Monday, October 24, 2016

Racism Hiding in a Blind Spot

Have you had one of those moments when you were driving down the freeway, you decided to change lanes, you checked all your mirrors, turned on your blinker, started to move into the other lane—and suddenly, in a flash, out of nowhere, there was a car right next to you, the car that had been hiding in your blind spot. You jerked your car back into your lane; now disorientated from an abrupt realization, jarred out of your comfort zone, relieved that you didn’t collide into a disastrous future.
I have had several of those moments. One of them was a month after I thought I had finished my book, Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. I had met the publisher’s deadline and thirty days later was headed to a writer’s workshop at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis.
I arrived at the Minneapolis – Saint Paul airport with the instructions needed to find the Fun Van that would take me to the Collegeville Institute for a week of writing. I’m not the best of travelers. I get lost easily and turned around quite often. When I reached the spot where I thought I was supposed to meet my ride, there were vans from hotels, car rental companies, shuttles to other terminals, but no Fun Van. I panicked. I read the instructions for the fourth time.
And then I saw her, a woman wearing a Chicago Theological Seminary t-shirt. I just knew in my heart that she had to be going to the same workshop. Before asking her, I had to overcome my profound introversion—admittedly, I have problems striking up conversations with people I know.
“Um, are you going to the Collegeville Institute?”
I gave her a bit of start. Still, she offered this over-sixty white-guy with long hair a kind but curious look.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Gil.
“Hi. I’m Renee” She was holding her phone in one hand and a small bag in the other with her carry on propped against her leg. She was calm. Her brilliant brown eyes crackled with energy. This African-American woman exuded presence and that was reassuring to me in my moment of anxiety.
I kept talking. “I’m going to the Collegeville Institute. I saw your t-shirt and just thought maybe you were going there as well.”
Her smile was warm. “Oh, yes, my t-shirt, of course. Yes, I’m going to Collegeville.”
She told me she has already received a text from the van driver, who was waiting for all the passengers to arrive before heading to our pre-arranged pick-up. I was relieved. I wasn’t lost and I had met someone who confidently knew where she was, and that’s what I needed.
The van arrived and we boarded. We sat down next to each other. Made introductions with our fellow passengers and started off on what turned out to be a long, sweltering ride. I came to learn that my new colleague is the Reverend Doctor Renee C. Jackson, a United Church of Christ pastor. Renee and I, weary travelers and possibly two introverts, dozed off while the other passengers chatted pleasantly.
I had been looking forward to this workshop for months and I was confident my hopes to learn something valuable would not be disappointed. Our workshop officially began the next morning. It was all I had hoped. Karen Hering, author or Writing to Wake the Soul was our facilitator. She made the space feel safe and at the same time creative. Karen quickly engaged us in her writing process of “contemplative correspondence.”
Then the afternoon session began. Karen had prepped us that before arriving we needed to choose a metaphor that we had been working with in our writing. A word we would be willing to share with the group. When it came my turn I said I had chosen the metaphor pilgrimage and that I would use alchemical language to unpack its meaning. One of our classmates asked me if I would say a bit more about alchemy.
I gathered my thoughts. I had read nearly a hundred books and spent thousands of hours studying alchemy. Now I had to boil it down to an elevator ride explanation. “We begin in the chaos and confusion of blackness and through the many shades of darkness we eventually move into the burning of the white ash, which gives rise to the multicolored phase of the raven with the peacock tail, who eventually becomes the rising Phoenix who flies into the sun of the healing red tincture for the sake of other’s healing.”
Karen then said, “Your language is very poetic. However, we need to be mindful of the baggage our words carry. Words like “black” and “white” can be very heavy words packed with racial associations. How we use them in relationship to what is good and bad is important to our awareness of racism functioning in society and our language—especially in these charged days of heightened racial tension following the death of so many black men.”
A pall of chaos fell over my soul. The stormy clouds of shame rushed into my heart with lusty vengeance. I thought I had searched through all the secrets corners of my life looking for latent racism. I had been open in the past that in 1850 my great-great-grandfather had enslaved a black man and women, and their baby. My great-great-grandfather died in 1860 in Alabama at the age of forty-one, a year before the Civil War broke out. He left behind a wife, four children, and the three people he had enslaved. One of his sons became my great-grandfather and I have no idea what happened to those three souls who had been liberated from his subjection. I have tried mightily to wrest the DNA of enslavement out of my life.
