to ask her for an "I" grade for 110 [Introduction to cross-cultural studies], she said "No." She said, "I won't help you to be weak, You're easily strong enough to do this paper and to complete 45 as well, If you want help to do this work I will help you, but I will not and cannot help you to be weak. You are better than that!" I decided over the weekend to try to do the paper. I interviewed a man I had known for several years who had grown up in Holland. I started out by asking simple questions and then things started making sense and I got better answers and I made some good connections and I wrote it all down and it was a good paper.

That was the quarter when I met people who didn't think the kingdom of God would have a Country Club Suburb. I met people who talked about being feminists, or growing up Jewish in Beverly Hills. I found myself with people who did mushrooms and yoga. I smoked dope with several aging boy scouts and I met a woman who was best known for a poster that said "Resist!''

When the spring came and the weather got warmer I was living in a house on Road 102 with a guy from the law school and a woman who was pre-vetinary and spending my Monday and Wednesday afternoons sitting in the backyard without a shirt discussing "Problems and Solutions in American Culture" at Dave and Bonnie Wilson's. That was the spring we talked about bee-keeping as mediational politics and Ann Landers and sex and the creative urge and bibliography and museums and nursing and God. I was talking about God. First I was going to write a critique on evangelistic Christian groups and show where they went wrong, but that went nowhere. I told Dave I couldn't do it and he suggested reading Jonathan Edwards and I said that I didn't want to do that, then he suggested I write my own manual for finding God and he seemed to be serious, so I said I would think about it and left.

I went back to the house I was sharing on Road 102. 1 lay back on my bed and wondered what I could write about. I am not sure what happened next except that I didn't worry about looking like a student because what I was saying and the people I was speaking to were more important than that; so I reread a bit of Peter Berger and some Thomas Merton and I started to write a long poem called "How to Know God." I finished it in two days and I was very proud of it.

After the last class meeting of 140A there was a pot luck at somebody's house and people brought casseroles and salads and fruits of the vine and herbs of the field and after dinner we sang folks songs and protest songs and camp songs and I sang a couple of songs I had written several years before including one for the Kiwanis show and everybody laughed and said how much they liked that side of me. I remember sitting back in a chair towards the end of the evening and thinking, "and next year we are going to be seniors together.''

I smoked a lot of dope in the summer of 1975. I was in Fairfield and I would sit quietly in the evening, slightly buzzed thinking about what I wanted to write about in the coming year and when fall came around I really wasn't ready but neither was anyone else.

That fall I decided I wanted to write about Christianity and the world we were living in, My year in American Studies had changed me. I saw that the church did not speak to many people; either it did not admit their existence or its message was couched in terms that were meaningless outside the block of conservative churchgoers that were the majority of Christian America. I wanted to say that Christianity was more than that, but I didn't know how. When the time came in early October to present the initial plans for senior projects I wrote three pages of possibilities. and when we met for discussion several people said that the pages were like three different sides of me. I said I wanted to wrote about sanctity. Harold said I ought to write a job description for a saint; Robert said that he saw more energy and I ought to write a flashy paper. Dixie suggested that I write a play and Bruce told me to get into my "bad boy." I became very serious and told everybody that I had spent a lot of my life being "clever" and now I wanted to do something that was "serious.'' Robert told me that he thought that was heavy owning on my part and that he would support me on that, but that Robert Frost had said to do the light things seriously and the seriously things lightly. When the day was over I was exhausted. I was amazed at how well we all knew each other and how much we accepted each other. One year together had created a community out of a group of quite different people. It was going to be a good year.

I finished up Robert’s 140D class that fall. Robert was “into getting clear” by then and the class was very close to a therapy group. He said we were "doing" the humanities rather than just studying about them. Often American Studies had pushed my definition of what was educational but this was too much. I wrote a ballad called "Doing the Middle Class," and a folk song called "The Gestalt Rag" and Robert said he felt anxiety when he heard it. I wrote over fifty pages in a journal for the class. "Robert," I wrote, " I see you as being a total egotist, totally concerned with self. I don’t like you and I think you do a lot of power plays with other peoples heads." He wrote "Far Out! Be That!" in the margins. I wrote, "Robert, you and your class bore me." He wrote "Fuck You!" And I wrote over fifty pages explaining why I didn't agree with Fritz Perls and why I didn’t like the class and I ended up learning quite a lot.

Just before Christmas that year I moved back to Davis to a junior one bedroom at Oxford Parkside. I had not done much work on my project but everyone else seemed to be in the same fix. We sat in the Library and talked about William Irwin Thompson and John Cage and Women's Studies and the University as a middle class institution and we drank coffee and made disparaging remarks about the campus newspaper and the mural that the junior class had painted on two walls of the new library which was next to the old Library which was now Gerry's office, and that was when Gerry walked into the women's bathroom and found Dixie and Dave and Linda and me passing a joint and discussing the possibility of a departmental orgy.

Early in winter we had a senior retreat and went to Merline’s sister's house near Lake Tahoe and Harold Spice and I went to the Casino's at south shore and while he played craps I walked around getting drunk and watching the Ladies with blue hair masturbating the slot machines and thinking "this is what is wrong with America!" It was a great weekend and I remember absolutely no work being done.

I made lots false starts on my project. First I did try to do serious work, then called a meeting to announce that I would write a musical comedy. Finally I decided to write a collection of poetry that would be the Gospel according to Me" and several people told me that this would be the best idea yet. I wrote a few poems and then things seemed to slow down and I couldn't seem to start up again. I wrote a letter to the senior class and faculty and told then I decided to be practical and change my project and write something about Thomas Merton. Several people told me that they were sorry and Bruce got quite mad and told me that I had no guts and I had no right to back down from the risk of writing the poetry. That was why we were there. He said that "this is no place to play safe!''

On Good Friday of 1976 1 drank coffee and had a few Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in the morning and then I fasted until three PM. I stayed in the browsing room and watched people and kept an eye on the clock and wondered what it was all about, and I finally wrote some good poems about crucifixion and political action and pop culture and false prophets and death and rainbows. Afterwards Mark and I were walking over to the Coffee House and stopped to watch the Davis Cal Aggie Marching Band practicing in the street in front of North Hall. I was thinking, "how holy we all are," and Mark touched me on the left shoulder and asked me why I was crying and I got embarrassed and said something about “signals of transcendence" and we walked to the Coffee House.

I turned thirty on the day before Easter. I had thought of having a party where I would lay in beduntil midnight, receiving guests in whispers, dying to my twenties, and then at midnight I would get out of bed while my guests would chant "He is risen'' loudly. Then I decided to go to the monastery in Santa Barbara and spend the weekend in silence. As it ended up I went with Shelly and Bruce to dinner at Mark and Robin's and when we got there over 30 people were there to surprise me! It was a great party and later I gave a speech based on Peter Berger; I said that people made things: events, institutions and each other, and that night all these people made me very happy; that I thanked them, I gave thanks for them, and I loved them.

