Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Irony of Advent

Last night in our reflection group, we pondered the words “good” and “faithful.” When viewed in the lexicon of religion, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Does not a good spiritual practice entail being good? Does not faith deepen as one gets better?

The answer, I suppose, would surely be “yes,” if the practice of faith were entirely up to me. Consider the Biblical story of Jacob, upon which our group was asked to reflect last night. Jacob is more trickster than saint. He’s a twin. He and his brother are born fighting. Later, Jacob tricks his bro, first, of his birthright, second, of their father’s blessing, and then, fearing for his life, hits the road. He falls asleep under the stars and receives a vivid message from God in the form of a dream of heaven, a stairway with angels, a glimpse of the divine mind, calling him to higher consciousness. There is absolutely nothing about Jacob himself that would merit such an experience, except that he has such ample room for improvement, but there it is. Except that it does not particularly change him. He goes on to engage in a difficult, sometimes deceitful (on both sides) relationship with his father in law Laban, and ends up fleeing him as well, not only having cheated him of the better part of his herd, but also having stolen Laban’s household gods, the source of his security and blessing. At the Jabbock, at the boundary between present and future and soon to come face to face with his past, Jacob is given yet another dream and wrestles with God all night. He wakes up wounded, but he and his brother are reconciled. A Jungian would say of this story that after many struggles, the persona and the shadow are united at last, but a person of our faith would say also that God never stopped bugging him.

By my standards of morality, Jacob seems hardly “worthy” of such divine favor and persistence. The moment I say this, however, I remember the wildness of grace. Grace cares not at all whether one is worthy. Grace only cares that you notice when the wild wind is blowing. God clearly liked Jacob, and Jacob clearly noticed God. Jacob was part of a story that did not begin with him, nor would it end with him. Many a “good” person has retreated into a comfy and domesticated world of “goodness,” while more rough hewn folk venture out to the crossroads. There’s a kind of faith in venturing out, in seeking encounters with others rather than affirmations of ones own goodness. Tricksters hold few illusions of sanctity, but they do know a good trick when they see one. God has been known to turn a few. Tricksters thrive on change, and they’re not afraid of tacky when tacky is called for. Often, in this world it is, or Jesus would not have been born in a barn.

Advent, like Jacob’s world, like the stable, like the crossroad, is a boundary place. It certainly overturns my sense of my own goodness. I expected that somehow I could write daily Advent meditations while being chaplain to 348 excited children in December. The children won. They always do. So much for being good at the tidy sequence of theological reflection that paves the road to Bethlehem. I have learned this year that sometimes it is better just to keep the faith and show up at my corner.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Notes from a Dream Weekend

I spent this weekend with my teacher and fourteen others in a master dream class focused upon Jungian theory. We spent a lot of time pondering the path to becoming fully human. I was reminded once again that true spiritual work is always done with others. A religious solitary can only be a solitary when the connection with others is so deep that others no longer need be physically present. For the rest of us, the inner journey is best taken in company.

For hundreds of years, however, spirituality has been privatized to the point of absurdity. If spiritual practice is how I come to know myself and my relation to the universe, how can I do that without being in relation to that universe? To discover what is real and not just my imagination running through the woods requires others to be in on it. It is why religious communities insist upon being community. They are also failing because if there is not some great big cause behind which to hide, people have difficulty just sitting face to face. I know this because I meditate with children. Do it some time. They have an incredible effect upon one another.

Which brings me to the quote that has become one of my mantras, namely, Joseph Campbell's "Myths are public dreams and dreams are private myths." I have written often how important it is to understand the public myths which guide our lives, how history takes on new dimensions and textures when it is read as dream. What is less intuitive is how our private dreams intersect with this public world. What is the authority of a dream? Since childhood, we have been trained to keep our interiority to ourselves. "Do whatever you want," runs the Edwardian proverb, "as long as it does not scare the horses."

Christmas is painful, I think, because it compels us to deal with spiritual things in a public way. At this time of year, I cannot fully retreat into polite silence. But after decades of struggling with this, I know all the way to my bones that growth cannot happen if I keep who I am to myself.

Which brings me to my final point. Whatever your faith tradition or lack thereof, this is a season that calls upon us to love: to remember the poor, to consider what causes we choose to support, to acknowledge, in love, both our blessings and our failures.

Remember, dear ones, if the cosmos didn't think we were worth it, we wouldn't be here at all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The "J" Word

In a famous and oft reprinted essay, local columnist Jon Carroll laments that at Christmas “we are required to deal with the divinity of Christ.” I am not sure exactly what he means about being required to deal with divinity in a culture where only 8% of the population goes to church, but if using the phrase “divinity of Christ” is a cipher for other difficult issues that arise at this time of year, then I fully agree that this time of year exudes “soft emanations of uneasiness.”

