Pregnant Pause

Advent has begun and the journey from darkness to light, Nazareth to Bethlehem, empty manger to the birth of Jesus is upon us. These familiar patterns are always full of possibility and challenge, and I have to say I’ve grown quite fond of Advent for that very reason. However, I always have to resist the urge to jump past the journey directly to Christmas! I mean… come on… ‘Christmas’ is all around us even from before Thanksgiving; many churches have even begun singing Christmas carols! But our Church tradition provides a very important period of reflection and preparation before we even reach the manger and the Christ-child. I only wish more of our culture embraced this season of waiting and wanting, and it’s opportunities to slow down, not speed up.

Full disclosure: I always struggle with patience myself, and find it much easier to reflect upon than to actually put it into practice. But for some reason in my prayer life recently, I keep coming back to the imagery of pregnancy. I have never been pregnant, nor am I a woman, but we’re all fairly familiar with the process. (If you haven’t watched the BBC series, “Call the Midwife” – you must!)

There are many, many passages in scripture which reference birth, from the literal act to the metaphorical such as being ‘born again’ in spirit and so on, and I am reminded that an important part of pregnancy is that it shouldn’t be rushed. In its healthiest capacity, it has to unfold naturally allowing time for the mother and the child to prepare for the violent and often dangerous act of the birth itself. Mothers I have spoken to mention all of the changes for which they had to adapt, leading up to birth and the expectation, excitement, and fear as the day drew ever closer. For many, labor is painful and even terrifying, but as John 16 reminds us, “when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.”

So, if you’re able, enjoy this ‘pregnant pause’ before the birth of Jesus. This necessary, hopeful, waiting which allows our hearts and minds to prepare for the wonderful and tremendous intrusion of God into our very midst. Open the hymnal and relish over the beautiful Advent hymns that come before the well-beloved Christmas favorites. Let the light of the Advent wreath dance in your heart as the darkness is peeled back layer by layer each week. And, finally, rejoice in the birth of new hope and unending possibility that comes with Emmanuel, God with us!

‘F’ Words

As the leaves fall and I find myself spinning from pumpkins, to turkeys, to Christmas trees, I feel a heightened sense of that other holiday staple, the ‘f’ word … family. Let me state from the start that I love my family very much and I have grown into a more mature appreciation for all of our quirks and craziness. However, all of that learning and loving still comes with certain stresses and strains. Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher, once said: “If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.”

This past weekend I visited my family in New England and found myself easily triggered by all kinds of behavioral minefields that I thought I had long left behind. This is a common enough situation… many people share similar challenges when visiting relatives, but this visit really left me shaken at times. What had changed? I had.

As I have continued to grow and mature in my capabilities and spirit I have also dragged along a nagging sense of perfectionism. I convinced myself that not only did I need to change and grow, but I needed my family to see that I had changed and grown. This sub-conscience need for approval was as prevalent now as it was when I was young. With my ego taking the steering wheel I couldn’t even see that I was stuck in old patterns and unproductive communication habits. My mother, whom I adore, and I even found ourselves in a wicked shouting match. I realized later that my escalating reactions had less to do with what she was saying and more to do with how she said it. In turn, she became defensive and irritated– and so on and so on until I actually said “I just won’t talk then until I leave.” When we finally retreated to different spaces I felt ashamed that I had let myself get so out of control. I felt defeated and even like another ‘f’ word … a failure. Perfectionism strikes again.

I went to my room and decided to pray, even though I was not in a calm head-space. Crying and cursing seemed to work for the Psalmist, so why not me? I reached for my community’s prayer book and remembered I had brought it on the trip to pray with my mother. I sheepishly walked to her bedroom doorway to find her reading in a big arm chair. As she looked up I said, “Will you pray with me?” She said yes, and we worked our way through the prayers and scripture readings. When it was over it felt as though there was a great weight lifted off our shoulders. We didn’t have to say I’m sorry because the prayers had done that for us.

I know that God was sitting with us as we prayed. God was no doubt with us as we fought as well and was most definitely with us as we enjoyed the rest of our time together on my visit. That’s the funny thing about some families, even when we fight and trigger one another, we can still find a space for grace and the most important ‘f’ word … forgiveness.

No Agenda

I recently visited St Gregory’s Abbey near Three Rivers, Michigan for the first time, on a personal retreat. The weather was perfect and the drive was pleasant enough, but I found myself growing more and more anxious as I realized I had not “prepared” anything for the retreat—no agenda, no spiritual exercises, no questions to investigate in my solitude. I have visited several monasteries and convents, but only for convention-style group retreats which included meetings, seminars, and group prayer, along with socializing in the evenings … this time it was just me. While I had come with a purpose I feared that without a plan of action my time would be wasted there.

