“Church people are too nice to each other. They need to grow spines,” a friend said to me the other day. My friend was commenting on the surface relationships, which exist in some faith communities, where we all want to get a long at almost any price and work really hard at being nice. A member’s problematic behavior is tolerated, at the expense of developing a healthy community. Neither the deep needs of the member, nor the needs of the community as a whole, are addressed, and both suffer.
Perhaps you have heard someone comment about a member who is overbearing, controlling, or in some other way hard to take, “Oh that’s the way he is. That’s just how he does things. He means well. Don’t take it personally.”
From my vantage point of thirty years of pastoral ministry and thousands of hours spent listening to church members and pastors in spiritual direction sessions, people do take it seriously, when they are run over, ignored, or otherwise misused. They take it very seriously. I have watched new people walk away and never return after a hurtful encounter. I have seen older members pull back and clergy stymied by power struggles. I have observed churches stuck in relational impasses for years.
Why does no one speak up? Why does a church system seem to harbor and implicitly support bad behavior in the body of Christ? Where did we get the notion that following Jesus meant that we were supposed to be nice? The word nice originates in a Latin word meaning ignorant, literally, not + knowing. In its original use in the thirteenth century nice meant foolish, stupid, or senseless. Today nice means agreeable, pleasant, pleasant or satisfactory.
Jane Austin captured the tired, feeble sense of the word in this passage from Northanger Abbey:
"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?" "Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything."
When Christianity is reduced to being nice people, it loses its spine and the energetic power of Christ among us.
Many factors may foster spineless Christians. Maybe I am related to the irritating individual or live with him. Perhaps the person has influential friends, or contributes a lot of money. We keep still, because we are afraid of offending others, or being attacked, or rocking the boat.
We also may be enmeshed as integral parts of a codependent church system in which we find ourselves manipulated by another. Codependency is a psychological condition, which develops when one’s behavior is controlled or determined by another, who is ill with an addiction to a substance or a behavior.
In such cases we walk on eggshells, work behind the scenes, have parking lot conversations, protect, and placate the person in question, while the system stays stuck. We help perpetuate the dysfunction and become sick ourselves.
Most people do not like confrontation. We shy away from speaking the truth as we see it, because it doesn’t seem safe. Instead we swallow our truth, question our own perceptions, try to make do, and from time to time acquiesce to bullies.
Of course, there are times, when we have good reason to be afraid. And, likewise, there may be occasions, when it is best to not confront someone, who contributes to problems in congregational life. There are times to step back, pray, and wait on the Holy Spirit to resolve impasses. There are times for us to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We always will see only part of what is going on, and our particular analysis may be incorrect.
Further, it is important to note that the so-called problem is not with the so-called problem person. The issue is not what we need to do about him or how we can control or manipulate her. The issue is ultimately with us, who are experiencing it. The issue rests with my particular and limited view, and my responsibility and willingness, not to change someone I do not like, but to share my perspective with humility and love in service to the greater community.
My responsibility is to be an expert witness to my reality and experience. Such witness might sound like this: when Susan does this or says that, I feel like this – angry, controlled, sad, hurt, left out etc.
Such responsible truth telling with love and humility may open doors of deeper understanding and freedom for everyone. Fear can grip an individual, a family, or a community in such a way that the fear becomes a lie, which obscures or distorts a larger truth. Such a lie may seriously compromise the mission of a church. Whenever fear and its expression in “being nice,” become a bigger motivator, than love and honesty, something is seriously amiss.
Jesus offered a different answer to a religious establishment and an empire, which used fear, threat of ostracism, and power to control its members. Instead of becoming terrorized, or becoming a terrorist, Jesus “set his face like flint,” as he turned to Jerusalem to look fear in the eye, calmly grounded in a sense of something larger, more loving, more powerful, and stronger than fear, which would sustain him and the whole world with him.
And then he said to those who watched, “Follow me.”