One of my good friends and teammates in high school lived two-doors down the street. Clyde Cunningham, was one of a dozen African-American kids in our school of 5,000. My high school baseball coach was Gil Trejo, a Hispanic man and the best coach I had ever played for. He didn’t tolerate racism of any kind and he would become the model for my twenty-years of coaching college baseball. After high school, the Houston Astros drafted me and my five-year professional baseball career began. Most every team I played on, Caucasians were the minority. The teams were filled with Latin players of every shade of black and brown, then African-American players, and then the rest of us. 1973 was my third year of professional baseball. Our manager was Bernie Smith, the first African-American minor league manager in the history of professional baseball. I loved playing for him. When my playing career was over my wife and I took teaching jobs in Coolidge, Arizona. The collective minorities were the majority in that town. The Black, Hispanic, and Native kids wove their way deep into my heart. Twenty years later, when my sister-in-law and her two-year-old African-American son were in desperate straits, they moved in with us. For five years we provided a safe and loving place for them to heal. I thought I had worked through the ancestral DNA of racism that had lurked in my life. Evidently not.
Karen Hering’s words felt like she had shoved a rusty railroad spike into my heart; cracking open the stone egg of my soul—and from it oozed the putrid smell of an unconscious blind spot. At that moment my book was sitting on the publisher’s desk. I had spent four years writing this book. I had studied Carl Jung inside out. And yes, I know he was a racist, a sexist, and a philander. But his ideas on alchemy, pilgrimage, and individuation helped make sense of my life. Somehow, though, the names of the phases of alchemy, the words, black, white, yellow, and red hid in my unconscious blind spot. How could that have happened? How did I not see the weight of those words?
Sitting in that conference room at the Collegeville Institute, I wanted to run and hide. I felt like I was going to vomit. Synchronicity, however, had brought me to that moment of suspended timelessness. Months before, I had been notified that I had not been selected as one of the twelve who were invited to attend the workshop. I was, however, asked if I would be an alternate in the rare case that someone else would decline. A month later, I was notified that a slot had opened and asked if I would I accept. Synchronicity had brought me to that moment, for that workshop with Renee, Karen, and my blind spot. I could not run. If there is one solitary thing I have learned from pilgrimage it is that when I feel like I can’t take another step forward, I must keep walking in order for any chance of transmutation to emerge in my life.
That evening, as our group went to dinner, I walked along side Renee. I said a few inane things about the weather. Then I apologized. I told her I didn’t mean to offend her or hurt her in any way. I was simply using alchemical language. She told me she wasn’t offended. She understood the context.
Gently and graciously, but firmly, she said, “But I did have a reaction. I wish we could find other words so that black isn’t always bad and white is always good.”
I knew what I had to do. I contacted the publisher. I told him I needed to make a major revision in my book. I wanted to take any color language that smacked of racism out of the alchemical metaphors. I would need to create new names for the alchemical phases, replacing them with more expressive words, void of the baggage of racism. I explained my reasons and waited for a response.
The next day I was walking toward the Saint John campus and Renee was walking in the opposite direction back toward the Institute. Synchronicity was working overtime. We stopped under a large oak tree for needed shade and more conversation. I asked for her permission to tell this story. Renee said she’d think about it and then quickly got to the heart of the matter. She told me that our conversations were building racial and cultural bridges. “Our work is about more than a book. It is about more than you or me. I believe this is God’s work, truly a marvel to behold.” Then she asked me a question that would further pry open the egg of my soul.
“So Gil, where are you on your pilgrimage?”
I told her that I am still on pilgrimage. I am still experiencing the surprising, yet confusing, moments of synchronicity that turn up the heat in my life. I am still being transmuted by the pilgrimage of writing and living as a pilgrim. I am still returning again and again back to the beginning, back to the chaos of the alchemical process—still doing the dangerous work of turning up the heat, phase by phase. And why do I do this—because, consciously or unconsciously, I never want to enslave another soul with my words. I have to keep searching for all the blind spots in my life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Blind Jesus and the Disabled God

