Saturday, June 24, 2017

Diamond Hill in Connemara Park, the Pilgrimage Lessons Begin

We made our way north of Galway to the Connemara National Park. The tiny road into the park is nestled at the base of stark limestone mountains covered with short grasses. The road travels along a stream that feeds into a series of dark lakes. Sheep make themselves at home along the tarmac, never moved by oncoming traffic. They are often nestled in the tall grass alongside the road or against short rock bridges. The new born lambs are never far from their mothers. One rather large horn adored sheep relaxed in the very middle of the narrow road. He never moved an inch as we slowed to move pass off the far edge of the road.

We traveled past the Elizabethan Kylemore Abbey, now a tourist attraction and home to a Benedictine Community. Our GPS led us to turn off our narrow two lane road onto a gravel road, which took us up to a grey aging building that looked like an old university dormitory. There were a handful of cars parked in front. As we drove up the entrance, Cathy saw some nuns sitting by a window. As we stopped, a nun in full habit came out the door and up the car. I rolled down the window and she asked if we were looking for the Connemara Park Center. She nodded to Cathy who was holding her phone, "The GPS always sending folks our way. We meet them from everywhere." We told her we are from Arizona and then she gave us directions to the park. Their Belgian order was founded in the 16th century and made their way to Ireland after World War I. They moved to their current residence near the Abbey in 1920 and founded a girl's boarding school. In recent years they closed the school and, as many orders, discerning what is the best future for their order.

With our new directions, and without the GPS, we found our way to the entrance of the Connemara National Park. I am always reminded by the free admission to the parks of how important these sites are to the Irish and how much they want to share their life and history with the world.

The Connemara is the world's largest outcropping of limestone. The hills are covered with low grasses and bog and barren of trees. We walked the 5 mile trail up 1500 feet to the peak of Diamond Hill. The trail was made possible by picking our way up the winding limestone wind swept "stairs."

Halfway up the hill, we stopped for a breather and a drink. A young man in his thirties nodded and walked past. Later we passed him as he was facing the mist that was rolling in off the Atlantic with arms outstretched. In broken English, with what sounded like an Italian accent, he said, "The smoke is the best." He moved on passed us again. We would trade spots with him a half a dozen times in our ascent.

As I neared the top, the young man seemed to be waiting for me. When I approached him he said, "Can you give me some advice." He came face to face with me. "How do you handle baby?" I told him we have two adult children and they have grown to be truly wonderful adults. Just be yourself, I told him. "As babies, they were ok?" He asked. "How?"

Be present to the baby with your mind, your heart, your body, all of yourself. "My whole being?" He said. Yes, all of your being. We introduced ourselves. He name was Stephan. I blessed him and told him all will be well. He thanked me and we departed. I didn't see him on the trail again.

This day started out simply as the desire to take a bit of adventure to see some new landscape and walk an unfamiliar trail. But it wasn't long before I was gently reminded that everyday is day of pilgrimage. Every step, every hill, every stone, every animal, every person on the pilgrimage is a guidebook with tiny maps for the way of life. The opportunities and markers are often subtle and easy to miss. Other times, they just step out and confront me face to face. And today's journey has made me happy to imagine what tomorrow will bring.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walking those Unwanted Painful Pilgrimages

The last few weeks people have been asking me if I’m excited about our trip to Ireland. That question usually is followed with, “are you packed?” A few will ask me if I’m ready to walk the 150 miles. And a few have asked me how have I prepared myself. The answer to those questions lie somewhere in the process of paying to attention to the mind, body, soul, and spirit.

I know I’m headed to Ireland. I know I’m going to walk the Wicklow Way with two groups. I’ve walked the Wicklow Way before; I know the terrain, and I know that the weather is unpredictable. But I don’t know how my body will hold up this time. I am walking with people who will be on their first walking pilgrimage. I don’t know how they will respond to the pounding of the trail. And for sure, I don’t know what will bubble up from deep within my psyche, nor do I know what the Spirit of God will bring my way. The power of the uncertain far out ways the familiar.

But pilgrimages come in many forms, those we intend to take, as well as those that are thrust upon us. I am always talking with people who are sharing their stories about dealing with life pilgrimages; the anxiety, the fear, and the unknown. The question invariably comes about how to prepare for the uncertain.

How do we prepare for a pilgrimage into the uncertain—the pilgrimage of health issues, the pilgrimage of life transitions, the pilgrimage of disappointments, and the pilgrimage of delving into the unknown realm of the spiritual world?

