Monday, April 10, 2017

Wisdom Walking: Pilgrimage is a Way of Life

My latest book is now available from Church Publishing and other book sellers. Here's the promotional cover.

Let’s go for walk. A very long walk. A journey down the pilgrim’s path. Traipsing through the forest of life. Climbing over the mountains of adversity. Enduring the climate of challenge. Over the course of countless miles and numerous days, we will mine the golden wisdom hidden within our pilgrimage experience.

“Wisdom Walking is a deeply satisfying and beautifully written journey of the transformation of the soul on pilgrimage. This lively and widely accessible book will feed the mind and spirit of experienced and novice pilgrims. Gil Stafford›s candor and humor will inspire those drawn to both spiritual and secular journeys. An excellent introduction to pilgrimage as an archetypal spiritual practice.”
—Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook, Claremont School of Theology

“Gil Stafford shows us how to take up the art of pilgrimage as a long work of transformation, one which demands an unflinching journey into the dark night of the soul. The compensations for this difficult work, as Wisdom Walking movingly illustrates, are immense: if we are willing to walk into the fires of pilgrimage, we may yet transform the stuff of our everyday lives into the gold of spiritual wisdom.”
—Gaymon Bennett, Arizona State University

Gil Stafford, PhD, DMin, is Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, Arizona. Prior to being ordained a priest, he was the President of Grand Canyon University. He also had been the head baseball coach at the university for twenty years, winning three national titles. Life is a pilgrimage, and he has taken many, including walking Ireland coast-to-coast. Gil and his wife Cathy are co-founders of 2Wisdom’s Way. He blogs at

9780819233493 | $20.00
paper | 6 x 9 | 208 pages
April 2017
Church Publishing

Monday, April 03, 2017

Grief is Love's Suffering

A few weeks ago, was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. When I went to visit her grave and put out fresh flowers, I was immediately taken back to the events that surrounded those days of raw grief.

My sister Dinah and I were having lunch three months after our mother passed away. It was the first time just the two of us were able to be alone. Dinah is Prader-Willi. She is mentally and physically handicapped with a measurable IQ of maybe forty-five. Despite her measurable intelligence, she has the wisdom of a crone and a connection to God of a mystical saint.

Conversations with my sister are slow. She starts by asking how my children are doing. She simply names them and I know she wants to hear what is happening in their lives. Dinah is most interested in our grandsons and my dog, Jesus. She loves dogs, and if she could have one in her house she would, but she can’t, for now anyway. She lives in a single care home, taken care of by two angelic women.

On the day, we had lunch she was unusually chatty. She worked her best to tell me her stories, stringing three or four words together, and then silence. Dinah says a word or two. I ask a question. More silence. Then she ponders the next word needed to find a different way to help me understand.

Lunch was delivered to our table. Dinah is very intent on eating so there is little conversation during the meal. I kind of idly offer a few rambling stories. When the plates were taken away. She resumed her questions about the dog.

Somewhere in the little strands of conversation she told me that she had washed her hair that day.
“Do you wash your hair every day,” I asked.
She nodded an affirmative yes, as if to yes, you idiot, don’t you?
I smiled the older brother grin. “Do you blow dry and style your own hair. It looks nice.”

I was trying to make up for my previously stupid question.
“No, Joey,” she said making reference to her beloved caregiver.
“You have beautiful silver hair Dinah,” I said in truth.
She said without hesitation, “My momma’s hair.”
I wanted to cry, but I held my emotions in check.
Then she said to no one in particular except herself, “My momma’s hair.”
Silence was the best I could afford.
After a minute or two she said, “Momma no more.”

I nodded to affirm that our mother was indeed no more. We sat there in pristine silence. It was at if the entire restaurant, the outside world, and God herself had stopped breathing in communal grief waiting to hear what Dinah would say next.

