Something’s Wrong

Posted in Uncategorized on July 20, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

Something doesn’t seem right.

This story in Acts where Paul casts the demon out of a girl because she is annoying him. Even though she is speaking truth about Paul being the “slave of the Most High God,” something doesn’t sit well with him and he decides to cast out the spirit that has given her the ability to peek into the future and speak a little deeper into the truth.

It isn’t much of a surprise that the slave owner doesn’t appreciate Paul taking away his source of income. It isn’t shocking that they spoke out against he and Silas and got them put in prison for acts unbecoming a Roman citizen. What does disturb me, though, is that Paul does absolutely nothing about the systems that are in place that led to the girl being enslaved in the first place.

One could say that Paul was in a hurry and focusing on his main task of preaching the gospel and so didn’t have time to stop for this disruption. Others may say that Paul was against slavery, and may even point out his plea for Onesimus to Philemon in Colossians, but it didn’t ultimately change the system. Maybe he was just saving it for later . . . .

How many times have we heard stories of Christian missionaries being captured or killed by militants in the lands where they were bringing the gospel? How many have wept over the loss of these martyrs who died for their great faith? Yet, how many have turned a blind eye to the indigenous peoples in these lands who have been subverted by those in power? It seems that we could stand a little work in getting our priorities straight.

Paul and Silas’s story seem to get better, though. After being put in the deepest darkest recesses of the prison, they sing their way to freedom as the walls collapse in a sudden earthquake. Hallelujah! God’s chosen ones are free at last! But this isn’t a cause for rejoicing for the jailer who knows he is doomed for failing at his job.

Before he can take his own life, Paul comforts the man and assures him that his is forgiven.

“What must I do to be saved?” he asks.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul replies.

What does this even mean? Subscribe to a particular assent about who Jesus was? Or is it to embrace the gospel that Jesus espoused about releasing the captives, bringing freedom to the oppressed and sight to the blind? If it’s the latter, then it seems that Paul has failed to live the gospel himself.

This passage has been preached on so many times and so many times the Church has gotten giddy with excitement when Paul and Silas break free and the jailer becomes one of their first converts. But what about the girl? Why is she so easily forgotten?

It seems like a wonderful thing at face value when the jailer and his family are baptized into the faith. After all, if we can bring the oppressor into our fold, then everything will be ok. But just then we remember that some of the most oppressive, homophobic, racist people have been Christians. And so we move on looking for another place in this passage to find hope.

Maybe this passage isn’t about what was done right, but more about what could have been done better. Sure, it’s not completely devoid of reason for celebration, but so much was left on the table. We could find a lesson here about reaching out to those in power and asking them what it is they fear. What is it that scares them into wanting to have a death grip on the illusion of control at all costs?

Perhaps its about Paul’s unwillingness or inability to let go of the idea that he can’t do something. Did he feel too inadequate to affect change big enough to shift entire systems? It’s quite possible that he felt that there was nothing that he could do anyway, so he just let things be and moved on. Is he any different from most of us?

Paul and Silas’s adventure here is crying out for awareness. It’s calling us to experience that metanoia from “can’t” to “must”.

Whether this was Paul’s mindset or not, this passage is a reminder of each and every time that we have seen an injustice and kept going, telling ourselves that there is nothing that we could do anyway. Who are we to think we can affect change?

If I practice this on myself, I have to ask what I can do. I’m only one person, after all, and there’s not likely to be a whole lot of an impact that I can make. Or maybe this is just an excuse for my own fear of being inadequate. And so I ask myself anyway.

Maybe this passage is calling me to ask myself the right questions and to see that I actually can make a difference. I’ve never thought of myself as having power and having grown up rather poor, I didn’t have any financial influence. But, I am a white cisgendered straight Protestant male and some would say that this automatically means that I am privileged. I can’t argue that. So maybe there is something I can do. After all, I recently heard somebody say that it isn’t only the oppressed who should be having conversations saying that things need to change.

So how about this: What if I reach to the margins and, like Fr. Greg Boyle suggested, learn from those in the margins and allow myself to be changed by them instead of trying to change them?

How about I encourage children to keep dreaming and encourage the adults around me to stop teaching them the word “can’t”?

What if I join others and revel in the innocence and creativity of youth instead of trying to change them and tell them that they need to quit having such grandiose ideas as world peace and the oneness of all people? What if I let them remain the humane human beings that they are and start to learn from them for a change?

What if I teach my boys that it’s not ok for men to use a woman’s body for their own gratification because that body comes with a heart, a soul, a mind all made in the beautiful image of a loving God and so much more?

