The Tragic Sense of Life

2nd Lent, 2015

I have to speak this little truth.  Even when I weary of telling it, I pray one last time it will be over. Listen, if you can, to one who remembers the day in December when the soldiers came to the door when he was only a few weeks old. The screams pierced into the room where he was held. Mother was bereft and although the infant may not have a memory as he might have today, it was as sure and visceral as if he was in her beating heart. His father had been killed in the war. He didn’t know what the weeping was about, but he knew and shared in the tears and the terror.

That is the story of my first days. My mother told me that, “I was a bride, a mother and a widow in the space of one year.” They were married in 1942 and I was born on the same day one year later. My father was killed in a crash of his B-17 five days after I was born. The news of his death took weeks to reach the house.

I sense that I was born with a tragic sense of life? I do know that like Peter we are in denial. At least I am. I guess we clergy have an ability to function in times of great loss. Most of the time. We want life to be easy, to flow, to be fair. Scripture knows it will not be, never was, and we need to face into our fear and go up to our Jerusalem’s.

A tragic sense of life is missing in our culture. We have this notion of life moving in a straight line towards some realized goal. And for some maybe it’s true, but for most; no, for all; life is a spiral, a movement like a dance in and out that is a waltz or a dervish between joy and sorrow, progress and setback. Fear and love. Love and death.

We learned a lesson in that year that we hoped we would not learn: That there is joy and struggle, birth and grief, love and death in that one year and I think it became a template for this one life.

I didn’t know how powerfully unconscious that day was until I was in my mid 30’s. I was working as a volunteer chaplain. Penny Dwinell was a teenager who lived across the street from us that day in 1943 and we met for lunch in the hospital cafeteria. She told me that that day was bedlam in our house. As she pronounced the word “bedlam”. Tears came then wrenching sobs. I was completely out of control. Hospital staff looked over as if I was deranged. Penny continued to sit in her “non- anxious presence” as I sopped up the tears with paper napkins.

I tell the story because for me it is the most graphic way I can offer to you about how the tragic sense of life enters our lives. Unplanned, not even fully grieved at the time, indeed ignored by most around you, I entered the world with a grief that few could understand in the relief after the victory at the end of the war.

Bedlam. It was the tragic part of life. Somehow I was born into the midst of a great tragedy that the world around me was fierce to forget.

Jesus rebuke of Peter is a rebuke to us all who refuse the tragic part of life. The part of loss, of grief, of screams and silent tears. Out of that primal tragedy I grew two friends. One a Jew through whom I would almost instinctively recognize the horror of Auschwitz, the other a Japanese man who was in Nagasaki, living there with his father and siblings two weeks before we dropped the Atomic bomb.

Through their eyes I was witness to not only the little tragedies but the two major tragedies of my generation: The Holocaust, the acceptance of genocide as a solution to racial, ethnic and religious difference. And the acceptance of nuclear holocaust that could wipe out most life on the planet. The tragedy of the young airman who would not return, the unbidden sorrow that crept into the bedroom into the arms of those who held me, had become a deep curiosity and compassion and an abiding desire to forge into those places where others would not go.

The loss of the young flyer was not the final chapter. The rest of the story is the lives that survived and gave back, forged through the suffering and loss into kindness and compassion for the widow and the orphan. Tragedy is not the only and even the final answer to life.

All of us have to face into the tragedy, the big and little ones, neither denying nor letting their cruelty and power destroy. Jesus had to go up to Jerusalem, my boy of a father had to go to war. Martin Luther King had to go to Memphis and Selma, Some were involved in relationships that caused suffering from the cruelty and abuse, and others from the loss of a great love. We are forged by our tragedies to find a way through the forest of our fears and grief and loss. To distill from it the increased capacity for compassion, an ability to find forgiveness, an opening of the mind and the heart.

Or not. I know those who survived the death camps of Europe who have no faith and no forgiveness. Nor do I criticize them. What they experienced was harder by mountains than my little loss. I knew there was a reason to my father’s death, at least my young mind convinced me of it.   

