Sunday, December 30, 2007

episcopal tashlikh

this sermon from the first sunday after Christmas, St. Mark's Palo Alto on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 , Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 , John 1:1-18 , and Psalm 147:13-21

“Time is an enormous long river,” says old-time storyteller Utah Phillips. The practice of reading and interpreting scripture gives us a glimpse upstream, a way to stand in the river and notice how we are changed by who and what has gone before. We should not be surprised that each of us receives these stories differently. According to one midrash, or commentary on the Jewish Torah, if there were six hundred thousand Jews present at Mount Sinai, there were also six hundred thousand versions of what happened.

Do you have a family historian? A person who tries to set the record straight, and resists any creative changes or artistic license in their retelling of family stories? There’s a story my mom loves to tell, and for many years I always corrected her, assuming the only right way to tell the story was the way I remembered it happening. I noticed that every time she told the story, she painted herself as less embarrassed, less the victim of a silly situation, and more mischievous and creative. I always thought this was blasphemy!

But what is setting the record straight, anyway? My version of the story was not the only one; maybe her memory of the day had changed. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his recent novel Kabbalah, tells about a man who notices his memory changing, and revealing new possibilities for his life. The man tells a friend, “A few weeks ago, I was recounting the story and I realized that some things might have happened differently. I’m sure if there had been a videocamera on the ceiling, like they have in banks, the tape would be the same each time it was played. But what those gestures and shadows mean changes with each new viewing. I’ll go farther: The holier the event, the more ways it can be retold.” (Kabbalah, 106)

St. John’s version of the holy Christmas event is very different from the one we read on Christmas eve, and much more difficult to act out. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In our pageant this year, the Paschal candle appeared on the stage at the moment of Jesus’ birth, the light of Christ. The gospel of John was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written, many years after Matthew and Luke, which were themselves many years after Mark. Each successive story starts further back in time, further upstream in the enormous long river: Mark begins with the baptism of a thirtysomething Jesus, Matthew and Luke with a baby in a stable, and John way back at the beginning of the world.

Phillips described time as a river to say that our attempts to divide time are basically false. How were “the 60s” different from “the 70s” if the Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975? Is January 1, 2008 really going to be all that different from December 31, 2007? It is certainly true that each day is the first day of the rest of your life, but it’s also true you that you need a healthy relationship with the past in order to accept the gift of the future, of the world that is coming.

Since we each have a part in the world that is coming, it can be fine thing to set goals or make resolutions for our own growth. I tend, when making resolutions, to judge myself harshly for the habit I want to change. I try desperately to get away from a “bad old” self to a “good new” self, I guess because I’ve decided “bad old” self is uncool and unloveable. It is this habit of beating ourselves up that St. Paul is referring to in Galatians. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.” The disciplinarian is the judge within us who tries to get us to grow by force and rules. Christ has come to encourage our faith that God’s love is not conditional on our successfully meeting our goals. I have a bedtime prayer from New Zealand near my bed. It says, “God our judge and teacher, let us not waste time when day is done in guilt or self-reproach. Give us rather the courage to face whatever has been, accept forgiveness, and move on to something better.” We cannot grow from fear, only from love.

One response to the fear of not being good enough, of being unworthy of even God’s love, is to try to start over. I have always been tempted by offers of fresh starts, where I’m offered chances to go somewhere new, with new people, doing new things. I almost went to live and work on a boat instead of going back for my last year of college. And this year, I almost left you all and this community I love, to move to Kansas City. These offers are like chances to make-your-own New Years, a shiny new start within which you can pretend to be able to erase your past mistakes. And then, of course, wherever you go, there you are. Healing is important precisely because we can’t erase the past.

Looking back at those months when I was talking about moving, I’m reminded of another New Years ritual, a flipside to making resolutions. It’s done on the Jewish New Year, the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. The ceremony is called tashlikh, which means casting off. You stand on the banks of a river or other body of water, and throw pieces of bread in the water to represent the sins you’re carrying with you from the past year.

Moving to Kansas City would not have been a sin. What I want to throw in the river, though, is the way I acted for awhile there as if I were already gone.

I went to lunch with my sister one day this spring. She was worried about my plans,

and asked, “What would you do if you changed your mind and came back?"

“Go back to St. Mark’s.”

“Why would they want to take you back?”

“Because they love me.”

“Do you love them?”


“Then why are you leaving them?”

I sighed. I said, “Good question. The only good answer is, because it’s time.”

It wasn’t time. I’m very glad I’m still here. I’m glad because here is home; not just because Palo Alto is my hometown, but St. Mark’s too is now part of me and there’s a lot we can be and do together yet. And because you’re teaching me how to forgive and love like Christ.

A holy relationship with the past, then, is a paradox. On the one hand you hold your sins with compassion, without judgement, and on the other hand you cast them off. You let them be food for fish. You stand in the river but you don’t let it drown you. Brian Taylor says, “We tend to think that we’re supposed to get rid of our dark side, our spiritual failure, our annoyingly habitual faults, and then present ourselves as pure and proper before God. But the Spirit needs us to be real. The manure of our lives should not be hidden from God; it should be dug into our souls so that its nutrients can help produce needed growth.” We don’t become righteous because we are perfect (or hiding something!), but rather salvation sets us free to be our best selves.

As you look back over 2007, what things are you holding onto? What things are holding onto you? What might you do to accept them and accept forgiveness? Would it help to ask for forgiveness, or ask for support?

What are you called to grow into this next year? How might you nurture that growth? How can we move forward together as a healthy and healing community?