Grief is the suffering of love. Grief is the complex emotion of love’s pain. And we carry this suffering of love within our minds, our bodies, and our souls for a lifetime. It takes a lifetime to process grief. Every individual experience of grief weaves another pattern of grief into all our previous experiences of grief. Every time we have a new experience of grief it pulls out all the grief of our past and then the new grief weaves itself into the cloth of the old grief, making it weigh heavier than before. That’s why our grief can be triggered by sad movies, a certain fragrance, a particular location, and sometimes random unrelated events can bring us to our knees.

The weight of grief is always present. That’s why denial and avoidance don’t work as a technique for diminishing grief’s effects on us. Unprocessed grief will eventually expose itself at the most inopportune moments as impotent anger. In other words, we get angry about the grief, angry at someone else, even angry at the dead, but no amount of anger will bring back what we’ve lost.

But our grief isn’t confined to our loss of loved ones. We grieve almost every time something in our life changes, good or bad. Because change reminds us that we are not in control.

And grief is not just an individual emotion; grief can also be something held within the body of a community.

The story of Lazarus is a perfect example (John 11:1-45). The Gospel of John was written seventy years after Jesus had died on the cross and thirty years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were grieving the loss of their beloved Temple, the place where they had gathered to connect with God. The gospel writer had written the story of Lazarus as a way of encouraging the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to come to grips with the reality that while the Temple had been destroyed, they, as a community, had been resurrected to be the new Temple of Christ. Yes, they were suffering grief from their loss but something unexpected would arise out of their pain.

Everyone in the story of Lazarus is suffering from grief. The disciples were grieving the anticipated fear of Jesus’ death. Martha, Mary, their friends, and Jesus were grieving over their loss of their beloved Lazarus.

Martha is the one who first displays her anger. “If only you had been here, Jesus, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We all play the “if only” game. If only they would have taken better care of themselves. If only they had caught the cancer sooner. If only I had paid closer attention to the signs of depression. If only… But being angry at the dead, other people, or ourselves, never brings back the dead. That’s why it’s called impotent anger—it serves no purpose. What serves a purpose is to process the grief, the reality of death, and the potential for new life.

Mary is the one who is hiding her grief and depression. Martha has to call Mary out of the house and tell her that Jesus wanted to see her. It’s when Mary sees Jesus that she too displays her anger with “only if you had been here.” But that anger quickly gives way to a wave of grief so profound that Jesus breaks down and weeps. Mary’s grief triggered Jesus’ grief. And that triggered the grief of everyone around them. The community was collectively grieving.

Then Jesus goes to the tomb and there raises Lazarus from the dead. The point of the story, however, is not that Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead. If that was the point, then Lazarus would still be alive today. The point of the story is that out of death comes life. Lazarus was buried in a cave; the symbol of the womb of God. Out of the empty womb comes new life. The story is repeated over and over in the Bible; out of the empty womb of Sarah, Israel is born; out of the empty womb of Elizabeth, John the Baptist is born; out of the empty womb of Mary, God is born; out of the empty tomb of Jesus, the Christ is born. The marriage of life and death breeds the resurrection of new life. If we deny living life, or if we deny suffering the grief of death, resurrection of new life cannot be born.

Just eight weeks ago, Pastor Gae departed from St Peter’s. Her leaving was a loss. She had been here seventeen years and built deep relationships. Grieving her loss will take time; a different length of time for every person. But honestly, some were grieving before she left—they were grieving something else—something they had lost. And that loss will take time to grieve. Whatever you are grieving that is related to Pastor Gae, is compounded by your own particular history of grief. And all the weight of that grief is being held within the body of the community. Some have acted out in the anger of “if only.” Some are hiding their grief from the community. And some are openly weeping. Someone asked me why it will take two years for St Peter’s to have a new rector. In the tradition of our old ways, we would celebrate a Mass on the first anniversary of someone’s death. It was a ritual that signified that the time of mourning was officially over. Grief, no matter what kind, takes time. And while we will never get over our loss, we must find a way forward, which takes patience.