No the old ninety year old was fierce in his rebuke of a loving god. He was fully immersed in his anger and the pointlessness of anti-Semitism. And he’s right isn’t he. I glean some wisdom from him. His experience is all there is, his own pure memory, his truth. God must love him very much. To give us a witness who refuses any easy consolation.

For the two of us. One who refuses consolation, and one who may too readily crave it, we are on our own path to Jerusalem. The disciple of Jesus to her own Roman Cross and crucifixion, the child of Abraham to the Temple Mount and the memory of the destruction of the Temple,  Also the follower of Mohammed journeys  to the Mosque, one for worship and one for adoration of the sheer beauty of faith in Allah . All three of us caught in the cruel consequences of Western colonialism.

By the way, one way to avoid one’s confrontation with the tragic is through anger. One gets caught in blame or hatred. I spent the early years of my life angry at the Germans. With a name like mine. Go figure. I wasn’t until a met a German young man who also lost his father in the war that I was able to let go of that anger. We are so much more alike than we are different.

Life is not a straight line, it is not reasonable, and it doesn’t conform to over-riding perfect principles and systems. “It is more characterized by confusion, dissonance, disorder and exception than by total and perfect order.” Says Richard Rohr, the Franciscan and popular theologian. He continues, “Life in the biblical tradition is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time.” Life and the truth of life is in reconciling contradictions.

Jesus leads Peter to Jerusalem because he is in denial. He wants to have the glorious kingdom arrive full grown. Rather the glorious kingdom arrives in spurts and starts, through every man and woman who is willing to live into the contradictions and see the face of the sacred even the face of the Christ, where before there was hostility and brokenness.

I suspect most of us are in denial about the tragic sense of life. We like Peter want Jesus to skip in and skip out of town to avoid the cross, or not go at all.

Yet Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, so did so many of our young have to go to war 70 years ago and so did Martin Luther King have to go to Selma and Memphis, or Mandella to prison in South Africa.

We are not the terrified children we once were. If we are blessed we have a sense that there is much joy and love and goodness in life. Even in the hard times we are not alone. At root that is the message of scripture, we are not alone.There are sometimes in these moments a confidence that the veil that separates us thinly from the face of God is breeched and we are being held to God’s breast.

And it is here that we know that life is more a dance than a straight line, more movement in and out around and about over and under, spin and turn and twist. And fall and get back on your feet.

As Mother Dame Julian said. First we fall, then we recover from the fall, both are the grace of God.

So dear ones, you who have willingly come to this place where we mention the unmentionable things. Where we take these forty days to face the meaning of the cross for us, our families, our church and for the world. For you, may you have already grasped the reality of power of God’s peace and presence with and in and through you as you partner with God in the dance of your life. And if that time has not come for you, may you hold out your arms in openness to the possibility that you will soon become

Jesus and Siddhartha: The Temptation to give up: 1st Lent

Reproduction of Temptation of Jesus Christ from the Book of KellsMark 1:11 -13, Luke 4: 1-13

I’d frequently retreat for a day into the mountains. There the tempter would sometimes come with me. The typical approach of the tempter was to list my various failings. The list was sometimes extensive and at least partly true. However, the major one was the attack on my sense of call:  To be of some use to the holy and the world. The temptation was to give up because one could not, with one’s limitations, be of any earthly use.

At root, all temptation is to forget who one is. Now I’m not talking about self-image, although that’s a place to start, it’s about the continual re-discovery of our connectedness with all things and how our unique being has a place in that universe. For Christians, it would be their relationship with Jesus and as the Christ and for Buddhists, their relation to Siddhartha and as the Buddha. For an atheist, it could be a deep knowing of who they are called to be and what they are called to do. It may be harder for the atheist and still it is just as valid a way toward the discovery of one’s authentic humanity as it is for the spiritual ones. For both Jesus and Siddartha, the temptations took the form of a seduction or an attack on who they were called to be; to be of some use to the holy as well as to the world. At root, I suspect, all temptation is to get us to forget who we are. That we are here for a purpose and remembering that purpose, our vocation and acting on it is our greatest challenge and noblest task.

Two years ago I traveled through North India to Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened.  The town was adorned with Temples painted with murals of the life of the Buddha. The temptations of the Buddha are prominently displayed in colorful murals in many of the temples. It is of interest to me that there are few churches I know that display the temptations of Jesus. What if we named a church the Church of the Temptations of Jesus? I bet it would get a lot of visitors.

