Goat Cheese And Starfish: For November 23,2014

These are two stories; the first is an old tale that is radically edited from Leo Tolstoy. Absolution requested. The second is some reflections of another nature on Matthew 25, the final judgment. If you read to the end you’ll find out what I intend by “goat cheese and starfish”.

Martin The Cobbler

There was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street. His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming? I have almost given up hope in seeing you. Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”

Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow. Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold. He invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meager meal from his shrinking larder. The beggar thanked him and left.

As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses. A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow. The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper. Into the shop he invited the boy. After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that belonged to his son. He fit the shoes to the boy. Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.

It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord. A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window. She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death. The cobbler invited her into his shop. Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold. The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woolen cloak that belonged to his wife. Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.

The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft. “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked? There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop: “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.”  Martin then remembered the scripture: “When did you see me hungry and feed me, alone and naked and clothe me and thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The visitors who had come to his shop that day had been his master. In their faces he had looked into the eyes of God.

That night the cobbler slept happy and at peace for the first time in many months.


Now for Goat Cheese and Starfish

Goats are independently minded and unruly and make the most luscious cheese. Sheep are great too, but they tend to be docile and easily herded. Their cheese is good too, but I like goat cheese better.

There has always been an attraction to Matthew’s vision of the final judgment: As William McNamara, the Discalced Carmelite told us: “We know what our final judgment will be.” All we have to do is read Matthew 25. And yet there is something paradoxical to the image. Aren’t they a little too absolute? From foolish virgins and the poor slave who buried his talent and now the goats, isn’t it too simple? We are both sheep and goats. We are sometimes wise and sometimes foolish. We sometimes visit the sick and feed the hungry and love the poor and visit the prisoner and the dying. Some of us even are paid to do this. Sometimes we throw up our hands and fret at the enormity of the problem and do nothing except send a check to help with the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

My friend the Rabbi says we are given freedom to live and do what we can to create life and shepherd the creation and it comes with conditions. You have to follow the covenant: which is summarized in the Hebrew Bible, by the way, to “love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.” We like our freedom and are troubled by her conditions. And yet it’s the very conditions that magnify the freedom. Our true freedom depends on welcoming the poor, the prisoner, the naked, and the sick into the circle of our compassion. And that includes our own goat and sheep selves.

Those who give themselves whole and free to these ministries are the saints. And yet not one of them, including Jesus and the Buddha lived without doubt or under any illusion that all the compassion in the world could solve the problems of injustice, greed, or apathy. Yet they threw themselves fully into life so that we could find a way. It is a paradox.

St Augustine it is told was walking along the beach one day and saw Starfish, thousands on thousands of them, washed ashore. A little girl was running to and fro on the sand and throwing the Starfish back into the water. “Why are you doing that,” Augustine asked the girl? “There are too many to save, it won’t make a difference.” “It will make a difference to this one,” the girl said as she threw another Starfish into the sea.

So we go on loving our goat and our sheep selves and do what we can out of the love of God to transform our freedom into hearts of compassion, and try to make a difference one Starfish or goat at a time.

The sheep already have it made.

Grumpy: For Sunday November 16, 2014

Grumpy: Matthew 25: 14-30

There lived a man who was grumpy. He was grumpy from birth. He was a grumpy child, a grumpy father and a grumpy husband. His wife had the patience of a saint. She saw all his gifts, but he couldn’t see them. He had everything and saw nothing. He died grumpy.

When he arrived in heaven he was shown to a room filled with beautifully wrapped boxes. The boxes were covered in tapestried paper and ribbons with bows and little trinkets on the outside to suggest what there might be wrapped inside the packages.

“These are all the gifts you never opened.”

“What are these boxes,” asked the man grumpily?