What would the world look like, if we were motivated by faith and love, instead of fear? The fear response, lodged in the brain stem, is primal and necessary to survival. Yet what does fear motivate us to do - circle the wagons, huddle together, adopt a world view of scarcity, and become rigid, defensive, offensive, and suspicious? Such postures hinder generosity and imagination. Faith which requires trust in the unseen is blocked by fear. Without faith, the flow of the Spirit through hearts in love with God is obstructed.
I am not sure that we know how to speak our truth and disagree without resorting to anger, blame, and attack. I am not sure we really believe there is a common ground beyond our dissent. Greater truth is revealed as smaller truths are shared with courage and love. Discovering God’s will for our communities requires all parties to surrender to something greater than their individual points of view. We need, both to hear individual perspectives, and to bow to a larger more encompassing vision, which asks something heroic of each one of us; namely, to give up our way, even our lives, for the larger good of the whole.
I believe there are Christians with spines and with the courage to be Christian, who create spaces where the bullied and bullies, the controlling and those who feel controlled, the powerful and those without power come together in mutual appreciation and surrender to the One beyond fear who offers abundance and sanctuary to all her children.
We each need to hear and be heard, to listen and to speak. The Holy Spirit with her bright wings dwells in the naked soul of each member of the body of Christ. We dare not silence any voice. It only takes a few divinely inspired souls to change the course of history or the climate of a local church.
May we all find the courage to set our faces like flint against the ghostly shroud of fear, which diminishes us and turns our spines to Jell-O. Then may we saddle up and head out toward the Reign of God with possibility, love, freedom, and justice for all.
You know the feeling: the noose slowly tightening around your neck, or that heavy ball and chain around your ankle, which you drag through the day.
Or, perhaps for you, it is the windowless room of your mind with that mean interrogator under the bare bulb, harping all day long and into the night: “You will never . . . You will always . . . You can’t … Who do you think you are?”
When I first heard the phrase, “areas of unfreedom,” I didn’t understand my teachers. (My spell check doesn’t understand either.) I was just beginning to learn about the dynamics of spiritual growth, what in a simpler time we used to call discipleship or sanctification. “Huh? I’m free,” I thought. “This is the USA.” The Spirit had yet to reveal my inner prison.
My jailors were the assumptions, unexamined beliefs, and negative thoughts which operated below my awareness. This gang of ignorant, fear mongers, and liars had formed a portion of my self identity, that is, who I thought I was, and what I could, or could not do with my life.
The other day one of these creepy little sadists gave me a swift kick in my solar plexus. Our teacher asked us to put our hands on the floor and kick our legs up into the air against a wall and balance on our arms. “Just try it,” she said, urging us on, “like when you were a kid. Your arms are strong enough to hold you.”
“Oh, yes. I can do this!” I thought. I have done many head stands and arm balances in my life. “Now just bend over, straighten your arms, and kick yourself up against the wall. No problem.”
As I took a few steps toward the wall, a dark, choking fear suddenly rose up in me and stopped me in my tracks. I was stunned. It had been over twenty years since my last hand stand, but I had stayed in shape and my arms were stronger now than ever. Where had this fear come from? I was safe here. There were people to catch me, if I fell or stumbled. I was dumbfounded. How did this happen in me?
“You’re too old,” my jailor sneered. “You can’t do things like this anymore. Pay attention to me or you will hurt yourself.”
Most of us have places of impasse in our interior world, where we feel stuck, fated, or chained to a particular understanding of ourselves, which limits our future unnecessarily. Sometimes these aspects of how we see ourselves are unconscious. Though not apparent to us, such beliefs may deeply affect our lives. I have a little pile of quotations and scripture verses above my desk. The other day I pulled this one out and put it on top.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than to bloom.
This is a poem by Anais Nin, a woman whose life I do not entirely recommend, but certainly demonstrates that wisdom is not the property of only the straight-laced and conventional.
The path of spiritual growth calls us to break out of the constraints of our tight little buds. There is a point where the risk of opening to an unknown possibility is less than the pain of remaining bent over in the tight room of a constraining self conception.