To find some answers to these questions, let’s take a look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our faith and the original pilgrims. (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7) How was Abraham prepared to go on what seemed to be an impossible pilgrimage?

First, Abraham listened. He used his six senses to hear what God was saying to him. To go on any kind of pilgrimage—those we intend to go on and those we do not want to traveled— we have to prepare ourselves by listening. Typically, our first response is to do something; make plans, buy tickets, buy new boots. We want to rush around and do things; all good things, all things we eventually need to do.

The same usually happens when we get thrust into a pilgrimage we don’t want to take, things like illness, divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one.

We want to do something, get on the internet, do research, read a book about how to solve our problem, talk to our friends. All things are good, but they are distractions from the reality of how to start a pilgrimage. The first thing we must do is listen—to take information using all our senses. Look around and see what’s happening. Smell the air. Taste the situation. Touch the circumstances. Listen.

Abraham listened. What he heard was awfully challenging. God told him to leave his home. God told him he would be traveling to some unknown place. And when he arrived at this promised land it would be occupied by another tribe who wouldn’t want to give up their land. And God told him that one day, in the far away future, he and his wife, though seventy-five and childless, would bear a son, and Abraham would become the father of many nations.
Before we head out on one of life’s pilgrimages we first have to listen to the Divine, realizing that what we might hear could be irrational and not make sense. It’s often those callings that are truly the voice of the One Holy Living God. By listening, we are then able to make intentions for our pilgrimage. By listening, I have set a specific pattern of spiritual practices that I intend to follow each day. I bought a red journal for the journey. I intend to follow the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius. I am going to read the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the prose of James Joyce. And I intend to be open to what the Spirit of God presents to me along the way.

Second, Abraham and Sarah traveled by stages; they took time to think about what they were doing. A pilgrimage has many parts. The preparation, the travel, the walking, the reflection, and then adjusting to the changes the pilgrimage has brought about in our life.

Abraham went through several wild experiences on his pilgrimage. At times, he didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He put his wife’s life at risk. His own life was threatened. His plans had not worked out very well. But he was still on his pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage of life can leave us feeling frustrated, angry, and confused. The most difficult thing to accept about the pilgrimage of life is that more often than not we really don’t know what the outcome will be. We have to let go of our need to control. And from that point, we must simply follow where the Spirit of God is calling us to go. If we avoid the calling, if we deny what is happening in our life, if we refuse to embrace what lies ahead, if we refuse to walk, then we will not be able to fully experience the gift of life. We must journey by stages and think through the process in order to experience the pilgrimage.

Third, Abraham rested under the oak; he checked in with his feelings. When you’re on a walking pilgrimage you can’t walk 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At some point, you have to sit down, take off your pack, rest, and reflect on your experience.

Abraham sat down under an oak, which became known as the Tree of Abraham, synonymous with the Tree of Life. It was there that Abraham reflected upon his pilgrimage. I have a favorite tree on the Wicklow Way. It’s a giant oak that has grown around a rectangular stone about six feet long and two feet high. By growing around the stone, the oak has created an opening to itself, which, when climbing onto the stone, you can fully stand up inside the tree. Sitting on the stone, inside the tree is a beautiful place to check in with my feelings.

And now, when I’m not in Ireland, I can sit on the ground an imagine myself inside the great oak. In the pilgrimage of life, we need those quiet, safe places, where we can check in with our feelings and reflect about our journey.

Finally, having gone through the process the comes with being on pilgrimage, Abraham imagined; he had a vision. And not only did Abraham have one vision, he lived his life in a state of visioning. In other words, his pilgrimage work effected how he lived his life; what he sensed, what he thought, what he felt, and how he imagined living the remainder of his life.

We are all on the pilgrimage of life. Some of the pilgrimages are wonderful and filled with joy—and some are not. The painful journeys maybe are where we learn the most. What we learn from the life of Abraham is that a full complete mature life will have both types of pilgrimages. The key is how we process them. Do we listen? Do we process the pilgrimages by stages? Do we set aside time for reflection? Are we willing to imagine a new way of living? Such is the work of living life as a pilgrim.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

When the Trinity Becomes Four

Being the week of Pentecost, Deacon Gay and I were talking about the difficulty of trying to explain the work of the Spirit of God. The explanation, she said, is found in the story. She said that this week she was with one of our parishioners during the final days of her life. On her visit to this person’s home, the family unexpectedly gathered around the bed for communion. Gay said she could feel the presence of the Spirit of God as she shared the bread and wine with these people. It was a mystical moment that defied words, but the experience was shaping her life in such a way that it demanded she tell the story. Later, Deacon Gay had the opportunity to tell this story to the women at Perryville. In the context of a life of so many deaths and so few resurrections, the women of Perryville were deeply touched by the movement of the Spirit of God in Gay’s life.

