Sunday, August 7, 2011

Jesus and the Poor

From Stephen Colbert ~~~
If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition — and then admit that we just don’t want to do it. (Hat top to Sue L.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday Meditations: "Enchanted April"

I've been listening to the audiobook of The Enchanted April.  I've loved the movie for years, but the book is, of course, adding so much texture to the story.  I love it.
The book spells out clearly why Lottie experiences such a transformation at San's the Beauty.  Fragrant flowers, sunshine (especially so having come from drizzly London), the "castle" itself as well as its staff, the abundance of flowers, and, of course, the Mediterranean Sea. 

Lottie's first morning at San Salvatore is worth remembering.  As she awakes, she notices how "lovely" the room is.  "How wonderful to have such a lovely room all to myself," she thinks.  "If I chose to, I could lock the door and no one at all could disturb me."  She feels the sheets, turns and squirms, moving all around the bed to luxuriate in the smooth softness of those sheets.  Not one iota of guilt.  She knows she deserves the goodness of this holiday.

San Salvatore
Eventually, the shuttered window in her room calls her, and she rises.  As she opens the shutters, aaaaaahh.   I need to listen to that part again---the author used words to describe Lottie's response, but I can't remember them.  To me, it must have been an experience beyond words.  It must've been as if she had never seen sunshine before in her life, never seen the shining sparkles of the sun on a Sea, never smelled the intense fragrance of flowers (the small mountain on which San Salvatore stands is blanketed, literally, in the flowers of spring, all newly blooming) of those literally-take-her-breath-away moments. 
Beauty fills her, fills her entire being.  When that happens, I know, the accompanying sister to Beauty is always Love.  Lottie allows this filling--perhaps her temperament and background mean this "allowing" occurs naturally for her (she does seem to have a mystical side, even as we come to know her in London), or perhaps in some way she's been 'working' on her inner life.  In any case, she opens herself completely to Beauty's eager outpouring.
Rose exchanges glances with Lottie,
across their respective balconies,
 as they get their first view of
San Salvatore
Opening oneself completely to Beauty, for Lottie, means that she is in heaven.  "In heaven one doesn't need to arrange or repair anything at all," she tells Rose, as Rose seems to want to fight Ms. Fisher's take-over of the prettiest sunroom.  "In heaven, one has to share the love," she says, confident that there's plenty to go around.  She tells Rose that she's written to Mellersh, her husband, and invited him to come and stay.  "I've been a beast," she says, "only loving Mellersh if he first loved me.  And since he didn't, there was no love at all.  Oh, Rose, it doesn't matter who loves, as long as someone does!"  The Love that Beauty has evoked in her spills out everywhere. 

In London, Lottie was nervous.  When she and Rose first meet Lady Caroline to interview her about staying with them in the castle, Lottie couldn't speak, and when she tried her face turned red.  When she first met Ms. Fisher, she made a fool of herself, so nervous that she couldn't think straight and ended up implying that she thought Keats was still alive. (!) Such a funny scene.  Lottie frequently appeared confused.  Rose thought that her friends' words "gushed" out, unfiltered and often nonsensical.  

But this was something else Rose noticed about Lottie that first day in San Salvatore:  her language was developing along with her spirit and her personality.  She was using stronger, more striking words--words like "beast."  And there was no stuttering, no appearance of confusion at all.  She remained enthusiastic in her speech, but "enthusiasm" is quite different when the context is wisdom rather than "covering up out of nervousness," Rose thought.
Lottie: "I've written to Milosh and
invited him here."

Rose was taken aback, to say the least, at the thought of Mellersh joining them.  "But Lottie, we came here to get away from .... well, from our husbands," she said, trying to understand, to keep up with Lottie's transformation.  "And just this morning you said you couldn't envision Mellersh.  In your mind's eye he was without form or content, and now, this afternoon, he's suddenly taken shape?"  Rose felt that Lottie's "development" was shockingly fast, but she did recognize it as 'development,' at one point thinking she could almost see the halo just above Lottie's head. 

There's so much else to say, but the main thing is my sense of understanding Lottie.  I too have experienced Beauty evoking an outpouring of Love--Love so strong I could not contain it, so giving it to everyone I met seemed perfectly natural.   With such an experience, something quite substantial shifts within.  I have never gone back to the way I was before the experience.  Hmmm, Lottie is so right:  It is indeed an experience of heaven. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Service on Fifth Sundays. BEING the church.

