Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cultivating awareness

Cosmic Dance

The value of keeping a Lenten discipline is not merely that of self-denial. An important aspect is that of noticing, of being more aware than usual. This is really only possible if we make it a point to interrupt our habitual approach to getting through the day:

When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash - at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

~Thomas Merton

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bowing to mystery

I said over on Meditation Matters that Ash Wednesday is an acknowledgement of impermanence. In a way, so is the whole duration of Lent.

Here is a poem about just that:

The Wish to Be Generous

All that I serve will die, all my delights,
the flesh kindled from my flesh, garden and field,
the silent lilies standing in the woods,
the woods, the hill, the whole earth, all
will burn in man's evil, or dwindle
in its own age. Let the world bring on me
the sleep of darkness without stars, so I may know
my little light taken from me into the seed
of the beginning and the end, so I may bow
to mystery, and take my stand on the earth
like a tree in a field, passing without haste
or regret toward what will be, my life
a patient willing descent into the grass.

-- Wendell Berry

If we do not learn to bow to mystery, our inner deprivation will be very, very great -- of that I am convinced.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Doing" Lent

Here's an approach to Lenten discipline that really appeals to me:

Lent is here. Ready or not, the Big Question is always: How we are going to “do” Lent this year? May I suggest going on a fast that makes sense in this culture? Let us fast from the various types of clutter in our lives, beginning with the “outer regions” of life—our personal habits and the clutter in our homes. Then we will move to mental and spiritual clutter as the weeks progress toward Easter. We can fast from the confusion and busy-ness that characterize our culture. If we use this period to open our hearts, we will be well prepared to celebrate Easter.

-- Susan K. Rowland

Susan Rowland then offers suggestions for how to put this commitment into practice. You can find them right here.

Of course, if you're already a compulsive neatness freak, this would not be a good discipline for you! :-)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Here are two verses from our closing song at church tonight:
We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.
It's important for me to remember to offer God my failings and also to give God the very fact that I haven't fully given my gifts.

There is a lot of territory for reflection and self-examination in those observations.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everyday wisdom

Unknown Lady in Blue
Artist: Aristrarkh Lentulov

Vicky Spiegel sent me a video today that had some great "tips for life" on it. Here's one that I really hope will help us all to let go a little bit more than perhaps is usual:

Don't compare your life with others';
You have no idea what their journey is all about.
And here's another:
No matter how you feel
Get up, get dressed, and show up.
But my favorite - and, I think, the most important one is this:

Sit in silence for at least ten minutes each day.
Thanks, Vicky!

Monday, February 23, 2009

All God's disguises

I must say that it troubles me at times that God is so often depicted as some kind of magical sky-being. I prefer that wonderful saying, "There is no spot where God is not."

God changes appearances every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all disguises. One moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your son bouncing on your knees or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk.

-- Nikos Kazantzakis

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Epiphany Last

Have you ever thought of salvation as transfiguration? I offer the following from The Christian Century:

The transfiguration provides a window through which the Christian narrative may be viewed. J.W.C. Wand, an Anglican theologian, wrote several decades ago that "it is actually possible to regard transfiguration as the fundamental idea in the Christian religion and as placing in a nutshell the whole story of the individual Christian life as well indeed as that of society as a whole." The transfiguration looks backward to God's presence in creation and the history of Israel and forward to the redemption of the world and its final, glorious consummation in Christ. In the theology of the patristic period and the later Christian East, the transfiguration is interpreted as a disclosure of the divinity of Christ, a unique visual display of the glory of God that shows the salvific nature of Christ's life, death and resurrection and the eschatological consummation of all things. The transfigured body of Jesus anticipates the divinization of humanity (in the language of the East) and the final transformation of the cosmos.

--Ian Curran

This, then, is the blessed hope, isn't it? The final transformation of the cosmos. It is quite wonderful to look at today's gospel reading as a foretaste of that ultimate redemption.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Something about community

It strikes me that one of the unfortunate aspects of the way we do church in the U.S. is that we group ourselves along class lines. We also typically segregate ourselves according to aesthetic taste. There was something to be said for parishes with geographical boundaries and for the principle of simply worshiping in one's parish church wherever one happened to live:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and wouldn't go to the churches and Gospel Halls; I disliked very much their hymns which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren't fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

-- C.S. Lewis (from Surprised by Joy)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Getting out of the way

Maybe, as part of our spiritual practice, it would be worthwhile to examine our attitude toward sleep:

During the hours of my sleep how will God prepare to use my obedience, service and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile. I get into the rhythm of salvation. While we sleep great and marvelous things are happening, things far beyond our ability to create. Then when we rise, our work can settle into the context of God’s work. Our human work can be integrated into God’s holy work.