There are two things I hope that you can hear:

1) First, as a community, we must be lovingly patient with one another’s grief. Whether we understand the other person’s grief or not, we must continue to love them and be patient with what we do not understand.
2) And, second, we must trust what Jesus the Christ taught us; that the marriage of life and death will bring the resurrection of new life. We may not be able to see it right now, or want to see it, or be ready to see it. But this is the hope of the resurrection of the Christ—death is not the end.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

How to Avoid Those Annoying Little Blisters

On this third Sunday of Lent we encounter two readings that focus our attention on life’s pilgrimage. The first reading (Exodus 17:1-7) reminds us that our journey through the wilderness of life is done in stages. The second reading (John 4:5-42) is a story about the spiritual pilgrimage of Jesus, a Samaritan woman, her friends, and the disciples. Everyone in this story was at different stage on their life’s pilgrimage.

Thirteen years ago, as I prepared for my first walking pilgrimage in Ireland, I asked three young friends, who had walked their own pilgrimages, for some advice.

I asked the first one what was the most important thing she thought I needed to know about going on a pilgrimage. “Well,” she said. “You’re not going “on a” pilgrimage. You’re already “on” pilgrimage. The moment you decided to be intentional about pilgrimage was the moment your pilgrimage began. Life is “the” pilgrimage,” she said. “Walking Ireland is just one stretch of the journey.”

I asked the second young friend what advice he could give me about hiking. He said, “Buy the best leather boots you can find. And don’t be cheap. Good boots will cost you something but in the end, worth every penny you spend.”

I asked my third young friend what was the most important piece of equipment I should take with me. “Silk sock liners,” she said without hesitation. “They don’t cost much but they’ll save you from getting blisters.”

Wisdom from three wise souls. Not only for walking my many pilgrimages, but also for gaining wisdom from the metaphors about walking the pilgrimage of life.

My first young friend taught me that on life’s pilgrimage, I will need spiritual guides. It doesn’t matter what age the guide is—what matters is that they’ve walked the way before. In the story of the Samaritan woman, we understand that Jesus will be our spiritual guide. But also in the story, the woman would become a spiritual guide for many of her friends. They followed the way of Jesus because she pointed them to the path.

I’m not very fond of being called a Christian. But I do want to be known as a person who is following the way of Jesus. So, I look for guides, mentors, teachers who know the way. People who will hold me accountable. Who won’t let me hide or avoid things in life. Six weeks ago, when my pilgrimage took a dramatic turn, I called some friends who I know are experienced at leading churches through similar situations. During this time, I need their guidance and wisdom to keep me on the path.

Regarding my second young friend’s advice, I did buy an expensive pair of leather boots and I haven’t been sorry one step of the way. What he also taught me was that there will be a significant cost that accompanies my spiritual pilgrimage. In the story of the Samaritan woman almost everyone in the story took some significant risk. Jesus risked his reputation as a rabbi by talking to the woman. The woman risked humiliation by telling her friends that she had met the Messiah. And the people that followed her back to Jesus risked their time. The disciples, however, didn’t risk anything. They took the safe route. Instead of asking Jesus why he had been talking to the woman, they asked Jesus if he was hungry. There wasn’t anything wrong with their well-meaning question. But without taking a risk that would cost them something they weren’t going to grow spiritually.

Jung said that if there isn’t an outward journey, there will never be an inner journey. A spiritual pilgrimage requires the risk of going somewhere and doing something. We may not go to Ireland and walk the Wicklow Way or go to Spain and walk the Camino, but by being involved in a ministry that makes us uncomfortable and that costs us something, there we will be on pilgrimage and growing spiritually.