May we learn to see the light of hope, the promise of healing, in all the stories of our lives this year. May we trust that God’s enormous long river is flowing towards the kingdom And may we come with joy to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved, and free. Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2007

christmas sermon from a wisdom christian

sung/said by me at st. mark's palo alto, christmas morning:

Oh, what a beautiful city
oh, what a beautiful city
oh, what a beautiful city
there’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah

I learned about singing old-time gospel and mountain music from a woman named Ginny Hawker. She led a gospel sing in a beautiful, small wooden building, a former blacksmith shop, at a music camp I attended. People at this camp were mostly spiritual-but-not-religious agnostic types. Someone asked her whether she believed in everything we were singing, naming an anxiety felt by many of us. Ginny said, “Good question. I don’t agree with some of these words. They’re all important to me, though, because they were important to my grandmother. When I sing these songs I’m honoring her.” I think we were also asking that day: “Is it okay to enjoy this prayerful space we’ve just created by singing these songs together? Don’t we have to have checked our minds and checkbooks into a religious community to get this benefit?” Are we hypocrites if we sing and pray along with words we don’t understand, or don’t believe are true?

No; walk on in and you’ll be welcome in the city.

A friend of my familiy has a similar approach to saying the Creed in church (the list of “we believe’s that we’ll get to after I sit down): he says it’s okay to hum along with the parts you can’t say. Humming along doesn’t make you any less welcome. This question is central to our Anglican tradition; Elizabeth I, on inheriting a country full of people killing each other over whether or not to be Roman Catholic, said, “Enough!” She helped to create a church more grounded in common practice than in common belief. Keep praying together, especially when you disagree. There’s twelve gates to the city, hallelujah.

So what is this city with twelve gates? It is the kingdom of God on earth, an idea that to me means we’re evolving beyond a theology of insiders and outsiders. In the heavenly city, in what progressive theologians in this century have called the beloved community, there are no chosen people. Or, perhaps more accurately, there are no unchosen people.

The prophet Isaiah, in today’s first reading, says “You who remind the Lord, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth.” Maybe that’s a weird sentence to get excited about, but here’s why I got excited about it: Isaiah was among the first in the Hebrew tradition to push past the idea that God chose the Hebrews above all others. God’s love and acceptance can’t be limited to people who look like us, believe like us, or are in our family. So Isaiah isn’t recommending a military charge. Nor is the psalmist, even thought we just said, “a fire goes before him and burns up his enemies on every side.” Christ is the Lord who came to transform Empire, not to beat Caesar at his own game. Isaiah invites all the world to the heavenly city; no one will be brought there as a prisoner. The prophet is issuing a charge, a call to each of us to work at building that city. And more, a call to live as though it were already here, for in the deepest sense, it is.

This summer in the Catheral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France, I understood Isaiah. I also understood Mary. The cathedral was pretty dark inside, but when we turned a corner and could see the Mary chapel, it was all light. Hundreds of votive candles in red glass holders surrounded a 7th-century statue, the Black Mary. I sat in this chapel, more interested in feeling what this place was like than in walking around with my friends. I got out the Bible I had brought, my grandmother’s, and flipped through Luke. I was looking for the Christmas reading, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I noticed old women going up to the statue, which rested on a big pillar, and kissing the pillar in devotion. I learned that the common name Pilar means Mary, the pillar of the church, the family, the community. Mary held the Christ child in her heart and in her body, and responded to God’s call to her with unbelievable strenth.

Coming from the warmth and quiet of Mary’s sanctuary, I responded to the rest of what the cathedral had to offer me differently. Images of the heavenly city appeared everywhere, carved and in windows. I began to see in them Isaiah’s hope for unity, Mary’s hope for her son, his hope for the world. The hopes and fears of all the years, all met in me. Oh, what a beautiful city.

I can see from all this two different ways for us to live into the Christmas story.
Some will be prophets and evangelists, like the shepherds and like Isaiah. The prophets, like teenagers, are often not politically correct. You speak the truth, and call us to our best selves. You’re also excited; the shepherds went and told everyone they knew about this child, not stopping to think how they’d be received. You yearn for the world to be made new, for the cleansing fire to burn away all that keeps us apart.

Others will prefer to play Mary. Your role is to treasure and to cherish all the miracles you can find, past, present, and future. It’s kind of an Appreciative Inquiry model; Mary makes more of what is good in the world by nurturing the good we already have. She’s also reflective, in prayer and stillness she uncovers important insights and connections.

As in a family, and as in our church, we need both of these characters. And we need to be able to learn from each other. The great modern mystic Henri Nouwen said, “No mystic (read: Mary) can prevent herself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection she will uncover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary (read: prophet) can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions.” There’s twelve gates to the city, hallelujah. recently featured an interview with theologian John Haight. The interviewer asked him if he believes God answers prayer. He warned against focusing too narrowly on ourselves, saying:
Yes, but I have to…ask, what if God answered everybody's prayers? What kind of world would we have? I also have to think of what Jesus said when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray. What he told them, in effect, was to pray for something really big. He called it "the kingdom of God." What that means is praying for the ultimate fulfillment of all being, of all the universe. So when we pray, we're asking that the world might have a future.
May God’s will be done, and kingdom come, the heavenly city.
And may your hearts burn within you with joy.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

something in the air, y'all

today the episcopal church in the diocese of california practices what we're calling a "retreat in daily life." many of us have folded-up 8.5"x 11" pieces of paper with scripture readings, prayers, and reflection questions that we're carrying with us as we go about our day. the day is organized around the ancient monastic prctice of praying the hours; every few hours we stop at an appointed time to pray. my friends in the order of the holy cross say that praying the hours amounts to committing to a life of leisure--that is, one in which there is time for everything and everything has its time. the practice in monasteries is to pick up your pen--even in the middle of a word--when the bell rings for prayer, and leave the work unfinished. the practice is a powerful antedote to my own and our collective "one last thing syndrome." my sense is that those living this life, over time, encounter less unfinished work than the rest of us. or maybe they just don't let it get to them.

