To Really Dance with God

“This Kenosis thing is hard to do,” a friend said recently to me. Kenosis, hmm? Not wanting to appear ignorant, I mumbled something and told myself that I’d have to look up the word sometime before I saw him again. My Greek was never that good. My research on Wikipedia reminded me that Kenosis is the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will so he could be a vessel and instrument for the will of God. It means to “Let it be”, or to die to self. Jesus and others perfected that way of life.

And yes it is hard to do. So maybe we can’t DO IT. It may be that all our spiritual exertions and exercises are not the point here. Maybe life itself offers a lot of opportunities to let it be. I know life gives plenty of opportunities to “die to self”, to let ourselves BE. Isn’t the ability to die to self a gift and a grace that comes from God who shows us how to “let it be”?

Here’s a Story:

I was on the lam from the Episcopal boy’s school I attended in Western Mass. With a book of essays by Thomas Merton, the Monk, I read a piece by him as I rode the bus from Lenox to Boston called the General Dance. I was 18. Merton wrote that “God did not create humans to punish them. God created humans because he wanted a partner to be a companion in the dance.”

Now this was revolutionary in 1961. But since that time we have been using the idea of the dance to talk about God and yet we don’t dance.

Five years later I was in seminary and the tweens in my Youth Group in Dorchester, MA, an inner city neighborhood of Boston, wanted nothing more than to dance. The African American and Caribbean youth would bring the newest Motown sounds on their 45 records, a record player and set it up in the parish hall and they would move.

But I had no idea how to move to the beats of the drums or the high falsetto’s of the singers. I sat and watched on the sidelines along with one of the other boys. When I was their age, I was embarrassed into dance class. I learned how to do a halting waltz, a tripping and toe stomping fox-trot, and a jerking cha-cha. No one ever told me how to dance to the faster pace of Rock and Roll and soul. I couldn’t even do a decent Twist.

After all White boys don’t dance, and neither do some Black boys. After a couple of weeks of sitting and watching, 12 year old Hope Neil took me out on the floor of the parish hall and taught me some steps. I was dancing.  It was fantastic. I watched the young Dennis Ambrose as he moved like a wild child around the floor. The boy was one with the tumbling beats of drum and rhythms of bass and lead guitar and the vocalists. His arms, hands, head, torso, legs and feet and hips were all a whirr of motion. I had to dance like Dennis. In no time I was in the dance and I started to lose my self in the movement. I wasn’t self-conscious any more; there was nothing else between me and the music, me and my partner, me and the sweetness of God. Over the years the young ones have learned that at Weddings, I can keep up with some pretty tricky moves. I was learning Kenosis, dying to self. Letting it be and letting God be in the moment.

All I had to do was step onto the dance floor and a little child would lead me.

Abraham in the Hebrew Bible we read this morning is troubled by the ancient question for those who start on the path to God, “What is the most precious gift can I give to the One who gives so much to us, the food we eat, the sun, the air, the water, the loping Moose, the Monarch Butterfly?  Where have you gone, Monarch Butterfly, I await you and you have not come? What can one do to repair the destruction to the creation we have wrought and the harm we have done to one another?

Basically it’s a question of “How can I buy God’s love, mercy, abundance?” What offering can I present unto the Lord? And what the story shows is the evolution in consciousness of what it is that God wants of us. God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our most beloved child! No!

God does not want to punish us for our sins! No!

God doesn’t want us to fret and struggle over how to pray and find a way to God’s heart! No!

God wants to dance with us,

God wants to play in the fields of the creation with us,

And God wants to be in a holy, merciful, joyful, compassionate, steadfast relationship with us.

God says, “May I have this dance?” I imagine God as a little more formal than “d’ya wanna dance?” Which is OK too? And we either can reach out and become enfolded into the arms of God or sit on the side trying to decide what to do. Whether I can risk that kind of relationship with One who seems to know me very well and one who asks nothing from us except our loving and open hearts. And we look on while others around us seem to have enjoyment without measure, a cup overflowing, flying around the room, letting it all BE.