-- Eugene Peterson

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Learning not to despair

The ecological news has been very dire the last couple of days. Sometimes I want to get the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope and the Orthodox Patriarchs and, I don't know, Rick Warren or somebody all in the same room and say, "Listen up. Stop quarrelling about all the issues before the Church that we are so caught up with and focus on one thing: saving the earth. Otherwise, we're not going to have a planet to have a church ON. Tell all the people that this is the great moral imperative that supercedes everything - yes, everything - else." But the quarrels will continue even if each one of those men secretly believes what I just said. And so, the following verse brings me both perspective and consolation:

The Fate of Elms

If they are doomed and all that can be done
Should fail, if they must die and disappear
And we must see them dying one by one,
Summer and fall and winter, year by year
Until there comes a summer so bereft
That over river, meadow, pasture height
No last and solitary elm is left
Lifting its leafy wings as if for flight—

Let us not make our grief for them too great
And say we wished that we had gone before,
Making the fate of elms too much our fate,
Seeing the always less and not the more.
Though elms may die, not everything must die:
Not their green memory against our sky.

-- Robert Francis

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spiritual growth

It is not the number of books you read, nor the variety of sermons you hear, nor the amount of religious conversation in which you mix, but it is the frequency and earnestness with which you meditate on these things till the truth in them becomes your own and part of your being, that ensures your growth.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

St. Valentine

Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

- Erich Fromm

Friday, February 13, 2009

An "adult kind of relationship"

I do love the internet - the way information is connected and how we can start in one place and find ourselves someplace else that was completely unexpected!

This morning I happened to run across an Albert Schweitzer quotation that I posted on one of my other blogs, Meditation Matters, and, in finding a link for Schweitzer to add to that post, also happened to run across the name Ernst Käsemann.

I had not thought about Käsemann for many years but his writings were of great interest and inspiration to me when I was in graduate school back in the 70s. A pupil of Bultmann, he was part of the Confessing Church movement during the 1930s in Germany and ended up in Gestapo detention as well as later becoming a prisoner of war. (His academic work was primarily on the subject of the "new quest" for the historical Jesus.)

I then found a sermon about Käsemann entitled "A Confident Wandering" by Barry J. Robinson. Here's an excerpt:

We all started out with such fervent hopes and dreams. Faith seemed so sure and alive and wonderful. But life has a way of exploding those temples we construct for ourselves into a million pieces. For we find that keeping those marriage vows is not as easy as we were told. And the church is not always a Christian place to be. And the people you believed you could trust let you down. And all that you had ever worked for and wanted to be can also blow up in your face. The day your world fell apart and you thought you were going to die because the place you thought was home - wasn't. And it seemed as if your faith was slipping away.

But by the grace of God, your life didn't end; and, looking back, it seemed like a new chapter began. God was turning your disaster into a new beginning. Jesus was asking you to get into the boat with him and sail off to the other side of the lake. It is times like those when faith stops being something firm and unshakable and becomes an adult kind of relationship.
An adult kind of relationship. Without it, I would submit, we become either sentimental or cynical. And then it becomes very, very difficult for us to be of support to others who are experiencing true adversity.

Käsemann himself put it this way:

Had I no other faith to live by, I should yet live and believe with him, and one single beam of his light in our existence seems to me more important than the full sun of orthodoxy. For... what is decisive for all time is not how much we have believed, but that we have believed and followed him however little we understood about him.
"But that we have believed and followed..."

This is worthy of much reflection and contemplation. And I plan to engage in just that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Some reflections on today

Image found here

Abraham Lincoln was born two hundred years ago today and I think that is worthy of recognition. I'm not one to deify Lincoln. And I'm very irritated by the efforts of some to turn him into a practicing Christian when, by his own clear assertion, he was no such thing. He was, in many ways, an ambiguous figure but he was undoubtedly a truly great man and one from whom we can still learn much. What interests me right now is the realization that he was not a black and white, all or nothing sort of thinker. He saw subtleties, nuance, shades of gray. He realized that people were mixtures and that the world does not neatly divide itself into good and evil.

Here are a few things he said that I believe are valuable for reflection and contemplation no matter what a person's belief system may be:
I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion, does not justify or excuse him.
In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares.
Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
May we ponder these words and reflect what they may mean and how they may apply to our own day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Why" I believe in God!