The brothers own about a square mile of land situated between rural woods and farmland. I pulled into the Abbey entrance and stepped out of my car. Just as the scenery was beginning to calm my nerves, I noticed my phone had no signal. I located the main building and guest master and once pleasantries and a brief orientation had concluded, I asked about the cell signal and how I could log onto the WiFi network. “Oh no,” said Brother William, “there is no WiFi on the property and no one has built a cell tower close enough yet to provide a signal.” My panic returned. I thanked him for his time and headed back to my car to get my bags and go to my room. With each step my anxiety grew as I realized I couldn’t let anyone know I had arrived safely, I couldn’t work on my sermon as panned without WiFi, I couldn’t watch Netflix before bed!

Forgetting all about my bags and my room, I jumped back in the car and drove off in search of a signal. I knew full well how ridiculous I was being. I mean, it’s not like my world would end without technology for 4 days, but I couldn’t shake this panic! I drove for what seemed like miles before I was connected again and as I pulled over to the side of the road to inform my loved ones I was safe and sound I felt embarrassed by my reaction. Between the anxiety over not having planned enough for this retreat and the anxiety over not having a connection to the outside world while on the monastery property, I was off to a GREAT start.

Needless to say I didn’t relax into the rest of my time there well. I drove into town each day and “connected” to check texts and download a video…. I admit it. But the anxiety over my lack of any “agenda” turned to shame. I joined the monks at prayer throughout the day and at meals and spent lots of time in silence… but each silent spell I struggled over what I should or could be “doing” with my time. I even asked the brothers if I could help with any work or dishes. They politely declined the offer and I was back to sitting by myself and starring off into the cornfields.

I ended up reaching out to another guest on the second day who had come to the Abbey with a spiritual dilemma following the tragic death of her son a year ago. I talked with her about scripture and life– nothing terribly earth-shattering but a comfortable conversation about God and love. She seemed challenged by my words, but in a positive way. She noted that she had never had a conversation about spirituality like this before and I told her how rich her spirituality seemed to me. During my time with her I realized all my fear and shame had vanished. She had a warmth about her and I was moved that in her grief she came to a holy place with a question for God. By the end of my visit, I sought her out to say goodbye and thank her for spending some time with me. She hugged me and told me that she was in a better place emotionally than before we began talking a few days prior and that she believed God had brought her there to meet me. I knew in that moment God had also brought me to meet her. The experience was an affirmation for me and my journey. It also became clear that even when we come with no agenda, God will offer us opportunities to minister and walk with someone. And each time we accept that gift, we walk with God.

Slivers of Light

I live on the 11th floor and with large windows along the entire exterior wall, my apartment has an abundance of light. A small hallway which leads to the bathroom has become a sort of meditative space for me. The walls are covered in icons and crosses, and at the end there are Sanctus statues of Mary, Joseph, and a corpus of Jesus. My apartment is not huge, but this smaller, out-of-the-way space feels a little quieter, a little more intentional. Beyond the hall is the bathroom which, when the door is closed and the light is left off, is pitch black. I was thinking the other day whether or not it would be strange to sit in the bathroom with the light off, to meditate? I mean, it’s so hard sometimes to find a totally secluded space in our frenetic lives so I thought I would try it.

I went into the bathroom and closed the door, without turning on the light. I ran my hand along the cold tile wall as I sank to the floor and tried to get comfortable. It was certainly silent and dark … very dark. I imagined it was like sitting in one of those isolation tanks as my eyes had nothing to focus on and my equilibrium became a bit off center. But then, after a few minutes, my eyes began to adjust and a very faint line of light appeared from under the door. From out of total darkness, my eyes began to make out the slightest sense of the sink, the tub, the toilet … and for a moment, I was disappointed by this unexpected intrusion. But I decided not to move and just sit quietly a bit longer as my mind released my hurts, my anxieties, and my frustrations– not bad for just sitting on the bathroom floor.

I was intentionally seeking the darkness in my little exercise, but how often do we find ourselves clinging to the light? Every one of us has felt the darkness close in around us at one time or another and it can feel so isolating, so disorienting. But I was reminded that we are never totally in darkness. Never.

“Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.” (Psalm 139:12)

It’s interesting to me that in the beginning God divided the light from the darkness but he did not call it “good” (Genesis 1:3). The whole of creation exists within a ongoing cycle: “Evening came and morning came and it was the first day” (Genesis 1:5). We cannot ever fully separate light from dark. There are always slivers of light-even on a subatomic level. There is no need to insert dualistic thinking here! All things on earth are a mixture of darkness and light. When we idolize things as totally good or condemn the other as totally bad, we get ourselves into trouble. Even the “good things” of this world are subject to imperfection, wounding, and decay. Some of life’s greatest tragedies can produce good fruit and good people.

Jesus was always able to hold opposites together, as is the nature of God: scarcity and abundance, a tiny mustard seed and a mighty tree, death and life. So the next time you begin to worry about the fading of the light, wait patiently for your eyes to adjust and look for the slivers of light all around you.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Why do so many Christians celebrate and venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus? The scriptures speak very little of her and yet this first-century mother became a revered and even controversial figure. With so many Marian feast days celebrated throughout the Christian traditions, literally thousands of churches names in her honor, and hundreds recorded appearances of her in cities around the world, devotion to her should not be dismissed too quickly. I can only tell you what drew me to a deeper appreciation of the Theotokos (the God-bearer).

First of all, she was there— present with Jesus from his first human breath to his last. She had a front row seat to witness so much of the Jesus narrative. She said yes to God, providing the spiritual consent that would lead to a radical display of Divine solidarity with creation. She brought the needs of others to Jesus, like at the wedding feast in Cana, believing that he had the power to intervene. “Do whatever he tells you…” she said to the servants. She stood at the foot of the cross and visited the empty tomb. She witnessed Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection and was the only woman named in the upper room when the Spirit of God descended at the Pentecost.

Mary of Nazareth is not God, but she becomes the archetypal symbol of the first incarnation, where spirit and matter meet, creation— which gave birth to the second incarnation, Jesus. Mary has been one of the most prolific subjects in western art and with good reason. In almost all of the depictions of the Madonna and child, she is dressed in splendor and holding, offering Jesus naked and vulnerable, to the world. And note where her hands and eyes are usually directed… to Jesus, who is the focus. Richard Rohr shares that, “Mary is all of us both receiving and handing on the gift.” In Mary, we “see our own feminine soul … and say with her ‘God has looked upon me in my lowliness. From now on, all generations will call me blessed.’ (Luke 1:48)” (Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ)

Every branch of Christianity holds a unique space for Mary. Even Islam offers her a singularly exalted place. But, putting aside all of the dogma and legend, Mary became the churches symbol of how to receive God and then share God with the world. My former priest used to say to me, “the closer you come to Mary, the closer you come to Jesus” because she forever points the way to Christ, humbly and faithfully. When you reflect on Mary the mother of Jesus, remember her song of praise, My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! And, may we draw the same strength and faith to say yes to God and yes to our own incarnation.

Cosmic Relation

Any object that calls forth respect or reverence is the “Christ” or the anointed one for us at that moment.

I have been facilitating a spiritual book club at my church this year and each book we have chosen to read together has been aimed at helping us understand the Cosmic Christ. The section of the book (Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ) we read most recently included the above passage. Rohr uses a technique in this book where he invites the reader to stop whenever they come to a passage in italics and truly ponder-perhaps read it again, and again, and again. So, when I encountered this particular italicized passage I stopped and sat with it for a while.

We’re used to hearing that Christ is in all people, seeking him out in the layers of humanity and human relationship, but meditating on a Universal Christ requires us to go far beyond mere human interactions. This is indeed rooted in scripture, as the opening prologue to John’s Gospel is all about a God who, through the Christ, is made manifest and present in every single part of the material universe. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)

Note that Rohr’s passage above mentions respect and reverence. Re-spect, or “to see again” implies that we are to look back at something and think about it, to regard it. I think of the many things I come upon in a given day which I barely glance at a first time let alone give a second look. But this idea of pausing to really look at something is what leads to the second word, reverence. Revereri (Latin) is to stand in awe of something. How can we hope to stand in awe if we haven’t truly looked at something in the first place?

When we talk of “seeking God” in all things, what we are really talking about is connecting to the cosmic and interdependent relationship of all creation. It’s never really limited to a single exchange. At a sub-atomic level everything is touching and pushing on something else – everything is literally connected. A God who is relationship itself pulls us into God’s-self at every turn. St Bonaventure taught that, “Christ has something in common with all creatures. With the stones he shares existence, with plants he shares life, with animals he shares sensation, and with the angels he shares intelligence.” We too share something in common with all of creation.