What if I teach them that it’s ok to be vulnerable and that the adage that men should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and never show any emotion is a bunch of bull and that it only creates hurt people and that it really is true that hurt people hurt people and when those hurt people come into power then the hurt just spreads exponentially and systemically?

Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out. What can you do?

Trouble the Waters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 18, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

I can relate to whoever said, “I wonder as I wander.”  These words that originated in Appalachia resound with me because I tend to do a lot of both and usually at the same time.  At any given moment, my mind is awash with musings and questions and in a place like this (Roslyn Retreat Center Richmond, VA), one can get rather contemplative.

I wonder if Meister Eckhart, Therese of Liseux, Thomas Merton and the like had sudden blazes of revelation – breakthroughs that stayed with them for the duration of their lives.  There are stories of ecstatic visions, but most are balanced with accounts of traveling aimlessly through the dark night of the soul – their hands outstretched in front of them to feel their way along in the shadows lest they injure themselves on a rock or tree.  This seems to be where most of us find ourselves at one time or another.

My guess is that these mystics existed in a place somewhere in between these extremes, much like the place where we tend to exist.  To have a constant view of the sacred would be overwhelming.  It’s less about these mystics being especially chosen to receive the light as it is about their ability to wait.  In the waiting and watching they developed eyes to see that which was always there.  The long periods of contemplation gave them occasional glimpses of the Divine that would fade, but serve as a constant reminder that there really was something holding us together.

Most of us don’t have the luxury or the mindset to remain in a state of introspection for long periods of time.  Instead, we seem to be constantly wading through troubled waters trying to get to some place that we don’t even know.

Maybe this is a blessing.  Surely we don’t see it this way.  But who can really bear to look upon something so beautiful for any period of time without going blind?

During our retreat today, we sang the old spiritual, Wade in the Water.  As the melody washed over me and the words crossed my lips, it served as a timely reminder.  It was a prompting that we don’t have to be ashamed when we feel like we are a wreck.  We don’t have to be afraid just because we don’t know what’s on the other side of the river.

Come to your own river with wonder and hope.

Stand there on the muddy shore.  Let the wet loamy sand rise between your toes as you sink into it.  Lift your foot and take that step into the cold water as it swirls around your legs.  Don’t worry, you’ll keep your balance.  You won’t get swept away.

The place where you step stirs up the silt at the bottom and clouds form above your feet.  Wait.  Watch.  What’s left when the cloud dissipates and the silt settles?  Your One and Truest Self.

Nothing is born from the water unless it is troubled first.  And so it is with you and with me.  Amen.

Awareness

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

I went for a hike today on the grounds of the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond, VA where the UCC is hosting a time of reflection and centering for clergy from across the U.S.  The lush green hills and blooming flowers reminded me that, in some places, spring hasn’t forgotten to come.

I made my way into the woods and down the trails not so much afraid of getting lost as of missing something.  Pausing frequently to inhale the smells of nature, I could feel an at-one-ment with God and a creation that reflects the beauty of the holy so aptly captured by the Psalmist.

The aroma of lilacs was overwhelming.  I wanted to bottle it up and take it home.  The entire feeling of walking down this trail with the butterflies in the air around me, dragon flies lighting on rocks, and deer darting back and forth between the trees brought joy to parts of me that are easy to forget exist.

The desire to take the whole thing with me was almost unbearable: the cool breeze moving the sun-warmed air, the way the rays pierced through the leaves above me, the sound of the stream and the occasional fish that broke through the surface.

I realized though that being able to put it all in my pocket and carry it with me would ruin it.  I could carry the essence, but not the substance; and I finally realized that was better.

It was like a place that I’d seen so many times before, yet had never seen in my life.  It reminded me of what Barbara Brown Taylor shared in Holy Envy when she was a child and her dog ran away on a walk.  She finally caught her dog by the tail and led it back toward home.  Eventually the farm buildings came into sight and she could see a barn, but she couldn’t tell which neighbor’s barn it was.  In some ways it looked like one neighbor’s and in some the other’s.  She felt disoriented and confused, but ultimately, she realized it was her own barn.  She just had never noticed it in the same way before.

Everything I took in seemed so familiar because I still carry the essence of other such glimpses of something otherworldly in thin places that were different, but quite the same.

These gifts are only visible when I’m really paying attention.  It’s not that they aren’t always there, it’s just that I’m not always seeing.  Such encounters don’t only happen in nature, but in people as well.  In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henry Nouwen shares what his friend Fred reminded him: “[L]ook attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear.  You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.”  It takes times like this when I’m fully present to be able to see and hear both the serenity and the longing – that in nature, in another person, and even in the depths of my own being.