Our dear friend said to a group of us last Friday that she has a place in her heart called the “Grand Ballroom”. In that room of the heart there are many entrances and from one side enters joy, from another grief, from another the friend, then another the enemy. There is love and fear, jealousy and forgiveness, betrayal and steadfastness, the secular and the sacred, all and more come into the grand ballroom dressed in beautiful gowns and elegant formal wear, dressed in beauty to visit and take each other in their arms and swirl and waltz and dance together in the heart and eye of Christ’s love and mercy, grace and forgiveness. Here Sarah and Hagar dance together as do Ishmael and Isaac. Here father is reconciled with the son, and mother with daughter. In the heart of Christ’s love there is no opposite which cannot be included in this great room. There is safety here, Kenosis, where we have died to self. And where we can let it all be.

Let it all be, while God holds us in arms of love.

Maybe the next step in this path of Kenosis, of dying to self, is to reach out our own arms to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to God and say, “Okay, I’m ready, I don’t know why or how, but it’s right to ask you. “Do you wanna dance?, Can I hold you in my arms as you weep over the world. Can I presume to comfort you at the hurt you must see?

And slow dance the night away.

Hope Neil from the youth group in Dorchester went to Princeton and became a Doctor. Dennis Ambrose died in the first on-rush of the AIDS epidemic and so in a way I dance between Hope and Grief, between Joy and sorrow as I remember my two youthful teachers in the dance. It is the divine movement between tears and joy, laughter and delight and sorrow. It is all held in the heart of love where all that lasts, lives and moves and has its being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What Do You Really Believe?” Trinity

“Do you want to know what the Trinity is: God laughs and creates the Son. The Son laughs and creates the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit laughs and creates us.” Meister Eckhart.

The three Women, Trinity

The three Women, Trinity

Thomas Merton and more recently Cynthia Bourgeault describe the making of the Trinity as a flow of divine love. Both of them describe the Cappadocian “brothers”; Basil, Gregory of Nanzianzus  and Gregory of Nyssa, as the keys to the formulation of the idea of the Trinity as a divine flow of love and energy between the three “persons’ of the Trinity. They were not primarily trying to prove anything about the divinity of Christ, but rather the flow of energy between the three.

“Indeed the word hypostasis in Greek does not mean an individual at all but more a state of being… The Cappadocians were interested in how this movement or change of state, takes place. They saw it as an out pouring of love from Father to Son, From Son to Spirit and from Spirit back to Father. The Trinity in this sense is really an icon of overflowing and self-emptying love.  The three person go round and round like buckets on a watermill constantly overflowing into one another. As  they do the mill turns and the energy of love becomes manifest and accessible.“ (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, pgs 71 and 72,)

Both authors describe this process of divine relationship as a dance. Merton writes about it in his “Seeds of Contemplation”, as the divine seeking to play in the dance with human beings, God reaching out God’s loving arms to take us into the sacred dance of life.

Seen in this way the Trinity is the flow of love and laughter between the three beings of the divine and describes our own relationship with the Holy.  The divine laughter that delights in the creative and imaginative relationship between all the three persons of the Trinity in turn becomes a design and template for our own spiritual life. The Trinity is an icon of the holy, of the divine dance of love exchanged between three manifestations of the Divinity. That is why one becomes “seduced” by life in the spirit. It is filled with laughter and delight. One begins to see with the eye of the heart as if for the first time. Everything becomes a doorway to the sacred, there is no door that is locked and bolted.

Still one of the great questions raised for my generation is that of Bonhoeffer who asked, “What do you really believe, believe enough to stake your life on it.” In the 70’s a group of us went to work to write our own creeds, they changed frequently, they were imaginative and inclusive, they envisioned the Holy as One and Compassion, as within and beyond. One creed penned by Richard York and John Pairman Brown stated, “ Bread means revolution and the bread is rising.” The author’s described a time when our youth were in a war and when our fathers had returned or not from two other wars. The time now was to raise questions about who we are and to emphasize counter-cultural words and lives of Jesus and the prophets. Sometimes the times do not change.

Back then we intoned the creeds. A chord was played in a descending and ascending order and the people would sing it in parts. Taize and African American and Latino rhythms were teaching us to chant and sing and dance in new ways. The Creeds are meant to be sung and danced and laughed. They are not meant to serve as a litmus test for what one believes, because the edges blur in song and poetry and in the dance. “I believe in One God, The Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth” can deaden the spirit when treated as a statement of rule and law and not an opportunity to enter into the mystery and the numinous and the unitive relationship of lover between the Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.