For the last ten years Jesus has joined me on my morning walk. Not the Jesus I imagine you’re thinking of, no it’s Jesus Jameson, my dog. In the last six months, his age has really started to show and he became less willing to walk with me. And then a few months ago, he began to lose his eyesight. The doctor said he had glaucoma and that he was going blind. We tried the eye drop routine but that didn’t work. Not only was he blind, the doctor said the pressure in eyes was so bad he was suffering from what amounted to a 24/7 migraine. The doctor recommended that we have his eyes removed. She said he would find a “new normal.” I wondered what that might mean being Jack Russell Terriers are more than a bit psychotic. After we got over the initial shock of the idea, we decided to follow the doctor’s recommendation. That was two months ago and now Jesus seems to be fine, except for the fact that he is blind. He used to be very active, now he walks around very slow and deliberate. He feels his way around the house with his nose, and every once in awhile he does run head on into something. But, he does seem to be learning how to walk in the dark. I have come to realize I’m watching my own future play out in the life of my dog.

Saint Francis of Assisi had something to say about walking in the dark. As a young man Francis had a life-changing dream that led him to begin following Jesus’ way of living. To get away from the noise of the world he went to live in cave outside Assisi. In the darkness of the cave he began to find the light within himself. In darkness and the quiet of the cave he began to hear the words of Jesus. In the darkness, Francis learned how to walk in the dark.

Francis lived most of his life out-of-doors, walking from town to town, preaching the message of charity and the virtues of poverty. Francis wasn’t a sturdy man and his hard life began to take a toll on him. A year before he died at the age of forty-four, he began to lose his eyesight. Whatever was wrong with his eyes caused him a great deal of pain, so much so that it also drove him into a deep depression. He was in such great pain that his doctor decided that the only way to relieve his pain was to cauterize his eyes. Francis agreed and prayed for strength during the ordeal. As horrible as it is to thing about such a thing, the treatment worked and Francis was relieved of the pain. Francis lived his life as if he could see in the dark.

In many ways, these stories are frightening, yet, at the same time, these stories can be encouraging to us. These stories are about the disabilities we all encounter in our lives, the disabilities, real of metaphoric, of being blind, lame, mute, deaf, our poverty of mind, body, soul, or spirit. The question is how can we live with these disabilities—accepting that we may not be healed from them.

Francis could walk in the dark, he said, because the light of Christ went before him. Blind and disabled, Francis lived his life emulating Jesus. Like Jesus, who suffered in life and even after the resurrection still bore the scars suffered on the cross. His hands, his feet, his side, still bore the wounds of crucifixion. Through Jesus’ death on the Cross, God is not only empathetic towards our suffering and disabilities, but God has suffered the pain of our cross. God became the disabled God.

Jesus brings us hope, not in being spared from our disabilities, nor healed from our pain, but instead, Jesus brings us the hope that the disabled God is with us as we have to learn how to make our way in the dark.

Friday, September 30, 2016

You No Hear Me

Dinah has Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), caused by a random deletion or mutation of chromosome-15, which is typically not inherited. PWS affects one in every 10,000 to 30,000 people worldwide. At birth, they have weak muscle tone (hypotonia), difficulty eating, poor growth, and slow development, resulting in a high infant mortality. They have distinctive facial features like a narrow forehead, almond shaped eyes, and a triangular mouth. They are also typically small in stature, have small hands, and feet. If they survive infancy, during childhood they develop an insatiable appetite resulting in chronic overeating (hyperphagia) and food hoarding often resulting in morbid obesity. People with PWS have significant intellectual impairment, low IQ (in the range of 40-60), and learning disabilities. Most suffer from temper outbursts, stubbornness, and compulsive behaviors like picking at their skin. PWS people require a lifetime of care and supervision and while life expectancy continues to improve, the average age is forty, more often dying of complications that result from morbid obesity.

Dinah fits the general profile of a PWS person, except for two anomalies. What had further complicated Dinah’s situation was that she had suffered from pneumonia and a 108-degree temperature at nine-months-old. My mother had kept Dinah breathing using CPR while my dad drove them to the nearest hospital over an hour away. Some doctors have speculated that the high temperature and lack of oxygen caused brain damage, subsequently effecting Dinah’s future ability to form words and sentences. Still, Dinah has beaten the odds of survival due to PWS and her lack of ability to communicate effectively. Leading to the second unusual aspect of her life, as I write this in 2016, at sixty-one Dinah is the oldest known living Prader-Willi in Arizona.

In 1998, while at ArtWorks in Tucson, Arizona, Dinah created a piece of art she titled Blue Jesus. It is an 8x10 linocut print. She carved her childlike stick figure of Jesus on the cross, onto a large piece of rubber-like material. From that carving, one print was made and I have it. Jesus’ head is oval as is his mouth. His eyes are somewhat square in shape. The eyes and the mouth are hollow; there are no pupils, neither are there teeth, just simple shapes. The trunk is a square box, out of which the arms extend at odd angles. The bottom half of the trunk in distended from which the legs jut, neither equal in length nor width. The arms and legs are not in proportional balance with the trunk. The way Dinah drew the figure it appears to be androgynous. Her sketch of Jesus makes him look misshaped, strange, odd, broken—disabled. Around the cross, she carved out, what look like, tears drops radiating upward from the cross. When the ink was applied, Jesus became aquamarine blue and the tears drops, dark red. Our eyes are drawn to the center of the painting by the contrast of the colors, as if it were a mandala.

I think Blue Jesus is Dinah’s self-portrait. Her art speaks for her, if only we can listen to what she and Blue Jesus have to say. Sometimes when my sister is trying to tell me a story, I simply don’t understand what she’s saying. If she gets weary of trying different ways to help me figure out what she’s trying to tell me, she’ll say, “You no hear me.”