That spring I was first kazoo in Dixie's Washboard Band. At first I was cautious with my kazoo and then I blew it gracefully, playing around with the melody, highlighting tones that were in the songs. It was graceful footstomping, shitkicking music. I remember thinking “I am a grace foot-stomping, shit-kicker." And I was surprised that this didn't surprise me.

I was one of the first in my class to turning the final version of my senior project; a collection of poems, meditations and prose grouped loosely around the theme of being Christian in modern America. I had thought of calling it "Pentecost Poems'' but ended up calling it, "In a Word, Yes." I had written some good things but it was not really finished. Originally I had thought of adding a preface that would explain what these offerings were about and then an afterword about the conclusions that I had reached. But I realized that I had made no conclusions and that all I had were more questions. I decided to turn it in as it was. For the most part it was well received by the class although Dave and Merline felt that I had drawn back from making the connections that logically followed my work. I was glad it was almost summer.

That summer I stayed at Oxford Parkside until my lease ran out and I smoked dope and tanned by the pool and talked with Tim and Jan and Lynda and Joan and Mark and Bruce for awhile about possibilities and choices and consequences, about city planning and Indian artifacts and good work and good dope and bisexuality and the bicentennial and Utopian schemes and graduate schools. And then I interviewed for a job as advertising manager for Unitrans, the student bus line, and I got the job and I was selling again. I was glad that my time in American Studies was almost over. It had been interesting and I had learned a lot, but now it was time to make some money and take the classes I needed to graduate and get ready to study for Anglican Priesthood. I was looking forward to the job with the Associated Students. These would be the kind of people I would find in parish work, this was the mainstream of America.

There was a Unitrans party at the end of the summer and I told someone there that my major had been America Studies. "They're a little far out sometimes," I smiled, "but I enjoyed it. And we talked about grades and route changes and MBA programs and the politics of student government and I ended up outside smoking dope with some guy with a ponytail

I signed up for six units of Spanish and an Anthropology class and a class on Religious Ethics and a seminar that Jay was giving on Peter Berger that fall. I told friends in American Studies that I was working for the Associated Students and that they "were really different over there." I moved out of Oxford Parkside and was staying with my parents house in Fairfield until. November when my new apartment would be ready on Alvarado Avenue. That was the time when Dolores gave a party and I asked her new housemate what he thought of American Studies and he said, "I really don't know but it looks a lot like Doonesbury to me." And I really didn't know how to take it.

It was not a good fall. I didn't attend many meetings of the Berger seminar and when I did they were talking about modernity and mediating structures and privatization of consciousness and a lot of other things that didn't seem interesting to me. I tired to write a paper on Berger's theology for the class. I read all that I could find but I couldn't bring it together. I remember talking one day in class about a theology that wasn't a theodicy; not "how" or "why" the world was, but somehow just "that" it was. I kept getting caught in the words and I took a lot of incompletes that fall.

My family took a house on the beach at Aptos for Christmas that year but things didn't get any better. On Christmas day I sat and watched the waves coming in and I wrote, "I don't know what to do anymore. I don't see a place where I fit in, a structure that I can make sense with. I'm sitting here wondering Why about just about everything.''

Things fell apart after that. I enrolled in a few classes and tried to give it the old college try but it didn't work out and I never really expected that it would. I wasted a lot of time and I kept thinking "I need to get a way from here." And then one morning at eight I sat in the Memorial Union Dining Commons and wrote the following.

Here I am again, boys and girls, wondering and watching and waiting. Looking at the big Why in the sky. So here I am again, with the second cup of coffee, railing against the American myth of directed consciousness, trying to find the better way again. I herewith and therefore exorcise the technocratic telos and turn toward the significant other who hovers brightly beyond the pale constructions of reality. Ban the bomb, bible and booklearning; today let's see without looking, hear without listening, and speak without filling our world with printable, purposeful prose which points to no avail. Let us be prophets without profit. Here and now, let's finally find our place. For God's sake and ours let's forget and remember and realize that whether we know it or not, all things, deep down in their most hidden selves are unutterably right. And here I am again.''

And so I read what I had written and I thought about it for awhile. I talked to some people at American Studies and a psychiatrist at the Health Center and a woman in the Dean's Office: and in March I withdrew from UC Davis and went to visit a monastery. But that is another story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

List making and Love making: do you want one with everything?

There are two kinds of people, those who make lists and those who don’t. I do sometimes, so maybe that makes three kinds of people. But I used to do more, used to make lists of right and wrong, good, better, best, mediocre, bad and worst. When I was 19 I remember spending a summer with a good friend making lists ranking, actually grading, everything and everyone we knew on a spectrum of A, B, C, D, and F. I wasn’t a real nice kid.

But then when I was 23 I met a monk named Aelred Graham, author of a book called “The Love of God,” and another book named "Zen Catholicism," who quoted a thirteenth century Buddhist monk named Dogen who wrote, “Take no thought of good and evil, only cease to cherish opinion.”and that linked up with a line of St Augustine's from the early 5th century that went, “Love God and do what you will.”

And those two quotes, and a few other things that life put on my path made my young certitude and my deep need to judge loosen up a bit, and the list making started to fall apart a little after that, except when I am under pressure, time limits, things to do, then it can, occasionally, come back. I’ve decided lists are good and bad: they start out as aids to discernment and learning tools, then can turn to abusive arbiters, but finally, if we’re lucky, they will serve as schoolmasters to turn us to Christ.

They seem to come with the territory of being alive and trying to take the path, make a difference, maybe two sides of the same story: law and love, good work and God’s grace, making plans and having patience, but how do we balance the tension we sometime find between these two?

Here’s my most recent preliminary draft of a rule of life; it might be related to reconciling that a little bit:

Breathe Spirits Deeply
Honour Bodies Often
Love Neighbours and Strangers
And Just Keep Dancing.

You might not guess it from all this, but I’m actually pretty orthodox. I believe in the Nicene Creed, can say it with conviction, because I’ve worked with it closely, studied it, argued with it for a number of years, actually learned to love it a little; even though I don’t keep it too near my pillow. But there are four or five other things I believe in more deeply, try to keep close to me most of the time: the rule points in that direction. The big one is that the God of love makes, meets and mends the world in every moment of time, and without that we’re nothing.

But up there in the top five or six beliefs is an ongoing conviction that the most essential gesture in being human, and the place where we often meet God, is when we see we're on a journey which sometimes takes blind turns, a way where we find ourselves on a road that curves ahead, when times come when we look to see that we’re going to have to change, do things differently, try a new way, be a new person, without knowing exactly how or what that’s going to look like.

It’s the corner where something old ends and something new begins: like the first day of school, a new job, the beginning of relationship, the end of relationship, cancer, chaos, love, life, death, resurrection. Times when the road turns us around at a costly crossroad, an intersection of old and new, faith and doubt, life and death, in a way we've never known before.