And I also followed my third friend’s advice; I bought sock liners. The thin silk socks cost less than three dollars. But I’ve hiked a thousand miles since that point and I’ve only had one tiny blister. What I learned from her advice was that I need to pay attention to the small details that will be important in my spiritual growth. Jesus told the disciples, “One person reaps and one person sows.” Often times, I tell my spiritual director that I’m overwhelmed. He typically tells me, “Gil, say your prayers and do your little bit.” As Anglicans, people of the Prayer Book, we understand that our prayers shape our belief. In other words, how we pray effects how we act. By focusing our attention on our prayer life, we trust that we will actually live a life of prayer; meaning we will naturally be doing God’s work in the world; feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, and embracing the stranger in our country (Matthew 25:35). Our prayer life will guide us into living a life of service. To paraphrase Jesus, one person does one ministry and someone else does another. We all do our little bit.

I don’t want to skip over this important detail and make the assumption that we all understand what a life of prayer looks like. We all will be drawn to a different way of praying. Some will take the Prayer Book and follow the pattern of praying morning prayer, noon day prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Some will pray just one of those services of prayer.

Some will pray one of the small prayers at the back of the Prayer Book. Some will pray the rosary, which includes the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Some will pray the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Some will pray extemporaneously. The point is not so much the form of prayer. The point is that we pray with the intention that the prayer shapes the way we act. There’s a subtle but important difference here, prayer shapes the way we believe and act, not the reverse, which is belief shapes the prayer.

I was in Canterbury Cathedral in England several years ago. We happened to be there at noon when someone said over the intercom that it was the custom of the cathedral that everyone stop for a moment and say the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. I was in the undercroft standing near a tiny side chapel just large enough for four people to kneel at the rail. As I knelt and began praying the Lord’s Prayer, I realized I was kneeling on a stone kneeler, where the prayers of people for over a thousand years had worn out the stone. The prayers of the people shaped the stone. And that’s what our prayers do to our mind, body, soul, and spirt. We are shaped by our prayer. While this life of prayer will protect the tenderness of our soul from the burden of life’s blisters, it will also activate us to live a life of service.

Wise words from my young pilgrim friends. Listen to our spiritual guides. Be willing to pay the price of spiritual growth. And pay attention to the small details of life’s pilgrimage. Life is a pilgrimage. How we walk it will make a difference in our life as well as everyone around us.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

It's the Temptation of the Good that Get Me in Trouble

In my thirteen years of preaching in the Episcopal Church, I don’t think I’ve preached on sin and temptation, per se; at the most a few times. I’ve probably preached around the topic, or used another word for sin, like “mistakes,” or “those things that separate us from the divine.” Having grown up in the Southern Baptist Church, sin was a popular topic, particularly those obvious “Big Sins” that dealt with sex, money, and power. For the most part now, I think the majority of people who attend church do their best to steer clear of the sins of the obvious.

We work hard to avoid these temptations. But, temptation is actually a good thing. St Anthony of the Desert said that temptation is necessary for our spiritual growth. Which is probably why we heard in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11) that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. St Anthony also said that the more mature the person is in their spirituality, the subtler the temptations would become.

We can’t study Jesus’ temptations without first making some sense of the other major character in this story, Satan. We can get some clue about who Satan was in this story by looking back at the Book of Job. In that story, all the heavenly beings were with God. There, Satan told God he had spent time on earth among God’s people. God asked Satan if he had seen Job, God’s servant, the man among men of earth that had turned away from evil and walked God’s path. Satan challenged God, suggesting that Job just hadn’t been tempted severely enough. So, God let Satan have his way with Job. Job might be considered the Old Testament Christ figure—a son of God would never turn his back on God, no matter what lie ahead. And who is Satan? Well, an easy way to look at that character would be to consider Satan like the older brother in the story. The one who always tells you, “Go ahead, it’s okay, you can do it, you won’t get in trouble.” But in the end, big brother leads you astray. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Jesus’ temptations.

First, Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. It is interesting that Jesus would, later in his ministry, turn “stones” into bread. At the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus would take the meager lunch of a boy and use it to inspire the disciples “hearts of stone” of disbelief, into enough food to feed the hungry masses. So, turning stones into bread wasn’t the temptation. The real temptation for Jesus was to do something good, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.