In Jesus’ parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), I think Jesus might be feeling a bit of my sister’s pain. At the end of the story, Jesus says almost in frustration at not being listened to, “Even if someone were to rise from the dead, we wouldn’t listen to them.” I wonder if Jesus were still roaming around the earth today, 2,000 years old, would we listen to what he would have to say? Or would he simply be a freak of nature and someone we’d become so comfortable seeing that we’d stop listening? Like yesterday’s news as it were, no longer a novelty.

Today it seems that those who profess to be Christians don’t pay much attention to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ statement that we should love our enemies seems to be long forgotten. Most of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to follow, if at times, impossible—I imagine for most, much easier to ignore. For what seems to be the majority of those who call themselves Christians, it appears to be more convenient to worship Jesus, which he never asked us to do, than to follow his teachings—like love our enemies.

I wonder if Jesus were blue, would that make him interesting enough to listen to? Or would we find Jesus saying to us, “You no hear me?”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Peacemaking: Hope for the Future

Sunday was the fifteenth anniversary when two airplanes flew into New York City’s twin towers, destroying both and killing thousands. At the same time another airplane flew into the Pentagon, causing massive destructive. All the while, a fourth airplane crashed into the Pennsylvania landscape before it could be flown into the US Capitol. Since that infamous day, terrorism has become a chief topic of concern in our daily lives. Our concern for our safety has been expanded beyond our travel, to athletic events, concerts, and our schools; anywhere a crowd can gather. While political, economic, and culture issues are central to terrorism related issues, what draws the most heat in the conversation is religion; primarily the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have all played some role in international terrorism scene.

What seems to be at threat is our spiritual safety. Interfaith groups have taken on the topic of creating safe space in order to express one’s religion, while learning about other religions.

In March of 2010, I was invited to attend an interreligious conference at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) along with my colleague, Ahmad Shqeirat, Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona. The conference was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Twenty Anglican (Episcopal) and twenty Muslim leaders were invited to discuss a peaceful response to what would then be the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Ahmad and I had been invited because we were leaders of a gathering on September 11, 2009 in Tempe, which was held in response to the threatened burning of the Holy Quran by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

The VTS conference was three, twelve-hour days packed with listening to intense stories. One of the most disturbing stories came from my friend, Ahmad. On November 20, 2006, he and five other imams were escorted off of a US Airways flight bound for Phoenix out of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Before boarding the plane, the imams had said their noonday prayers in Arabic, apparently making some passengers waiting to board the flight, uncomfortable. Ahmad told us that one imam was blind. All six were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, escorted off the plane, forced to walk unassisted down a ramp, placed in separate police cars, and taken to a detention center for interrogation. After hours of questioning, a federal agent determined their detention was unwarranted and the six were returned to the airport. US Airways refused to issue them new tickets or let them board another flight. The imams had to purchase new tickets from another airline in order to get home.
This kind of treatment of innocent Muslims who are US citizens is alarming.

Since that time Phoenix mosques, including the one in Tempe, have been defaced and picketed and their members threatened. And of course, in our current Presidential election, the basic rights of Muslim-American citizens have been called into question and the debate has extended to Muslim immigration. Because of fear, the atmosphere in America and Arizona has called into question one of this country’s most cherished constitutional rights—the freedom of religion.

I am not going to try and make any generalized statements about how Christians or people of faith should respond to terrorism, US citizen’s rights, or immigration. I would, thought, like share with you how I try to understand the hard work of peacemaking, creating safe space, and listening.

Let’s take a look at Micah 4:1-5 as an example of how to be peacemakers. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. Micah said that religious worship without social justice is meaningless. He was concerned with ethical issues and the exploitation of the unemployed, those who had jobs, and landowners. In chapter four, Micah offered a formula for peacemaking, which I believe still applies today.

Inclusivity—Being in the presence of God is inclusive and welcoming experience. (4:1) God invited all people to the sacred mountain. What does that mean for me? I want to use language that is inclusive and welcoming. I don’t use language like “my God.” God is not my personal God, nor is God exclusive to Christianity.

Accessibility—Everyone has access to the divine teachings. (4:2b) I try to use language about God that doesn’t create a barrier between someone and the divine. In other words, when I speak, preach, or write, I work hard at not using theological lingo, words like sin, salvation, incarnation, or Trinity. Most clergy can’t agree on what these words mean and many people that come to our churches don’t agree on the definitions or these words or don’t know what they mean. Frankly it doesn’t matter. My language should not be a barrier to someone hearing the divine message.