i already feel different today. i paused, after 10:00am but then i don't have monastery bells, to pray the office of Terce from my little sheeet. i made some notes with my ideas to send back to the diocese, then i sat down at my computer. my friend bob blogged this morning about world aids day today. then i read the newsletter of the buddhist peace fellowship, which was in my email inbox, and followed links to a beautiful interview with Alice Walker:
I like to say that as long as the earth can make a spring, spring time, I can do that also, because we are one. My solace and my comfort comes from being in nature. Every day I look out at peach trees and hills and water and sky. I just picked a lot of plums today. I can’t give up because nature has not, even in places that have been battered beyond recognition of what was there before.
but what was amazing was not that there are wise minds and great souls whose words i have access to from my kitchen table. what was--is--amazing is how much more they touched my heart today. i (we) have consecrated the day through my (our) prayer, and i can see and feel through all sorts of fences, walls, and barriers.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

clean cut

it's a challenge on my day off to attend to things as they come to me--like when the idea for a blog post arrives, if i wait until i've sorted the mail or finished reading the novel, i'll likely never write it.

i've been thinking in images of water. my dear friend Bear gave me this feedback on a sermon last year: you were so much on the inside of the story, and enjoying it so much, it was a bit like you were underwater. every now and then you'd come up for air and say to us, "come on in, guys! it's great!" but you didn't check in with us, via eye contact or inquisitive pauses, to see how or whether we were following. so i was splashing around, enjoying my own experience, on the assumption that if i could make myself feel deeply enough in the moment, the feeling and the power of the story would spread to my listeners ("make a splash"). but splashing makes it harder to see through the water:

on Monday i stepped into the cathedral for a centering prayer break between meetings. Maybe because i stopped at the baptismal font to bless myself with the water (Luther: "remember your baptism"), my meditation was a watery one. in the context of my day to that point, i was pondering how much of the feedback i get from others i take personally and how much i can let roll off my back. i pictured pain and sorrow as cleansing forces on the spiritual journey, like when friends or family create an intervention when they see you hurting yourself and others.

we're not exactly water creatures; we need some water but don't live in it. so i drew this parallel between pain, depression, sadness and water. if we run from pain (never wash with water) we'll feel dirty, bogged down, and not our best selves. if we are too into it, too deep in a bathtub or ocean or pool, and not paying attention we're at risk of drowning (depression all the way to suicide or death).

Tuesday i was swimming laps in the early evening. it was already dark, so the lights in the pool lit up the movement of the water. i noticed how my hands entered the water at the beginning of each stroke (imagine the swimmers in the picture above a few seconds later). sometimes they came splashing down creating lots of bubbles, and sometimes they cut cleanly into the water. in the latter case, i moved through the water more efficiently for the effort, and could also see more clearly in the water through my goggles.

it occurred to me that many of the conflicts i've been so worried about amount to splashes. it makes some sense; until i could see that i was causing them with the angle of my hand, all i knew was that i couldn't see the way forward for all the bubbles and felt scared and frustrated and stuck. i thought through my days and pondered how i might act more cleanly, might bathe briefly in my own and others' pain but not live there, might see what more i can see if i splash a little less.

Monday, November 5, 2007

a mountain baptism

last week i took a lightning-tour trip to the mountains of western north carolina, escorting my grandmother to an annual celebration of the Land Trust for the Little Tennesse. i spent my one day in the cowee and tellico valleys, pausing as i always do to wash my face in tellico creek, where my grandmother played as a child and whose power ran the family mill.

the friend i was with, on our way back to the car, asked, "do you get any time to be out in the woods when you're at home?" good question, i said. not really. sometimes up in the redwoods, but i'm usually focused on myself and my bike, not the woods.

to ease the transition back into my mostly-paved current town (there is a creek that goes through my backyard, but it's completely channelized so its song is hard to hear), i'm reading Charles Frazier's first book, thirteen moons (he's the guy who wrote that book cold mountain that became a movie), which takes place in these mountains. cherokee country, nantahala, the place of the noonday sun.
very few white people lived back in these remote mountains, and they were mostly misfits self-exiled to the woods and falling into only two categories, drunks and preachers. the latter category included actual ministers and missionaries and also all manner of backwoods social reformers, philosophers, and political theorists, men who came walking through the door with their eyes vibrating from the energy of their frequently crackpot beliefs, hardly waiting to state their names and shake your hand before launching straight into reforming your opinions on the Holy Trinity, the Apocrypha, the Whig Party, or paper currency.
i recognize a fair bit of myself in this description. maybe this means i belong in the mountains. i hold, too, the idea that i/we could use a bit of balancing out, of listening better. kate wolf sings about her grandfather "not wanting to say any more than he thought would be heard." i think that value is shared by Cherokee culture, and perhaps by the mountains themselves.