I think that any season that lives at the edge between the holy and the profane is going to be uneasy. Whether or not we attend religious services, we are not an especially holy nation. We’re traders. We are a market culture; hence we celebrate the descent of heaven by going shopping. If there is anyone in the Bible whom we are like it is the moneychangers. These are the brokers in front of the temple who get a commission every time someone goes in to offer a sacrifice. We’re not a royal priesthood. Until we crash, we multiply assets, not loaves and fishes. Jesus may have overturned the moneychangers’ tables and liberated the animals, but the culture who embraced faith in his name soon put them back up, despite the protests of the holy ones.

When life as lived runs contrary to the sacred story, one or the other will change. Enter the American Jesus. There are two very good books that describe how Americans have reinvented the savior, so I won’t get into a history of Jesus the teetotaler, Jesus the biker, Jesus the shaman, Jesus the manly man. What I will say, from listening to hours of my friends’ sermons and reading reflections is that most accounts of Jesus say a great deal more about the writer than they do about the Messiah. My Jewish friends don’t tolerate the idea of God and human mushing up together the way many Christians describe Jesus, and I think they have a real point. If Jesus is God in human form, then it is just too easy to project myself upon that form and create a god who looks just like me. And since that projected God is made by human hands, then, bingo! I have created, not God, but an idol, and that, as my Jewish friends again remind me, is a very bad idea.

In addition, I suspect that it takes a holy person to accurately describe a holy person, and most of us who talk about Jesus are far from being holy. We can admire Jesus, but we cannot really see him. I can only see as far as I can see. I can only know the holy by its effect on me, and if it brings out the very worst, where’s the problem? With God or with me?

There’s an interesting observation in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Art of Dreaming.” As Carlos discovers his powers as a dreamer, he just dives into the universe like a daredevil, without giving the slightest heed to the possibility that disturbing the cosmos might be a dangerous enterprise, not only to himself, but to others. There are times, as a Christian, that I feel myself face to face with a daredevil church, leaping into controversy without the slightest thought that it might be harmful to the gentle practice of faith.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tracking Season

Winter is the season of the old. The earth is spent and must rest. Darkness covers the land and people turn inward, toward the darkness of the soul. Things that can be ignored or kept at bay during the summer surface now that there is no sunlight to cover them. Northern people say that winter is a bad tempered being. Restless spirits come down, and children are warned not to go out alone. Rain, snow, and mist muffle sound and compel even the most busy and active to keep silence. Not everything can survive a winter. Birds fly south; some animals hibernate. Many people go to Florida or Arizona or Hawaii in search of sun. But if winter is dormant, cronish and bad tempered in many ways, she is also rich in stories, because winter gives us ample time to think and from that thought, much wisdom arises. So also does resentment, but that is a story I shall save for another time.

A tracker knows that he must be silent if he is to find his prey. In cultures that must track in order to live, even little children are trained to be as silent as air, to walk without sound, to pay attention to all the little signs that tell them who has been here. This is not only true of hunter cultures; political exiles have learned this as well. It was said that when the first Europeans crashed into the North American forests, people could hear them from miles away. Noise is an attribute of dominance.

While silence is a beautiful humility. Silence is the ground of prayer. When I keep silence, I cannot impose my views. When I keep silence, I am ready to meet and to know the Other as Other. The Other both humbles me and like the bear in the forest, helps me be strong.

Advent is a tracking season. People are on the move. There are voices in the wilderness. Pause and listen to them. They just might surprise you.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see?"

What does it mean to repent?

John used the figure of drowning. Water is a great leveler. It can ruin my soft robes or my remodeled kitchen. Save me O Lord for the waters have risen up to my neck. When I am in water up to my neck, my busyness ceases. My thoughts grow still. I become as a reed, shaken and bent. Baptism is ritual submersion. Let the waters rise. I have you in my arms, says John, says God who speaks through John, and when you come up again you will be new.

The Church speaks of Baptism as dying with Christ, but ritually, it feels more like being born with him.

Newness of life, not lifestyle change, is what repentance promises.

Consider any of the problems that beset us as a species. Huge corporations devour the earth. People forced out of their homes by war, fire, weather, foreclosure. The oceans emptied of fish. Animals hunted out of existence or driven from their habitats by climate change. A humanity addicted to poisonous oil. A population that keeps growing. We are hungry. There is no rational way out of this, because it was never rational in the first place, but there is a way.