Within a few days, the person Gay had visited, died. As I talked with the family, one of them recounted the story of sharing communion. With tears in their eyes, they told me how meaningful this experience had been for them. The Spirit of God seems to be at work in those moments when we are the most vulnerable and willing to take the greatest risks; when the veil between life and death are the thinnest.

Deacon Gay’s story made me reflect on my own encounters with the Spirit. I thought of those times when I’ve sat with parents who were grieving the loss of a child; those times when words are meaningless and only tears have voice in the conversation of silence. I thought of those times when I was discerning a life changing decision; those times when the mere thought of the options brought on a migraine. I thought of those times when I had to sit with my own grief and I couldn’t distinguish between the waves of anger, depression, and honest grief. In each of those times, the Spirit of God appeared in a variety of ways—a singing wind chime, a subtle breeze, the innocent question from a child, a voice spoken from the dead. The Spirit of God speaks in the ways we are open to hear; but only if we are willing to listen and then act.

The Spirit of God is the interplay, between God the Creator and Jesus the Christ. To use Richard Rohr’s words—the Creator, the Christ, and the Spirit are involved in an ongoing Divine Dance into which we are invited to participate.

Cynthia Bourgeault expanded Rohr’s idea of the Divine Dance with her explanation of the “Law of Three.” This law of the Universe states that the interweaving of three agencies always produces a fourth, which is then displayed in a new dimension. In other words, when God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Spirit of God are harmoniously at work in our lives, something new, a fourth, will emerge in an unimaginable way, the new dimension.

Let’s use Deacon Gay’s story as an example. There was some backstory to the event. Gay told me that on the way to visit the person, she got lost. She was running thirty minutes late and worried about finding her way. The spouse of the dying person called to ask if she was still going to come to their house. Gay could have gotten embarrassed, or frustrated, or given up, or tried to reschedule, but she didn’t—she trusted that this was “the time” she needed to be at this person’s home. Arriving late, she was told that most of the family had left in order to provide some private time for Gay to visit the dying person. But because she had been late, the family returned within a few minutes.
This window of vulnerability opened the way for the Spirit of God to engage everyone present in a deeply spiritual experience. The interweaving of God the Creator’s call on Gay’s life as a deacon, her willingness to follow Jesus the Christ even though she was embarrassed about being late, and the Spirit’s movement in the life of this family who were open to share communion across their various denominational differences, produced a fourth agency in a new dimension—that fourth was a healing experience in the life of a family that was facing death and now grief.

This story is a microcosm of the biblical story; a story about God being in relationship with all of creation. The biblical story of Jesus reveals to us that this relationship between God and creation is oddly reliant upon human interaction. The Spirit of God, then, is the provocateur, the straw that stirs the drink, the bag that holds the tea in the hot water, the pot that keeps the soup on the stove, the needle that weaves the fabric of the interaction between God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and us.

You and I are capable of being in the Divine Dance with the Holy Trinity. But to be in the dance, we have to be willing to participate and be consciously aware of the opportunities as they present themselves to us.

Jesus is the model for how to live our life this way. He was the most consciously aware human being to walk the earth. In his consciousness, he knew that death to the ego would create a resurrected new True Self, which will be lived in unity with God.

To model Jesus, we must take up our own cross in order to find our own moment of resurrection. Death to our ego, death to our agenda, death to our embarrassment, death to our expectations, death to our demands, death to our beliefs, death to our illusion of being in control—these deaths must happen on our own cross in order for us to be open to the resurrection movement of the Spirit of God in our life.

God will not force the way of Jesus on us. God will not operate unilaterally. The Spirit of God will not make something happen singularly. We must be willing to participate in the Divine Dance. Jesus the Christ’s power in death was resurrected in the life of his disciples, who willingly became his agents in the world. He breathed the power of the Spirit into their lives. And they took that breath deep into their souls.

