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.”


“To Mount Up on Wings as Eagles” Isaiah 40:31

Epiphany 5, 2015

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as Eagles.”

Terry Fulham preached a sermon similar to this one that follows when his father died. It was one of the memorable ones. Here’s my version.

As I grew up in the city and suburb, I never saw an eagle. DDT had wiped them out. When they were re-introduced into the wild areas, I spent hours watching them; first as younglings learning to fly, to dodge and weave through the air at play with siblings and later when they learned to soar to heights of 10,000 feet beyond my seeing.

From those great heights they would plummet to earth. Their keen eyes could spot movement and prey two miles below.

When eagles build their aeries they seek the tall trees and steep verticals of rock cliffs. They move strong branches and build a base with smaller limbs and twigs, grasses and moss line the nest and finally they cushion it with down from their breasts to keep the eaglets warm. The structures can weigh up to a ton.

From the heights the babes learn flight. The parent pushes the young one to the edge and then out of the nest until they fall through the air. As they fall they spread their wings and feel the effect of wind and air on their outstretched bodies. Before they strike the ground the other parent catches the babe on their back and “mounts up with wings “to the nest.

When it is time to leave the nest the parents rend it apart, branch by branch and stick by stick. It is time for the young eagles to be on their own, to fly, to hunt and to care for themselves.

When they are ready to die, I am told, they dig their great talons into a limb or a precipice and face toward the rising sun, prepared to greet the new day.

Terry said, “I have known such an eagle of a man.”

And do we too live with a face toward the rising sun and the new day? Do we live with a basic and primal trust in the great circle of birth and death?

Isaiah says our faith, our talons dug into the branches of our trust in life, is what renews our strength over and over into old age. It moves beyond our adolescent narcissism to a reverence for something and someone greater than ourselves, less we become bitter old ones.

Last week we said goodbye to a friend and father of three. He was fifty-four, too young to die. The memorial took place in a round chapel on a hill that overlooked the great lake and the Adirondacks beyond. At the very end just after we belted out Fiddler’s Green, an Irish tune Chris used to sing to his children, a large hawk passed across our vision. It moved slowly and purposefully across the whole panorama so that he (or she) could not be missed. Mounting up with wings as on Eagles and heading south and east toward the rising of the sun.

The Accidental Prophet and Healer

Epiphany 4: Deut: 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28

I sent my Dad a postcard from Czechoslovakia in early November of 1989. A friend and I had just crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Uniformed and armed soldiers entered the train at the border with sub-machine guns and required our passports and to turn our US and German currency into Czech notes.

A day in Prague convinced me that the Communist Government was about to fall. Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” blared from loudspeakers at the end of the beautiful Charles bridge that crossed the Vtlava River and led to the Presidential Palace, the seat of the Communist regime and St Vitas Cathedral

Later that night in a café on Wenceslaus Square, a quartet also played “Blowin’ in the Wind”. With these two synchronistic events and casual conversations with Czech and Slovak citizens, I wrote on a postcard to my stepfather, the son of Lithuanian immigrants:

“Dear Dad,

I’m in Czechoslovakia. Soon the government here will collapse. Lithuania will be next…”

I bought a Czech stamp, stuck it on the card and mailed it. The card was delivered.

While I was still in Czechoslovakia the Berlin Wall came down and within ten days of mailing the postcard the Communist government had collapsed. Call it prophecy or a good guess, sometimes the voices are so loud you can’t help but hear.  Lithuania came later than predicted.

Part II

I was teaching a Psychology I class at a Junior College. I needed  a subject to demonstrate Pavlov’s stimulus-response. A soldier about 5’ 8”, a Vietnam Vet, offered himself. I asked him for a word that he thought would have meaning for him. He chose the word “Kill”. Nervous, I asked the class to slowly and repeatedly say the word: Kill. The little soldier began to respond with what must have been Post Traumatic Stress. He made thrusting movements as if he was hitting someone on the ground with the butt of his rifle or his bayonet. I was chagrined at what I had provoked. “The young man is completely consumed with memories of killing,” I thought.

The only thing I could think to do to stop the cycle of his reaction was to reach out to him and put my arms around him. The little soldier stopped, returned my embrace and in front of the class the two of us wept .

At the end of the semester, he and his wife, who was also in the class, gave me a plastic statue of Snoopy in graduation cap with the inscription, “Best Teacher Ever.”

It is my most prized award.

I’d bet you Jesus did a lot of holding and weeping.