And yet to the young and more literal mind, the Creeds are something to which to hold on for dear life in the swirling tides and eddy’s of the many spiritual voices that surround us. For all the creeds problems with history and with its abuses it is still a song to be sung as we stand together and recite the ancient words, the best formulation that the gathered church has yet imagined.

The Trinity in the Creed helps me focus and perpetually continues to remind me that here is a song to be sung and danced and laughed and not a pledge of allegiance. The allegiance comes when the heart is opened and comes with lightness and gentleness. When we lose sight of its wonder, I begin again to fret about my friends who don’t see things my way. Even the most beautiful of poem can become the instrument of evil.  Invictus, for instance was used as a clarion call for the bomber who killed many in Oklahoma City. We singers and laughers and dancers are called to be vigilant about the abuses of the words we say and pray and believe. After all is said, “I believe we are all One flow from and to the divine and back again. And I know I’m not always in that flow. ” And I’d defend anyone who didn’t see it that way. I crave the beauty of dissent much more than thoughtless conformity.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fire Bird and the Hawk: Pentecost

There had been a vision forty years before. During an Aurora Borealis on an Island in Maine, a dark form had appeared in the midst of a pulsing and vibrating vault of fire and gold. The darkness at the center took the shape of small bird. And then the bird expanded towards me, swooped at unfathomable speed and as I stood transfixed and rooted to the ground, the bird passed over,almost as if great wind had passed. Then it burst in a flash of golden light and fire, a fire that did not consume. I was relieved.

An Icon by Robert Lentz that depicts the Holy Spirit as a Falcon

An Icon by Robert Lentz that depicts the Holy Spirit as a Falcon

No one else saw this visitation at the time and I didn’t need anyone at the seminary questioning my sanity, so I never talked about the vision until maybe seven years ago in a parish I had already been the priest for ten years. I write about this in my blog dated 2013, The Baptism of Jesus. This bird was no dove. It was something more fierce than that, more passionate, more potentially destructive and with healing power in its wings. As it turned out, I saw the bird that visited me that night in an icon imagined by Robert Lentz.  It was a golden falcon, the symbol of the Holy Spirit for the Crow people.

It was now forty years later. I sat alone in the old 1835 rectory. My wife had left me for a woman who I brought into the parish. I was out of inspiration. I was both angry and relieved to dimly know what had happened to the marriage. Bob Dylan’s words, “You just kind of wasted my precious time” played on the radio. And yet the twenty plus years with her had been for most of them good years. She had been a good wife and mother to our three children. She had been the fierce lioness of protection and advocacy for our two children with special needs. But she was worn out and she discovered that she was in love with a woman.

I was worn out too, dead in the water. No inspiration came for the sermon I wanted to give on the Holy Spirit. I was dried up no words would come. Often towards the end of week, by a Friday or Saturday, if nothing was forthcoming, I’d simply pray; “Okay, I give up. What do you want me to say?” I probably should have been more intentional with that prayer at the beginning, but I still had a few lingering illusions that I could say it better than God.

I was almost at that point when a loud crash came from our enclosed back porch. The back window was shattered. A thousand pieces of white and blue and green glass was scatted over table, chairs and floor. I looked to see if someone had thrown a rock or an errant baseball. There was no one. In the far corner of the porch there was movement. A hawk cringed there in shock from its impact with the glass.  It didn’t move. He or she was about 18 inches, with a wing span of about three feet. The hawk stayed perfectly still, its breast feathers an orange brown and white. I saw no blood. I spoke in a tone that I thought the creature might understand. “You rest now and I’ll show you to the door. I’ll pick up the glass while you collect yourself.” I was confident the bird understood every word and intonation. I worried that the bird might come out of its trauma and try to fly around the small enclosed porch. Slowly I approached her, I think she was a female, and encouraged her toward the door. My gloved hand gently moved her toward the opening and the deck beyond. After five minutes of gentle prodding the hawk reached the door and flew a few feet to the back of a metal chair on the deck. There it waited to gauge whether it had the energy and ability to fly the twenty feet to the branch of a Norway maple in the yard. She spread her wings and lifted up toward the branch, reached  it with care and remained there for fifteen minutes. Then she flew away.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes with wind and fire, sometimes with a still small voice of calm. For me that day I needed the sound of breaking glass and a loud crash to focus my attention. That Sunday the sermon wrote itself. It was about the two birds breaking through into  consciousness with their various messages about the holy. The first was a message to risk everything for the love of God. The second was a reminder that, “Hey. I’m with you. Everything will work out and you still have to write the sermon.”