The breath of the Spirit of God brings a power so great that the disciples could hold the raw naked fire of forgiveness. But, being given the agency of the Spirit of God comes with a warning: Danger, you might find yourself holding someone else’s demonic snake and it will only let go of you if you grant both the person and the demon forgiveness. The only way to activate the Spirit of God is to love so much that you can let go of control; to forgive so much you’ve forgotten the sin; to empty yourself so much you’ve crawled up on your own cross to die to your ego. The fire of the Spirit of God does not move accidentally nor without purpose and not without a human agent that is willing to follow the path of the Christ.

To be actively involved in the Divine Dance we must open ourselves to the difficult process of becoming spiritually mature human beings. We must work toward becoming as consciously awake as was Jesus. How? By, opening our spiritual eyes to see the creative action of God that is still taking place in the world today. By opening our spiritual hands to receive the nail prints of the Christ when we risk being his servants. And by opening our mouths to receive the breath of Spirit of God into our very souls. By living into these spiritual actions, we will find ourselves involved in the intoxicating dance with the One Holy Living Trinitarian God, where three will become four.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Transmutation of the Dying

During the course of my ministry as an Episcopal priest, I’ve spent a lot time with the dying. I consider it a deep privilege to be with people as they walk through the final days of their life. Their stories are often the legacy of their soul. The dying fill every word of every story with a heavy weight that leave a lasting imprint on my mind, body, soul, and spirit; the transmutation of the dying.

Such are the final of words of Jesus that we have been reading in the Gospel of John chapter 13-17. The Gospel of John is set apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a very different look at who Jesus might have been and what he taught. The Gospel of John was written thirty to forty years after the other gospels. Its focus was not on telling Jesus’ life story. There isn’t a birth narrative in the Gospel of John. There aren’t any parables in this gospel. Instead, the Gospel of John was written to reveal the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, which are often hidden in the poetic nature of John’s writing. In one line in the gospel, it even suggests that Jesus’ teachings were done in “secret.” (7:10) In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ seven mystical “I am” statements and we are told about his magical seven signs. A great deal of the wisdom literature discovered in the Nag Hammadi text, found in an Egyptian cave in 1945, were based on the Gospel of John. And the mysteries of Celtic Spirituality have drawn deeply from the Gospel of John as its primary source of understanding Jesus’ wisdom and his relationship to God.

In John 14:15-21, Jesus gives his followers a very straight-forward statement about how they are live once he is gone from the earth. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.” The temptation here is to start listing all the commandments of Jesus that we can find in each of the four gospels. The problem with this is that each gospel was written for a different community. And most likely these small house churches only had access to the gospel written especially for them, and not the other three.

That’s why, in this little study, I want to keep our focus on the Gospel of John, on Jesus’ wisdom teachings.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us three simple commandments, or expectations, for his followers:

1) Love one another as Jesus has loved us. (John 15:12)
2) Abide in Jesus’s love, which is the same as abiding in the Spirit of God’s love. (John 14:17)
3) And wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)

First, Jesus tells us that our society will know that we are the followers of Jesus when we love one another. (John 13:34-35) Jesus’ teaching sounds so easy, just love everybody. But the reality is, we have a hard-enough time loving ourselves, and our family, much less those in our church community. It’s hard to love people we don’t know; much less love the ones with which we share deep relationships. The love Jesus is talking about is an intimate love—the kind of love that reaches us in the most vulnerable hidden places deep within our souls. And this kind of love, Jesus’ love, is transformative—it changes the very essence of the core of our being.

I remember so well when our son told us we were going to be grandparents. We were so excited and could hardly wait for the day Cole would be born. All my friends told me that having a grandchild would change my life like nothing else. I believed them, but I just didn’t have any context for what they were saying. And then Cole arrived; the holy grandchild. The next day we went to meet our grandson.

Within minutes of our arrival our daughter-in-law slipped Cole into my arms. When I peered into his eyes I knew I was looking in the eyes of God; and my heart was forever changed. In that mystical moment, I knew my life would never be the same. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what it was like to be loved by God, to feel what Jesus felt like when he told us that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) The experience of holding my grandson for the very first time opened a whole new understanding to me about what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus’ love is intimate and his love is transformative. Now when I am challenged to love those around me who are difficult to love, I am moved to see the God that I see in my grandson’s eyes, in the eyes of the person I struggle to love.

Second, Jesus teaches us to abide in his love. Jesus tells us that we can abide in the same love that he and God share. To abide means to remain permanently, to stay in the space of their love forever.