I’m pretty familiar with that temptation. There are a lot of things I’m asked to do that are good things to do—things I can do, things I’m qualified to do—the problem is, either the timing or my reason is wrong. I’m constantly being asked to serve on a committee, teach a class, train a group of people, take on some assignment—the issue is timing or my reason for accepting. Is this the right time for me? The better question is, “Do I have the time to do a good job?” The other question is, “What’s my reason for considering doing this thing?” Is it my ego that’s feeling good by being asked or is this something I’m really supposed to do?”

What did Jesus do in this circumstance? He looked for the deeper meaning. The answer wouldn’t be found by feeding his ego. Instead, he would discern by listening to the voice of God. Turning the stones into bread wasn’t a bad thing—it was just a “Good thing, at the wrong time for the wrong reason.”

Second, Jesus was tempted to jump off a pinnacle and rely on God to save him. Once again, Jesus would actually do this later in his ministry; he would crawl high upon the pinnacle of the Cross and leap off into the dark abyss of death, relying on God to save him. The real temptation here, though, would be that Jesus was tempted to avoid the hard work that needed to be done on the Cross.

Well, I’m pretty familiar with this temptation as well. There are things that I know are going to take a lot of hard work—dark night of the soul kind of stuff. And I know it would be a lot easier to avoid that work in my life, to simply turn around and walk away. The problem is, when I avoid walking through the storm, I miss all the work the Spirit will do in my life. It takes about two hours to drive the 100 miles of Ireland’s Wicklow Way, while it takes seven days to walk it. As Carl Jung would say, without the outer pilgrimage, there is no inner journey; no walking, no inner pilgrimage. Jesus didn’t avoid the hard work of the Cross. And he challenged us to take up our cross, to do our hard work in the dark night of the soul. Giving in to the temptation of avoidance will reduce our opportunity for spiritual growth.

Jesus’ third temptation in the desert was even more subtle than the first two. Typically, we take this temptation on face value—Jesus was tempted to worship Satan. But was Jesus really tempted to worship Satan? Maybe we could go a bit deeper and say that Jesus was tempted with power. Again, that doesn’t seem like anything Jesus would really be tempted by. Truthfully, after 400 years after Jesus walked on the earth he would be worshipped by the kingdoms of the world. So, how was he being tempted? I think Jesus was tempted by the sin of immediacy. “It can all be yours, now. You don’t have to wait.”

Oh, I know this temptation so well. My lack of patience tempts me to say, “We can fix this problem right now if we just do it my way.” The old adage my dad used to tell me rings in my ears, “if you want it done right, do it yourself.” But the immediate solution is not often the sustainable or systemic way to solve the problem. God’s way is outside the equation of time. God’s work has a long arc and takes a lot of patience.

Like Jesus, we too are tempted to do good things, though the timing and the reason might be off. We are also tempted to avoid the hard work of the dark night of the soul. And we are tempted to by the sin of immediacy.

Like Jesus, we must slow down and listen to God through our prayers. There we will find the strength to persevere those temptations that plague us. And like Jesus, eventually the tempter will leave us and then the angels will minister to our needs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Child's Song

I grew up in home where we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and every other time the church doors were open. And during the summers I went to Vacation Bible School that lasted not one week, but most of the summer. We learned all the Bible stories and learned all the songs. Of all that the one thing that has stayed with me through the darkest days was the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, red and yellow, black and white, Jesus loves all the children.” That has been the song of my theology.

My theological thinking has been grounded in Jesus’ teachings on love. Jesus said the two most important commandments are “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” He went on to say that God is pure love, the one who loves unconditionally. My own faith in the unseen God and my following Jesus is built upon these teachings. Everything else is another room built on the house of my theology, but Jesus’ teaching on love is at the dinner table of my life.