Non-violence—God’s people will lay down their tools of war and become peacemakers. (4:3b) Howard Thurman (1899-1981) scholar, teacher, preacher, prophet, and mystic wrote that, “Non-violence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique…a discipline…it is a rejection of physical force, a renunciation of the tools of physical violence. (Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 125) He goes to say that, “Not to fight at all is to choose a weapon by which one fights…Of all the weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating.” (122) I personally can’t find any other way to follow the ways of YHVH than to be a pacifist.

Safety—God’s people will accept other people’s differences by creating safe space for all people. (4:4) My own experience has taught me that the only way I can create safe space for another person is to listen to their story. When I went to the VTS workshop we listened to one another’s stories. I listened to Ahmad and he has listened to me. I know about his faith as a Sunni Muslim from his perspective, which is also different from being Shia or Sufi. And he knows about my religious ideas. We have prayed together. We have shared meals. We know about each other’s families because we have met them. And we have been honest with one another about our differences in religious beliefs and practices. In the words of Micah, Ahmad and I sit under our own fig tree and neither of us has made the other one afraid.

For some of us September 11, 2001 is raw in our memory. It’s an event that is seared in our mind. For others, though, 9/11 is something that happened in history, like Pearl Harbor Day—while you understand the significance of the event, it happened before you could remember of before you were born. Or maybe you’re from another country and September 11, 2001 is something you can relate to because attacks like that have happened in your country. Whatever your relationship to September 11, 2001 might be, the threat of terrorism and war is present in our daily lives like a societal cancer. The question is how do we now, fifteen years later, bring about healing and peace?

Yes, we must respect the dignity every person that has suffered; with reverence for those who lost their lives, with grief for families who lost loved ones and friends, with honor for those who willingly gave their lives to save others. But, then, what do we do next? For me, my only response is to live a life of inclusivity, accessibility, non-violence, and creating safe space by listening. By working at peacemaking I feel that this is the best way I can honor those who have suffered—it is also the only way I can imagine that we have any hope for a peaceful future.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Upside Down Thinking

Recently I was invited to attend a writing workshop at Collegeville Institute, which resides on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The workshop was a transformative experience for me, much of which I am still processing. I’m trying to write about what happened through the workshop experience, but putting those thoughts out in the open air will take some time.

Besides being at the writing workshop, the campus of Saint John’s had many benefits; one being that our workshop group of twelve members was given a private viewing of the Saint John’s Illuminated Bible.

The bible is kept in an environmentally controlled vault. Tim Ternes, the Director of the Saint John’s Bible, met us outside the building where the bible is kept below ground level. He laughingly told us he was going to treat us like first graders and asked us to wash our hands; we were going to be able to touch the Saint John’s Bible. After we washed our hands thoroughly, we entered the vault through a security door that had a 60-second timer before it automatically closed. Once inside, we had to remove our jackets, sweaters, and handbags and back packs. All these precautions were required because we were going to be within inches of this priceless bible.

The Saint John’s Illuminated Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated bible that has been created in last 500 years. The project began in 1998, taking fifteen years it was finished in 2011, at an estimated cost of $8 million dollars. Artist Donald Jackson created a new script for use on the bible (using the New Revised Standard Version in English) and oversaw the work of seven calligraphers and artists. The bible is not illustrated, as in pictures designed to re-create a scene, but instead the bible is illuminated, meaning the artwork enhances the symbolic expressions of the written word.

The book is two feet high and three feet wide. That’s the standard size of an easel pad of paper. The bible was written on over three hundred pieces of vellum. Vellum was used for its historic and artistic value. Each side of vellum contains two pages, four pages per piece of vellum for a total of 1150 bible pages. Each piece of vellum weighs approximately two-three pounds. The artists used a unique 19th century Chinese ink for the calligraphy and the artwork pieces are combinations of vibrant colored ink and 24-karat gold.

The bible is currently unbound. If it were bound, the bible would easily weigh over 500 pounds. The book was made so large to emphasize that the bible was never intended for one individual but instead for the entire community.

The theologian’s and the artist’s intent of using calligraphy and illumination is to bring the word of God alive on the page. I’ve seen the Book of Kells in Ireland. I’ve seen famous art and artifacts in some of the best museums in the world, but there was always glass or space between the artwork and me. But, when we had this rare opportunity to view Saint John’s Bible, nothing stood between the art and us. The colors were brilliant, the art gave depth and new meaning to the scriptural stories—the illuminated bible is a living thing that gives the ancient words a twenty-first century understanding. The illuminations offer us new words to describe our experience of the divine.

For me, there are two illuminations in the Saint John’s bible that provide a symbolic representation of the central images of Christianity—the crucifixion and the resurrection. The illumination is found in the Gospel of Luke and the resurrection in the Gospel of John (The Saint John’s Bible: Gospels and Acts).