When I go hiking, I love to pick up stones. I’ve found myself attracted to the rough, jagged, and sharp edged stones. In pondering why I’m attracted to such stones, I’ve come realize that these oddly shaped stones represent how I see my soul. To abide means to place the rough stone of our soul into the river of God and leave it there until it becomes smooth, a process that will take more than a lifetime.

In our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer, 304) we are asked five questions about our commitment to the teachings of Jesus. In each case, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” What we are saying is that we are work in progress. We will do everything we can to stay permanently in the river of God, allow the rushing waters of God to transform us; smoothing out our rough edges. It’s not always easy to abide in the river of God. Sometimes the waters are rough. Sometimes the waters are freezing cold. Sometimes the waters are muddy.

But it is at those times that we know we must abide; we must keep our stone in God’s river, so that the transformation can happen. It’s the good times that we remember; but it’s the bad times that have made us what we are.

Finally, in Jesus’ wisdom teachings he asks us to follow his example by washing other people’s feet; in other words, to minister to others hidden needs. Recently, the Episcopal Church has passed a new regulation that will require all our volunteers to participate in a training course. The Church’s meaning has good intent. The only problem is that St Peter’s has so many volunteers, we not sure how to even count them all. This past week we started gathering lists and in our earliest guess, we might have more than 250 people volunteering for one or more ministries. St Peter’s people know how to “wash other people’s feet,” by being servants.

More often than not, I hear people tell me that when they serve in one of these ministries that it does more for them than the people they are serving. In washing another person’s feet, we humble ourselves in the most vulnerable way to the most vulnerable people in need. The act of serving others changes the core of our being. It’s a reciprocal act. An act that creates within us what Thomas Merton calls a “Resurrection Consciousness.” In other words, the world is turned upside down as we begin to see everything through the eyes of Jesus.

In Jesus’ final words he told us to love one another, abide in God’s love, and to wash feet. His final commandments change the way we live, move, and have our being in the world; they transmute us. Living as Jesus has taught us can be our legacy that we leave to our family and friends. Jesus’ way of living can indeed change us and our community.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Singing to the Weary Soul

In June, Cathy and I will be going to Ireland again for another pilgrimage. I will be walking with two groups. The first pilgrimage will be with Vox Peregrini 2017, a group of twelve professional singers who will be walking and singing their way along the 100 miles of the Wicklow Way. The second group includes people from our Wisdom School, St Peter’s, and a few other close friends. This group will walk three days of the Wicklow Way and then spend five days on a retreat led by Cathy and I that we call Sacred Cauldron.

We have walked the Wicklow Way and led these types of pilgrimages before. Our experience has taught us that a community forms rapidly among those who are walking the Wicklow Mountains. Walking fifteen miles a day for eight days through, sometimes rough terrain, leaves the pilgrims exposed and vulnerable. Exhausted and sometimes in pain, the best and the worst of us comes to the surface for everyone else to see.

Like all communities, the spectrum of each member’s involvement in the community is often dependent upon their maturity. Those who are more mature and experienced have a tendency to carry a heavier load of leadership. A few walk in the front, a few at the back, most in the middle. And while each person has to carry their own pack, everyone eventually will carry some spiritual and emotional weight for the entire group.

Walking together is Ireland is like walking in a mist of Celtic Spirituality that naturally fosters a form of community development. Celtic Spirituality is monastic by its very nature. It is built upon the idea that small groups can learn best how to pray, work and live together. These small groups share the central ideals; that God is present in all of creation; that Christ is the model of personal development; and that individuals are collectively responsible for the well-being of the community. Celtic Spirituality is a perfect blend of Franciscan, Benedictine, and Ignatian Spirituality.

Franciscan in its nature-centered theology. Benedictine in its hospitality-centered theology. And Ignatian in its imaginative-centered theology. By combining these three spiritualties, there seems to be a possibility for almost anyone to find their way in the Celtic community.

Of course, this method of community building comes from the teachings of the apostles found in Acts 2:42-47. In this text, we find five components upon which we can weave the web of the spiritual community. Together, the community will 1) study the scriptures, 2) fellowship, 3) worship and pray, 4) serve others, and 5) share their time, talent, and treasure with the group. Without all five of these connecting points holding the community together, it will eventually collapse in on itself.

Let’s take a closer look at these five connecting points of community development.

First, we must study the scriptures and other wisdom texts together. What that means from Anglican tradition is that the God is still speaking and reveling Godself to the community. We can learn to hear the Voice of God and discern what God is saying to the community when we study together. Without studying together, we can get lost.