Today is the Fifth Sunday.  I copied the idea from a friend in another church...On each fifth Sunday of the year, we have only a brief worship service at 9:00, then we choose a service project to do (which our Christian Service folks have pre-arranged for us) in our neighborhoods.  I went with the group that served at the Samaritan House for people with HIV. It's a large facility with 357 families.  We cleaned the kitchen for them.  Others cleaned and straightened the yard at our neighboring elementary school, while smaller groups did a few smaller projects.  Then we all gathered at the church again at 12:30 for a spaghetti lunch. 
I'd say we had about 40% participation, which is amazingly good, really.  Fifth Sundays' Service isn't something that everyone will want to be a part of.  The folks that came today have a real calling to serve, I think.   

I tried to set the stage this morning in the sermon by talking about motivations for service, and how when we serve others we can catch a small glimpse of the Reign of God. 

A different way of worshiping today.  Change.  It isn't always easy, but wow, it can really be worth it!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Watch. Keep Awake. The Potential for Disaster is Near.

I was reminded the other day about the dangers involved in church and being a pastor.

I've known of cutting-edge churches where people who attended believed in all sincerity (and I think they were right) that they were part of something God intends for Church to be.  Inclusive of all.  True community.  Deeply meaningful. Actively caring for "the least of these."  Growing by leaps and bounds.  The kind of place where it is truly exciting just to walk in the door, knowing you'll be greeted by people who love you, who are genuinely happy to see you.  People trust each other.  It's where your children are loved, even your crochety old Aunt Bess can come and feel the love surrounding her.  The pastors are dynamic, creative, personable, excellent preachers, teachers, and leaders.  Yes, this is a place that "God is blessing" big time.

I've known those kind of communities--been part of a couple, at least on the edges.  It was a uniquely wonder-filled experience.

Yet time and again those are also the communities in which something horrible happens.  The pastor gets into trouble with a parishioner.  Or the secretary embezzles.  Something. 

A few weeks ago, as I listened to someone's involvement in a community like that, I experienced this feeling/thought about how dangerous church can be.  Even when it's all so good, so right, so the way Jesus intended.  Yet there remains, always, a potential for a fall, an opening to danger, even evil.

Just when you know--"ah, this is heaven on earth," the smallest crack makes an appearance.  It seems that we are given glimpses of the Dream, the Reign/Kingdom, but we do not know it in its fullness.  No.

I see it as the weakness (?) of the human ego--the false ego, I mean. Indiscretion by a pastor who, believing (s)he's doing the will of God, excuses himself or herself from the kind of daily examination, prayer, spiritual practices that might help keep him/her centered and self aware.  The staff member feels the pressure to 'perform,' so takes some short cuts. Our blind spots grow.   It's all so innocent...and not.

The goodness that we do is laced with less than pure motivation.  No denying that.

Someone at church today remarked that he has a hard time when I say "for forgiveness of sin" during communion.  Kinda 'ruins it' for him. 

But everything worth anything stands in the paradox, doesn't it?--the tension between opposites.  Our wounds tempt us to behaviors our true selves do not value.  So we do 'the work,' we look at who we are, how these wounds came to be, and eventually we hear the Gospel Truth--we ARE God's beloved children.  We lack nothing

That's so right.  I remember so clearly Mary R. telling me that not so long ago!  I lack nothing.  'Tis true.

But if I stay on that "side" of who I am, --I lack nothing; my will and God's will are one; I am good and true and beautiful and smart-- eventually self-deception becomes too powerful an enemy, and "I am right" creeps in more and more often.

I HAVE to come back down on the other side, to a place where I find equilibrium, a place in which I also know that at the same time I lack nothing, I yet lack so much. It's both.  "I am perfect AND I could use a little work."  As a human being my place is inside this paradox of created-in-the-image-of-God AND in great need of forgiveness. 

As a pastor, it seems imperative that I keep trying to maintain this tension such that it becomes beautifully creative, not destructive.  The potential for disaster is near.  Watch.  Keep Awake.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Welcoming Prayer

This is directly from Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. It's from the chapter on The Welcoming Prayer toward the end of the book.  I'm finding it to be a powerful spiritual practice.

The three step process of the Welcoming Prayer

1. Focus and sink in
2. Welcome
3. Let go

Focus and sink in

To focus means to sink in to the feeling in your body. If it’s a physical pain, like a toothache you become very present to it, putting your full attention inside it. Exactly the same is true for emotions. If you are angry, see if you can be present to how anger is manifesting in your body—is your jaw clenched? Stomach in knots? If fear is present, what is the sensation of it? Is your breath short? Is there a sense of vertigo, or a stampede of ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline?

Don’t try to change anything. Just stay present.