But then in today’s reading (Matthew 5:21-37) we hear Jesus’ most difficult teaching; “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” We might ask ourselves why we should try to do such an impossible thing? Because, Jesus says, this will bring about a “perfection,” a full-bodied maturity within our souls. In other words, by loving our enemies we will take on the very nature of God. But what would “loving our enemies” look like in real life?

On October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts, a local milk man, walked into the Amish one-room school house in Pennsylvania. He had a gun at his side. He ordered the boys and the four adults to leave the building. Then he told the ten school girls, ranging in ages from 6-13, to lie face down on the floor. He tied their hands behind their backs and summarily shot them, killing five. Then he turned the gun on himself. In his suicide note, he told the story of the death of his infant daughter years before. The note said that he blamed God. Hating God, he decided to punish God by killing those innocent girls.

The story is horrific. When the event happened, most people probably expected the Amish to hide away in their grief. And most of the world would have thought nothing of it if the Amish community spoke out in condemnation of the killer and his family. But that’s not what they did.

Within hours of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the victims told the boys who had been at the school not to hate the killer, for Jesus, he told them, said that we must forgive. That very night, parents of the murdered girls went to the home of Charles Roberts parents and consoled them in their moment of shock and disbelief. Robert’s mother told the Amish she knew she would have to move far away. But the Amish convinced her that she truly needed to stay in the community. At Robert’s funeral, the Amish outnumbered those who were not Amish, praying in solidarity with his family.

When I heard this story ten years ago, I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of loss and at the same time the love and forgiveness of the Amish community. I tried to picture myself in the shoes of the Amish parents. Could I have loved and forgiven as they did? I don’t know.

Then a mentor suggested a meditation that I might use to explore my depth of love and forgiveness. My mentor said I should picture a person who had wronged me or someone in history that had done some terrible act, like Charles Roberts. Once I had the image of that person in my mind, then I should say their name and then say, “love.” Then my mentor said I should repeat that ten times. “Charles Roberts…love”—ten times. My mentor recommended I do that once a day for a week and then reflect on my experience. My mentor told me that if I wasn’t experiencing any transformation in my soul, then I could keep repeating the meditation every day until I noticed something happening in the essence of my being. I’ve been sitting with that meditation for years, experiencing its subtle work on my heart.

I think this kind of meditation can also have a powerful effect on a community. As individuals, picture the person that has wronged you or wronged someone else that you love. Focus on that image. Silently mouth their name. Now mouth their name and whisper, “love.” Let’s do it together, silently mouth the name, then “love,” -------, “love.” (Repeat ten times). I encourage you to keep repeating this meditation for a week. Then ask yourself, “What is this meditation working in me?” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Maybe this is a way to follow Jesus’ most difficult teaching because in loving our enemies we are being transformed through the act of loving the body of Christ.

From the 12th century writer, Symeon the Theologian:

We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens in our body…

And everything that is hurt, everything
that seems to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparable
damaged in him is transformed.

And recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in his light.
we awaken as the beloved
in every part of our body.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Kaleidoscope of Integration

It’s the good times we remember, it’s the bad times that make us what we are. When I look back over my life, I feel so blessed—honestly, I have had countless wonderful and beautiful experiences. I remember those special moments with so much joy. But, truthfully, it’s been those failures, rough spots, and tragic moments that have caused me to stop, reflect and re-imagine how I was going to live my life. The events, good and bad, haven’t shaped me in and of themselves. Instead, it was the work they forced me to do; that work of moving me toward the integration of the mind, body, soul and spirit. The work has been continually forming me. And what I have discovered is that integration is the work of a lifetime. Carl Jung said it would take him ten lifetimes to integrate. If that is the case, it will take me 10,000 lifetimes. The work of integration is a process.

So, what is integration? Integration is the process of becoming one’s True Self, the person we we’re intended to be from the very beginning. Integration is re-integration, bringing together the best parts of ourselves, which creates then a healthy, wholesome, calm, mature, and wise person. We become the best of our True Self then in relationship with God, with others, and with creation. How then, do we accomplish this work?