Friday, October 26, 2007

a man for all seasons

one morning my apprentice summer on the Clearwater we were told, "we have to do an extra good deckwash today, and we're even sending three of you out in the yawl boat to scrub the hull. jim's crew is filming us today." here's part of the trailer for the new documenary about Pete Seeger and an interview with Jim Brown, the director. i'm grateful to hear pete's life and work spoken about so clearly, and to be reminded of how deeply his witness sits inside my own vocation. bruce springsteen says in this clip:
pete was one of those guys that saw himself as a citizen artist, as activist. he had a very full idea about those things, how it connected to music, and what music could do. the power that music had to influence, to inspire.

Monday, October 8, 2007

"i kin ye"

i've long been a fan of "kitchen songs and mornings spent with friends," as Kate Wolf's song The Trumpet Vine puts it. In fact, some friends and I have named ourselves "The I Want To Feed You Pankaces Mutual Aid Society." i was listening to Kate Wolf as i enjoyed my particularly hard-earned breakfast just now: i'm recovering from an ACL repair surgery, so i made my hashbrowns and eggs and coffee slowly and carefully, balanced on one leg and crutches. i ate sitting on the kitchen counter. it was wonderful!
now it seems the truest words i ever heard from you
were said at kitchen tables we have known
'cause somehow in that warm room with coffee on the stove
our hearts were really most at home

this morning i did not feel lonely. sometimes my wisest friends point out to me that we don't have to be in the same place, or exchanging words, to be together. i felt very much connected, felt "kin" to the stories i'm living and hearing about. i've heard that in Cherokee culture you say "i kin ye" when we might say "i love you," "i understand you," or "you're important to me." very often i try to engineer "kitchen table moments," "i kin ye" moments, assuming if we're in the same place we'll be in communion. i feel frustrated when our hearts refuse to come home.

what i did feel this morning was a gentle, sweet, and strong compassion with all sorts of human loss. i've done a fair bit of what felt like mourning since my surgery: for being stuck at home alone, for being less mobile, for not being much of a contemplative during my convalescence. crying about these things helps some, but i was lying through my teeth when i said, "i feel so much more compassion now for shut-ins." i think i still put my own shame and frustration on others, want to get back to the society of "capable people" ASAP, and run from hospitals and nursing homes.

before breakfast i finished A Place on Earth, one of Wendell Berry's Port William novels. i know enough of Berry's story, what he stands for, the lives and heritage of his characters, and what they stand for that i approach them as dear friends. these friends learn about the loss of their beloved son in WWII, and i sat with them through that for six months or so of their new lives, and as his daughter, their grandchild is born and comes to live with them.

my own mourning of the past ten days, once i gave it time, provided a "way in" to Mat Feltner's loss in the book, as he and i have gone together through worry, estrangement, sleepless nights, and doing what needs to be done for the children. this morning i followed him to rest an renewal. in the kitchen, listening to Kate Wolf, i felt all the losses in the world. i cried for the monks in Burma, for families torn apart by deportation and war, for everyone who feels trapped and alone and who holds onto memories. Mat sits in a clearing in the woods, looking at rock cairns that indicate the land was once cultivated:
and the dead who made that clearing are as forgotten as the forest they destroyed. as he sits looking at the heaped rocks, guessing the little he is able to guess about them, there comes to Mat a sense of a lost and dead past, a past perfect, without even the force of a memory. and though he resisted the thought, fearing it would sadden him, it does not sadden him. there in the presence of the woods, in the sounds of the water and the leaves falling...he feels the great restfulness of the place.

some rests we can only get to on the other side of tears, on the other side of anxiety, after we've let in the people and stories, and after our hearts have come home. mat feltner, i kin ye. wendell berry, i kin ye. dog barking next door, i kin ye. blessed sabbath!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

icarus time, or my amazing portrero hill adventure

they're selling incense on the corner, the sweet smell fills the air
the Krishna punks are dancing and ringing the bells down on Tompkins Square
the beautiful and the broken, the ramshackle and the rakehell
I'm drinking down on 11th and A with all my favorite wastrels

We are the city, we are its pulse and its beat
We are the city, see us tramp the street

remember the story of daedalus and icarus? i think about it a lot, partly because of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I read at a formative stage of highschool, and because of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's annual Daedalus Project, an AIDS benefit. daedalus and icarus, father and son, are imprisoned in a high tower, and daedalus creates wings for them of wax and feathers. they need the wings to escape. they also want to fly.

icarus is so excited by his flying ability that, ignoring his father's warnings, he flies higher and higher until the sun melts the wax in his wings and he crashes to the earth and dies. so daedalus and icarus represent two ways of being an artist: icarus crashes and burns (picture
janis joplin), and daedalus is careful of his craft, and doesn't fly as high because he takes fewer risks.

the lyrics above are by Casey Neill, a song that i love for its icarus energy. the exhiliration of twentysomethings with the world before us, sailing and swimming and splashing in the best and the worst of our social/cultural stream:

steam rises from the iron grates, the smoke it fills my lungs
you can hear the sounds of all the world sung in a thousand tongues
the subway mariachi, the arias dying strains
and the busker in the station singing of escapades out on the D train

We are the city, in all its joy and pain
We are the city, our sins washed away in the rain

Gotham, Gomorrah

most of the time i squelch and dismiss my inner icarus, but sometimes he comes out when i'm traveling. this morning i took an hour-plus urban hike, racing against the clock to get to the 22nd street caltrain station under highway 280. i don't have one of those nifty SF bicycle coalition maps to help me plan a route from point A to point B that avoids steep hills. so i walked the length of 22nd st, through SF General Hospital. i was propelled by a power not entirely my own, and i was gambling my ability to get some exercise and get to work on time. i discovered a foot bridge over 101 right where i needed it. it was not on my map.