I recall a conversation we recently had in church about the trinity.  It’s utterly baffling and seems to be a formula constructed by humans to explain the inexplicable.  In many ways this is true.  But when you’re in the thin places and see the shadow of the divine in a person or a place, it seems to become something much more beautiful and much more necessary.  Perhaps the trinity is as much or more of an expression of our need for God to be certain things to us at different times as it is for God’s need to be revealed to us right where we are at – if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I, Judas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

It was an intimate moment between the two of them.  Sure, there were others around.  Some were undoubtedly watching with their own interpretations wondering what it was that they were seeing.  Perhaps there was some dis-ease among a few, but then again, they were likely preoccupied by the fact that they were eating dinner with and talking to a man who was long enough in the grave to have a stench.

Judas made his opinion known as Mary used her hair to apply the mixture of nard and tears to Jesus’s feet in her final act of love this side of the tomb.  It was a frozen point in time special to the two people who were in it, who got it, who knew they needed it because it would be their last opportunity before the hands of fate would wrap them in its hatefully morbid grasp.

Like Judas imposing his own concerns about selling the expensive perfume instead of “wasting” it on Jesus, we often find ourselves in similar situations where we are assigning our own bias from the periphery.  Who knows if Judas was lining his pockets with the treasury money, but we do know that he was inserting himself into a space that wasn’t meant for him.

I dreaded carrying the pager.  Every chaplain in the hospital had to take turns, but I seemed to get it on days when I just wanted to set my mind on cruise control and get the day done with no interruptions.  That Monday was no exception.  When the pager started playing its irritating tune on my hip, I knew that I wasn’t going to get that luxury.

The number on the pager told me that it was the ER.  Most of the time, you don’t have any trouble finding your destination when you go to the ER because there is a flurry of activity and you make your way to it like a moth to a flame – occasionally with the same effects.

Diego’s mother was sitting in a chair just outside the bay where her three year-old son was covered in what looked like bubble wrap to keep him warm.  Tubes extended everywhere from his small body and machines were whirring and humming all around.  His father sat to the right of the bed with his head in his hands occasionally looking up at his boy in dismay.

His mom was understandably in hysterics and I knelt by her side to try to offer some comfort.  There wasn’t much I could do other than just be there and sometimes that has to be enough.  There were no magic words or incantations that were going to undo what had already been done at the bottom of a pool covered in a tarp that the unknowing tot had apparently mistaken for a trampoline.

She wanted something tangible to hold on to because she couldn’t hold her baby.  The team was doing their best to bring him back to life, but most knew it was futile.  I was doing my best not to show my emotions so that I could be strong for this broken woman, but I about came undone when she fell on the ground and clutched his tiny little shoes to her chest.  Seemingly washing them with her hair and tears in a Mary-like gesture for one who would not be raised.

It’s hard to forget things like that.  I wondered how Diego was doing and eventually assumed he had already died as I went about my week tending to other emergencies.  It was that following Thursday when, once again, that dreaded piece of plastic was clasped to my belt.  With the same desire to go about my day uninterrupted, I looked with disdain at the number on the display as it played its foreboding tune.  I didn’t recognize the extension and had to call to see where I was headed.  Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

I pressed the button outside the unit and waited for a nurse to buzz me in.  As the doors opened, the antiseptic smell of rubbing alcohol and every antibacterial potion filled my nostrils.  Being a lifelong member of the I-Hate-Needles Club, it never failed to make me wince.

Making my way to the nurses’ station I made eye contact with the nurse in charge for that shift.  She tilted her head toward the open door down the hall and I looked wondering who was in there.  I could see Diego’s mom poking her head out the door sobbing, looking down the hall and then briefly at me before she went back inside the room.  So it was going to be one of those days.

I had no idea what had happened to Diego and his family.  The days blended together and other patients, other crises didn’t necessarily make me forget about them, but at least took them from the forefront of my awareness.  Now I at least knew they had made it this far.

I came around the side of the station and stood to the right of the nurse who was pouring over some documents.  She looked up at me with a look that I occasionally got from nurses that said, “What the hell do I do?”  She looked down the hall a few doors down from Diego’s room to where I could see people walking in a circle and hear music of some kind as they undulated to the beat.

“He’s gone and I ain’t going in there to tell them, Chappy.”  She looked back up at me.

“Alright.  I’ll do it.”  I took a deep breath and shook my head as I made my way toward the sound of what seemed to be praise and worship music in Spanish.  The people were waving their hands, some crying, as they threw prayers to the ceiling as if the intensity of their prayers was proportionate to the distance they would travel to God’s ears.