Here's what happened, people. I got home from work this evening and flipped on the television (which was tuned to PBS) and there he was: Pavarotti singing La Boheme with the great Renata Scotto. I remember that landmark performance from 1977. It knocked my socks off then and it does to this day. And I went into an ecstacy - really. And I found myself saying, "This is why I believe in God."

Now let me hasten to add that this is not an attempt at apologetics on my part here. I've never been any good at apologetics and the field, quite frankly, doesn't particularly interest me. Arguments about the existence of God are, in my humble opinion, more destructive than anything else and are actually anti-evangelical (if that's a word.) But experience interests me very much. As does gratitude. As does praise. I turn to God when I am bursting with thanksgiving. And a voice like Pavarotti's elicits that in me.

And not just the voice but the vehicles for the voice: the works of Donizetti, Puccini, Verdi... and on and on.

And the fact that I was imcomparably blessed by being brought up on opera.

So here's a "thank you" to my parents (especially on this issue to my father, the tenor). May you rest in peace and may you even now be delighting in the great voices of the ages!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Someone asked me to recommend a book on forgiveness today and I mentioned my favorite author on the subject, Lewis Smedes. I also shared with this person a very powerful definition of forgiveness: Giving up all hope of a better past.

Since then I've found myself prowling around on the net looking for more material and I came across this:

Many promising reconciliations have broken down because while both parties come prepared to forgive, neither party comes prepared to be forgiven.

-- Charles Williams

It often hurts our pride to be forgiven when we prefer to hang on to the belief that we've done nothing wrong. This dynamic is really something to bring to our reflection time, I think.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Prayer beads

Here are some interesting details about the composition of Anglican prayer beads:

[T]he number of beads in the Anglican rosary has been set at 33, the number of years in Christ's life. A set of Anglican beads is comprised of four sets of 7 beads called "weeks". The number 7 represents wholeness and completion, and reminds us of the 7 days of creation, the 7 days of the temporal week, the 7 seasons of the church year, and the 7 sacraments. Four "cruciform" beads separate the "weeks". They represent the 4 points of the cross and its centrality in our lives and faith, the 4 seasons of the temporal year, and the 4 points on a compass.

It's often helpful to have something to do with one's hands while praying. There are many forms of rosaries. The Anglican form is only one. And, of course, you can always just take a piece of string and tie knots in it. It's easy. It works!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Wings like eagles

This morning's lessons include one of my favorite passages from Isaiah:
Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Deacon Judy Gann was our guest preacher this morning. One line from her sermon will stick with me for life, I think:
Today's motivational speakers have nothing on Isaiah!
Oh, how true. ("Have you not known? Have you not heard?")

And I just can't resist sharing this oldie:

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The sin and disease of division

Division has always been a disease of the church... The Love Feast, which should have been the sign and symbol of perfect unity, has become a thing of divisions and class distinctions. And here there is something which only the newer translations reveal. In the older translations, it is said that to eat and drink at the sacrament without discerning the Lord's body is the way to judgment and not to salvation. But in the best Greek text, the word Lord's is not included. The sin is not to discern the body; that is to say, not to discern that the church is a body, not to be aware of the oneness of the church, not to be aware of the togetherness in which all its members should be joined.

... William Barclay, Ethics in a Permissive Society

Friday, February 6, 2009


Artist: Archip Iwanowitsch Kuindshi
Image from Wikimedia Commons

If the eyes had no tears,
the soul would have no rainbow.

-- Native American Proverb

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A different sort of eyes

There is no telling where God may turn up next — around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell.

Frederick Buechner in The Eyes of the Heart

Buechner's title is an allusion to a passage in Ephesians that I've always loved - a prayer that "the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened." Think for a while about your heart having eyes, would you?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009


Today is sometimes called The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary and sometimes The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ:

Here's part of what James Kiefer said:

Counting forward from December 25 as Day One, we find that Day Forty is February 2. A Jewish woman is in semi-seclusion for 40 days after giving birth to a son, and accordingly it is on February 2 that we celebrate the coming of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem...

Because an old reading for this festival contains the line (Zephaniah 1:12), "I will search Jerusalem with candles," the day is also known as Candlemas, and sometimes observed with a candle-lit procession.
The old Celtic name for this day is Imbolc or Oimelk which are a references to the pregnancy and lactating of the ewes. It is considered the first day of spring.