it occurred to me it would not be wise to travel this way if i were responsible for anyone else. just yesterday i took a group of twelve young adult pilgrims from the Camino gathering through SoMa, and failed to find them lunch until well into the afternoon. i'm used to traveling by myself, so i was on icarus time. being a good leader requires some daedalus, for leading everyone together is more important than reaching too high and failing them. and if you crash and burn, there's no next time.

this morning, by myself again, i was joyfully in icarus time. i climbed, with coffee and map in hand, all the way to the top of 23rd st. i looked back over noe valley and the mission and it took my breath away. then i rounded the hill and saw the bay, container ships from china at their anchorages south of the bay bridge, and the cranes at the shipyards. i saw clothes on clotheslines in the foreground, in the aparment buildings on missouri st. (i wondered how those folks get to work or the store). i was captivated by the san francisco-ness of it all, what writers call "sense of place."

good storytelling, good art, and good mission require that you know the ground on which you stand and with whom you share it. that's why i love, even though it's about a different city, Casey Neill in this song calling NYC both "Gotham" and "Gomorrah." he knows the city deeply, he's tramped the streets in joy and sorrow, and he sings boths its gotham-ness (mysterious and foggy and technological) and gomorrah-ness (sinful almost beyond hope):

We are the stars dead but still shining, we are the constellations
high above the rush hour crowd down at the station
the lunatic asylum on Roosevelt Island, GO in the park in Chinatown
and the Loisaida poet, Molloch he's calling it down

We are the City, it all its joy and sorrow
We are the City, a prayer for all tomorrow

Gotham, Gomorrah

Friday, September 14, 2007

inspiring ourselves

i was thinking on my 0.6 mile walk back from the laundromat with my laundry about how we use our words. Don Miguel Ruiz, in his book The Four Agreements, says "be impeccable with your word." that's part of my definition of integrity. another teacher put it this way: "honor your word as your self."

i'm discussing this passage, James 3:2-8, with my youth groups this week:
1-2 Don't be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

3-5 A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

5-6 It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

7-10 This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can't tame a tongue—it's never been done. The tongue runs wild, a crazy killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

our word is certainly part of our self, and one of the primary ways we commmunicate that self.
yesterday i had lunch with a friend who's preparing for a presentation on a very impotant topic to a huge group of people. the audience is a powerful group of folks, and he doesn't know very many of them. i wondered about what i would do in his shoes. i was struck by how, in our casual conversation, we both spoke with a "yeah yeah, i know all about it, it's all someone else's problem" attitude about life-and-death stuff.

i want to encourage myself and my friends to inspire ourselves with our speech. how do we find the right tone and syntax to communicate oppression and the call to work for justice, suffering and the "how" of hope?

i have two thoughts:
  • one is how important it is, as i keep being reminded, to pay attention and be on our toes. if what you're saying doesn't seem to be getting acros: pause and evaluate, look for clues in the listener, and try a new tack.
  • the other is that we speak with energy and heart behind our words. i was inspired in my study of voice by telling myself "i have a message for the king." so if i'm speaking about climate change or racism, even with my friends i'll practice paying attention and investing "i have a message for the king" energy in my words. then my voice itself will be a powerful ally. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagan, historian and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock says that no one should graduate from college without the ability to (and habit of) command the attention of a room with the power of your voice. Not necessarily volume, but breath/spirit/intention power.
we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11 in my hometown

i'll admit to not having thought much about commemmorating 9/11 for most of the day, despite hearing an amazing list on Saturday at the Power to the Peaceful festival from Amy "the only real journalist in America" Goodman of Democracy Now! of September 11th-s past, including:

September 9-13, 1971
Attica uprising at the NY state prison. "Responding to rumors of the impending torture of a prisoner, about one thousand of the prison's approximately 2,200 inmates rioted and seized control of the prison, taking thirty-three guards hostage." (wikipedia)
September 11, 1973 military junta in Chile led by Pinochet overthrows Socialist president Salvador Allende. His niece, the author Isabel Allende, says that when her phone rang on the morning 9/11/01, she at first thought it was to mark 'their' 9/11 tragedy. This is the one where thousands of dissidents were piled into the Chile Stadium (recently renamed the Victor Jara stadium) and many were tortured.

anyway, to the extent that i thought of 9/11 today, i thought of those things. i planned to join a prayer service organized by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice at the Palo Alto Friends meeting house. i was going mostly to support a friend who helped organize it. i noticed that i was being--ornery at the clergy potluck dinner before the service. i hadn't joined forces with this group, so i was insistent on putting them down in my head and in snide comments to my friend.

then, right at the end of the meal/meeting, the tide turned. i spoke about how it's difficult (sometimes prohibited) to talk about peace and justice issues in my parish. we have people with different viewpoints and commiments, so we social justice types do a lot of sitting on our hands. i said i wanted to work on ways for our congregations to create a "climate of moral dialogue." if we can't hash out moral decisions and speak the truth and disagree with love within the church which is a "circle of care," where the heck can we? how might we start that conversation? (quotes are from an amazing talk i heard last week from Alexa Salvatierra, director of CLUE-CA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). one of the UU ministers said, "yes, our closing off from each other in fear is useful to abusive systems of empire, since we're easily manipulated when we're alone and afraid." now i was invested.

we headed over to the meeting house proper. i liked the space, and appreciated the gathering music and the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer. i was opening up. the Quaker host explained how the 15 minutes of silent worship "in the manner of Friends" would work. you sit in silence to better listen to your inner voice. when moved, you may stand and share your thoughts. he said that we were to leave silence "before you speak, after you speak, and speak what is given to you (in inspiration) and no more." he was so clear, and the practice is so clear, i thought "i should do this more often!"