I think the bird was trying to tell me, “Get out of your rut and SOAR.”

And so far, it’s been working. It’s all gratitude now.    

An Icon by Robert Lentz. It depicts a golden dark falcon as the Holy Spirit.

An Icon by Robert Lentz. It depicts a golden dark falcon as the Holy Spirit.

The Rabbi, my old friend: John !5

For Easter 6

My best friend is a Rabbi. We meet every Tuesday for breakfast. We were college roommates in a third floor attic apartment fifty years ago. His long friendship has helped me to read scripture through the eyes of a Jew. Of all the blessings in my ministry this is one of the big ones.

The Gospel of John is particularly problematic when read through his eyes. The Rabbi is not going to accept Jesus as the son of Gd. He is not going to resonate with the idea that we are engrafted on the vine of the Christ. His insights inform my own.  To be engrafted onto the vine of the Christ is to remember who we come from and who Jesus was and, for me, still is; a Jew.

This of course flies in the face of history and tradition and yet John’s Gospel is almost a mirror image of what was going on in the Jewish community after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. That event became the catalyst for the Jewish and Christian communities to forge a new identity, to find out who they were in this new paradigm.

The Pharisees gathered what was left of the tradition and became the school of the Rabbis. Every local community of Jews would now meet in a center for education and formation. The primary focus of the faith would be in the family and around the family meal. Celebrations such as Passover would be in the home, the elder usually male head of the family would lead the ritual reading. The mother would light the Sabbath candles and say the blessing. Observance of Kosher food laws and other ritual practices distinguished the Jewish people from their neighbors and inter-marriage with non-Jews was discouraged.  Survival for the Jews required a new definition of who they were and are. Surrounded by a hostile world, its evidence an almost eternal truth, the Jewish community is setting guidelines and procedures for survival and a new identity in Gd.

John’s community faces many of the same tests to their identity and survival. Some of the early faithful have fallen away and returned to the Middle Eastern and Southern European gods. The Jews fed up with the proselytizing of the emergent Christians, expelled many of them from the synagogue. Persecution that came with their identity as a new religion that did not hold to the Roman pantheon and their close relationship with the Jewish community, led to many falling away or running for their lives.

John’s almost mystical Gospel of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word, the Truth, the light and the life, were his largely successful attempt to craft an identity for the People of the Way in the face of a hostile world. It was a minority defense of his faith in the One God and His Son, the New Christ. John’s Gospel is written for a persecuted church that is trying to survive under the Roman Imperium.

Once John’s Gospel becomes the text for a majority culture it loses its initial purpose. It can become and has become an instrument of persecution to those, who will not believe. For those of us who have listened to these words over a lifetime, we can become blind to the potential of these words for harm. Words that should be sung and prayed and contemplated may and have become the tyranny of the majority.

The words of John in John 14: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the father except through me,” isn’t meant to be a club, but an invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Anyone who knows Jesus knows that confessing a faith with words and not living it out in its fullness is a mockery.  They are an invitation to live with a heart of love, a refusal to conform to the fads and fleeting allures of the times, to live with integrity and to seek justice with mercy and humility. It means to follow the steps of Jesus toward his death and resurrection and to hold Jesus like Mary in our arms as he weeps over the suffering world.

I can only show the love of God by becoming the best Christ that is within me, looking straight ahead and not worrying who and how many are seeing the same way as I. If those I meet along the way behave with compassion, they are true followers of the Christ whether they confess him or not. for the leaven of the Christ is love.  And isn’t that the Truth of the Christ of which John writes?

I met with the rabbi at our regular Tuesday morning outing. Trying to explain John as well as my lack of scholarship in the area, he said,

“I talk to Jesus.

I chuckled, “When did you last talk with him?”

“I’m serious, how recently do you want?” he said.

“I know you’re serious, I was chuckling at how familiar this conversation is for me.” I responded.

“I’ve been praying most recently to St Anthony to help me find my wallet.” He said.

We both laughed.

 

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Grandmother’s Model for Mission.