As I said, I have had lots of failures, serious rough spots, and some tragic moments in my life. What I have learned along this pilgrimage of life is that I must incorporate the teachings and practices that could bring about a transformation in my life. Of course, the Bible and Jesus’ teachings have been the foundation from which I’ve done my work. But there are countless others who have been my teachers about the mind, the body, the soul, and the spirit. Some have worked with me face to face, like my mentors Scott Haasarud and Michael O’Grady.
Others, I learned from them through their books, like Carl Jung and Richard Rohr. The point is that we are always on a path of learning how to be our True Self. And because we are always being confronted with change, we will also be given the opportunity to learn new ways of being our True Self.

In the crude drawing I’ve provided below, you’ll see my most recent musings about a possible way to understand integration. The circle in the center of the page is what I hope my True Self is working toward. As you can see, my desire is for YHWH, the Divine One, to be at the center of my life. And because the divine is in all and is all, YHWH could not be confined within me or anyone or anything else, YHWH is in all the other circles, too: other humans, plants, animals, all of creation and all of the cosmos. I am connected to all of these people and entities through what Jesus taught us, love. And this love is manifested in and by my relationship with my neighbors, my enemies and my Self.

What surrounds this movement of divine relationship is my interior work as described by the prophet Micah (6:1-8): do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. The interior work is justice, kindness, and humility, these are the interactive God-like characteristics from which we live, move, and have our being. This interior work then is visibly manifested in the exterior work of Action (doing), Pilgrimage (walking) and Love. Action is the work of the mind. To do what we have learned to do, what Jesus has taught us to do. Pilgrimage, walking, is the work of the body. And Love, which is the work of the relationship with the soul and the spirit; love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies, love all creation, and love our Self.

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Daniel Siegel in his book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, says that the mind is more than our brain, even more than our brain and our body. He says that the mind is a relationship between our brain and our body along with our relationships with other humans and all creation. In other words, he says that integration is the work of being in healthy relationship with our mind, body, soul, and spirit, and the mind, body, soul, and spirit of other humans and all of creation. He even suggests that possibly all of these interactive integrated relationships might be the complete essence of who we call God. This rudimentary diagram, then, may also be an image of the Trinitarian divine. A 360-degree, multi-dimensional sphere of the dynamic motion of the characteristics of YWHW, the unspeakable name. It looks like a gyroscope in action seen through the lenses of a kaleidoscope—beauty in motion.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, reminds us that the triune God is not an anthropomorphic projection of the faces of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but instead a limitless, timeless, movement of creation in constant action. I like to think that we are created in the image of this limitless, timeless, movement of creation in constant action. And that we also are a 360 degree-multi-dimensional potential of integration.

What does all this mean in practical twenty-first century terms?

First, it means that we must live in the presence of the now of God. For there, and only there, resides the potential of wholeness and health. We must let go of the past and stop worrying about the future. Now is where we live and now is where we must act. If there is something that you know will help you live a more integrated life, begin now.

Second, it means that we have to pay attention to our teachers by acting on what they have taught us. Jesus said love your enemies. That’s a pretty straight-forward directive. It will also change our life by moving us toward becoming integrated human beings.

Three, it means that we need to stretch our mind, challenge old concepts and look for new ways to be wise humans in this world. Reading and studying people like those I’ve mentioned, Jung, Rohr, Siegel, and Bourgeault are good beginning points to help us see beyond the horizon of our current beliefs.

And four, working through the process toward integration demands a lifetime of effort. The difficult challenge is to trust the process. To say that I trust God, is to say that I trust the process of becoming an integrated True Self. Indeed, trusting the process is the work of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Dog Story: Lessons on Holy Listening

The Dog Story: Lessons on Holy Listening (Thanks to my friend Blair Braden for this title.)