Nin’s words remind me of Jesus’ urgency to break the boundaries of his ministry and his own chosen human mortality with his words:
I've come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! I've come to change everything, turn everything right side up—how I long for it to be finished! (Luke 12:50 Message)
Jesus expresses the urgency of his desire to burst beyond the expectations of his disciples and followers to fully express his purpose on the cross. There was so much more he had to offer than the healings, miracles, and teaching along those dusty roads and little villages.
The process of spiritual transformation confronts us over and over with those places of unfreedom in ourselves, which have us tied in knots, weighed down, or locked into a tiny cell. With a punch in the gut the Spirit may reveal how we are imposing limitations on ourselves, which have nothing to do with God’s will for us, but a lot to do with what others have told us, or assumptions we have picked up from the culture.
Paul reminds the Galatians, who were caging themselves with religious rules, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” (Galatians 5:1 Message)
I am standing about six feet from the wall in my living room. My teacher thought I could do this. I know there are people older than I who do this. I have a choice. I can stay in the tight bud of my fear and be safe and be too old for this. Or I can keep trying until I do it.
Your goal might not be a handstand. For that matter, mine may not be a handstand either. I just whacked my foot on a piece of furniture, giving it another try.
However, more is at stake here than gymnastics. Spiritual growth requires flexibility, strength, and elasticity of soul. What might be keeping you in a constrained and incorrect conception of what you are capable of?
Simply recognizing the fear, or the faulty belief, allows it to dissipate. The sun is shining. Come on, sweetie, you know you can no longer resist its warming rays. You can do this.
I am yours, kicking up my heels, here in Kansas.
Mr. Collins Serves Me a Scone - Love and Gratitude in a Season of Sorrow
I had breakfast this morning with Billy Collins, American poet laureate. We met on the patio at dawn. I chewed my breakfast bar, while I watched him chew his thoughts – snatches of his days – savored, digested, and transformed in that warm oven of his imagination into tasty little scones.
And, the Lord is my witness, the man reached across the table under the tan umbrella and deftly placed the buttery sweetness into my mouth with his long, elegant fingers.
The trees were full of glad chatter, tweets, and whistles. Down the block a car started up. I slowly relished Mr. Collins’ scone, so rich and luxurious, beside my sensible protein bar. My dog, snoozing at my feet never noticed, when I fell in love with charming Billy. But that brown squirrel on the power line might have seen the cockeyed gratitude oozing out the corners of my mouth and running down my chin.
Here, help yourself to one of Billy’s scones:
As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse
I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit back in a ladder-backed chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,
and I began to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth to hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightening on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
I know. Life is hard, even horrific. I wish I could give you answers and take away the pain. All I have is Billy. Take down a glass. Fill it to the brim with homemade gratitude. You know the kind, fermented with what is handy – the cat sleeping in the sun, the hot coffee in the brown cup, the yellow feather –
and sing a little cockeyed canticle of your own.
I am indebted to insufferable stinkers for a good deal of the understanding I possess. The people I dislike the most, usually have the most to teach me.
I enjoy nearly everyone I meet, but I have come across some corkers. I think this is because God has so much to teach me about myself and love. When I hit a learning plateau, the Almighty with a sly grin sends a new teacher into my life to help me over the hump.
I work in a profession where my job description is to love everyone, including my enemies. Such an expectation holds one’s nose to the grindstone, as the Holy Spirit sets out to polish and refine her servants in the friction of human relationships.
I am grateful that love is deepened in us in this way, because if I could have discounted the difficult, or avoided the boring I would be far more difficult and boring myself. So I give thanks for all the needy, self-centered, mean spirited, self pitying, abrasive, annoying, and crazy, scary people, whom Christ places before me to welcome and love.
Without these opportunities I never would have discovered how much I have in common with such lack luster, irritating souls. I would have felt no responsibility to change my impression of them or curiosity about the source of my aversion. I would have missed out on the wealth of gifts they bring to me in their outstretched arms and infuriating ways.
I think you know the sort of people I am talking about: the ones who enrage you, disgust you, upset you, or frighten you. Among these are people who are so easy to dislike, that you may take a perverse joy in dwelling on their shortcomings and talking with friends about just how awful they are.