My grandmother was kicked out of Wales and sent to America. That’s the way I like to tell the story. Born to a poor family in Liverpool, her father in the merchant marine would come home for long enough to impregnate his wife and leave her with another mouth to feed and not enough income. Gram, as I would call her, was sent to live with her mother’s sister in Wales. One Sunday Gram was left alone as the rest of the family went to church. The table was set for Sunday dinner when they returned. A lace tablecloth adorned the table, the edges of the tablecloth hung unevenly over the sides. She found the scissors and cut the edges off. Not long after the aunt’s return from church, Gram found her way to the Boston aunt who would lovingly raise her. That’s the part of the story I remember. There may have been much more to it. It may have been a blow for freedom or some deep psychological flaw emergent in her personality. I was glad she made it to the USA.

My mother’s mother, Annetta Jane Mason, was a tiny woman with what the photographer called a Grecian nose. She had a high almost nasal voice and spent at least one day a week cleaning, preparing the altar cloths and scrubbing the tiles around the altar at St John’s Church in Jamaica Plain. One of her beloved responsibilities was to take the flowers each Sunday from the altar and deliver them to the sick. One Sunday she brought me, I was five or six. It was a winter day in Boston. The sky was overcast and the thin grey light barely lit the one-room apartment where a woman, helpless, lay dying. The winter light shone through the sheer curtains that hung from the one window. The bedside table was cluttered with cups and saucers and medicine bottles, the sink was filled with dishes. Gram went into action. She cleared the bedside table, found a vase, placed the flowers, lit the stove and made ready for some tea and lunch, washed the dishes and went to hold the dying woman’s hand. I don’t remember what I did. I must have helped, but mostly I remember the whole scene in stunned silence and wonder. It became for me a model for ministry. To bring the flowers, find a vase, clear the table and wash the dishes and hold a hand. Gram probably also prayed with her. It may well have been from the Gospel of John, the one you will read this Sunday.

I had dragged my feet to get ordained. The various anxieties in the church about the new prayer book and hymnal and the ordination of women, while I sympathized with those in the trenches, to me it seemed a total waste of time. The work of the church was in the city and among the poor. Beside that, I knew for a long time that women were the backbone of the church, what could possibly be the problem with their ordination? But Gram kept on asking, “When are you going to be ordained?”  I finally set the date for December 14, 1976, fully five years since my ordination as a deacon.

The week before the ordination, Gram lay in her bed suffering with a pernicious cancer. I went to visit her. She was terribly weak. We chatted about some of the visions she was having due, she thought, from the drugs she took to ease the pain. She dreamed of a tall man with a beard and a tall black hat dancing with children in the back yard of her house.

I asked, “Gram would you like me to read something from the Bible? Weakly she replied, “Yes.”

I began the reading from John, the translation we all knew and loved at the time: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…” I heard my grandmother’s voice join in… “I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going….” She knew the entire verse by heart.

I told her that I would carry her to my ordination if I had to, but a week later she was too frail to withstand any movement. Immediately after the ordination I went to see her. “Gram I did it, I got ordained,” I told her. She smiled through her pain and weakly took my hand. She was gone to God within the next few hours.

Still, she is my model for mission.  Happy Mothers Day!

Easter 3, an afterthought

They say that when you dream, you are dreaming about yourself. The various characters and images in the dream are a part of you.  So is scripture. Who’s the gate keeper, the hired hand, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep?  Aren’t we all of these; the voice and cry of each asking to be heard. There’s always been a twinge of conscience when I hear the disloyalty of the hired hand, the one who works for pay. That’s me. And sure enough there are times when I run away when the going gets tough, either that or try to weather the storm by pretending there isn’t one.

That is the problem with a hired clergy: we are hired men and women. If only we didn’t love the congregation so much. If only we didn’t have this troubled relationship with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that rattles our hearts and minds and draws us toward love. After almost forty-five years of ordained life, I still have a twinge of conscience. I think it’s a good reminder lest we get too big for our britches and forget that the sheep that are secured by the gate are going to be left with some of our mess when we leave as well as the mess they make themselves. We are all mucking through to God.

If you read these offerings from week to week, you know how much, at least in my own mind, I tried. And mercy, as one old priest would always remark, “Lord have mercy” and thanks for the forgiveness that seems to keep floating down like a summer breeze.

And you can believe this or not, there are times that I was ferocious to protect the flock from those who would abuse or do violence. There were times when I would have laid my life down for them, but Jesus already did that. My heart is full of gratitude for it all.