Comment on the story: As I retold the events to my wife, I choked back the tears. It was a combination of the memory of the risk I had taken with the young soldier and the class. It was also a time; a beginning of what I hoped was healing for the young man and me. The brief time of weeping was a breakthrough into the horror of killing and the weeping for the killed and those who have to live with the memory of their faces. For me it was a reminder of the terrible cost to our young and not so young that we send into war. Sometimes the road to healing is the loving embrace and the shared veil of tears.

At the end it’s all up to the Holy Spirit. I’m sure there are others who would have handled this situation with greater wisdom and skill.

By the way, there is a temple in Capernaum. It is not the original temple that scripture recalls, but one built two or three centuries or more later.  It’s a great place to step away from the noise and meditate.

Part III

Penelope Andrade in her book, Emotional Healing RX, says there are basically four strong emotions: glad sad, mad and scared. These emotions can be experienced in a space of three to five minutes through shaking, crying, shouting, etc. After the initial burst of emotional energy comes a moment of calm. The body has worked to release its various “spirits”.

I know that this is true for me. Unless one gives herself permission to weep or rage or shake or cry or rejoice one hasn’t let the body do the work of healing and moving out of and beyond the hurt or harm or fear. When it comes to gladness, even here we need not have to try to repeat, over and over, those moments when we were in an ecstasy of joy.

I think of these reactions: sad, glad, mad and scared as tapes (remember them?) that play in our memory bodies when we are in stressful situations. The tape starts playing and we are brought back to the original unhealed situation or memory. A lot of the time instead of flight or fight when intense conflict arises, many freeze.

Sometimes the hurt, like the little soldier, will take many sessions. And yet playing the same tape over and over, massaging it for all its worth, does little to help. Try then these short times of emotional expression, pause and reflect. Then go for a walk. Over time such work has proven to be better for healing than to dwell in the memory for too long.

See if you can find a wise guide to let you do some of the emotional work of release from trauma. Or if your trust has been broken, as that may have been for the deranged man in the temple: Let Christ or your loving divine embrace you while you weep. Try not to waste your time in ruminations. It doesn’t work except to lead to the old tapes playing over and over again.

Can’t seem to Get Away

Jonah and the Call of the Disciples: 3rd Epiphany, Jan. 25, 2015

The Chaplinesque* Jonah and the over enthusiastic Peter, James and John are two contrasting examples of how disciples and prophets are called. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh; the other three can’t run fast enough to follow. Jonah says,” No way” and the disciples say, “A way!”

In the end, we know the story, Jonah discovers that his role, as much as he resisted it, was essential in saving many lives and also that of a lot of cows (a sentiment we can well appreciate here in Vermont). In the end the enthusiastic disciples are the ones who, as did Jonah, bear much struggle and suffering, so that a world might be saved.

Each along the way found times of resistance and self-emptying, refusal and assent. Each one tries to run away from the call, each one finally succumbs to call as “deep calling to deep”, and not as some wild and totally futile adventure toward death, but as a burning away of their various encrustations  of unknowing and forgetfulness so that they were purified for the rest of the journey.

Joshua, my Rabbi friend, when I asked him if everyone has a call, said, “There are a number of “clergy” who go into the field because they want to be professionals and can’t make it as doctors or lawyers, yet  everyone has a call.” It may not be to be a priest or rabbi or a prophet, it may be to grow where you are planted or journey to a distant land, but we all get a call. I suspect even those who enter the priesthood as a profession, after years of being fired in the cauldron of God’s fierce love and the worlds suffering, is transformed and purified.

Josh says, “The voice of Gd, like the name of Gd, is within each of us…the name of Gd is the planting of everlasting life within us”.

Love for the world and the suffering of the creation moves within us to hear the call of Gd. Or is it the other way around? The call of God gives us ears to love and hearts and minds to stand in the suffering and with broken hearts, to continue to love the creation. It’s when neither way works that there is a certain sense of being lost in the world. Even then “You are with me.” Ps. 23

*Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp seems to me a kind of Jonah:  called to be a bemused, poor and hapless agent of compassion. One episode of “Northern Exposure the 1980’s TV series about a New York doctor who finds himself in a remote Alaska town and resists being there with all his energy, has a dream of being swallowed in the belly of a whale. Any of you ever had such an experience of going where you did not want to go? Funny isn’t it that it often turns out to be the very place where Gd needed to work on you. I’ve been to such places, but like the little tramp, I am still bemused and hapless with some basic trust that the Divine will lead me.

Or they could be Dorothy and the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion on their way to OZ on a quest for a brain, a heart, courage and a way home.  Oh, and the voice behind the curtain is a reminder that the Gd we seek out there is more accessible within. As Joshua says, “The voice of Gd, like the name of Gd is within each of us.” I’m listening. Speak.