What objects call forth respect and reverence for you? Is it a child, a garden, a stained-glass window, a beloved pet? There is the Christ… beckoning you into relationship and awe with everything that God has made. How will you respond?

Why March?

I decided to march in this year’s Chicago Pride Parade with some members of my religious community and the Episcopal Diocese, along with other Christian churches and the Coalition of Welcoming Churches. I have marched in several past pride parades when I was a member of the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, but never with churches. I must admit I was hesitant to march, not because it was with churches but because I discovered I was angry with the LGBTQ community at large. Being a gay man myself, it may seem odd that I should say that, but I as I continue to become more aware of the extent of racism, sexism, classism and gender bias surrounding us today I realize that the LGBTQ community is not excused from generating this kind of exclusion. We have fought for dignity and respect and yet we often are quick to judge, divide, and ostracize others, especially within the community itself. It hurt me to think that my own people, who purport to radiate inclusion, ignore their own culpability in furthering brokenness and division. Then it struck me that this is precisely a reason to march.

It’s easy to become cynical about pride parades, saying “they’re too commercial” or “most of the people watching don’t even care, they just come to get drunk” or “the business’, politicians, and churches are just pandering,” but none of that really matters.

We march because inequality still exists. We march because LGBTQ people in this country are still being marginalized and abused even 50 years after the Stonewall Uprising. We march because in the midst of pain and suffering we can still celebrate our individuality and our collective interdependence. We march because pride parades still give hope and joy to those seeking family and community. We march to remind anyone feeling alone that they are NOT alone. We march because pride parades are not just for LGBTQ people any more than salvation is just for Christians.

Pride parades are one facet of a call to stand up for justice and inclusion, for equality and dignity. The Me Too movement, the continuing feminist movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and so on, also fight for inclusion, dignity, equality and respect… not because they are rights, but because unity, dignity, and love are at the core of all creation, all physical matter. “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3 NRSV) So, if the Christ is to be found in all things then we must seek the Christ in all things, working towards compassionate inclusion and care for all peoples and the very world we live on.

Every great revolution must be able to turn its lens inward and examine its own reactions and in-actions if it has any chance of truly transforming others. I am not exempt from causing pain in this world, but I pray that as I grow and learn to see where I am contributing to exclusion and suffering, “with God’s help” I will sow seeds of healing and transformation, even within myself. THIS is why I am marching.

I pray we may all move closer towards greater unity and love, within ourselves and with one another, and that you have a happy and safe pride weekend.

 

From Baptism to Baptism

During the season of Easter we celebrate our baptism each week as the Asperges, or sprinkling rite, is offered over those gathered. In my own church the choir sings the Vidi aquam which takes its text from the prophet Ezekiel, I saw water flowing out of the Temple, from its right side, Alleluia: And all who came to this water were saved, And they shall say: Alleluia, Alleluia. (Ezekiel 47:1) This rite of water during Eastertide reminds us of our rebirth with a resurrected Christ and calls us again to our vows of faith and action.

But there is a second baptism. As John tells us in Luke, “I baptize you with water; but … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16 NRSV) This brings us to the season of Pentecost. A baptism of water sounds inviting, refreshing, cleansing, but a baptism with fire sounds ominous, dangerous, even threatening. I think many of us would more easily be drawn to water over fire, but Jesus essentially teaches us that while baptism with water is important to “get you going in the right direction” the more important baptism is the one with fire and Spirit, which will sustain you.

Many Christians have a lukewarm relationship with the Holy Spirit. We formally believe, but there isn’t much fire in it– if we’re honest. We go through the motions, but there isn’t much conviction. We just sort of… believe. Most of us received the baptism of water when we were very young and it wasn’t even a prerequisite that we really understood. We formally “received” this grace from God as those who cared for us accepted on our behalf. The intention being, that we would continue to grow into the vows which were spoken for us– that we were sealed with Christ among a community of believers. What a beautiful and encouraging act of faith.

But eventually we have to experience a different kind of transformation, or we hope to anyway. To receive the gift of the Spirit is to step that much closer to the God already at work in us. Receiving the Holy Spirit always transforms us. We tend to be more loving, more excited, more servant-oriented and more forgiving– forgiving of our neighbors, of ourselves, and even of life itself.