That's because, every Advent, I am guided by John the Baptist. He comes to prepare the way. He drowns me. He overwhelms me so that I can neither see nor breathe, but he also holds me in his arms. And when I come back out, I realize only what a precious gift is life; what a wonder is breath. It is so simple. It is decent.

Repentance, in my view, begins not with change, but with emptiness.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Several years ago, a friend suffered a heart attack. On hearing the news, the eyes of one my close acquaintance's eyes lit up wickedly. "Hmm," she said, and not a little officiously, "looks like some lifestyle changes for him!"

I have always found lifestyle a particularly troubling concept. Style is something I choose. It's been about surface image since its inception to cover the body's nakedness. Style has almost always been an instrument of social control, a way of labeling social classes. In ancient Rome, one could always recognize a prostitute by her saffron dress. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws distinguished merchants from margraves. Today, uniforms and clergy vestments are reminders of how "clothes maketh the man." Even if my life is spinning out of control, I can always manage my lifestyle. Or so they say. But I did not choose to be born.

The word becomes even more troubling when applied to other cultures. When you talk of Alaska Natives living a subsistence "lifestyle," the suggestion is that one day they'll grow up and get over it and chose the more "rational" and "successful" path of consumerism. There's little space in "lifestyle" for wisdom passed over generations, for the deep bonds we hold for the land, the animals, the truth spoken to our ancestors in the distant time.

Spiritually, "lifestyle" also suggests that repentance is just a matter of changing some unhealthy details and managing my unruliness. Lifestyle repentance may be difficult and expensive, but it is, in the end, no more than a kitchen remodel of the self.

Maybe that works for some people. It has never worked for me. There is something in my nature that even if you dress me in the best expensive clothes, I'll still walk into the living room with my neckline askew. Indeed, the one time I actually had expensive clothes, the seams were so delicate that they came unraveled almost at once and I had to sit in the living room holding my skirt discreetly closed.

So I think there's a great deal more to human nature and human stubbornness than the word "lifestyle" implies. John the Baptist is up to something far more serious than that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Voice in the Wilderness

The second and third Sundays of Advent belong to John the Baptist. Born at midsummer when the light overwhelms the darkness, John emerges full grown in winter's uttermost obscurity, waving the sparks of summer right before our eyes. The light is not lost! says John. It is coming! John, like the aurora, arrives to illuminate our way when in winter's gloom, we have lost it. He steps out of the wilderness, a tracker, one who points our goings.

John was a prophet. He spoke the word of God. Most popular depictions of John show a skinny wildman in skins, yelling at us to Repent! Next to the sweet babe of Bethlehem, he seems a crusty fellow, the sort one is reluctant to keep company with. And yet people did. They flocked into the wilderness to hear him preach.

Our age's discomfort with John may also be our age's discomfort with wildness. We may buy coffee table books that extol the grandeur of wild rocks and rivers, but when it comes to real life, we choose comfort. I know very few people who enter the wilderness simply to enjoy it. They go there to strive, to accomplish things: to climb mountains, to snowboard, to study science, to dare the rapids. Rare is the person who goes simply into nature to let it wash over and change them, to return to the places humans have called home for most of our time on earth. We prefer to impact others than to be impacted upon.

To those oppressesd by civilization, however, John brought comfort. He took people into the river and let it wash over them and change them. He showed the power and hope of wild places to those overdomesticated by empire. He acted as a bridge between the worlds: not, as most teach, between the Jewish prophets and the Christians, because there were no Christians when John walked the earth, but between the wilderness and the city, between Sinai and Jerusalem.

Most people who write about the forest and the city assume the one to be natural and the other made by human hands, but a city is really nothing more than the landscape of the human imagination. People who live in wild nature feel right at home amid the peaks and canyons of New York City. The problem lies with not one or the other, but with the split between them.

For most of our history, the wilderness was fully alive, sentient, a voice that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, cried out. But with the rise of language, of grammar, of interpretation and social ordering, nature was silenced and only human discourse heard. But God is the God of all life, not just the human, and John incarnates the wilderness, just as Jesus incarnates the spirit.

In that spirit, it is interesting to note that John, the earthly one, for all intents and purposes, fasts, living only on locusts and wild honey, while Jesus is the spirited party goer. But that is true. To really live in nature, where food must be found and is often scarce, is to live lightly. It is only in the civilized world with its division of labor that some may always feast. The point is to reach abundance, of course, but we cannot do that if we do not, like John, practice restraint. Restraint is a kind of decency. By minimizing the gulf between the haves and the have nots, it acknowledges that we are all in this together.

Such is part of what John taught when he returned his followers to those waters which broke at their births.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Feast of St. Nicholas

The feast of St. Nicholas is about things that happen in the dark.