Forbearance is a word seldom heard these days, except in its legal sense as an agreement to delay a mortgage foreclosure. As the word appears in the Greek scriptures, to forbear means to refrain from doing something and refers to patient endurance and self control. Forbearance is the virtue of bearing with another’s sins, weaknesses, and irritating ways. Forbearance is more than refraining from saying what is on the tip of your tongue, rolling your eyes, or wringing someone’s neck. Bearing with another is a function of love and a consequence of disciplined prayer and self examination.
Sometimes my negative response to another may involve my unconscious projection of some unattractive attribute of myself, which I have not fully accepted. We tend to see our own flaws more clearly, when they show up in others. The offending party mirrors my own vexing habit. Or perhaps the negative feelings I carry for some other person in my life become attached to the person before me, who has some resemblance to my nemesis, and the unwitting soul must endure my unconscious dislike of him.
Or maybe – I just do not know the whole story.
He stopped me at the end of the meeting. He was the kind of person who, if you were in a hurry, you might duck down a hallway to avoid one of his tedious monologues. The man took forever to get to the point and gave you a whole lot of details that didn’t seem all that important and led to long, winding digressions. As I listened, I felt the impatience and irritation rising up in me.
Yet, because I was called to love and accept him, I took a breath, prayed and listened. I watched my internal irritation, wondering what it might have to tell me about the man and about myself. I began to see that what I was feeling was instructive and likely how others felt listening to him. How hard that must be for him. What was going on here? Why was it so hard for him to be clear and concise? I sensed in myself anxiety. Was he anxious too? Yes, I could see that now. He was anxious to be heard, fearful of being dismissed, of being devalued, or ignored. I recognized that needy feeling to be approved and valued in myself. Who had made him feel this way? Where did it come from in me?
That was when, in a flash, I glimpsed his suffering and all I wanted to do was give this man my total attention and acceptance. I realized that it didn’t really matter what he was saying as much as receiving someone’s caring attention. There might be a time later to explore the roots of his digressions. For now I wanted him to know how it felt to be heard without worrying the person you were talking to was eager to walk away.
Compassion rearranged my calendar, and I had all the time in the world to listen.
Rudy Rasmus is the pastor of Houston’s, St. John’s Downtown , a church with one of the most culturally diverse memberships in the country. Speaking to the United Methodist Kansas East Conference in 2010, Rudy said, “The kingdom is big enough for all the people you are afraid of, or think are wrong, or that you can’t love.”
Of the 9000 members at St. John’s 3000 are or were formerly homeless. Part of Rasmus’ success is due to his ability to help his members learn to move past judgment to compassion. In his address last year he asked his audience to practice compassion. His exercise went like this:
With attention on the person [you are judging] say to yourself:
Just like me this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair in his or her life.
Just like me this person is trying to avoid suffering in his or her life.
Just like me this person is learning about life.
Then he shared what his Auntie used to tell him, “Rudy, people only do what they know to do.” The safer and more valued a person feels in my presence, the more they share of themselves and the more compassionate I become, as I grow in understanding and appreciation of the child of God before me.
The words of Oswald Chambers have helped me over and over to listen, to be curious, and open my heart to another, even when I don’t feel like it.
Of every person there is always one more fact of which you know nothing.
Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Colossians 3:13
Disclaimer: Any resemblance here to former or current church members, clients, friends, relatives, or dear readers of this blog is purely coincidental. All the corkers I have known are now dead or live on Mars.
The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw. She’ll use image-language, not discourse. Giving an image is the giving of gold, the biggest thing she’s got… Hurling and wielding the best stuff she can imagine, insisting on an unmediated Way of Wakefulness,…she agrees to the quiet morning hour in front of God in exchange for a bit of revelation. She doesn’t ditch tradition as much as take it for its word and peer inside its cavernous shell. There must still be something worth saying. There must still be something worth pointing to.
— Jessie Harriman in God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan
I greet you with my pockets turned inside out, holding out a few crumbs I picked from the seam.