Now It often isn’t easy and we can call it a crisis or a dangerous opportunity; but I believe it’s where our incomplete lists meet God’s unfinished journey. It’s where we can give up our lives as a right, and, by God, take them  back as a gift, and then maybe even give them over as a blessing, as an offering.

Sometimes this process seems shockingly new and other times it's like a circle tour; maybe taking us to the place where what T. S. Eliot writes:

… the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Now let me change the subject and tell you a story -- and I warn you that this is one that often falls flat.

A robed Buddhist monk approaches a genuine New York City Hot Dog Stand; some guy from Brooklyn is there, shouting, “Get your hotdogs here, toasted buns, mustard, ketchup, onions, succotash, you can have it all!”. And the monk walks over to the guy and just looks at him silently. So the guy from Brooklyn says, What’d you want, buddy?” And the robed Buddhist monk says, “Make me one with everything!”

If we “Love God and do what…[we] will,” could it be that we would be one with everything, in a place where we are all in God’s one love and where, as Paul puts it to the Colossians with words close to  those we heard in his letter to the Galatians, “…there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free, but Christ is all and is in all.” What must it be like to live, to love, in that new creation where Christ is all and in all?

It must be like what Elijah knew after all the special effects of earthquake and fire, with the sound of sheer silence, the sound of God’s soft breath, the sound of God making, meeting, mending the universe in every moment; it must be like Moses on the mountain meeting God face to face; it must be like Peter witnessing the mount of the transfiguration with Moses and Elijah and Jesus, in that mountaintop moment where the journey started to curve ahead to a mysterious future.

It must be like the man who had lived for so long lost, naked among the dead, with legions of lies and illusions and opinions holding him tight like an occupying army, being suddenly freed, breathing deeply, made whole, clothed in his right mind, living in the light of love; one with everything in the Grace of God.

Maybe just two questions matter: How do we get there from here, and where do we go from there?

Another story about another eastern monk, who had spent his life trying to be enlightened, to learn to love within God’s compassion, and hadn’t quite gotten there. So he decided he would leave his monastery in the village, walk down the valley and up to the nearest mountain top to sit there in prayer and meditation until he either learned what he sought or died in the attempt.

And while he was walking up the mountain, there came an old man carrying a sizeable package,  coming down the mountain path, and he had the look of holiness about him. So the monk told him his problem, shared his story and asked the old man, “How do I wake up, become enlightened in God’s light?” The old man looked at him with love and simply dropped the package -- and then the monk suddenly knew peace for the first time --saw what he sought. “Oh, thank you!” he said, “And what do I do now?“ And the man smiled at him, picked up his package once again and continued to walk down the mountain towards the village.

And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Elijah will return to dealing with powers and principalities, kings and corruption; Moses walks down from meeting with God on his mountain to rally the troops further on their unwilling pilgrimage to the promised land, Paul and Peter will go on to deal with all the issues of ethics and compassion and politics and even list making in the emerging Christian community and they will finally join Jesus in giving their lives over in the name of love to a future they cannot fully understand.

Even the man who had been lost and naked with the legion of demons is told to take his new clarity and clothes and understanding back into his old home and tell everyone what the Lord had done for him.

Same here.  One with Everything. It isn’t easy but it just might be true. So we come to this altar to give our lives over, to put down our burdens, so that we might, fed by God in the wilderness, incorporated in Christ in our journey, led by the Spirit into the City where we will find contradictions and blessings on any corner, at every crossroads, as we learn to breath in the gift of the God who makes and meets and mends everywhere and here and now, all and in all.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On Orlando, a work in process... (Revised)

Fifty people were killed in a gay bar in Orlando this weekend and fifty more wounded by a self-identified Muslim terrorist and then the Texas lieutenant governor went on TV and quoted Paul about reaping what you sow. The blood of one hundred people spilled on the floors of the bar, the parking lot, the rest rooms, and now on the papers, social media, my iPad, all over the world. How many people are now related by blood to one hundred people in Orlando? 

We got to bed that night after midnight (a very rare occurrence) following  a rather splendid dinner party of gay men complete with carefully curated decor, great food, deep conversation and much laughter. Nobody entered the room with a semi-automatic weapon and a hand gun, but they could have. Certainly there were people nearby who would take their scriptural beliefs and their fight for truth that seriously; who would take life and make death to honour their holy love. I may be half a world away from Florida and in a country where appropriate guns prohibitions were made law twenty years ago after one man with a semi automatic weapon mowed down men, women and children at a national monument; but even in Australia there are people who would honour their God of vengeance by spilling the blood of their neighbours.


Suddenly you felt that your life was not an isolated thing, but existed in all other lives, as all other lives existed within yours. There wasn't anything anywhere to which you could say, 'We don't need each other.'
Elizabeth Goudge - Pilgrim's Inn

Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds. 
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 94

Who is not my neighbour and where is not God? I’ve wondered about that one since before seminary some thirty-five years ago, and since then I’ve known and loved many gay men and lesbians, talked to a few drag queens and met some Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in my peripatetic career as an occasionally closeted gay man in ecumenical campus ministry in San Francisco, Berkeley and Melbourne and finally as a priest and educator in Bush Australia. You could say it’s been a broad spectrum ministry. I’ve sat with men and women as they dealt with the serious business of being alive, of saying yes to what they believed life called out for them to be: people who sometimes saw a vocation to be an artist in the midst of a family who knew they were born to be a nurse or lawyer, who saw new possibilities for redemption and relationship far from the family fold. I walked with people who faced the fact they loved people of the same gender in a way that other people only saw as sinful, and I’ve had other people sit with me and tell me with no hesitation why some love was hateful and how they came to see clearly what God wants and who God sees as right or wrong or worthy of larger life. 

In my best moments I see only that God wants love, is love, that love (in the threefold Christian formula) makes, meets and mends the universe in every instant of time with a relentlessly renewing compassion. But I here confess there are many moments when I cannot tell my friend, neighbour or the stranger that I believe this to be true because I honestly don’t love them that much. I can preach it in the pulpit and point to it and move through it in the actions of the Eucharist, I can keep trying daily to share it in the actions of my life. But I must admit that I am afraid of those who are armed with the bullets or the books that say I don’t deserve to live, and I cannot love them. 

“I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; 
 I, the Lord, do all these things.” 
Isaiah 45:7
“honour corruption villainy holiness
riding in fragrance of sunlight (side by side
all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes
riding) to him who died that death should be dead.”
e e cummings

In the spring of 1981 I took an evening class on prayer and meditation at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Early in the semester we tried a two part meditation: first thinking loving thoughts and feel positive emotions towards people who were important in our lives, then after a single bell rang, quickly switching to let the opposite, negative emotion flow: articulating heartfelt anger after love, curses following blessings. I was amazed how easy the energy flowed from one extreme to the other and wondered what we were learning.

I believe that the purpose of the exercise was to show how close these two passions are to each other; that perhaps both of these warmings of the heart need to be carefully attended for the simple fact that love and hate live so close together, and we must keep careful distinctions so that (perhaps) we might finally weave them together into a place where healing can happen.