Nicholas lived in the city of Myra in what is today Turkey during the 4th century. It is said he was orphaned as a boy and left with a large fortune. Raised by an uncle who was a priest and blessed by a generous nature, Nicholas came to view his wealth not as an asset to be hoarded and multiplied, but as a gift to be given. Many stories attest to his generosity.

There was an impoverished man in Myra with three daughters. With no funds to either feed or dower them, he was going to be forced to sell them as prostitutes. No money, no life, no dignity. But while the family slept, Nicholas slipped three bags of gold through the window by night. In some versions of the tale, the father manages to stay awake and see the hand of God.

In another act of generosity, Nicholas took two bags of grain from a ship and with them was able to feed a multitude. Meanwhile, when the ship captain checked his stores, no bags of grain were missing, even though he had personally given away two.

The suggestion is that an economy of generosity works.

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas. In many European countries, today is the day when children lay out shoes or stockings in hopes that the Saint will remember them. In some traditions, only good children receive gifts. Naughty children receive lumps of coal instead, which might say something about the energy industry.

Santa Claus is simply an Americanization of St. Nicholas. If you say it out loud, it’s easy to hear.

How a saving act of grace turned into a commercial feeding frenzy is one of the spiritual mysteries of our time. But if we are asleep, we might mistake the truths that happen by night as “only a dream.”

Give a little of yourself away today.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Children in December

If you wait, God will manifest Himself.
—Thomas Keating
Cistercian priest and monk (Explorefaith Advent Calendar)

If you have ever taught school, you know what happens to children in December. People blame it on the commercial frenzy of Christmas, but I think December's wildness would be there even if not a single gift were exchanged. There’s something entirely too magical about an approaching solstice. The air grows taut with anticipation. The days turn either magically long or magically short. At both ends of the year, light takes on an intoxicating quality. In a Northern Hemisphere winter, the sun hangs low, golden and slanting. Sunset and sunrise stain the horizon in fantastic colors. Dense mists hover close to the ground. The moon stays out for hours. In the summer, the light lasts so long it is as if life will last forever.

Deep seasons evoke wonder and children are nothing if not expert at wonder. Children express wonder when they blow smoke rings with their breath, when they squeal at the twinkling ring of lights around the lake, when they grow rapt at a flight of cormorants casting shadows upon magenta waters, when they burst into peals of silly singing.

We teachers tear our hair as our students turn cartwheels in the classroom, as they sit so vividly rapt in their daydreaming that even when I call their names they do not hear me. We blame it on the commercial frenzy, but this year, when the economy has tanked and no one has the slightest idea what the next commercial move can even be, the children are still singing and spinning and lighting up every room they enter.

As their chaplain, I do not need to teach them about excitement, but I do need to teach them patience. December may be exciting, but it is also about learning how to wait. To wait for the light. To wait for the whisper of love in the middle of the night. Wonder is too fragile to trust to mere chance. In too many cases, by the time the holiday finally arrives, the children are so overdosed on sugar plums that it becomes an ordeal rather than a celebration.

As Thomas Keating said above, to meet God is to practice patience. About trusting that the party will come and savoring way to the feast. About allowing the fragrance of the holy to waft across the ordinary tasks of the day, about sanctifying all those little things I take for granted.

All of which involves patience. “Keep awake,” says Jesus. “Keep awake.” The temptation of this season is to be so involved in my own dreams that I forget that God has an even more wonderful dream for me. "Keep awake." Even at the darkest time of the year, God will show the way.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Isaiah is the book most read during Advent. It is a scripture Jesus loved and often quoted. Perhaps more fully than any of the prophets, Isaiah imagines the Kingdom of God; what it would look like, how we would live in it, what to look for.

As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, Isaiah is one prophet in three persons. The first Isaiah wrote before the Babylonian Exile, the second Isaiah wrote during it, the third Isaiah brings us home. One story, three voices.

The story is this. There was once a people who put their faith in God and God brought them to a broad and pleasant land. As they settled, however, they also grew unsettled, and they became not just a people of God, but a kingdom on earth. Did not Scripture say that God gave humanity dominion over the earth, to subdue it and have mastery? And so they became a power. Not the greatest of powers, but certainly not the worst, with kings and concubines and warriors with swords strapped to their thighs. Power made them expansive. They worshipped the local Baals and Astoreths until, one day, a superior power trumped theirs and they were carried off their broad and pleasant land with its divinity of place, and held captive in a vast city of wonders, a kind of nowhere where they could not sing their songs. Over time, they learned that God is not attached to place; God is not limited to Baal or Forest Deity, and perhaps it was there, when they were homeless and living in an unreal city, that the people made time, as well as place, sacred. At last, when enough time had passed, the people were allowed to go home. The temporal powers (and remember that temporal means “time”) were now assured that the broad and pleasant land would be best secured if the people took possession of it again, for they had proven themselves a bright and tenacious people with a loyalty that amazed them. And so they went home. Their land had not been cared for in their absence. Their cities were in shambles, their temple in ruins. All that they had was their story, a memory from which to rebuild their kingdom of God.