a leader of the local jewish community spoke. i travelled back in my mind to 2001. the evening of september 11 i joined an impromptu service at the jewish house on campus at Vassar. i was over there a lot after that. tonight i felt some nostalgia for that community and for jewish ritual in general, since i haven't done any in a long time.

one of the key leaders of MVPJ is Samina Faheem Sundas, an amazing woman who runs an organization called American Muslim Voice. She spoke about how she was in Costco on 9/11 when she first heard the news, and she was crying. someone (a white person) asked her why she was crying. the questioner had already put her in the 'enemy' category, and honestly couldn't understand why she would cry at the suffering of someone from the other camp. Samina is about to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

during silent worship the first person to speak was the leader guy who had introduced us to the practice earlier. i liked what he had to say. i was reeling from listening to Samina, whose words had given me the shivers. my internal dialogue after he spoke was pretty predictable:
"should i say something?"
"no, no one else is, the point is mostly to be silent and listen. you're not listening very well."
"what would i say if i did say something?"
"you don't want to be one of the talkative people. you'd just be doing it for the attention."
"but i am thinking about A20..."
i was remembering the A20 mobilization, my introduction to what i then thought was a more or less unified thing i called simply 'the movement,' a big rally and march organized by ANSWER and others, in DC in the spring of '02.

suddenly i'm standing and i'm saying, "a few months after 9/11, i went to a big protest. it was my introduction to the movement which i feel is very important and which i feel part of tonight. the next morning, the first school day/work day after i got home, i wrote this in my journal:

i don't get up in the morning because i'm tired of sleeping. i get up because i have something to do, something i value above sleeping.

"that weekend the world outside my ivory towers touched me for the first time, and i learned i had something to say and to do about it."

we sang some more and Samina summoned me to help hand out candles, and stand with her at the center of the vigil.
i am so grateful.

Monday, September 10, 2007

the turning

Here's my sermon from September 2 at St. Mark's, Palo Alto:

At age 10, I auditioned for my first play at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre. It was one of the Hotdog Suppertime Shows, notoriously campy, especially back then before they had built the fancy outdoor stage. It was called “The King’s Creampuffs,” and I assumed, because my mother had raised me to have faith in myself and I grew up as an only child, that I was in the running for the role of the princess. I don’t remember feeling anxious as the director began to read the cast list. I do remember being shocked that my name was one of the first read, in the list of “ladies in waiting.”

I was devastated, and I was angry. I clearly remember lying on my stomach and pounding the floor in tears when I got home. My mom and my piano teacher, who had arrived for my lesson, coaxed me up off the floor. Once we got to the piano, my teacher Mr. Michael told me a story. He had been in the Navy. He said that when he first arrived on his ship all the new recruits were set at knot-tying tasks, which seemed boring and pointless. Many of them complained. But, Mr. Michael said, it was the ones who applied themselves cheerfully to the knot-tying and mastered it who were promoted to more interesting and challenging jobs.

Now, I see what he meant; I’ve lived his parable over and over in my life since then. When I picture the Pharisee’s dinner party in today’s gospel I think of Mr. Michael in the navy. The guests come in, there’s probably an awkward pause for a minute as they wait to see whether the host has plans for who is to sit where. When the host is silent, they choose for themselves. Watching their movements, Jesus tells them always to choose the last place. If you sit at the place of honor you may be disgraced if someone more important than you arrives later and you have to move. But if you sit at the lowest place, you may be honored by being asked to move up higher. Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Notice that, at least at a dinner party or on a Navy vessel, the feedback loop is pretty short. The point is not that the humble will get into heaven, though that may be true as well. The point is that humility puts us in a better place immediately.

But wait a second. Speaking of heavenly dinner parties, aren’t we told that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father? Aren’t we to aspire to that? I stick with the boat analogy—it's okay to want to be captain someday, but you become a good sailor by paying attention to what's in front of you. Preacher and writer Barbara Crafton wrestled with how to balance ambition and humility in a recent blog post. She says:

My parishioners want to advance in their companies and become more and more successful, and everyone admires their initiative, a priest told me recently. But if a priest admits that he wants to become a cardinal rector, he's criticized as being too ambitious, as if it were a bad thing.

A cardinal rector. Cardinal meaning "central" -- literally, one upon whom other things hinge. One of the priests in a diocese with whom a bishop had better consult if he or she wants a project to succeed there. One whose church is large, wealthy in comparison with other parishes and has been both of those things for a long time.

There won't be dozens of cardinal rectors in a diocese -- everybody can't be central. The rest will lead churches more modest in size, or challenged in different ways. Perhaps, if they are effective in leading these churches, they will become cardinal rectors someday.

But they won't be effective leaders of their smaller parishes if their chief ambition is to leave them. The primary difference between worldly ambition and spiritual fidelity is the willingness to center one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself, and to spend the sum of one's faithfulness on the community gathered in that place. If you can do that, it will be enough, and the future will take care of itself.

Faithfulness and stability. Ambition is harmful partly because it leads us away from the present moment. I think Crafton hits the nail on the head—we know we're on the wrong track when our ambition is to leave and move on to something “better.” Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who keeps looking behind and beyond you, searching for someone else to talk to, someone more important than you? I ran across a letter dating from eighth grade, in which a friend first pointed out to me that I'm sometimes guilty of that kind of disrespect and thoughtlessness. Her letter said, “you have certain special people (like my favorite teachers) and you'll run away from whoever you're talking to to go talk to these special people.” She was right—I would dash across the quad without so much as a “hold that thought.” It seemed more important to get an extra few seconds with the favorite teacher, who could confer status, validation and approval, than to be present to my friends and actively care about them.