I try to be a reasonably compassionate man but I could conceivably kill the man or woman who wish to see me dead because of their faithful love; therefore my love, like theirs, is not far from hate. If that is the case then we all might better agree to let love go, keep civil, respectable middle-level boundaries, agree to disagree, leaving it at that, forgetting  the dogma, doctrine and doggerel of the God-stuff. Unless what that God-space means, where it points, is a place where hate and love can meet in some new way, where festering lilies might somehow come forth with new and fragrant blooms: but could the world be this large?

I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that some people are genetically wired to dislike coriander. I love it, add it to many dishes, cheerfully make it part of my day. It was a bit of a relief to understand others do not, on a cellular level, have this affectionate choice, even though it makes no sense to my senses, and seems to make their lives a lesser paradise of the delights I live with. I think it is the same with sex; there is a spectrum of flavours and favours that each of us find on our bandwidth which call us to taste and see in ways that make other people turn aside and wonder why we would not want to eat exactly what they swallow with gusto. 

But it’s not really that important: I am not prepared to kill for coriander and would not force my neighbour to celebrate cilantro anymore than I would compel them to join me in my allergy to milk. And in the end most of us, perhaps a surprising majority, would be more than surprised if any hopeful vision of a larger reality was more concerned with  plumbing over compassion. I may be wrong, and I’ll cheerfully admit that this too may be the way I’m wired; but I think we’re all a bit better than this.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The Gospel of Matthew 25: 36-37

Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha and one of his closest disciples, said to the teacher one day’ “Oh Buddha, sometimes it seems to me that half of the spiritual life is loving kindness and friendship for others.” The Buddha replied with a smile, “Ananda, you are wrong. Loving-kindness and friendship are all of the spiritual life. 

Paraphrase from the Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)

Jack Kornfield, the modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to die. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be clashingly close to the picture we see of Good Friday in Jerusalem when Jesus is murdered by the mob as well the scenes last Saturday night at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.


Gunman often went to gay nightclub

At least four patrons have said they saw the gunman Omar Mateen drinking at the Pulse bar several times before the shooting. Ty Smith said he saw Mateen inside at least a dozen times…

“Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent”



In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see all our shadows and shortcuts, and our reaction to that light can be to push into the dark, pin the other down to death, because we would rather kill than see where we are already dying in our sad and violent separations.

But in the same light of love we can find that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live. And that can be where love meets hate, where death meets life; where coming forth from any deadly closet can mean giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive. 

So perhaps tomb turns to womb when we let what we know die so that somehow the knowledge of a larger love may live, and that is where something like resurrection might happen. That’s what I saw in the conversation of artists born of lawyers, peopled compelled to take leave of the parental path, called by love to come out of their closets. That’s what I learned in the best of my life in the church and a few gay bars and saunas and the ministry of many friends and not a few strangers in my own life, to let God teach me to love in a new way. 

For reasons I don’t fully understand some people awaken to new and larger life, to come to share that unfinished journey together, while others die in their killing hate. Maybe that’s one of the places Jesus hangs ‘round nowadays, maybe that’s the spark that can come when hate meets love on the worst weekend ever. But how we live that out, move on from the truncated celebration, the fallen love, the spilled blood in the parking lot and on the screens of our iPads, in the heart of who we are, in the light of such hate, is an entirely different question. 


Even though at this time I can hardly find room for any possible answer, what I can do is to stay with it, continue my incomplete prayers (not fully knowing where they might lead) for this world where hate pierces and love embraces the lives of 101 people in Orlando while all of us who loved them hang together and wonder what we can do now. 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Easter1B, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Lately I’m wondering if I've become too fond of one-line slogans: like “Be patient, God’s not finished with me yet,” or “Everybody does their best, and everybody could do a little better.” But I like them: even those that are less optimistic like, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” which is less likely to show up in a sermon.

Now one of my favourites, heard almost thirty years ago and used too often by me  is “We are invited to exchange our living death for Christ’s dying life.” But this week I remembered another that’s touched me for almost fifty years. From the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel where the father of a boy who has convulsions asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus says, “All things are possible to the one who believes,” (a pretty good one-liner in itself) and then immediately the father of the child cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” And it is that statement that brings forth the miracle the father seeks. “I believe, help my unbelief.” The more modern translation is, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short,” but either phrase meets us at the same place, where faith meets doubt, pointing to a kind of pilgrimage moment when Jesus calls us to move into a place where new possibilities arise in a world we cannot presently inhabit, where we are called to allow the barren ground of doubt to be a place where new faith can bloom.

For I believe we are called to embrace a faith that is not afraid to ask hard questions. I think that the first disciples changed to true apostles when they learned to leave room so that new answers, larger than the original question, could emerge over time; and I believe that apostle Thomas is a prime model for following that paradoxical place we hear about with, “I have faith, help me where faith falls short.”

Now Thomas makes his first speaking appearance  in chapter eleven of John when Jesus tells his crew they’re going to the dead Lazarus in Bethany. Thomas says, “Let us go with him that we might die with him." Likely he thought that Jewish religious prudence and Roman political rule would combine to make sure that Jesus and his message would be killed off quickly if he appeared in Bethany: and Thomas was ready to go that far with Jesus. But what he didn’t know was that Jesus would go farther than that.

Because when they get there, when Jesus calls, "Lazarus, come forth!" And when Lazarus three days dead breaks out of the tomb to embrace life anew, then something in Thomas dies. Because Thomas sees, maybe for the first time, that he may be called to believe, have faith, live in a larger life than he could ever  conceive before: that what he had thought he was about and who he thought he was with and where they were going is not large enough to follow this Jesus who calls the dead to new life. So  the life Thomas thought he was called to live has to die right there and it does. For Thomas goes on, keeps following Jesus, to Jerusalem, to the end of his life, But he’s called to even more than that!”
After Easter, in the Gospel we just heard, Jesus meets the apostles gathered behind their closed doors and breathes the Holy Spirit on them, Thomas is not there, and when the other disciples tell him he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Can you honestly blame him?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the cost of discipleship is that when Christ calls us, he calls us to die. My question is, "Are we allowed to pause on the way, every now and then, and mull that one over?"
If Jesus is now alive, if resurrection is real, if Christ’s new life is true and we are called to take part in it then this means new definitions of law and love and defeat and death for each and every one of us. Can you see where Thomas - and we - might want, maybe just for a moment, to hold back from this faith that calls us to stretch out to a future we cannot presently get our heads and hearts ‘round?