On one of my pilgrimages across Ireland, we spent a lot of time in the rain. One of the worst rain and windstorms we encountered was crossing White Hill in the Wicklow Mountains. Everything we carried was drenched, including my map.
The following day was another hilly climb from Roundwood to Glendalough. We endured another day of steady Irish downpour. With a trashed map, the inevitable happened. We got lost and I was feeling very anxious.
We came across a couple sitting by the side of the road. They were having a cup of tea.
“Are you walking the Way?” I asked.
“Aye,” the man said.
“We are walking the Way as well, but I think we’re lost,” I told him.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Indeed, you’re going in the wrong direction,” he said, “Where’s your map laddie?”
I pulled out what was left of my map. It was a useless wad of soaked paper, an indistinguishable mess.
“That’s not a map laddie,” as he reached in his bag. “This is a map.” He produced a detailed topographical map sealed in zip lock bag. As a kind pilgrim, he proceeded to tell us that not only had we walked in the wrong direction, but that we had walked about two miles past the turnoff point to Glendalough. On his map, he showed us where we should have turned and what markers would guide us. We thanked him and started to walk back the way we had just come.
“Laddies, we’ll walk with you a bit,” he said.” just to make sure you don’t get lost again.” The couple walked the next two miles with us explaining, in detail, how to make our way to Glendalough. Studying the together is like walking together with a good map. At St Peter’s we have seven study groups going on right now. We study together to keep us from getting lost on our way.

Second, spending time in fellowship together is critical to the community’s spiritual growth. If we don’t eat together we won’t get to know each other. On our walking pilgrimages, we eat most of our meals together. This gives us time to talk about lives, our pains and our joys. In the same way, spiritual communities must make time to fellowship together. John Wiles, who founded Vox Peregrini, wrote a song about how the potluck dinner can be as powerful a sacrament as the Eucharistic meal. In many ways, I believe he is right.

Third, when we worship together, when we break the Holy Bread together, our souls will be woven together. We have different tastes in music. We all like one preacher better than another. We like a particular style of liturgy better than another. But the one singular thing that holds us together is the very Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving Feast. That is why, here at St Peter’s, we say that the Lord’s Table is open to everyone; no matter where you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome to receive the Holy Meal, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Fourth, as a community, we must serve together—serve those in need, both in and outside our community. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear multiple stories about the ministry that is happening at St Peter’s—stories that bring tears of joy to our lives. Ministries abound in this community, for those in the community and those outside our doors. St Peter’s, I believe, is a model parish for other communities on how to serve.

And finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how everyone in the community contributed their time, talent, and treasure for the sake of others. We are called to faithful stewards of what has been bestowed upon us. There are countless ways in which all us can participate in this community. By volunteering our time, offering our skills, and yes being faithful in giving regularly to the complete ministry of the church. Giving of our time, talent, and treasure is a spiritual practice, a discipline. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is “cost” that accompanies “discipleship.” No one can tell us what that cost is, but we will know when God places that call on our heart to share of our time, talent, and treasure.

St Peter’s is a spiritual community that is on its own particular spiritual pilgrimage—one that will continue to develop our strength and resilience. The kind of journey that we are on, however, will require everyone to carry some of the load. It will take all of us working together: in our studies, our fellowship, our worship, our service, and our giving. When we work together to strengthen our community, we will see “wonders and signs” done in our midst.

When the Vox Peregrini 2015 finished its 100-mile walk, they were scheduled to perform two concerts. The first was at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. That concert went fine but the group seemed a bit off. I had listened to them sing for eight days and every time I was moved at the core in my being. Maybe that day they were just too exhausted to sing or I was too tired to listen. The next day they performed at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. That day the music was pristine, rich, and filled with emotion. I asked a few of the singers what made the difference between the two concerts. One person said it was because they had another day of rest.
Another person said they sounded different because John, the director, had told them to sing like they were standing in the forest, to match their voices to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. One person said it was because he had stopped looking at the audience and instead looked at his fellow pilgrims; seeing them not dressed in their performance clothes but instead as they looked while hiking through the forest, weary and worn but at peace. He said when he saw them this way he was seeing their souls. He could sing to their souls.

Wonders and signs don’t happen in our community by accident. They happen when we are willing to walk together as a community, everyone carrying their own pack and supporting one another along the pilgrimage. And when we look at one another in our weary pain we be able to sing to the soul we see.

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.