I wonder about the relationships present at the Pharisee’s party. Did this group of people know and like each other? Or was the gathering stiff and formal among strangers, where each guest played his status card as a way of claiming power in the group? My sense is that who had which place at the table wouldn't be very important if they were friends. Biology says that organisms are more likely to cooperate with each other when they expect to interact again in the future. You're more likely to compromise with your spouse than with the stranger who wants the same parking spot, or place in line at the bank or grocery store. The relationhip with the stranger, our instincts tell us, isn't as important as getting our errands done faster. Those instincts are the beginning of preoccupation with status, of the sin of not paying attention, of pride.

Our first reading today, from the book of Sirach, says “the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” What does this mean? For me it's a reminder that I am not an island. I am best able to be humble and generous (and effective) when I feel I'm in the presence of the divine. When I'm not, when my heart is somehow withdrawn from itself and from connection to God, I can hurt those I love.

Today's gospel challenges me to live my life in such a way that I encounter fewer “strangers” (those whom I can justifiably dismiss or disrespect because they're not important), more brothers and sisters, and more friends. Jesus asks me to put everyone in the category of the friend to whom I must listen, and take joy in listening. I think this was one of St. Benedict's reasons for creating a fourth central vow for monks in his community: along with poverty, chastity, and obedience, he asked them to make a vow of stability. Stability means enduring relationships, it means exactly what Barbara Crafton meant about “centering one's energy in the place in which one finds oneself.” Bishop Marc said earlier this year that “unparalleled mobility in terms of ... transportation, the rapidity of job changes, address changes, etc. may mean that stability is more important now than it ever has been.” He says the challenges ahead of us in our ratrace, globalized world will require “the virtue of stability to be something for which we pray.”

Taking the last seat at the table, though, is only half of the instruction we get in today's gospel, and it's the easy half. Jesus also says we are to invite to our tables those who cannot invite us to theirs: “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Maybe you hear this, as I do, and squirm a little and glance up at the ceiling and hope this second part can be someone else's job. It's similar to hearing in the letter to the Hebrews, “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

I think our squirming is exactly what Jesus our redeemer and brother had in mind. The gospel of Luke has been called the “gospel of the great reversal,” meaning that according to Luke the intention of Christ and Christianity was to turn the world upside down. Such a turning cannot be accomplished, and will not be satisfied, by a rearranging of dinner party chairs. In Luke, Jesus' prophetic word begins before his birth, with Mary's song we call the Magnificat. A Celtic version of the Magnificat, The Canticle of the Turning, captures the magnificent hope of the gospel:

Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.

Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,

You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.

How does the turning happen? God's mercy is what lets us face our sins, our pride, and lift them up to be transformed. Since our own lives are part of an organic whole, all the communities in which we stand, our transformation depends upon the transformation of the world. Healing ourselves and healing the world can only happen if they happen simultaneously. The gospel cycle is one in which power keeps moving, those who humble themselves will be exalted and vice versa. The gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

Last year on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I attended a community forum in East Palo Alto. Community leaders were asked which issues they felt the most passionate about, which issues are to us what integration was to King and civil rights leaders? Everyone spoke about youth, how the youth of a community will always be a force for change, and which direction that change points depends on the community's priorities. One panel member challenged the audience: he said if everyone present made one or two highschool-aged friends, and invited them to their house regularly, East Palo Alto could be transformed before their eyes. A world with fewer strangers.A world that Jesus envisioned.

Our sacred stories today advise us on how to act at the dinner table. They also ask us to stay mindful of who's at the table and who's not. We each have an individual Christian journey in which our lives get turned around over and over, like following the twisting path on the labyrinth. We also have a collective Christian journey. On both paths, we are continually called to take part in the gospel cycle. We are called to be both powerful and humble. At the dinner table and at the policy table, we are called to step up when we've been quiet and step back when we've been dominating, and encourage others to do the same.

A friend of mine says if being a Christian is easy for you, you're not doing it right. We've set ourselves a huge task in the healing of ourselves and our world. We must hold on to each other as we travel, to the promise that the kingdom is coming, and to all that lifts our hearts. Another verse of the Celtic magnificat promises:

Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound,

'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.

Glory to God, source of all being, incarnate word, and holy spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 27, 2007

making sausage

i've run across an interesting dilemma. i'm trying to write a sermon. i just shared, at lunch date with a friend, the story of the most poignant thing that's happened to me this week. she said i should include it in my sermon.

problem is, it's a conversation i had with my boss. it was a good one; telling the story wouldn't make him look bad or anything. but i have the sense that it's not kosher to share in a sermon anything about what goes on in the church office, like they're not supposed to see how the sausage is made.

part of me agrees. it's not appropriate to share, in a ministry setting, a story that you don't feel complete with, or a hurt that's still raw. we call that "bleeding on the congregation." nouwen tells an old jewish story that the messiah will be the one unbinding and binding his wounds one at a time so as to be ready when his people need him. maybe the one wound that's open to be inspected is like the psychic wound it's okay to share in a sermon--one at a time, so we can see it clearly and it's not overwhelming.

the other part of me rebels. isn't this false wall we put up hindering our ability to function as a true community? how does the idea of the leader to trust, who appears (to a degree) infallible, fit with our perfectly equitable beloved community?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

rise of the middle class

I had an awesome dinner conversation last night with my friends and parents (both titles refer to the same two people). We were talking about patterns of work, play, rest, and consuming. We wondered how political economic systems support healthy patterns, or don't. We wondered about the selfishness and short-sightedness that seem to be endemic and growing. I asked what they think their parents would have thought. My dad mused out loud on how the US middle class grew in the 1950s, and it really seemed that everyone was getting a bigger slice of the pie and the pie itself was growing. He said his parents in Newton, KS never wanted to get ahead if it meant anyone in their community might suffer.