All kidding aside, the temptations of Jesus who would become the Christ and those of Siddhartha who would become the Buddha were strikingly similar.

Each had a tempter or demon. Satan for Jesus, Mara for the Buddha. Both were tempted by appetites, the hunger and desires of the flesh. Jesus who was hungry after his fast was tempted by bread.  Siddhartha was tempted by the three beautiful daughters of Mara.

For Jesus, the temptation of the loaves of bread was more than a sign that he would have to control his appetites if he was to fulfill his call and mission. It was a temptation that he probably could taste, to feed the hungering world. Later he would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. However, at that time, he freely chose to feed those numbers of people not as a response to the tempter, but because of their need and hunger. Indeed the hungry w0uld be fed but not in a bargain with the tempter.

The second temptation was, for Jesus, the pinnacle of the temple where Satan challenged him to prove he was the Son of God. It was also the temptation to self- harm, even to commit physical and spiritual suicide. For Siddhartha, Mara sent an army that threw spears and arrows at the master as he practiced meditation. The weapons turned into Lotus flowers before they struck the young man.

One has to be able to control one’s fears, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or conversely pride and hubris. Both overcame their fear by knowing the truth that the real self cannot be harmed.  Jesus realized that the desire to prove the truth is a temptation itself. Both refused to give life to the apparent evil and by doing so denied its existence. Jesus would face his real fears as he turns to go up to Jerusalem where he understands his life is in danger. And yet he goes. Not denying his fears, Jesus refuses to let his fear control him.

The Final temptation of Jesus and Siddhartha is to become earthly rulers. It is the urge to make the world conform to our ideas of how it should be. Who better to rule the kingdoms of the world than a spiritual master and the son of God? Both turn their tempters away.

Probably the ultimate temptation is to keep spiritual awareness to oneself. Both Jesus and Siddhartha realize that what they experienced has to be shared, taught and modeled.

Jesus very next act is to leave the mountain of temptation and call Peter, James, and John. Buddha also draws a circle of five disciples around him. The truth of the inner life is that one is not only an individual being, one is also connected to all living things. That at the heart of the world for Christians is a God of Compassion who calls each of us to be a beloved child who is called to prayer and action on behalf of a God who “loves mercy and justice and honors humility”.At the heart of the Buddha is to teach a way to inner peace and the end of suffering.

On the mountains where I’d retreat, I’d frequently encounter visitors who’d comfort me. Once a butterfly alit on my salty knee and stayed there while I remained still and watched, or a chipmunk begged a peanut. There were long vistas from mountain tops and the tiny alpine flowers that in summer covered the ground; the melodies of songbirds and the flight of red hawks that soared in updrafts of air and the music of the mountain stream that sang, and I would stop to play my flute and sing with her. All these visitations and many more were as reassuring as the ministry of angels was to Jesus at the end of his temptations.

Most of us who also have a longing for the spiritual life have given into a myriad of temptations. We probably have learned that not only do we need to ask for forgiveness, we also need to recommit to our call and our mission. I sense the call for me these frigid Northern winter days is to live simply and with gratitude and to be present. As I sit in meditation with Jesus and Siddartha that’s what I’m working on.






Ash Wednesday

Stories from a Priestly Life

Ash Wednesday

Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return”

“The infant had been born without a complete digestive track”. The pediatric surgeon gave the news to the stunned father and grandmother. The priest listened. “Many surgeries, really that’s all”, the doctor said, “and months and even years of healing and recovery would be able to restore her functions”.  “So it must be done, the family and priest agreed”.

And there were months of recovery, mother sleeping for weeks at a time in the clean and bright pediatric unit of the modern hospital. Daily visits by father and grandmother,  Step by step as the “Plumbing”  was corrected and the child underwent times at home and times of operations and recovery in the hospital.