Set against one another, these pieces of art disrupt our commonly held views of the events of crucifixion and resurrection. Typically, we think of the crucifixion being the darkest moment in the Christian story. We often think of this scene in the dark hues of a terrible storm at its apex. The crucifixion is when Jesus died on the cross and the writers of the gospels put the psalmist’s words into his mouth. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The scene is filled with storms, abandonment, and death.

In contrast, we have imagined the resurrection to be the moment when the shining light of Christ bursts forth in a moment of victory over death. In the Episcopal Church our vestments on Easter are filled with gold in order to give us that feeling.

The illuminations of the Saint John’s Bible, however, do their best to disturb these commonly held views of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

In the Saint John’s Bible, the crucifixion, instead of being dark and foreboding, is depicted in the brilliant light of pure gold. The gold is thick, raised off the page, bringing the crucified Christ into three dimensions. This scene is the most brilliant of any page in the Saint John’s Bible.

In contrast to the brilliant light of the crucifixion scene, the resurrection is depicted in dark blues. Here, we only see the hooded Christ figure from the back. We do see the face of Mary Magdalene, who is clad in a deep red robe. The only gold we see in this scene is on the hands of Mary Magdalene.

Why are these scenes depicted in such paradoxical contrast? I think what we are seeing is what Jesus has taught us. At the moment of the cross, God became human in order to experience pain and death. God is present in the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, those who are imprisoned, the alien among us—God is present in the suffering of the cross. God is present in the humiliation of the cross. God is present in the death of the cross. Through God’s experience of human suffering and death—God can then fully experience our pain and suffering. God is not absent in our pain and suffering—actually that is when God is most present.

And what about the resurrection, where is God in that scene? God is present now in the hands Mary—the one who will carry the good news that God is among us in our suffering and pain—and God is present in us as we live out this good news in the twenty-first century. We are now the twenty-first century Mary Magdalene. Now our hands are covered with the gold of the presence of God, the God who has been present to us in our own crucifixion is the God that we carry as a healing agent into the world’s suffering.

Sisters and brothers do not shy aware from the suffering of the cross. Instead, lean into the soul gold we find from God’s presence at the margins of life, because at those times we experience loss, suffering, pain, abandonment, death—there we will discover a true golden resurrection moment.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Fear: A Weapon

Tuesday I was on my way to Tucson very early in the morning. I stopped at the rest area just north of Casa Grande. There weren’t any cars there when I pulled in. When I came out of the restroom, I noticed there was another vehicle in the parking lot. There was a man about my age walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was wearing a gun on his hip. I didn’t think too much about it—I’ve seen people wearing guns before. But, as I got within about ten feet of the guy, he turned and looked right me—he put his hand on his gun. I’m not sure what look I gave him, but I just kept on walking towards my car. I really don’t like wearing my clerical collar, but that’s one time I thought it might have been a good idea—or not? When I got in my car, I wondered why he put his hand on his gun? If he knew me he’d know I the last person to be afraid of. What was he afraid of? Seems like everywhere I turn I feel like fear is surrounding me.

The last two weeks I’ve watched bits and pieces of the Republican and Democratic Conventions. I’ve listened to speeches by the candidates and key players. And I’ve subjected myself to the subsequent rhetoric from the pundits as well as Facebook friends. The only common theme I can gather from this presidential election is that it is like none other. Even the oldest of commentators, and those who study the history of presidential elections have declared that this election season stands alone in its uniqueness.

I’ve spent probably too much time wondering why? What is the one thing that has created this kind of political atmosphere in our country? I think the common factor among all the political voices that keep turning up the volume is, “fear.” Fear is in the driver’s seat of our country. Fear has control over America. Fear has become the doomsday weapon of mass destruction that looms over our heads like never before.

I hear people tell me that they’re afraid of Donald Trump being elected president. Then I hear other people say that they’re afraid of Hillary Clinton being elected president. So, what’s underneath all this fear? What are people really afraid of? I think it’s the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms, but all forms are manifested in the fear of “change.” From the moment we’re born, we are destined to experience a lifetime of daily change that eventually leads to death. We experience change from the moment we get up in the morning until we lay our weary heads down at night. We experience so much change on a daily basis that you’d think we would get used to change—that we would be able to embrace change and death with ease. But that’s not what happens. Actually, the thing we resist the most in life is change and the thing we fear the most is death. Does it have to be that way? I don’t think so.

George Morrell was one of the founders of Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Tempe, Arizona. He was one of the first person’s I met when I started as vicar there in 2006. He was an alum of ASU when it was Arizona State Teacher’s College. George was a fighter pilot during World War II and served active duty during the Korean War. Before and after his stints in the military, he worked in the administration at ASU for forty years.