Focusing doesn’t mean psychoanalyzing. This is not about trying to discover why you feel the way you do, or justifying your feelings.

This first step is the key to whole practice. By becoming physically aware of this energy as sensation in your body, you can stay in the present, welcoming it.

Now comes the most inscrutable and counterintuitive instruction in the whole of Welcoming Prayer. Sitting there, steeped in the feeling, you begin to say, ever so gently, ”Welcome, anger” or “Welcome pain, welcome.”

How’s that again? If this emotion is what necessitated the practice in the first place, why are we welcoming it? Isn’t the goal to get rid of it?

Actually, no. The goal is not to let it chase you out of presence.

Admittedly, this is paradoxical. Common sense tells you that the emotion is the problem and the solution is to eliminate it. But by welcoming it instead, you create an atmosphere of inner hospitality. By embracing the thing you once defended yourself against, or ran from, you are actually disarming it, removing its power to hurt you or chase you back into our smaller self.

There’s a wonderful novel by Ursula Le Guin called A Wizard of Earthsea, which is actually an extended meditation on exactly this point. A young wizard named Ged is in training to become a sorcerer. One day, horsing around with his friends, he inadvertently conjures up a minor demon. The demon proceeds to haunt him throughout the book. As he grows in power and influence, it grows right along with him. Gradually it turns very dark and begins to stalk him; he flees in terror. He runs to a city by the sea, but it follows him there. He hires a boat and rows out into the sea, but it follows him there. Finally, he jumps into the water, but the thing is still right on his back. Finally, with all escape routes blocked, he does the only thing left to him: he turns to the demon and embraces it! At which point it vanishes, integrated back inside him as the shadow he’s finally willing to own.
Ged’s experience of liberation is the practical wisdom behind this mysterious second step of the Welcoming Prayer process. This moment can always be endured, the well-known spiritual writer Gerald May reminds us, and the act of welcoming anchors us firmly in the Now. This is the moment where those two great streams, awareness and surrender, converge. The small self is surrendered into the authentic self, connected to the divine within. In this configuration, you are able to stay present in the Now regardless of its physical or psychological content. It’s something the great saints and mystics have always known.

So have the small birds perched on an electric wire. No matter how high the voltage, the energy will do you no harm as long as you don’t give it a pathway to the ground (i.e., as long as we don’t identify with it, attach ourselves to it).

A couple of important points: First, what you are welcoming is the physical or psychological content of the moment only, not a general blanket condoning of a situation. I’m frequently asked by people with abuse histories, “But incest shouldn’t be welcomed, should it?” This misses the whole point. What you are welcoming in this moment is not incest, but the feelings the experience triggers for you: the fear or the rage or shame on your plate right now.

This is a very important mistake to nip in the bud, because if uncorrected it can lead to the assumption that surrender means to roll over and play dead, or that the purpose of the practice is to teach you to passively acquiesce to situations that are in fact intolerable. This is not so at all. There’s a crucial distinction between surrender as an inner attitude and as an outer practice, and we are concerned only with the former here. From the point of view of inner work, the situation is straightforward: anything done in a state of interior bracing will throw you immediately into your small self, with its familiar repertoire of defense mechanisms. Surrender understood as an interior act will place you in alignment with [your authentic self, your imago dei, that part of you that is connected to God]. Once you’re in right alignment, you can decide [freely] what you are going to do in the outer world. Sometimes this is a spirited fight; other times it is acquiescence. But whichever way, you’ll be doing it from consciousness, not reactivity.

Let go
Don’t get to this step too quickly. The real work in Welcoming Prayer is actually accomplished in the first two steps. Stay with them, going back and forth between ‘focusing and sinking in,’ and ‘welcoming’ until the knot begins to dissolve of its own accord.

And yes, ‘letting go’ is also just for now. This is not a final, forever renunciation of your anger or fear; it’s simply a way of gently waving farewell as the emotion starts to recede. If you can’t quite make it to this step, that’s OK. Don’t fake it, because the bulk of the word has already been accomplished.

When you are ready to let go, there are two ways to go about it: a short way and a more complex litany. In the short way, you simply say something like “I let go of my anger,” or, if you prefer, “I give my anger to God.”

Mary Mrozowski (creator of the Welcoming Prayer) preferred a more complex and invariable litany. When it become time to proceed with the third step, she would use this:
• I let go my desire for security and survival.
• I let go my desire for affection and esteem.
• I let go my desire for control and power.
• I let go my desire to change the situation.