Most every time I write this blog, I write from such a place of intellectual and spiritual poverty, that I feel like I am scraping gum off the sidewalk to offer you.
Oh, I have plenty of previously written material. Some of it you might like or find useful. I also seem to have an endless supply of ideas, opinions, and questions we could take up together here. However the longer I sit in that quiet morning hour waiting for a bit of revelation, the staler and the less true all my previous thinking and posturing appear to be.
Something in me insists on peering into the Mystery anew each time I write. This is both an irresistible delight and a harrowing encounter with my own empty pockets.
I haul myself and the collected wear and tear of personal and world events before the throne of Great Stillness. There I reach out beyond my limits and press my palm in the face of Mystery and say, “Here. Here. Put it here.”
Then I wait.
In that waiting there is only the ache of love – nameless, infinite, ever beyond my control.
“Trust” was the word I found in my palm this week. Trust? That old thing? How many times does this word turn up in scripture and in the words we say to each other? How about something new, fresh, maybe a little edgier?
Thousands of children with stick legs and arms are dying in the horn of Africa. A young boy just nineteen year old came home to the little town up the road to be buried with military honors. Global markets, drunk on anxiety, dip and sway, fall and crawl up again. Politicians argue. A self styled prophet of God goes to prison for doing unspeakable things to little girls.
Holy One, the world is going to hell in a hand basket and all you can offer is trust?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and depart from evil.
It will be health to your flesh,
And strength to your bones.
Proverbs 3:5-8, New King James Version (NKJV)
Trust in what you cannot fully know or name or understand, or write about.
Trust in the enduring love in your heart that weeps with compassion and yearns for justice and struggles to know what to do in these challenging times.
Trust in your conviction that God will not be defeated by the evil and sin of humans.
Trust that Someone is afoot, knitting together the broken bones of Christ’s body.
Trust that our trust and faith are the salve, which heals all wounds.
And he could do no miracle there except he laid hands
on a few sick people and healed them.
And he wondered at their unbelief.
I have been dining at the glib café too frequently, that den of masked imposters who are held captive within their own minds. I have been listening to too many bitter, angry, paper hearted ones, locked in their own glare. I am backing away from the table of TV dinners of BMM, ABC, POX, the alphabet soup of garish headlines, anxiety, cynicism, blame, shame, and eternally breaking news.
Instead, I am taking the words of the Psalmist to heart and will go looking for truth in the word of the infinite.
Happy the one
stepping lightly over
the hearts of men
and out of the way
of mind-locked reality
the masks of sincerity
he steps from his place at the glib café
to find himself in the word
of the infinite
in his mind
with his heart
parting his lips for it
day into night
transported like a tree
to a riverbank
sweet with fruit in time
his heart unselfish
whatever he does
while bitter men turn dry
blowing in the wind
like yesterday’s paper
unable to stand in the gathering
in love’s spotlight
burning hearts of paper
locked in their own glare
but my Lord opens
his loving one
to breathe embracing air
David Rosenberg, A Poet’s Bible
Shall I meet you there for dinner in that living word and embracing air? Shall we together part our lips lightly for this feast?
A Torn Crust of What is So
Silence and Awareness
The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one's self. To reach that place is to be at home; to fail to reach it is to be forever restless. At the place of 'central silence,' one's own life and spirit are united with the life and Spirit of God. There the fire of God's presence is experienced. The soul is immersed in love. The divine birth happens. We hear at last the living Word.
N. Gordon Cosby ( Foreword to Search for Silence by Elizabeth O'Connor)
“Our task here is to pay attention to what is,” our teacher said at the beginning of our eight days of silence.
Not what was, or should have been. Not what might be, or ought to be, or what we hope or wish will be – our task was to pay attention to what is so: the content, tone, and felt experience of this moment, now here, and then gone with each new breath.
One learns a lot from disciplined practice of the present moment. As I watch the fleeting shadows of the mind’s picture show, I encounter my restlessness and my estrangement from my deepest self, where holiness abides.