Near the end of George’s life, I had the privilege of listening to his stories and pondering with him about the big questions of life. He told me that he had had four specific moments in his life when he experienced the divine. It was at those instances, he said, that he knew for sure that God was fully present.

George had been very active in politics and during the last few weeks of his life he talked a lot about the primary elections. He had definite opinions and expectations. He we invested in the outcome of the election, but he didn’t live in fear of the outcome. Nor did he live his life in fear of the outcome. As he came to the last days of his life, I marveled at how he was dying with dignity and grace. George Morrell died well. At his funeral in February of 2008, Saint Augustine’s was packed with many well-known ASU administrators, coaches, and academic figures. He was loved and respected.

These last two weeks I can’t stop thinking about George, how he lived his life and how he died with dignity. He definitely had ideas and opinions and he wasn’t afraid to tell me, in a gracious way, what he believed. He had the presence and the confidence that allowed him to speak truth to power without ever raising his voice or using anger to express his views. Indeed, George had politic opinions, but he wasn’t afraid of the outcome no more than he was afraid of death. George Morrell trusted his family, his church, his country, and God. He relied on the faith he placed in each of them. During these very bizarre days we are living in, I’ve been relying on the voice of George Morrell to guide me.

Listen to words of Psalm 49 as interpreted by Eugene Peterson in The Message. These are words of wisdom about how to approach life and death without fear.

Listen, everyone, listen - earth-dwellers, don't miss this.
All you haves and have-nots,
All together now: listen.

I set plainspoken wisdom before you, my heart-seasoned understandings of life.
I fine-tuned my ear to the sayings of the wise,
I solve life's riddle with the help of a harp.

So why should I fear in bad times, hemmed in by enemy malice,
Shoved around by bullies, demeaned by the arrogant rich?

Really! There's no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
The cost of rescue is beyond our means, and even then it doesn't guarantee Life forever, or insurance against the Black Hole.

Anyone can see that the brightest and best die, wiped out right along with fools and dunces. They leave all their prowess behind, move into their new home, The Coffin,
The cemetery their permanent address.
And to think they named counties after themselves!

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

This is what happens to those who live for the moment, who only look out for themselves:
Death herds them like sheep straight to (the pit); they disappear down the gullet of the grave; They waste away to nothing - nothing left but a marker in a cemetery.

But me? God snatches me from the clutch of death, he reaches down and grabs me.

So don't be impressed with those who get rich and pile up fame and fortune. They can't take it with them; fame and fortune all get left behind.

Just when they think they've arrived and folks praise them because they've made good,
They enter the family burial plot where they'll never see sunshine again.

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

The Psalmist is trying to teach us that to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in our lives. George Morrell didn’t base his opinions on fear. And I don’t want to base my opinions on fear. I don’t want to live in fear—I want to live in the confidence that God will be always be with me, walking with me, talking to me, guiding me away from the Black Hole of fear.

If I live to be as old as my mom did, I have twenty years left and that’s optimistic. But if I’m fortunate to live that long—after this presidential election I’ll watch four more. And, if I’m able, I’ll vote in every one of them. I’ll express my opinions openly. But the one thing I will not do is live in fear of the outcome, nor the fear of life, nor the fear of death. For me, to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in my life and indeed, to squander life itself.

Please hear me, I’m not trying to tell you how to vote. Actually, I’m telling you something much more important—I’m telling you how to live in the presence of a loving God who will snatch each and every one of us out of the Black Hole of fear so that we can breathe deep and live freely.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hope birthed from love.

For those that read my blog, the following is a talk (sermon) I gave recently, which includes the story I told about my sister in my last post.) I felt I needed to say that so you don't think I've totally gone blank in the head.

Last weekend Cathy and I were at Family Camp. This was a diocese-wide event led by the Canon for Children’s Ministries, Jana Sundin. The weekend was a beautiful experience in the Prescott pines at Chapel Rock, the diocese camp and retreat center.

The theme was “Unplug and Connect.” The idea was to unplug from the distractions of the world and connect with our family, our friends, and with God. Jana planned a wonderful weekend where all who attended had plenty of opportunities to unplug and connect.

Those who attended represented the lovely diversity of the Episcopal church; multi-generational families, kids of all ages, grandparents with their grandchildren, single moms, single dads, bi-racial families, just about everyone was represented.

I had so many fantastic experiences, but there isn’t time to share all of them. But there was one particular moment that especially captured my imagination. Saturday night, Jana planned what she called a “silly talent” show, meaning anyone, any age, could be silly or serious; tell silly jokes, put on a silly skit, or sing a serious song—and all of those things happened that night.