The reply was: “These are all the gifts we sent to you while you were alive on earth and you never opened.” * I don’t know the origin of this story. The beginning was suggested by Joshua Chasan, Rabbi at Ohavi Zedek in Burlington, VT

Either I’m grumpy or we’re dealing with a grumpy part of the Gospel. This ain’t no God in heaven story from Matthew this week. This is one about an arbitrary and manipulative slave owner. He lends money to test his slaves. Two of them are unafraid enough to invest their talents and one does not. He buries his. In the end they remain slaves and none of them get to keep any of the profits. One is cast into the outer darkness; the other two are given more responsibility to make more money for the slave owner. The first two take the opportunity to test their talents and creativity, the later doesn’t.

If Jesus told this story are there layers here? Use your talents, gifts, in spite of the odds that may be against you. Open the gifts that have been given to you whether a slave or free. And yet could there also be an indictment of the economic system that places human beings under such pressure and fear? Finally, what do we do with the fear of the slave master on our way to freedom, to creativity, to God?

I think all of the above and more that I do not now see are true for me. Paul Tillich talks about Europe during the time up to and including Germany in WWII. In “The Courage to Be” he writes, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself in spite of being unacceptable.” He talks about the affirmation of life “in spite” of the fearful voices within and without: To speak our “no” to injustice, violence, racial and economic inequality, and not count the cost. And to have enough courage to see through our prejudices and narrow mindedness, to be able to make enough room in our lives for those who make us uncomfortable and downright grumpy.

This is to say that the word and command of Jesus is to Love God, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That word and command is to be lived out in spite of our fear.

At root for all of this is a faith that there is some source out there and within that holds you in spite of the way you may feel or in spite of what takes place around you. You are held by a love and a mystery that will sustain you in spite of everything.

For many of us that Source is Jesus. His mercy flows in spite of how many gifts we refuse. But why not open some of those boxes you’ve got stashed away in the closet or under the bed and try them on?

Where’s the Bridegroom? Pentecost 22.

photo (1)I remember the wedding of a Liberian couple. The groom, because of work and the slowness of the jeweler, had left to the morning of the wedding the drive into NYC to get the ring and return. It was a hot Saturday; the bride arrived in a white limo and colorful traditional Liberian dress. But the groom was stuck in New York gridlock. The temperature in the 1856 Church rose to the eighties and nineties. Three hours later the groom arrived. The heat in the church was now about 100 degrees. Sweat poured, and the harried groom waited with me as the bride and her entourage walked in grace and regal stateliness down the aisle.

All was forgotten, at least until the bride and groom returned later that day to their room where I can imagine the words were either said or thought, “What were you thinking?”

And yet we all remained, waiting for the delayed bridegroom to show up.

That’s what we do; wait for the bridegroom to show up. We supply water and drink and a snack for the guests and the wedding party, place fans around the church for maximum effect, periodically checking with the bride about the whereabouts of the groom. Thank God for cell phones, and try to stay cool and present.

It worked that day. It doesn’t always. Sometimes we’re the wise virgins, other times we’re the foolish. If I can wait four hours on a hot summer day when temperatures approached the fires of hell, and it was not dry heat, won’t God who is much more forgiving than I, also keep the doors open to those who at least wait with or without oil. It seems to me the only ones who close the door to our virginal hearts, is us.

So dear ones breathe lightly into making quick distinctions between what is wise and what is foolish. Instead let the lamps of your love be filled to overflowing with the holy oil of God’s mercy and grace which never fails.

“Humility Against Despair”

Humility Against Despair: Pentecost 20: Matthew 22:34-48

Mark Dyer, “God reaches out to you with arms of love.”

Thomas Merton in “Seeds of Contemplation” entitles one of his chapters Humility Against Despair. When I first read it to a group of inner city clergy many years ago, it was as if water were spilled out to travelers across a desert. They wondered at the suffering around them and the love they carried for those battered by life and the institutions that sometimes destroyed those unable to overcome their oppression. They longed to hear that humility or anything was a bridge against despair, their own and those around them. My mind has changed since those days, because there was some deep love in the midst of the suffering that somehow redeemed all the effort and tears. Yet this quote from Merton still holds a deep resonance for me.

“Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man (or woman) deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.

In every man there is hidden some root of despair because in every man there is pride that vegetates and springs weeds and rank flowers of self-pity as soon as our own resources fail us. But because our own resources inevitably fail us, we are all more or less subject to discouragement and to despair.

Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that God is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.

But the man who is truly humble cannot despair, because in the humble man there is no longer any such thing as self-pity.” * New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, New
Directions Paperback, first published 1961. Pgs. 180-190.

I first read the original paperback in 1961 on a bus from Lenox, MA to Boston. The book was a perfect liberation at the time from a depression that had moved into my bones. Along with Ferlinghetti’s; A Coney Island of the Mind, and the one line: I am waiting for a rebirth of Wonder; it was a breakthrough in my journey into the divine.  And yet, as we look back, his words did not explain how the brain can work to help cause depression and a kind of despair unto death. Merton if he were alive today would probably counsel a course of medications to adjust the chemistry in the brain.

Maybe humility is moving from our persistent need to control, to its loss that throws us into the arms of the divine or into the pit of despair. Maybe it’s when we can either turn away from the face of Jesus, or turn toward it and look into his eyes, that the moment arrives when we become humble. Humility is not something we do, it’s our response to God moving in the midst of the love and suffering. I don’t do humility. Humility is showered as the rain on me when I am able to let go of my numbing ideas and beliefs, when my expectations are re-arranged, when I gaze into the abyss and see the face of my beloved reaching out to me with arms of love. And when a friend comes and reaches out and lifts me up.

Annie and Chris at Heartbeet

Christopher Mark and Annie

My old guide and friend Mark Dyer* has been in hospice for a week now. Mark and his wife Marie Elizabeth were such guides for me when our son, Christopher was born with Down syndrome. The day after his birth it seemed as if a great weight was pressed on my heart and lungs. Because all my old childhood theologies of punishment and retribution still seemed like the water we drank in New England and especially Boston at the time, I asked Mark, “Why would God let a child be born with such a disability in life?” Mark’s responded, “I don’t believe in a God who causes a child to be born with a disability, I believe in a God who reaches down to us with arms of love.”

I think I’ve told Mark that that idea changed my relationship with my son and my ministry. It’s amazing how Mark’s simple phrase turned me around. I think anyone who suffers or has ones world turned around, may become more open to their own lack of resources and the need to fall back into the arms of God or to turn away. I suspect that falling back in trust is what humility is. At that moment it’s all God, all the holy and sacred love of the divine in and through and above and below. It’s God all the way.

Humility is to begin to laugh at the tricks the mind and body can play as we try to self-medicate our selves and souls out of our terrifying sense of meaninglessness as if we were the ones who had a hold on ultimate meaning, as if we could manipulate it and shake it to reveal its answer.

Ultimately as we work away from any sense of pride of position, of parenthood, of honor, and stand before the mirror unclothed and begin to see our poor and lovely bodies as the divine gift they are, to see ourselves as the beloved of God, with eyes of forgiveness and mercy, we will discover the joy of humility. Without humility there is no joy. With humility joy surprises us with its endless on-going.

So dear ones, you are the blessed children of God, beloved beyond all reasoning for who you are in all your wondering humility. Let yourself this day fall into the arms of the Divine One. There you shall find your strength and your joy. There you will find yourself looking at God and God looking back at you with eyes of true unconditional love. And live with humility the precious days you have been given so that your life will be a blessing.

*The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer is a former Roman Catholic monk who became a priest and then a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. He and Marie Elizabeth married and adopted a son, Matthew, who they discovered had severe special needs. Because of their experience with Matthew, I asked them to come to the hospital to counsel us and how we need to look at this new birth. I gave Christopher the middle name of Mark as a reminder of that important moment in our lives. You may read the story about Chris on my blog: Stories From A Priestly Life at wordpress.com. The story is entitled: Looking for A Place to Call Home