Day after day I watch my ego stride with a flourish to its pulpit to justify, defend, or convince imagined audiences of its own certainties. Persistent and untiring, it plants its elbows on the podium and tightly grips the sides in its effort to prevail against the horror of its disappearance, its diminishing and dying in the embrace of Love.
All the while, as we sit still as stones, Love stalks us, waiting just beyond the edges of the mind to pounce upon his prey and carry us between his teeth into the divine depths of each moment.
Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor writes that it is human nature to resist grace. So I do what comes naturally, as my mind turns to memory, constructs castles of the past, and walks back and forth among its dim corridors. I note, “remembering,” and then turn to planning lunch, my trip home after the retreat, a writing project, and the next five years. I write fiction and spin yarns. I grow paranoid, making up stories about the people who pray with me. They must think I am too noisy and move around too much. I get the giggles and think, if we were not all so dear and earnest, I imagine God would find what we are up to here as hysterically funny.
My chin itches. I watch the irritating sensation and overwhelming desire to scratch it finally disappear. I hurt. My neck aches, my shoulders burn, my leg falls asleep and turns from pricking needles to dull heaviness. I breath and watch the fullness and release of pressure change and muscular contraction that draw in and expel the air.
Paying attention to what is feels like being trapped to most of us artists of the great escape. How dull, how boring, how wasteful of time, how tedious this mind I am burdened with.
Yet we kept at it and didn’t want it to end. For in between the spaces of the mind and the complaints of the body, we supped upon the sweet communion of I Am, the God who said his name was unembellished Being itself, Yahweh, what is. Beyond language and images, beneath the anxious ego, we became absorbed by the murmuring intimacies of the soul and God, an interpenetration and exchange beyond our knowing to which we simply consented.
One day in meditation my mind conjured up this poem, written nearly twenty years before. The poem is about the contemplative practice of prayer, an experience of God which never fails to deeply root me in reality and in the depths of God’s presence within me. It is a practice that changes, heals, soothes, and sets me free for joy and service. And for me it is all about Jesus.
This is my body
broken open for you.
In my palm blazed suchness,
a torn fragrant crust of what is so.
O Common One, you are so plain,
so familiar, so simple
that we miss you
in our desire for some other novelty.
We seek you in mystery, ritual,
knowledge, and magic – all the things
we hope will take away our pain and imperfection.
We think that if we can just become enlightened,
then we will be one with you.
And here you are, hurrying toward us,
loving us so much, broken hearted,
to be with us in our un-enlightenment.
Jesus, you are things as they are.
Here is where I meet you
in still splendor and completion.
Over and over, as I bump up against limitation and fear,
there you are
sanctifying the moment
in streaming satin rivers
what is so.
Like ripe fruit
I pluck you
from the feast of each new moment.
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“The most beautiful thing a person could say about God would be to remain silent from the wisdom of an inner wealth. So, be silent and quit flapping your gums about God,” advises Meister Eckhart, the German theologian born in 1260.
My flapping gums are weary, my jaw aching, my tongue hangs out the corner of my mouth. I have spoken, written, and read far too many words about God. I am after that inner wealth, the wisdom of silence.
For the next two weeks I offer you silence, as I head to the lake and the woods and join a few other word-weary types, who will sit and pray and eat together without flapping our gums.
Will you join us? Will you listen for the crickets and feel the cool breeze off the lake? Will you lift your head one morning and sniff the blooming silence of our prayer?
Will you choose to live from the peace from which you issue? Will you forsake the urgent illusion of your own ego and sink into your being and find your home there?
Of course you will. I’ll meet you in the silence.
Every creature, whether it knows it or not, seeks repose. Meister Eckhart
In the midst of life we are in death.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Book of Common Prayer, Burial Service
He carried the news, held gently in his mouth. I took the gift from between his soft lips and mourned. The black retriever scooped the lifeless, winged thing from under the bird feeder and brought it to me.
The night before I had stood on the glider and peered into the nest, hidden in the leaves. Two naked heads with open beaks peeped softly.
We discovered the nest, while trimming the trumpet vine, which covers the trellis around the patio. We put down our clippers and traded gardening for bird watching. For the past three weeks we delighted in the cardinal couple and their chirps and whistles. They took turns guarding and sitting on the nest and often perched on the trellis or on the glider under the vine.