The final “act” was a single dad and his two-year-old daughter. The duo sang some heavenly spiritual songs from the Jewish tradition. As a finale, the young dad and his daughter danced. As he lifted her above his head, she laughed and giggled as he twirled her around.

In that moment, I saw myself twirling my own children above my head. And I saw my son twirling his sons above his head. And then I saw my dad twirling my sister above his head. And then I saw my granddad twirling my mother through the air. And then I could see my grandsons dancing with their children and twirling them above their heads. Then I began to see the relatives of the other people at the retreat dancing with their ancient/future ones. And then there were people of all the nations dancing with their children. In that moment I was caught up in the synchronicity of timelessness. In that moment I felt at one with the divine and all of God’s creation. In that moment, I felt love and hope.

Living in our world today, it can be difficult, at times, to feel like there is any love and hope to be found. Indiscriminate violence and hateful murders use to be something that happened in far away countries—now it happens in the streets of America on a daily basis. Hope seems hard to come by.

I think hope is the promise of Abraham’s vision. (Genesis 18:1-10) He was meditating under the oak where he had built an altar to God. In his meditation three men appeared to him. He insisted that they sit with him while he washed their feet and prepared a meal for them. Abraham sat with the three strangers and listened to them. In the synchronicity of the moment he heard that something new, something unimaginable was going to be born into this world—that something was hope.

We can experience hope when we entertain the visions of the impossible; when we think outside the boxes of accepted reality—it is then that hope becomes a possibility.
Hope becomes possible when we entertain the stranger, welcome them into our home, wash their feet, feed them, and listen to their story. At those moments the impossible becomes possible—in that moment, despair is transmuted into hope.

After the recent release of violence on our world, I was depressed and that drove me into the Black Sun of silence. I felt that all hope was gone. I knew then I had to go see my sister. I was sure she would know how to bring healing in to our broken world.

Dinah, at 61, is the oldest known living person in the Arizona who has Prader-Willi Syndrome. She is mentally and physically handicapped—she also suffered brain damage that resulted from a high fever when she was two weeks old. The temperature affected her ability to speak—over the years her vocabulary has increased to about 50 words.

When we sit at dinner, she is mostly silent. When I ask her questions I have to watch for answers that are found in a raised eyebrow, the tilt of her head, a smile or a frown, a gesture, and if I’m lucky, a word or two, some of which are impossible to understand.

That night the conversation turned to her friend, Brent. Jo, Dinah’s beloved care-giver, filled in the gaps of my sister’s story about this man who lives in another house for handicapped men. Brent has multiple-scoliosis—he’s paraplegic and can’t speak.

When they go to his house, Dinah sits with Brent, holds his hand, strokes his arm and says, “I luv ou.” She knows what Brent needs—human touch, a kind face, and the words of love that heal.

Dinah doesn’t see the color of your skin. She doesn’t care about your ethnicity. It doesn’t matter to her if your religious or not. She’s not concerned with how you identify your sexuality. I’ve watched Dinah interact with the diversity of humanity and she treats everyone the same way—a smile, a big hug, and pure love.

I’ve wondered a thousand times what it would be like to get inside Dinah’s head, to walk around in the world in her skin, to be Dinah. I’ve witnessed her frustration at not being able to tell her story. I imagine that’s why she connects so well with people who have been marginalized—people of color, people of various religions, people who are lesbians, people who are gay, people who are bi-sexual, people who are transgendered, people who are queer. They know what it’s like to not be able to freely, openly, safely tell their story. Dinah knows that feeling because she lives in the borderlands of unique difference. That night, listening to Dinah’s story, I was reminded once again that all for but a twist and turn of a tiny piece of Chromosome-15, Dinah and I would trade places. But, then again, I could say that about everybody I meet—we’re all just a breath of fate away from being in some other circumstance, living in someone else’s skin. That night I felt that Dinah was asking me if I could live my life like she lives hers.

That night Dinah taught me that if I really want to love someone, I have to touch them, dance with them, imagine myself being them, walk around in this world as if I am them. I have to let go of the idea that I am different than anyone else in the world, for by the very twist of a sliver of DNA, I could be that person. Maybe that’s what “love your neighbor as your self,” and “respect the dignity of every human being,” really means.

Dinah has changed Brent’s life with her love. Dinah has changed my life with her love. Indeed, Dinah’s kind of love could change our world. Dinah has taught me that by holding hands and loving indiscriminately, I can find hope. And I saw that hope last weekend in the vision of a single dad twirling his two-year-old daughter over his head. That vision brought me to the moment of parents of all colors, races, religions, and sexuality, loving and dancing with their kids. Love doesn’t see difference; love sees the presence of the divine in every human being. Love listen. And if we don’t listen to other people’s story; well that be the end of all our stories. It’s all so weird isn’t it? But it changes everything when we listen.