Listen: after any death, pain, betrayal, heartbreak or defeat, you make a kind of deal: with luck you let it go, you accept the fact, cut the losses and close the door. But if Jesus is back, then the door is opening even larger than it was with Lazarus. If He got through it, and comes here, showing the scars, bearing the wounds now of all those gunned down by whatever law or judgment did them to death, then the final victim has just walked into the room. If Jesus is alive, then all fallen hope, all lost belief, all dead ends might come to life too. And what can you do with that. How can you feel it, think it, take it in, live it out? This is more than the road to Emmaus: not only does your heart burn within you but it feels like it might break apart for the breath you have to take in order to take all this in. Then do you see that maybe it makes some sense that Thomas wants to take a break. Could he be saying, “My faith will just not stretch this far right now!” Could he be saying, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

So we fast forward a week with the disciples in the house, and Thomas there too: doors shut, and suddenly Jesus is there saying, “Peace be with you.” Then he turns to Thomas, who I imagine with his back against the wall and Jesus calls, “Thomas, come forth! Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe”… believe in life this large. And the life of resurrection rises and Thomas lives there now and says, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” A free translation might be, “Thomas, I’ll take you as I find you and I’ll love you as you are. Just come and follow me!” And Thomas does just that.

I think the good news here is we get the same deal, the same call. With all our doubts and fears, Jesus honours our pace, sees that we’re doing the best we can, even as he calls us to do a little better too, to join him in larger life, where doubt and belief bloom into a new being, that's what Eastertide's about, where we are called to be newborn witnesses to these things, by the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him, as we move together towards Pentecost, because Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia! 



NOTE - if you've come this far I would really love to know what you got from the sermon, so please comment!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Sermon in the King Valley, Easter 2 at the Cathedral .

“…so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

And If this Good News is true, how do we respond to this two thousand year old tale with roots stretching back another thousand years. If it is true, how can we live it out today in our own lives. If Christ is alive then how can we rise up to live more like him today?

This morning I want to share a model of how we might continually respond to a God made, God met, God mended world with three somewhat fanciful images I’ve cherished and carried along for over twenty-five years to make sense, open my heart and keep me going on the Christian path at least most days. They are the images of a table, a journey and a breath of fresh air. Let me explain.
   
First, as human beings, we are builders, fabricators, mapmakers; that’s in our DNA. We build maps of the world with words and deeds and wood and stone and steel; and I believe a lot of us build a life-size map in the shape of a table in the very middle of our heads. It works like this for me: we each have - let’s say 12 - people seated around a table in the middle of our brains: they all think it’s a board of directors meeting, and they should be in charge, so it gets noisy. They’re making roles and rules and definitions for all the places and purposes in our lives: for models and mentors and friends and family, for success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong. They’re getting the signposts up, adding directional signals, deciding what goes with where and with whom. This isn’t bad: for in this we join the God who creates the universe from nothing, for we take the chaos on a new world and turn it into a cosmos, an ordered reality: that’s our turn in the naming game God shares with Adam in the first part of Genesis! Now that sounds simple, but it gets complex: and the temptation is to avoid the task by taking a shortcut, using other peoples ideas, maybe buying retail or downloading from online.

But the task, the responsibility of naming the world is what it means to be human, not just individuals, but families, countries, civilisations too. You find it throughout the Hebrew Scripture: tables furnished with psalms, songs and poetry, with laws and liturgy and love stories, war records, histories, mysteries, myths and memories made smooth by hundreds of years of retelling ‘round campfires  wherever we find ourselves: everybody builds tables!

So here’s a question to consider this Eastertide: what 12 people sit at the table in the middle of your head, what blessings do they offer, what curses do they convey, and who would you really like to live there? That’s image number one.

The second image is more dynamic; to be a human is to take an individual journey without a plan to survive. You reach a point in your journey where you see a turn in the road ahead and you don’t see how to get through: that’s the essential way of being human. Some of us love that sort of challenge and some us dread it, and it scares the daylight out of the table, which has worked hard to create order from disorder, to build a cosmos from chaos. So the table and the journey are at cross-purposes here —  the table fearing that it is incomplete  and the pilgrims rejoicing that the road is unfinished. You can see the tension between these two ways on both an individual and a corporate level: Jerusalem kills its prophets and Rome crucifies everyone who does not worship Caesar.

But they cant stop the flow of prophets and poets, people hungry for new life, exploring the wilderness, turning wandering into pilgrimage and pilgrimage into new homecoming. And one of the ways Jesus makes sense is as the pioneer and perfecter of this unfinished path. He follows the human journey and meets all the meanness and mercy and wonder and pain that comes with being flesh and blood,and  he shares it all with us!

Her’s a second question: name twelve journeys that have changed you beyond belief, opened you to a new way of being in a different world, shown you a new road forward. And how did the old table handle it?

So you can almost forecast trouble when Jesus travels into new definitions of friend and foe, insider and outsider, justice and mercy. Do you remember that great scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Indiana Jones has to walk across a blank space, a chasm, where the ground only shows up when you put your foot out in open air? Do you wonder why the table is scared to death of the journey?

Listen to this, for here's where the crux comes. Jack Kornfield, a modern Buddhist writer, says in the end there are just two kinds of people: those who aren’t afraid to kill and those who aren’t afraid to be killed. Most of us would avoid that sort of black and white thinking, but I fear it still may be close to what we see on Good Friday when Jesus Christ is murdered by the mob, which I fear may be most of us on a really bad day.

In his book called “The Crucified Jesus is No Stranger,” Sebastian Moore writes that when we see Jesus, this man of love and light, we see our all our shadows and our shortcuts, see where we have come close, taken part in evil. And in reaction to that unwelcome light we push him to the dark, pin him down to death, because we would rather kill him than where see we are already dying in our separation and sin.

But we realise, in the light of His love, that we are killing the best picture of what we look like, an icon of the life we are born to live; and so we move from being the crucifier to seeing ourselves crucified: from a living death — protecting our property, our table, the life we know — to a dying life, giving ourselves over to a future we cannot conceive. We let ourselves die so that a larger love may live. And by God’s grace resurrection happens.

We are here this morning because a handful of people, Mary, Joanna, Peter, later Paul, woke up to find that Jesus was not with their dead, had awakened to new and larger life, and was willing to share the journey with them. We’re here because people like Thomas, with all his questionable doubts, kept coming back. We’re here because a people keep telling their friends and compatriots, and this continues changing the world for almost two thousand years —  that love is bigger than hate,  life is bigger than death, God is bigger than the world we know — but how can we live that out? How can we get from there to here and now?

It is simple but not easy. The third image is simply a breath of fresh air: the art and practice of stopping to breathe, to pray, to begin again. When I ask people to name the table and the journeys it can get complex, but when I ask them to name twelve places where the air gets fresh I have to stand back because they want to share their lists. To awaken to the awareness we are breathed by the spirit that makes and meets and mends the world means we are built for a bigger life and a greater purpose than we know; that the rhythm of dying and rising, the very life of Jesus, is rich in our very blood. That Christ is risen from the dead and we are called to let him come to our table and feed us with the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, so that we can exchange our stable tables for his faithful and mysterious journey, our living death for his dying life in every breath we take from here on.

And how do we get there from here?