What had happened? Mom and Dad were gone and the other fledgling as well. The nest was vacant. The air was empty. Gone was purdy, purdy, purdy; chip, chip, chip; and the what-cheer, wheet, wheet, wheet, songs and calls.
We glowed under the blessing of their nearness. I wanted to see the youngsters learn to fly. Did a blackbird, blue jay, or that bold squirrel, who kept coming up close to the patio cause the tragedy?
I was going to write a blog about the fruitfulness of summer. Instead I buried the bird in the garden next to the zinnias and wondered where the cardinals had flown and how they were doing. I hope they begin again in a safer place than my backyard has proved to be.
It has been a tough week. A seventeen year boy was killed in a car accident. A family gathered to remove life support from their beloved. A woman, whose organs have begun to shut down, makes a last journey home to be with family. Twenty seven people die in an Afghan hospital when a bomb explodes. In Minot, North Dakota, the Souris River rises to snatch its prey - over 4000 homes flooded, eleven thousand residents have evacuated.
You know. You know. In the midst of life we are in the midst of death. A squirrel carrying off a bird is in the way of things. And so hearts, breaking from love and loss, are in that same way of things - life ending, people and things we love being destroyed, wearing out, wasting away.
So I say look while you can. Pour out the precious oil of your loving attention on what is before you. Allow yourself to be anointed ahead of time for the deaths you will witness and mourn, including your own. Hold your dear life close with open arms. You can always trim that trumpet vine later.
“I don’t like telling my friends that I am Christian,” she told me. “I always have so much explaining to do.”
Maybe you have felt patronized, judged, or violated by someone’s attempt to evangelize you. Others may know the discomfort of identifying yourself as Christian and watching people stiffen, bristle, and look for an easy exit from a conversation. I cringe when news media sum up Christianity with a one dimensional sound bite, which shrinks nuance, metaphor, and a 2000 year history of religious thought and lived expression to nail clipping snippets.
The image of Christianity in the United States has suffered a major setback in the past twenty years, and not without good cause. Dan Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons call this “a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity.” From the beginning Christians have disagreed about interpretation of faith. They have treated one another terribly in the process, as well as many non Christians, who have crossed their path over the centuries.
Yet outsiders in the twentieth century held a favorable view of the disparate followers of Jesus. In 1996 85% of the people on the outside looking in at Christianity had widespread respect for Christianity. However today, only fifteen years later, younger people outside the faith, as well as some inside the faith, have lost much of their respect for Christianity.
Among the twenty four million outsiders (agnostics, atheists, and persons of other faiths) who are age sixteen to twenty nine, thirty eight per cent have a bad impression of present day Christianity. One-third say Christianity presents a negative image with which they do not want to be associated. Seventeen per cent maintain very bad perceptions of Christian faith. (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Un Christian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, Baker Books, 2008, pp 24-25.)
Clergy today are held with suspicion and even contempt by some people. Professional misconduct, the flagrant abuse of those entrusted to their care, scandals, and fraud have left a bad taste for all of us, and deeply scarred many.
I recently heard about a congregation which observed a day of repentance for the sins of Christians against others and against the earth. I like this idea so much that I think it ought to be incorporated in church calendars - a day of atonement for sins committed in the name of religion.
Once in a while I come up against hostility in thoughtful, intelligent, open minded people and am stunned to find a bigot. At such moments I give thanks I am not in Rome when Paul was, or other places today where Christians are persecuted and killed. And in such moments I get a glimpse of what Muslim brothers and sisters must endure from those who perceive them as potential terrorists.
I also realize with a sigh that I have a lot of explaining to do, if I want to do the work of developing a more intimate and honest relationship with this person. This is not because I think the person needs to be saved, but because Christianity so deeply defines me, that for us to have an authentic relationship, we both need to be known as we are.