“I know God hears your prayers.”  I gulped as they all stopped and began to gather around me.  “But we need to pray for comfort and peace now because he’s gone.”

The weeping was of biblical proportions – tearing of clothes and heaping of ashes.  It was almost too much to bear seeing these people come apart.  Some collapsed into each other in a melee of tears and others began to pray through the sobbing as they once again began their circular dance.

I led a group of them back to Diego’s room and wasn’t prepared for what I would find.  I took a deep breath before I entered the room and unlike Lazarus, there was no smell of death.  Although he never regained any of his brain function after his fateful swim, he remained “alive” on machines until minutes before.

With the kind of grief that only a mother could feel, she held his lifeless body wrapped in a brown coarse blanket almost like a saddle blanket.  She hugged him close to her breast and I could see her shoulders tremble and heave from behind as she wept.  I placed a hand on her shoulder and once again did everything within my power to keep from losing it myself.  As an empath, it’s sometimes almost too unbearable to stand so close to a burning bush.

She turned to me and held out her little boy.  At first, I didn’t know what to do.  I stood frozen as I looked at the shell of this tiny life and then back up at her.  Then I got it.  I took Diego in my arms and held him tight for a few moments.  I kissed his smooth precious forehead and turned and passed him on to the person next to me – probably an aunt.  It was hard to see her face through my tears and that was ok.

As I watched each person hold Diego and anoint his face and hands with their tears, my feeling of dismay and discomfort gave way to a better realization.  Where I initially felt an extreme dis-ease around them passing this body around and that they were somehow doing something wrong, I became aware that it was I who was wrong.  It wasn’t that these people were doing something horrific or unconscionable.  It was I, who like Judas, had walked into a thin place and imposed my own interpretations as I wasn’t immediately able to see the pure holiness of it all.

Groping Around in the Dark

Posted in Encouragement, true self with tags , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

In a world where being sure about everything is the way of life, embracing mystery can be incredibly difficult.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), there are many aspects of our life to be gleaned in those dark places, so we shouldn’t forsake them.

It’s easy to feel that life would be so much easier if we could just know everything clearly and be able to define every occurrence accurately without having to take time for interpretation.  If we could know ourselves without all of the soul-searching and contemplation, wouldn’t life be so much better?  I don’t think so.
Those walks in the dark where the ambiguity is the rule and not the exception, are transformative.  Barbara Brown Taylor said that “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion.  I need darkness as much as I need light.”  Groping our way around in the darkness teaches us things about the world and ourselves that seeing them in the light never could.
During Lent, we learn to embrace the darkness so that we can appreciate the light.  That faint glimmer of sunshine that pierces through the gap between the stone and the cave wall is not a reassurance that we will be saved from the darkness, but rather a reminder that the darkness is good, too.  Light and dark need each other to exist.
When Thomas Merton was starting his writing career and making his early attempts at being a novelist, some of the beauty that would emerge from embracing the spiritual writing that he was best at shone through.  In this excerpt, Merton is having a conversation with a couple of Gestapo officers in London through the window of a bombed out house as he writes.  They ask him why he writes and he replies that it is so he can learn about the world and himself.  The officers then inquire as to whether it would just be faster to see things clearly from the beginning and that writing to figure things out would lead to many volumes of wasted paper and meaningless books.  Merton’s reply was:
No doubt.  But if I if it were all clear at once, I would not really understand it,
either.  Some things are too clear to be understood, and what you think 
is your understanding of them is only a kind of charm, a kind of incantation in your mind concerning that thing.  This is not understanding: it is something you remember.  So much for definitions!  We always have to go back and start from the beginning and make over all the definitions for ourselves again.
 
Even the things that can be seen clearly in the light aren’t always what they seem to be: scripture, the actions of another, our own lives, even.  It’s in the overcoming of the discomfort and the dis-ease of our own being that we finally start to reach out in the dark without fearing the monster that may lie waiting beyond our fingertips.  It’s in those moments when we really get to know the world as it really is.

On Grief

Posted in peace with tags , , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Grief. It’s not something that happens in the background as we go about our regular daily activities. It’s something that has to be actively and intentionally done.

As a hospice bereavement counselor, I often hear people say that they are processing their grief by staying busy. Nope. This isn’t grieving, it’s avoiding. If you think it all just goes away at some point, then

I’m sorry to say that this isn’t the case. The grief will always be there, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be a bad or unbearable thing.