One of the joys of being a retired priest, with no regular obligations, is that I have free time to meet with people who want to consider the table, the journey, the fresh air of the new life we are called to share with God. To discuss who’s noisy at the table, where the  journey calls us to change and grow, and ways where we can find the fresh air here and now.  It’s a place to build your own creed, your own map, your renewed roles and rules of life in Christ. I offer that to each of you as my own participation, my shared ministry, in this new life, this post-Easter mystery to which we are all called.

For Christ is risen from the grave. Alleluia!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday 2016

When I was in my mid-twenties, around forty-five years ago, my grandmother, who was in her early eighties, was close to dying. She had leukaemia for several years, going from chronic to acute, with a few remissions, and now it was coming closer.  I remember when my uncle, her eldest child, flew out from the East Coast, and I’ll never forget watching from the front window, when he — followed by my mother and my aunt - carried his mother in his arms from her home to the car to take her to the hospital for the last time.

I carry two things from that particular moment: first, something like the music of the Sanctus, a sense of bells and music sung by some great choir; “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And then a surprising and joyful conviction came into my heart, right into the middle of the pain like sunlight in the centre of that dark day. “Thank God,” something in me said so deeply, “Thank God we matter this much.”

In the Gospel for today the crowds chorus moves from “Hosanna” and “Alleluia" to “We have no King but Caesar “ and “Crucify him!”  and we’re invited to watch and follow, to  participate as these actions are carried out in Jerusalem as if they were happening here and now.

Because in his journey through Jerusalem to Golgotha, to the cross and the grave and beyond, Jesus walks through all our fears and anger and anxiety, all  the trials and tragedies of our everyday lives, and carries us along like a son or a brother into the very crossroad where the heart of human tragedy meets the good news of God.  And that is I believe where we can find the very living heart of the Gospel.

An English theologian said that we are invited to exchange our living death for Jesus' dying life.  We are invited to stop holding on so tight to our fears and our hopes and our tensions and our ideas about the times we live in; and  cleave onto the living and breathing faith that Jesus will take us in his arms at those crucial moments and carry us through the middle of it all into a new beginning, the resurrection of the dead.

So the events of this Palm Sunday and of the coming week offer a pilgrimage, a walking tour, deep into the heart of the human condition: with sin and grace, violence and virtue, cowardice and courage, death and new beginnings. And, for each of us, that resonates with our own histories and hopes, stories we remember, times that stretch us and tear us apart, about people we miss and endings we fear. Holy week can be a difficult road to take, but Jesus knows his way and will follow it faithfully to the end.

But it may not be easy for us. We might find it difficult to hope that the holiest One will hear our  individual hopes and fears, we might not always think that the universe could be knit together so carefully. But here we are called to follow the faith that Christ can hold us close through these crises, take us through every turn, every tight corner of the human journey from birth to death and beyond to bring us home at the last.

So on this Holy Week we are called to wait, to watch and follow Jesus as closely as we can, in our uneasy witness. So stay close to your Bible and Prayer Book, stay close to your church and community, stay close to your feelings and your fears too - and watch and follow: because the heart of God, the God of love we see in Jesus Christ, calls us to join with Him to journey to Jerusalem to meet the fact of death, and carries us along to the hope of eternal life. And we must thank God that it matters this much.

Amen

Friday, March 04, 2016

On Ambivalence and the Prodigal Son, a Sermon for the Saturday night Eucharist.

Twelve years ago this very week, about an hour into an evening Bible study on the Gospel we just shared, something happened which I’ve never forgotten. We had prayed, read the story aloud, talked through the social background, the family expectations, with major themes and minor points: forgiveness is good, first and second sons should be honoured in their different roles, and father knows best even in this difficult episode. But we decided look at the more uncomfortable bits of the story.

Then we decided that the father was almost unbelievably forgiving; that the second son, coming home with a canned speech to get some support was lucky (even graced) to be fed, to say nothing of forgiven; that even though the first son had a case for being somewhat ticked off for not getting rewarded for his commitment and obedience, he was visibly hard-hearted and unforgiving; and that all the villagers must have been fascinated having a first row seat for this family drama.

But we also felt sort of short-changed at the end of the story because none of us saw a lasting happiness for the future of that family: you could see the brothers keeping a suspicious eye on each other and the father’s love at least stretched after the younger son’s packaged repentance and the elder’s outburst about rights. It was safe at least to say there wouldn’t be another spontaneous party in the near future. And yet mercy had been served, repentance seen, forgiveness happened; a celebration enacted even while the neighbours watching this family wash their dirty linen on the public footpath and wondered what would happen next.

It reminds me of the worldwide church right now. We’re having disclosures and discussions, arguments and outbursts, about inclusion and abuse, refugees and human rights, headship and heartfelt understandings about the ways where the church lives out our discernment of scripture, tradition, reason and community. People are not only talking about “What would Jesus do?”, but “What did Jesus (and Paul) mean in the first place?” It is a difficult time to be part of the institutional church and the vast majority of our former members, friends and neighbours have already voted with their feet. But I think the question we have to stay with is close to the ones in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father: how are we to continue the story?

And I feel that we have, like the people in the Bible Study 12 years ago, to  ask, where do we go from here?. And I think Jesus offers an option that is not an easy out or a sacred shortcut, but it is also not the route we would like to choose ourselves. So I think I know where the Good News is here, and I need to tell you it is awfully close to the bad news.

Because it’s right in front of us in the actions of the Eucharist. In this feast of God’s way, truth and life, we are invited to nurture the daily fabric of our unfinished story - just like Jesus - by giving our lives over to a future we have mixed feelings about, accepting the betrayal by friends as well as the fear that the message shared has been lost, cast underfoot and scattered. Because while Jesus goes on, accepting the death sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, he invites us to take both our present doubts and our doubtful faith and join him on to a road that goes past that dead end to a new life larger than we can ask for or anticipate.

Now I find it hard to lean into this, but when I am honest I find I am still hungry for that bread of heaven, that cup of salvation, which both quenches my hunger and increases my appetite, both for holiness and for wholeness on the dry road we are called to share together in this journey through Jerusalem.

But it’s not the most convenient Good News and it isn’t meant to be; remember there is a repeating rhythm in the whole church year threading through light and darkness, triumph and tragedy. Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, highlight birth but follow with the shadows, the darkness, defeat and death that come from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday. And even when the Easter uprising assures us that God’s life is bigger than our fear of death, there is then the task to translate that hope into a new message in the pattern of Pentecost that we can both follow and can share with our friends, family, neighbours, and the stranger. That's actually where this dangerous opportunity occurs.

Thomas Merton writes that the paradox can only comes to promise when we realise we are totally incapable of meeting God — and that God is for us. running to meet us, calling us home for celebration, in all our incapacity.

The Good News comes in that crossroad of this fearful and faithful pilgrimage where our all our earthly hopes fall short so that we might witness something larger than the life we know: a new life where our hope, our faith, our capacity for love and forgiveness can come as a gift from God.