So why am I Christian? I will do a little explaining. My mother was a Quaker and my father, Mennonite, and faith was as common and sustaining as the air they breathed. When they got married, they joined the Presbyterian Church and there I was raised. Unassuming faith, which never had a conflict with science or a searching mind, was woven into our lives and led my parents to take stands to protect the environment and to respond to against injustice.
In my early twenties I stepped back from the faith of my father and mother and did some exploring. Then in my early thirties I had a crisis of faith. It was not a crisis in my faith in God. No. It was a crisis in my faith in myself. I painfully discovered that I could not find wholeness and peace by how smart I was, how good I was, by how hard I worked, by what people thought of me.
In the giddy 1970s psychology and the human potential movement were going to save us. I remember clearly the day when I came up against the endless striving of my ego and saw the emptiness and futility of all my efforts to establish my well being on what I could do, or know, or possess.
I began to discover that peace and joy seemed to hinge more on my capacity to love and forgive others, my willingness to risk my personal well being for another’s well being, and to help those who suffered.
For as long as I can remember, Love has burned in my heart, as a nameless yearning, an aching desire for more, for expansion, and connection. Love has opened my heart to its breaking, driven me to the limits of my hope, my intellect, and my strength over and over. Love continues to draw me beyond myself, and my known world, toward what I can neither fully name, nor live without.
Because of this Love, which will not let me go, I want to live well, even nobly, while I am here on this earth. Faith helps me to do that. I suppose, if I could avoid it, I wouldn’t be a Christian, but it is the best way I know to be whole and free and full of joy.
My friend, Jeff Bean, recently posted this on his Facebook page:
Why do I love the Lord? To learn to love my wife better. Why do I love my wife? To learn to love the Lord better. Life is about perfecting our love.
Like Jeff, life is for me is about perfecting my ability to love, and boy do I need help. This is why I am a Christian.
The Christian faith helps, even makes it possible for me to strive toward that perfection and to love well. A relationship with Love, which remains ever beyond my possession and control, who will not become anyone’s brand or commodity, who stands always beyond in the mystery of Being itself, informs and shapes my relationship with the universe and everything that is in it.
Being a Christian invites me to forgive, which is the only way I know to bring lasting peace. It calls me to be more than I am, more caring, more compassionate, more honest and transparent. It exposes my brokenness and sin – my greed, selfishness, lust, envy, pride - asks me to take responsibility for it.
Christianity bows before a Power beyond my coercion to whom I am accountable for how I live my life. Christianity offers a community to support, teach, challenge, and love me into greater love.
Christianity gives me a story, a narrative of the journeys and wisdom of others who have struggled and learned to love. In their stories I mine my own story, like a vein of gold woven into the layers of others responding to and resisting Love’s call and demands. The multivalent resonance of the Bible, echoing, reflecting, and revealing truth and meaning, connects me with a purpose and a reality larger than my own tedious little drama.
The group of believers, the church, (and yes, sometimes they drive me crazy) asks me to trust in the wisdom of a community as the church keeps forming and reforming itself, correcting and re-correcting itself. Since its beginning the church has been falling down and getting up again, which gives me courage and hope, because I fall down all the time.
Christianity takes me to the extreme limits of my self identity, who I think I am, and draws me through the narrow channel of the cross of suffering to the death of parts of myself, which impede or block the flow of love.
Christianity asks me to go places I want to avoid, to love people I don’t want to love, and to live with integrity and purity of heart in the midst of world awash in deceit and greed. My faith requires me to resist evil, in all its guises – empires, systems, and institutions - and to commit myself to work for justice and peace.
As a person of faith I discover my security not in what I own or who I know or how much power I possess, but rather in how many possessions and how much power and status I give away.
Finally, in the despised and rejected Palestinian Jewish peasant, who called himself the Son of Love, I am met by a most unlikely lover of my soul, who unfurls endlessly before me, the way, the truth, and the life.
I find in Jesus, who was the enemy, both of religion, and the oppressive empire, the grace to make us one. Here I find the generosity, compassion, and freedom to love even the icky ones – Christians, pagans, Muslims, atheists, Jews, rednecks, republicans, democrats, and my own icky self.