The little child was slow to grow, but each tiny step was a victory. And she grew and grew and finally she had a…

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Mercy Clothed in Light: February 15, 2015

The Transfiguration, Year B. Last Sunday of the Epiphany: Mark 9:2-9

The poet, Jane Kenyon, died after the onset of cancer at age fifty. She chronicled the experience of the loss of her physical abilities as the cancer progressed over 15 months. One of her poems written during this time is so central to my thought this day when we talk about the brilliant light that runs through the readings this morning.  This is her poem entitled: “Notes from the Other Side.”

“I divested myself of despair    and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching one’s own eye in the mirror,

There are no bad books, no plastic, no insurance premiums, and of course

No illness.   Contrition does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth.       No one howls as the first clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we have no longer with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour.

And God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

And God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

Our daughter was married three years ago at this time in India. The couple met and fell in love in Boston and The VT woman has expanded the reach of our clan to the one place that seemed farthest away from our experience of the world. For one thing the Indians say they have either 3.9 or 32 million gods. I reply jokingly, “Is that all?” My head is spinning after hearing about the top twenty gods in the Indian pantheon and my eyes glaze over after 21. In a conversation with Jean, my wife, I said,” If there is one God in all creation that I could worship it would be a god of compassion”, or like Jane Kenyon wrote:  “And God as promised proves to be mercy clothed in light.”

In their defense the Indians say these gods are aspects or attributes of the divine. We do somewhat the same thing with our thousand saints or so, St Francis being one of our favorites. Maybe we all need some being some physical material incarnation of the Divine light to shine through the eye of the horse or the cow, a tiger or a Mother Teresa. In fact here in the readings this morning that is what happens. The light is so enveloping and so brilliant that when Moses comes out from the presence with the Holy he covers his face so that he will not blind the children of Israel.  Similarly with Jesus when he is enveloped in the cloud with Moses and Elijah, the three apostles are stunned and awed by the brilliance of the light.

So aren’t we using Jesus, Moses and Elijah to open a door to us into the heart of God? Of course we say Jesus is God with us and so it is that God takes the form of a human being so that we can see what it means for us to be truly human; to get a glimpse into the humane and human heart of the Divine.

The ultimate goal of the life of prayer and Christian practice is to become compassion clothed in light. Or to become like Jesus, not to become Jesus, but being ourselves, become like him.

Paul in his letter to the disparate church in Corinth writes his letter on love. Paul is not talking about romantic love; he uses the Agape in the Greek. Agape means something like unconditional love.

To love means to care about another‘s well being as much as you care about your own. As one of the saints said, “Practice love by putting love where there is no love and you will find love.”

Part of what I experienced in India was an awakening to what I really hold onto about Christianity, that it is so incarnational, so material, it is flesh and bone and sinew and brain and heart. It is a living breathing vibrating community of people who are trying to be compassion clothed in light. We stumble and fall along the way, but as we follow the enfleshed Son of God we find ways that we can live into the life of the holy.

In India Mother Teresa, a young Albanian Nun when confronted (as we were) with the suffering on the streets of Calcutta, the dying left to succumb in the gutters, she took them in. She couldn’t stop them from dying, from lives of deprivation–rather she gave them during the last months of their lives a place where they could be kept clean and warm and safe and a bed to sleep in/ she gave them back their dignity.  The sisters of Charity continue that ministry in New Delhi and Calcutta and Haiti and many other parts of the world to this day.

If you have been to India, it is a nation of 1.3 billion people. The challenges are daunting, and yet this young nun knew somehow she had to start somewhere. She is a window into the divine mercy of God in Light.

As I grow older I think that the task has been to grow into compassion, to grow into the God who is mercy clothed in light. When I was young it was a God of justice that I sought. As I grow older my zeal for justice is tempered by a growing ability to live with compassion for all people and creatures; to see all sides of an issue, to live less in judgment and more in mercy. There is such a world of hurt that it seems by putting love and compassion where there is no love that justice will come. May it be so.

But in truth I don’t really know if I am right. Sometimes justice will only come through law that results over time in a change of heart. So I am at argument with myself. And for me the truth is to grow a heart of compassion. I’ve spent time enough trying to sort out what’s wrong with the world and not what is good and loving and just.

What a gift it is to live with less need to be right and to judge the world. As Jane Kenyon reminds me,

“And God as promised

Proves to be mercy

Clothed in Light.”