And this is not only our “personal relationship” with Jesus in the spirit, but our corporate way of understanding and speaking about who we are as the church. The world is watching for our fresh responses to both the wrongs we are guilty of and the rights we stand for.

It is time to tell our truth anew. While the world has turned in innumerable revolutions in the last 100 years we’ve often shared the Gospel in time-bound language and outworn concepts. Now we all, clergy and laity, newcomer and old-timer, believer and skeptic alike, need to ask God for new ways to articulate this eternally compassion love in the contemporary world where we are called to minister.

But I believe the answer will only come when we turn towards Jerusalem, when we gather both our hopes and hypocrisies, our questions and concerns, and carry these crosses into the place where our living death can be transformed by Jesus’ dying life: to that upper room where we can meet our fear, quench our appetites and renew our courage and commitment for taking on this high hope and wide horizon to which we are called. In the end that is our way, our truth, our life.

Amen.

Monday, February 15, 2016

What are we doing with Silent Prayer and Thomas Merton on Tuesday Nights?

Someone smarter than I said that silence (prayer time and otherwise) is "simple but not easy." I want to make what we do on Tuesday evenings as easy as possible. We'll gather in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at 7:00pm with a general introduction and a short overview to the evening then share a few small ideas on how to sit in silence together, and finally take twenty minutes to share that silence.

After that we'll take time - like forty minutes - to read and respond to some of Thomas Merton's written reflections on what a "spiritual life" can look like. We'll take a short break following and finally finish up with another twenty minute shared silence and a few prayers to wrap up the evening.

Everything is optional but recommended; hope you can be there!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Silence at the Cathedral


On Thomas Merton, an early draft for an article in The Melbourne Anglican 2015

I never expected him to be a hero for me, but after almost fifty years and in so many ways I can easily say that reading the Trappist monk, writer and poet, Thomas Merton has changed my life for the better.

He does not start out looking like an advertisement for saintliness. Born in France during World War One to a New Zealand father and an American mother, his family were peripatetic artists with a tendency towards tragedy, moving to the suburbs of New York City, where a younger brother was born and where his mother died when he was six years old. After a time staying with his maternal grandparents his painter father took him on extended trips to Cape Cod and Bermuda, finally returning to France where he was enrolled in a French boarding school. In his early teens his father (who would die of a brain tumour when Merton was fourteen) moved him to board at a day school in London, followed by moving to a public school a few hours away. He attended Cambridge for a disastrous year at Clare College, after which his London godfather/guardian advised him to return to the US and continue his education there. All this was not a propitious start for any kind of religious figure, certainly not one who might be a saint for some.

At Columbia University he acquired a reputation as a gifted writer, aspiring poet and serious thinker who played loud jazz on any available piano. He loved Gandhi, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, James Joyce, William Blake, modern art, and most Marx Brothers movies. A book by Aldous Huxley’s opened him to the idea “there such a thing as a supernatural order [which]… which could be reached most simply, most readily by prayer, faith, detachment, love.” At the same time a Hindu monk led him to read to Saint Augustine and Thomas a’Kempis. Along with the influence of several significant university teachers, this led him to be baptised in the Roman Catholic Church at the age of 21. With his customary boldness and enthusiasm several years later he joined the Trappists in their monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, taking vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and conversion of committing to a daily rule of frequent prayer, worship and manual labour in community.  Later he would write, “I wanted to give God everything... to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

Merton joined the monastery intending to spend his life as a simple monk. But found “there was this shadow… this writer who had followed me into the cloister…. He rides my shoulders … I cannot lose him.” As he goes on to write, “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop. And he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.” But Merton’s abbot encouraged him to write his autobiography, telling the story of how he found peace in the hills of Kentucky,  and The Seven Story Mountain became a world-wide bestseller. Although the work of a young man and recent convert, it is still a refreshing and engaging read. Merton’s enthusiasm might have got him in trouble on two continents, but it also opened him to seeing God’s glory in the most surprising places and his account of the journey is a consistently joyous and enjoyable one. His tone changes a few years later in his next spiritual journal, The Sign of Jonah, where he shares his daily theological reading and reflections as well as questions, triumphs and times when nothing makes sense. It is both a touching and an honest account of one man’s prayerful journey following Christ.

The journal that followed, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, adds a new dimension of love and acceptance when Merton is opened to a new understanding of God’s love for the world on a busy downtown street in Louisville following a dental appointment. He wrote:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realisation that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers….

Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion… though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race… And if only everybody could realise this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things.… My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

The more than forty books that follow - dealing with sanctity, spirituality and prayer, eastern and western mysticism, war and peace, economics and ethic, racism and materialism - are increasingly hallowed by his substantial studies in Christian Scripture and tradition, as well as a deep and disciplined life of prayer, and a graceful and growing sense of his own witness in God’s love for the world. He had reached a crucial junction in the journey. As Merton said to his young students in the monastery; “You have to know you have a heart before you can give it away.”

His writing after that was both grounded in silence and prayer as well as a more compassionate understanding of the world. As he wrote: “It is not difficult to sit in a quiet monastery and meditate on love, humility, mercy, inner silence, meditation and peace. But ‘no man is an island’… Therefore my meditation on love and peace must be realistically and intimately related to the fury of war, bloodshed, burning, destruction, killing that takes place on the other side of the earth.”

The French poet, Charles Peguy, writes that, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." But for Merton it ends in something deeper than politics, born of the gift of knowing and loving himself as a part of a world found and reconciled in Christ.  By the mid 1960s Merton  found his way home in the world in a manner that would have never seemed possible in his earlier life. “To choose the world is to choose the work I am able to do, in collaboration with my brother [and sister] to make the world better, more free, more just, more liveable, more human.” His writing became more politically aware, even his poetry found nourishment from newspaper headlines.

By 1965, after twenty years in community, Merton moved to a small house not far from the monastery. Paradoxically this new hermitage meant he was free to be with people -- more than he had been for years: It was a new rhythm where days of silence and solitude were varied by joining old friends for picnics; and when official ecclesiastical visits outside the monastery might end up with listening to jazz in a Louisville nightclub.

By the late sixties Merton was also writing about  other world religions, particularly Zen Buddhism and Sufism, finding that this opened him to deeper understanding of the mystical tradition within Christianity. In late 1968, twenty-seven years after entering the monastery, he left on an Asian pilgrimage, meeting with Christian, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu monks and practitioners, including the Dalai Lama. He found them  practicing a quality of life and relationship that seemed very close to what he had found in the monastery. As he had written years earlier, “We are all one silence, and a diversity of voices.”

It was to be an open-ended journey, but ended tragically  on December 10 1968. After giving a talk on “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives” at an inter-religious conference in Bangkok, Merton went to his room for a midday shower and fell against an ungrounded fan, which electrocuted him, killing him instantly. In a sad irony, his body was flown home alongside the bodies of young men who had just died in Vietnam, a war he had protested against for years. Perhaps this was his last act of solidarity within the world he had come to love so much. Mourners from all over the world came to his funeral at Gethsemane and one writer said a surprisingly large and wide variety of people looked like they had lost their very best friend.