Any change or transition requires grieving. Most think of it as something that happens when someone dies, but it’s not limited to death. A breakup, divorce, losing a job, moving, loss of mobility, loss of autonomy, change of role – these are all reasons to grieve. Even intentional acts such as when you are the one to walk away from a relationship or a planned retirement are causes to grieve.

So how do we do it in a healthy manner? As much as we want to run at every uncomfortable feeling, just the opposite is what’s required to come to a place of peace. Sit with the pain, the loss, the uneasiness. Stare it in the face. Embrace it. To feel means to know we are alive, even when the feelings hurt.

This time of year with the holidays as a constant reminder of our losses, old wounds are ripped open and many come to the realization that, although so much time has passed, it still hurts. This is because we didn’t allow ourselves to go through the process.

It’s never too late to grieve. Sit in the silence and take note of what you are feeling. Don’t fight it. Let the emotions wash over you and don’t try to be logical about it. It’s tempting to believe that if we can just find a good reason for it that make sense to us, then it won’t be so bad, but this isn’t true. There is no way to reason loss. It’s both a mystery and a reality, so let it be just what it is.

Grief is not a clean cut linear process. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. You will have good days and bad days, good moments and bad moments. Sounds, sights, smells will trigger grief. So don’t beat yourself up by thinking that you should have progressed farther and shouldn’t still be feeling emotional. The emotions will always be there, but eventually you will own them instead of them owning you.

Lastly (as if there ever is a “lastly” to such things), be vulnerable. As Brene Brown so aptly says, we have to leave the wound open to get to the deep places. That’s where the grieving happens. Don’t give in to the “get over it” mentality. Don’t think that it will ever go away if you don’t address it. If you do dare to sit with it, though, you’ll find that it’s not so scary and the pain isn’t in control. You’ll gain new perspective, you’ll find peace, and things will be ok, even when they’re not. This is serenity.

 

War and the Corporate True Self

Posted in ego, peace, service, true self, war with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Another Veterans Day is upon us and, as I do every year, I ask myself what it’s all about.  There is a cynical side of me that says we are glorifying something that should never happen under any circumstance.  The idea of exterminating human beings for the sake of being right seems appalling to me and to celebrate those who have participated in them in any way causes me to feel the mournful disdain of glorifying violence.  But, after much contemplation, I can see that, as in all things, there is another side of the coin.

Of course I realize that we are celebrating valor and the courage of those who were willing to risk (and sometimes lose) their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Sure, some may have entered military service to avoid jail time, some to kill, and some to enforce their ideals.  It is sometimes, however, those very ideals that perpetuate the violence in the first place.  Our addiction to being right all the time can lead to the reinforcement of a false truth.

On the way to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC this year, I was listening to a podcast with Fr. Richard Rohr.  He said that we know we are operating from the False Self, or the ego, when we are individually offended by some action or words.  As I drove on, with much time to ponder, I came to the conclusion that the opposite is also true: Any time we are offended on behalf of humankind, we are operating from our True Self.

So what does this have to do with war?  We have been called to defend and empower the least of these.  If someone is marginalized and oppressed, it is our duty to lend our voice to stopping the oppression and even to joining a revolution against it.  As we know, sometimes revolutions require force.

In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton calls the church to being in a constant state of revolution.  He says that the church must return to tradition, which seems like an oxymoron when placing tradition and revolution next to each other in synonymous relationship.  For most, tradition is the very enemy of reform as we do things “the way we have always done them.”  For Merton, though, the tradition is the revolution: “[T]his tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached” (143).

In other words, tradition is the outward manifestation, in practice, of the church’s True Self.  If individuals have a True Self and organizations are living organisms comprised of individuals, then they too must have a corporate True Self.  Too many churches and organizations have not only lost sight of who they are, but likely have never cared to know.

This is no less true for entire countries who allow or even create structures that lead to systemic oppression.  When it comes time to upend these systems, we hope that the revolution can be a peaceful one from the inside with the death of the individual and corporate False Selves.  According to Merton, “all the others demand the extermination of somebody else” (144).

If violence is the only means of insurrection and not an internal death of False Self giving birth to what is True, then indeed

There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends.  There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before (144).

It is arguable, and likely a fact that more wars have been started over religion than any other issue.  Dogmatic absolute “truths” lead humans to carry their ideologies on their backs into battle with sword and gun in hand. If we can hold our own created beliefs at arm’s length where they are visible to us and see them for the “dry formula of a dogmatic definition” that they are, then perhaps we can approach our ideas with humility, grace, and a fair reflection of our True Selves.  Instead of creating individual “truths” from a False Self that only leads to the extermination of human lives, let us find our oneness in the source of all being, the one in whom we find the image of who we really are.