It is this story that we take up in Advent: the covenant, the exile, the return. And like scavengers, sifting through piles of straw for fragments, we search for a child, a hope, the beginning in our end.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More Thoughts on Absence

Christian practice can be summed up by the word patience. In the New Testament patience means waiting for God for any length of time, not going away, and not giving in to boredom or discouragement.

—Thomas Keating
Cistercian priest and monk (from Advent Calendar0

Patience is not an exclusively Christian practice. Waiting, terrible waiting, is true in the Old Testament as well. It is to wait with Abraham for half a century until Isaac is finally born. It is to keep faith with the Hebrews for half a millennium of slavery in Egypt. To keep faith when dragged into captivity in Babylon, or, when returning, to discover that all that one has loved lies in ruins. Where is God in the midst of such discouragement or chaos? It is one thing to read the story when I know how it is going to end, when I can skip over all the fruitless years and be there for the good part. It is quite another to exist in the middle.

My Jewish friends say something very important when they say they are still waiting for the Messiah. They remind me that I am waiting, too. Even when one professes Jesus as the Chosen One of God, one also professes a teacher whose life and teachings were cut short by a cross. He may have been able to say all he needed to say, but we did not have time to hear. Which is one reason why he said he would be back. Which is why we have the Ascension to mark that though he rose from the dead, he’s also really gone. Christians, like Jews, live in world that is unfinished, and most of our fleeting lives are lived in the middle.

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Isaiah 40: 6b-8 (from the reading for the Second Sunday of Advent)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On the Absence of God -- Part II

Western culture is founded upon a principle of separation. In order for me to understand the nature of reality, I must separate myself from it and become its observer, leaving behind any personal baggage that might cloud the view. What is the world made of? asked Thales. Clearly the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures can be traced to four different sources rules out any divine inspiration, wrote the Biblical scholars whose scientific criticism of sacred text provoked an embarrassing backlash of fundamentalism. Objective. Only the world of appearances can be trusted. If it doesn’t appear right before my objective eyes, it cannot be real. I suspect that whatever clarity this has given me about the outer world has been more than offset by the terrible loneliness that results when I get disconnected. Stuff. Only the material world is strictly real, hence the obsession with wealth, but if my own experience is in any way informative, to live in a gated community is also to live gated from God who appears so vibrantly in others.

The philosopher Kant so separated subject and object that it became impossible to know anything in and of itself. This is, of course, a foundational teaching in Buddhism. Because all things are created of relationship – the bread I eat was once a seed, was once wheat, was made by many hands and delivered to me by even more processes and cannot even exist without all these different forms – nothing can have existence from its own side. All reality is a constantly shifting interconnection teaches the Buddha. When the West made its leap into separation, it could not trust the interconnection. When the philosophers named this separation of subject and object, cause and effect, they revealed not only knowledge, but a terrible and fatal alienation. Where do you feel lonely?

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

O God, you are my God,
I seek you, my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

—Psalm 63:1 (from Advent Calendar)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Absence: A Meditation

Advent always begins in absence. That discontent most of us feel at the beginning of the Holiday Season is not just what calls “The December Dilemma.” It is real discontent. In December, I always hit a wall. To be enveloped in the expectation of joy is to come face to face with all that is not joy. To be confronted with commercial images of abundance is, quite naturally, to feel my own emptiness and scarcity.

Despite robust calls to repent, to get over it, to pretend joy in the expectation that anything worked on hard enough will eventually become “real,” (remember how your mother always said, ‘put a smile on your face?’), to articulate what is lacking is very difficult. It is always easier to speak about what is there rather than what is not there. That may be why the first week of Advent simply invites us into emptiness. Allow yourself discomfort on this day. Nothing is forever.

Contemplative prayer also invites us into emptiness. Take a few minutes to sit quietly. As you breathe, follow the air as it fills the empty spaces inside you. See your body as empty, the air as that which fills. I find life in what lies outside me, and when I take it in, it becomes me. The mere fact that I must breathe, I must eat, I must drink reminds me that I cannot be sufficient in myself. Breathe quietly. When thoughts or feelings come, make a note of them, then let them go. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. Focus simply upon your being. That is enough. I am. That is enough.