I understand this completely when I consider Merton’s life, what I have learned from him over the years from his writings, his reflections, the gifts of a life of prophecy, penance and prayer shared with the larger world. He offered a disciplined mind, a discerning spirit, an open heart: and the gift of his witness has changed my world. Perhaps we all need to know we have a heart before we give it away, but Merton’s lifelong courageous witness means I can walk the way of Christian faith to seek and  share with less caution, and with more candour and honesty. I know I am not alone in this.

For me he is a prophet, one of those times in the history of the Church when the windows open and old ideas get blown away with a fresh spirit of renewed understandings and possibilities. So in all the diversity of his life and vocation as a monk, writer, poet and priest, Thomas Merton calls out as a rather delightfully inconsistent saint and prophet to the whole Church and to the wider world, calls out both for a wider and a  deeper understanding of the primary aims and attitudes of the religious life. With all the breadth of his early wanderings he found a home in the heart of Christianity and in his deep solitude he shared his pilgrim journey with the whole world. As a pioneer of interfaith conversation, his wide-open appreciation of how different spiritual traditions might breathe together continues to deepen our understanding of spirit, much as a trip to a foreign place will help us to know  - and love - our homeland anew.


As the Buddhist master Bankei writes, “the farther one enters into truth, the deeper it is.” Throughout his life Thomas Merton journeyed in search of the face of God. His prayerful considerations on the way still bear fruit, continuing to nurture and enlighten new readers and seekers in fresh  ways. Almost fifty years after his death, newly published journals, poetry, letters and essays continue to be released, enlarging our understanding of  Merton's vision of a world reconciled in Christ.  This twentieth century spiritual master makes a delightful companion on our faithful journey and I commend him to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Troubles in Paradise: Jesus of Montreal, Satan and the new community of the Gospel

In the 1980s there was a movie called "Jesus of MontrĂ©al.” which placed the life of the Lord in the middle of contemporary Canada, which is a pretty radical move in itself. But one of the great moments in the film comes when Jesus is tempted by Satan - here a kind of public relations-advertising genius: unctuous and smiling and smooth to the point of slimy with very big plans for the church — outlines of glory and vivid visions of how this brand of religion can be a resounding winner. But in the film, Jesus tells Satan he can, essentially, go to hell, and goes on to live out what the writer Frederick Buechner calls this “magnificent defeat.”

I thought of this when I heard the part in todays Gospel where James and John are making their bid for power positions in Jesus’ new community.  “Put us right next to you,” they say, “and success is assured.” They are so sure that they are right, that they know what to do, and they are so very wrong, so missing the point.

The disciples do that a lot. Peter – just a while ago – goes up to the top of the mountain to see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and then, quite logically, wants to start the first church building campaign. But God basically says, "shut up and listen” and Jesus  tells him they're going to Jerusalem to face a future that will feature everything that Peter’s ever feared. When Peter protests, Jesus tells him that God sees an entirely different kind of opportunity in the coming crisis and Peter better learn to look at this in a whole new way.

So maybe the truth is that Peter, James and John and some of the rest of us disciples are still somewhat deaf and blind to what God might want here, in this new style of leadership and community, with this new definition of success in ministry. At least that is where I am today.  For there is still something in me that stands with James and John and even envies the plans of the advertising man in the movie: I look at our church and I want to improve our corporate image and our community outreach in innovative ways. I want to do something successful so that world round us realises what an eternal treasure we have in these fragile  earthen vessels.

Because in the last hundred years or so we have come into a future that is like a foreign land, where we have to learn to sing the Lord's song in a new way, to meet a new people with this timeless message, this precious Gospel. And I feel sadness and some fear for the process of death and resurrection that the church must – I think  – undergo in this new Jerusalem. So even though Jesus seems to say we have everything we need in the cup we drink and the  baptism we’ve undergone and the ministry we share,  I am just not there sometimes.

Woody Allen once said that he wasn't afraid of his own death, he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I understand that completely, but I also know there is a bigger truth than death: I am just not sure how to get there sometimes. But maybe hope comes in the three things Jesus says are central to the life of the church in today’s Gospel: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.

Because St Paul rightly says that all of us who are baptised in Christ are baptised into his death, and at each and every Eucharist we celebrate our incorporation in the life of Jesus, the body of Christ, to become who we are, the bread of life and the cup of salvation – but there’s a cost in getting to this truth. For, as one English theologian says, we are “invited to exchange our living death for Christ's dying life,” to give away our closely-held plans and join with Jesus in the dying-rising rhythm of a life given in the hope that the resurrection shines in the darkest places in the earth. Nobody ever said it would be easy to get there from here, but I think that’s where Peter, John and James, Nicodemus and you and I have to be born again.

For as the Gospel goes on to say,

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

And this is not easy.

St Augustine gave some good advice to Peter some 1600 years ago. Maybe it stands for the rest of us as well. He writes:

Come down, (from the mount) to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour?

Because Jesus bears forth, labours with, a new order of creation, a new language of relationship and membership and ministry that was never heard before in Jerusalem or Rome or London or New York or Melbourne: a language of love forged by a man who would be nothing but a servant and friend to all, a man convinced that this is the true, the basic, the only way to show the saving work of God, to simply give his life away — and we are called to live that same life.

But two thousand years have gone by and we have forgotten a lot and learned more, and the Spirit continues to blow us into new beginning, I always think of a bumper sticker I saw many years ago that said “Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet,” and the question is still, “How do we get there from here?”

A recent translation of the fourteenth century “Book of Privy Counselling”  says:

“My dear friend in God,, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer God your very self in simple wholeness,  all that you are and just as you are…”

So maybe it does all goes back to Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.

According to Fr Gregory Dix, the Eucharist has four parts: “take, bless, break and share,” as a pattern of countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation. That fourfold model can enable us to pattern our whole ministry as the baptised body of Christ as well.

We simply take all our questions (along with the old memories, new pain, unknown futures, wanting faith, needy neighbours and our very own selves) and we present them all to God as a corporate offering. Then we  lift up our lives and  everyone else's and let God bless us all, sharing this ongoing journey with family and friends  and any passing stranger, and helping them lift their light and love up too. Then, by Grace something happens, and knowing ourselves to be surrounded by such a cloud of unlikely witnesses (including Peter, James and John and the rest of us), we find the faith to break apart and share, to minister, the gifts God gives, to look at what we have with hope, to aim to let it spill the seeds of love so that each moment of time might also be a newborn message of good news for ourselves and for many others

For most days I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of new faith and hope and love; and that we are called to share, administer, in all the times where life asks living questions and offers loving answers in the midst of all these old crises; that we are called to make new beginnings, to share food and hope and love; to gather as the body of Christ to make Eucharist and ministry, to start the faithful journey beyond Jerusalem one more time. In the end what a gift it is that life can be this big, and that love can come so close.

Amen.