The wonderful news is that we already have the Holy Spirit. The gift has already been given– even though much of the liturgy of Pentecost Sunday echos the refrain, “Come, Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit has already come. As Richard Rohr perfectly articulates, “you are all temples of the Holy Spirit, equally, objectively, and forever. The only difference is the degree that you know it, you draw upon it, and you consciously believe it.”

Remember that all of the images of the Holy Spirit are flowing images, flowing water, descending doves, fire, wind. Everything is dynamic. To draw upon the Holy Spirit is to experience this same kind of dynamism within our own lives. We would all do well, to “fan into flame” the gift that you already have.

So let us not shy away from this Holy Spirit. Let us not be cynical at the prospect of a “spirit-filled” community. Instead, let us cry out with joy as we embrace the Spirit already given, and go out into the world proclaiming the goodness of God, alive in us, that we may invite others to know this God, this Jesus, this Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Uncreated Grace

Love is not something you do; love is something you are. It is your True Self. Love is where you came from and love is where you’re going. It’s not something you can buy. It’s not something you can attain. It’s the presence of God within you, called the Holy Spirit or what some theologians name, uncreated grace. -Richard Rohr

Three times in the last four days I have been engaged in an interior battle. Each incident began with something or someone that triggered an angry emotional response in me and in each case, that anger was then confronted with a second inner voice which said, “what are you doing?” “why are you allowing this reaction to take such a hold on you?” But, just because my spirit pushed back against an egoic reaction did not mean the reaction immediately stopped.

How many times have you had a quiet battle within your own mind/heart? These tug-of-wars between our ego and our soul sometimes evaporate as quickly as they arise, and other times that can linger and even drain us emotionally. Sunday I experienced one of these back-and-forth moments which lasted almost an hour! I became so upset by something and then a heard that small voice in me saying, “why are you even going there-let it go…” and for a moment I felt neutral again, but only for a moment, before my ego kicked up some more dirt and I was angry again. The irony was that while I felt defeated on one level for even having such a reactionary response, I recognized that at least I even have the reflective capacity to evaluate my reactions at all! What a gift to have learned how to pause and ask myself- why are you feeling this way, and remember, I don’t have to stay in that reactionary place in myself.

A friend recently reminded me that spiritual enlightenment or salvation is not about silencing our emotions, but allowing ourselves to experience them, recognize and process them for what they are… and then let them go. That is precisely what Christ Jesus did, and something I really can do as well. This is possible for me (and you) because we already have the presence of God in each of us-always. As Rohr points out in the quote above, Love is not something we do, it is our very identity (our only real identity). We can rest in that same “uncreated grace” and pour it out over and over again.

The next time you’re triggered by something – allow yourself to feel, hold the experience in a reflective space (prayer), and then trust in that uncreated grace which is already part of you and see if you are able to let go of the hurt, frustration, or fear, and sink back into the Divine Love which rests in you.

Surprising Love

Do you ever have one of those Sundays where you are sort of “coasting” along– somewhat unconsciously? You’re present in body but not in mind? Well, that was me recently. My feet had carried me to church, but my mind was a little disconnected… until hymn 469 popped up… go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait. (click here to listen to it)

For you hymnal nerds, it’s a classic by Frederick Faber (1814-1863), titled “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The melody by Calvin Hampton (1938-1984) is not the most common setting for this text, but its gentle beauty is what first caught my attention. The words, however– those beautiful Victorian prose– are what melted my heart, especially the third verse.

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love where but more faithful, we should take him as his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord. 

In God, we find a love that knows no bounds. We can experience Divine love which is unconditional and never-ending. At first, that love frightened me. For so long my egoic mind refused to grasp the possibility of unending, unconditional and unbounded love. There must be a catch– you have to earn everyone else’s love, why not God’s too? Everyone else withholds love from time to time– God must also.

These lies we tell ourselves come from being stuck in a worldly view of love. But, as I continue to dig deeper into my spiritual journey, placing myself before God in prayer, in work, and in relationships I find that the attraction and affection we usually operate in is so much smaller than Divine love. Just as the hymn text suggests, God’s love is so much bigger than the typical constraints we operate in mentally. And if we can trust in God and in Jesus, we will find ourselves in a perpetual space of thanksgiving– of gratitude. There is no other place to be, once you have surrendered your constant desire to control and entered into the vastness of God’s love.

And, as a friend pointed out to me, it works the other way too! When we find ourselves in a place of genuine gratitude we can see that we are already immersed in Divine love.

One last thing… on any given Sunday, when feel you are merely “drifting” along, “disconnected”, show up anyway! Where your feet go, your soul always follows and you never know what you might miss by staying home.