The phrase "rise of the middle class" echoed in my mind for a minute. Here's why: I'm finally reading Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress. In telling the story of her work with the labyrinth in the last 15 years, she mentions a mysterious thought that kept coming to her: "it's all about the fourteenth century."
Now, Lauren's a mystic, and she also has a very keen analytic mind. Far keener than mine. So this fourteenth-century stuff is not a nostalgic art-history-major thing. What she discovered was that the shift from the superstitious middle ages to the so-called Enlightenment had huge consequences for the way we think:

As the Western world moved into the Enlightenment, we embraced reason as the
central function of the mind. This excluded subjective experiences: the
senses, as well as intuition, dreams, or any hints of revelation. In the
eyes of both scientists and leaders of the Reformation, the religious
imagination was stripped of all respect and honor among the various ways
of knowing.

Lauren says, and I agree, that imagination will be crucial both to finding a way forward for the global community and to being healthy and whole as we do it. "We are just beginning to restore the honor of the imagination. And we have yet to sort out the difference between superstition and mystical experience," she says. We are trying to swing the pendulum back, reintegrate ways of thinking (this is certainly happening, think of the buzz about multiple intelligences). It's been important to look at what forces swung the pendulum the other way, beginning in the 16th century.

What else happened around the time of Enlightenment and the Reformation? I'll admit to not having been on the edge of my seat in seventh and ninth grade history, but this much got through: the rise of the middle class. So what I wondered listening to my dad talk about Kansas in the 1950s was: was the WWII and postwar boom like Enlightenment Part II for the US psyche? They certainly have some things in common: booming economy from growing markets and (economists, straighten me out) specialization, right? More stuff is available, so we're willing to work longer hours at less satisfying tasks to increase our buying power. (See Mary Haddad's July 29 sermon on transforming our desires.) What does the demise of the imagination have to do with the death of the family farm? How might we bring both back without being foolhardy or irresponsible?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

soaring and flapping

My dad flies sail planes (aka gliders, aka airplanes sans engines), and he tells me it's just like sailing. Most of the time I'm skeptical.

Then this morning, riding my bike by the Stanford foothills, I saw a lone, out-of-place seagull riding the air current coming off the hill. I could almost tells what it was thinking, as each time the wind took an unexpected turn, it had to flap its wings a bit more before it could glide for awhile. I felt myself getting frustrated on the bird's behalf that the wind wouldn't stay constant enough for her to look for food, or enjoy the view, or whatever she was trying to do.

I thought about my own patterns of effort and rest. Often when I feel tired, it's because I'm avoiding something, so rest doesn't help. I think, "I deserve rest now." But really, when I have to flap and when I get to soar isn't up to me. I will do both, but I have to take my orders from the wind and the mountain.

Monday, August 6, 2007

political philosophy

Thanks to my friend Sheila, who made me promise, I'm reading Frank Rich (NYTimes Sunday). This came during an inpsiring (and sobering) conversation about the state of our country and our church, and how we might act with integrity as members of each, and members of both. In his article from yesterday, "Patriots who love the troops to death" ( Rich said:

The ranks of unreconstructed Iraq hawks are thinner than they used to be. One
particularly eloquent mea culpa can be found in today’s New York Times Magazine,
where the former war supporter Michael Ignatieff acknowledges that those who “truly showed good judgment on Iraq”might have had no more information than those who got it wrong, but did not make the mistake of confusing “wishes for reality."
Now, I've long loved the Times Magazine, but this article, "Getting Iraq Wrong." takes the cake. It's remarkable because Ignatieff doesn't appear to have time for mudslinging. He knows, as a politician himself, just how hard it is to be one. (Here's another link if the Times website won't let you in:

I like his thoughts on leadership in politics (maybe they appeal to me because I'm such an S on the Myers-Briggs): "In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way." While I disagree with some of his thoughts about public and private life, I think his point is a crucial one.
In politics, learning from failure matters as much as exploiting success. Samuel Beckett's "Fail again. Fail better" captures the inner obstinacy necessary to the political art. Churchill and De Gaulle kept faith with their own judgment when smart opinion believed them to be mistaken. Their willingness to wait for historical validation, even if far off, looks now like greatness. In the current president the same faith that history will judge him kindly seems like brute stubbornness.
He criticizes Bush's leadership and decisions without calling him an idiot. He admits to his own similar missteps. He talks about the difference between being right and being trustworthy.

In my political-science classes, I used to teach that exercising good judgment meant making good public policy. In the real world, bad public policy can often turn out to be very popular politics indeed. Resisting the popular isn't easy, because resisting the popular isn't always wise. Good judgment in politics is messy. It means balancing policy and politics in imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy — often yourself.

Knowing the difference between a good and a bad compromise is more important in politics than holding onto pure principle at any price. A good compromise restores the peace and enables both parties to go about their business with some element of their vital interest satisfied. A bad one surrenders the public interest to compulsion or force.

Just as, in private life, a marriage or partnership is a union between two good forgivers, public and community life is a dance between good compromisers. Church, and state, take heed!