The would be her inevitable litany, whether dealing with physical or emotional affliction. Those first three, of course, are the three false self programs, and in naming them thusly, Mary said, “I feel like I’m sending a strong message to the unconscious.”

The last one, “I let go of my desire to change the situation,” is right between the eyeballs and a stroke of pure genius. In no uncertain terms, it removes this practice from the ballpark of “fit-it” (“I do this practice in order to correct an unpalatable situation) and back into unconditional presence.

For Mary this practice was all about inner alignment. Whether the pain went on forever was not the point; the point is that throughout this entire “forever,” an awakened and surrendered consciousness can remain fully present to God “for the duration.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

Great Video. Brene Brown

In my old age I can't remember who sent this to me.  If it was YOU, please remind me!  :-)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Misplaced Priorities

Our oldest daughter is one of three finalists for the "Top First-Year Teacher" award in her large school district. Yet she anxiously awaits word on whether she will lose her job because of budget cuts in Texas. At risk as well are people with disabilities, librarians, etc.

This article was sent to me by a friend...

Houston Chronicle - March 27, 2011, 7:32PM

Tax cut comes at 'high cost'

Imagine $1 billion vanishing overnight from the state treasury. That's essentially what happened in September — just as Texas lawmakers learned they would face a $27 billion shortfall - when the oil and gas industry reaped a windfall from legislation quietly passed in 2003. Poof! About $1.2 billion in potential tax revenues disappeared from the books, leaving less money for hospitals, schools, roads and all the other worthy things the state budget supports.

The story of the vanishing billion dollars provides some useful insight if you've been wondering why our prosperous state has a budget crisis. The state of Texas enjoys enormous bounty from "severance" taxes, paid by the oil and gas industry for the right to "sever" minerals from Texas lands.

But in 1989, the Legislature created an exemption for "high-cost" gas - as a temporary measure, mind you - to encourage expensive and technically difficult gas production.

Lawmakers extended the exemption in 1995 and 1999, when it was promoted by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland. Then, in 2003, when Craddick became speaker of the House, the Legislature passed a complicated bill with dozens of "technical corrections" to the state tax code. Tucked inside was a single line that struck the expiration date of the high-cost gas exemption.

As a result, the tax break became permanent, instead of expiring last September. With that tiny "technical" change, the state lost the ability to collect about $1.2 billion a year in additional taxes. Why would the Legislature give such an enormous permanent tax break to a single industry?

No one seems to know, even the bill sponsors, former State Rep. Brian McCall and former State Sen. Ken Armbrister. "I can guarantee you that nobody in the Legislature knew that was in the bill," laughed Armbrister, now a senior adviser to Gov. Rick Perry. His mirth was an acknowledgement of an open secret in the Legislature: There are some bills - particularly those relating to arcane tax minutiae - that no one reads.

The bill received even less scrutiny because of the unusual parliamentary journey it took on its path to easy passage. In the Texas House, the bill was approved with no objections by the Ways and Means committee and sent to the Local and Consent calendar.

As its name implies, the calendar is intended to quickly dispense of proposals that have only local impact, or consent of all members. A little distracted If no one objected when the Texas House passed House Bill 2424 on the Local and Consent calendar on May 16, 2003, we'll have to forgive them. They were, shall we say, a little distracted. You may recall that May 2003 was a particularly acrimonious period for the Texas House. On May 12, Democrats fled to Oklahoma to dodge a vote on a congressional redistricting plan advocated by then-U.S. Rep. Tom Delay. They returned May 16, still groggy from an overnight bus trip. "None of the Democrats were paying close enough attention," State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said this week.

A chagrined Burnam is sponsoring a bill to end the exemption, which he argues skews the Texas tax system to burden the middle class. He has an unlikely ally in a powerful Republican lawmaker, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden. "I don't think much of the exemption," Ogden said. "I don't think it makes a lot of difference to whether gas is drilled or not." Craddick did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. In 2010, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association awarded him its "Top Hand" award. "For the past four decades, there have been very few, if any, bills related to the oil and gas industry and passed by the Texas Legislature they don't have Tom Craddick's fingerprints," the association's magazine noted.

Kelli Way, a spokeswoman for the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners argued this week that the tax exemption "has successfully encouraged natural gas exploration and production in Texas, particularly in those areas that are difficult and expensive to develop." Definition varies Way also said that in 1990, high-cost gas production was only 5.5 percent of total statewide gas production.

However, by 2009, high-cost production accounted for 56 percent of total statewide production (in large part because of the incentives provided from the high-cost gas investment tax credit). "It was during this time Texas was the only producing state to offset production declines and increase natural gas production," she said.