My wife and I founded an interfaith wisdom school three years ago. Over the course of the two-year program we have two goals for the students. One is to help them develop spiritual practices that will sustain them in their daily living. The second goal is probably the most important and that is to teach them how to listen. It sounds so easy, but learning to listen, holy listening, deep listening, takes intention, and practice.

One of the skills in learning how listening is to hear someone’s story without responding with your own story. Try this the next time someone tells you their “dog” story. Everyone has a story about their dog or favorite pet. You’ve probably told someone a story about your dog and what does the other person always do? They respond with their story that’s even more amazing, or unbelievable then your story. So, the next time someone tells you their dog story, listen to their story, and then ask them a question about their story. But don’t respond by telling them your dog story. It might be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. That’s listening.

In today gospel reading (Luke 6:27-36) we hear Jesus’ most difficult teaching and he starts by telling us to listen. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Be merciful as God is merciful.”

It is interesting that Jesus’ didn’t end his first sentence at “love your enemies.” He put some action into the commandment. He went on to say that we must “do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.” Then Jesus took his teaching even further by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Still Jesus ups the ante to another level. Here, he demands that we be merciful to those who show us no mercy; that we be merciful like God is merciful. The key to following Jesus’ almost impossible teaching is first, learning how to listen.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, a man who followed Jesus and lived out his teachings, as difficult as that might have been for him to do at times. King was a defender of the poor and the marginalized. He led this country to confront racism and the injustice it caused. For his efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived his life in the wake of constant death threats. His home was bombed. He was nearly stabbed to death. And then on April 4, 1968 he was shot down while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis.

Martin Luther King taught us that racism, poverty, and militarism are intertwined. He taught us to stand strong for the weak and oppressed; to be firm in our convictions for justice and freedom for all. And while he suffered the prejudice of those who hated him for who he was and what he taught, Martin Luther King resisted oppression through peaceful non-violent resistance.

In the face of hate and violence, King would say that he had “decided to stick with love. Hate,” he said, “is too great a burden to bear. (For) hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King preached the words of Jesus, “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” The words of Jesus and King still ring in our ears today.

This past week, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaking at Jeff Sessions hearing to become the next Attorney General paraphrased King by saying that, “The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve towards justice, we must bend it.” I believe we must bend ourselves toward love instead hate, toward justice instead of injustice.

President Obama, in his farewell speech, spoke to the issue of racism. “After my election (in 2008) there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race,” Obama said, “remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” But the President did offer Americans a way forward. He urged us to begin listening to one another. By listening to one another, together we can begin to meaningfully cross the divide of race and all other differences that divide us.

We must listen to one another by honoring our uniqueness as human beings. We must listen to one another with compassion. We must listen to one another with love and mercy. We must listen to one another like we want others to listen to us.

We can’t love someone if we don’t know them. And we can’t know someone if we don’t listen to them.

This kind of intense listening takes hard work. Recently, several of us gathered here at St Peter’s to study the writings of Howard Thurman. He was a scholar, preacher, visionary and civil rights leader. His teachings had a powerful influence on Martin Luther King, especially Thurman’s work on non-violent resistance. Our conversations were intense and, I thought, productive.

To follow up on this work, during Lent this year, we will offer an opportunity for folks to enter into “Trust Circles.” (These small groups will follow the model taught by Quaker Parker Palmer.) The goal of these circles is to create a space so that we can talk about difficult issues, like race, but also talk about our political and religious differences. We have been told that at church politics and religion don’t mix. But I think that has been a failed mistake. The church should be the place that creates safe space for people to talk about difficult topics. The church can create safe space when we follow the teachings of Jesus. Love you neighbor, love your enemies, treat others the way you want to be treated, and in the end, be as merciful as God. If we can talk about difficult issues at church, then maybe this model can spread into other places of our country. But in order for that hope to be fulfilled we must be vigilant in our efforts to listen and show mercy, and in our prayers.

I think a good place to begin is the prayer the Episcopal Church offers for our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

O Holy God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.