But an analysis by the Legislative Budget Board suggests that the Texas Railroad Commission has applied the "high-cost" definition liberally - certifying whole regions of the state as high-cost regardless of the actual expense involved in drilling.

During 2009, the gas operations certified as high-cost actually had drilling costs ranging from $14.7 million to as low as $24,000, the report noted. Does the oil and gas industry, which creates jobs and pays other taxes, deserve this exemption? Or has it outlasted its usefulness? For whatever reason - partisan distractions or shrewd advocacy - the Legislature in 2003 chiseled the high-cost gas exemption in stone without adequate debate.

Ogden said he believed that lawmakers should examine high-cost gas, in a broader debate about the tax burden in Texas. It's a long-overdue conversation. When someone with powerful friends gets a tax break, someone else is stuck with the tab.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"Lost Christianity"

This is the beginning of the second week of my vacation. Among other things, I'm catching up on some reading--the first book I read was Jacob Needleman's Lost Christianity. If you know anything about Needleman and his ideas, I'd love to hear from you.

I found the book fascinating. His main point is that what has been "lost" in Christianity is a necessary focus on our own self-awareness. We can't become who God intends for us to be until we've confronted/celebrated what we are right now. Of course, I totally agree with that!

And for an existentialist like me there are breathtaking gems in this book. Like this:
The whole of the universe rests on the sacrifice of God. But this Christ looks directly at me. The immensity of this sacrifice, which I do not understand or even wish to understand, is directed to me, personally. For the first time, I feel that something is required of me, a response to this sacrifice. I glimpse, for the first time, what it means that Christianity demands a response. I am obliged by the fact of Reality and the fact of my existence. I have felt this before about the whole of my existence and the existence of the world. But I have never felt it with respect to Christianity. Nor have I felt it so realistically as now, regarding this face. Existence here as a human face which I did not invent or imagine; it is an objective I, as much a part of Being as stars and trees. I am obliged, but what in myself can possibly answer this obligation? Nothing. And cannot be nothing, the sacrifice could not have been made or communicated like this if there were nothing that could come from [us]...I feel on the edge of a new understanding of the greatness of Christianity.

and Needleman's talk with Anthony de Mello:
"You ask what in yourself can respond to the sacrifice of God? But this sacrifice, as you call it, is love. What is the proper response to love?" At first I thought Anthony was expecting me to answer. I had no answer. "The proper response to love," he continued, "is to accept it. There is nothing to do. The response to a gift is to accept it. Why would you wish to do anything?"

I love that. On many levels, I love that. What first grabbed me, though, was his idea that "the whole universe rests on the sacrifice of God." I remember, maybe 20 years ago now, being struck with the strangeness of the whole idea of sacrifice. That we actually live in a world in which sacrifice on behalf of others exists at all struck me viscerally. It was one of those Stop-Everything-and-Forget-to-Breathe moments.

But after my visceral response to the insight, I didn't quite know what to do with it. I had a sense that there was more to the idea than I was able to articulate. And now, 20 years later, here it is.

The whole of the universe rests on the sacrifice of God. So utterly amazing. The Cosmos Itself, in all its immensity, all its' glory, stunning beauty, relentless pain, energy, chemicals, forces the human mind still cannot grasp...all of it brought into being from the sacrifice of God. Big Bang or one tiny atom, doesn't matter. That the universe exists at all--the old question of why there is something rather than nothing--necessarily entails a sacrifice from the Creator. And yes, once one understands this wholistically, then of course, this sacrifice invites a response.

The existentialist in me marvels and is filled with gratitude. That I am a Christian entails the same response. This is what Jesus invites me to know. This sacrifice, as Needleman says, has a face! -- the face of Jesus the Christ.

And "the face" is such a potent image, for I, too, have/am a face. Yes, the "proper response" is to accept the gift of love, but I think there's even more to it. That this cosmic sacrifice has become personal also invites me, like Jesus, to sacrifice my self as well.

The false self. All that separates me from this love that is the gift of the Creator. All that separates me from others. All that separates me from the authentic self I am meant to be and become.

What I am invited to sacrifice throughout my life is, as Thomas Keating puts it, are those emotional centers that LIE to me, i.e., those false messages that tell me I "need" and must have --
  • affection/esteem/approval
  • power/control
  • survival/security

These things are not intrinsically wrong or hurtful, but the fact is that now, as an adult, I do not actually need them--in the sense that to cling to them, to attach myself to them, is death. To let them go in order to place my TRUST in God, to live into Julian of Norwich's insight that All Shall Be Well, is life.