Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

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Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

Work for Peace

9.11

Image by drp via Flickr

In truth, I struggle each year as Sept. 11 approaches. The day begs that something be done to remember and to respond to the evil and tragic violence acted out almost ten years ago. The question is how do we do that and do it well? What do we do?

Clearly the day has special significance for those who lost loved ones, friends, and neighbors that day. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers.

That day violence was no respecter of persons. People of many religions and none, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, agnostics and atheists, people from many nations and cultures, all died because of this act of hatred and terrorism. And the circle of violence expands. We all were wounded.

I am convinced that the best way to honor this day is to stand as clearly as I can against all forms of terrorism and everything that feeds it: fear, pride, intolerance, racism, repression, enmity, hatred, and violence itself. I am also convinced that the place in which I must first take this stand is in me.

Kierkegaard concludes his wonderful book The Works of Love by observing that the place where the battle for love is most difficult and must be fought with intensity is in our hearts. It is not in the world where the battle line is drawn: it is drawn in us. We become people who love, or we will never love as we should.

He is not arguing for a passive stance in the world until we reach some inward spiritual perfection, but rather he is observing that the root of hate, violence, and indifference is in us. And there we must fight for love.

The same is true if we are to be people of peace. We must do the things that are necessary in our communities. But we cannot neglect the inward, inner, spiritual work. The way to fight terrorism is to work for peace. To work for peace we must become people of peace. What Mahatma Gandhi once said remains true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I have no great wisdom of my own, so I share with you a few words on peace that come to mind as I remember Sept. 11. I hope they touch and challenge you as they do me.

From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“I’ve decided that I’m going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe in something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”

“I’m convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never ending reign of chaos.”

“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

(Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Newmarket Press, 1987, 71, 90)

From Thomas Merton:

“Only love, which means humility, can exorcise the fear that is at the root of all war.”

“Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men, and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

(Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, Crossroads, 1995, 34, 38)

Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Aware of the sufferings caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning the ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation , social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness  and learning ways to work for the well being of (all life)…I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of the other species of the planet.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others, and to relieve others of their suffering.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax Press, 2008, chapter 2.)

Jesus of Nazareth: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”  Matt. 5:9

How might we honor this day? Let us remember and pray for all who lost their lives that day, and in the wars that followed. Let us pray and work for the end to the senseless violence and acts of terrorism.  Let struggle against everything that feeds such violence in others, and especially in ourselves.

Miroslav Volf, who lived through the ethnic violence in Serbia, writes: “A more difficult question remains: what resources will help us resist the temptation of violence.”   (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 249.)

It is a question each of us must answer.

Albert Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Norman Cousins: “I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in, in terms of the life I lived and what I did.” (Howard E. Robles, compiler, Reverence for Life: the Words of Albert Schweitzer, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 41)

How might we best honor the day? By deciding like Schweitzer, that we will make our lives an argument for peace.

Pastor Bill

A Letter from The United Methodist Bishops on 9/11: http://www.gnjumc.org/fileadmin/news_events/letter_from_bishop_archives/Statement_September_11_2010__2_.pdf

To access the letter: copy and paste the address in your browser.

Prayer of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi

Image by dawnzy58 via Flickr

It seems fear of the stranger and justification for it are all around us. The Christian Gospel calls for something else. St. Francis understood this  Here is a prayer attributed to him. May it be our prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

.

O Divine Master,

grant that I my not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

(United Methodist Hymnal # 481)

When others allow fear of the stranger to gain a foothold in their spirits, and anger directed at others to define them, let us not forget who we are and to whom we belong.

When Religion Gets Dangerous

The canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke &...

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Again something in the news disturbs me, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

Briefly, for the first time in many years under the direction of the Taliban, a public execution by stoning took place in a village in Afghanistan. (To read the article go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/world/asia/17stoning.html?_r=1&th&emc=th) The act was celebrated by those who want to embrace Shariah law. Appropriately it has been condemned and denounced around the world. Clearly I count myself among those who would call this nothing less than the evil that it is.

As a religious leader, what concerns me is how we respond to these kinds of reports.

There is a push to identify all of Islam with this violent fundamentalist culture. That is simply not true. Islam is as multifaceted as is Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism etc. I am sure many in the Islamic world are also appalled by the repressive violence of such acts.

There are some who would use this incident to validate their assertion that the Koran is an inherently violent text that inevitably leads to this kind of ideology and culture. That is also simply not true. I have not read the Koran in many years, so I cannot speak to its texts. But I do know that the Bible is also filled with texts that can and have at times been used to justify the same kind of intolerance and violence. The Bible has been (miss)used to justify colonial expansion, genocide, slavery, repression of women, antisemitism, etc.

Read again Joshua and Judges. Read the texts in which people of faith are called to slaughter their enemies and destroy their cities in the name of God.  Read how those who refuse to do so are condemned and even put to death. Read through Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and take note of the number and types of behavior that are subject to death by stoning. Read the Gospel of John and note how it can and has been used to justify antisemitism, and the worst kind of violence against Jews.

If we assert that the Koran is an inherently violent and repressive text, we would have to say the same thing about the Bible. That is what some are saying who claim that all religion is a dangerous thing.

We need to remember that the scriptural texts come to us from ancient, tribal, and often quite violent cultures. We do not need to embrace those cultures in order to embrace God who is revealed in and through these texts. The hard work is to become good readers of scripture. That is a life time project.

The Koran and the Bible are also filled with texts that call for peace, compassion, tolerance, justice, care for the poor and the marginalized, and recognize the greatness of God who is rich in mercy. I believe the nature and will of God is revealed in those texts that stand over and against the self-justifying intolerance and violence of the surrounding cultures.

The reasons for the different ways in which the scriptures are used or abused, be it the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads or other texts,  are found in the readers, not in the texts themselves.

In this latest news report I find a call to stand  against, not Islam or the Koran, but all forms of rigid, repressive, intolerant fundamentalism, in whatever religious system it appears. That stance inevitably leads to self-justifying violence. In this age in which we see so clearly the destructive nature of religiously motivated intolerance and hate, we cannot let it get a toe hold in us.

I am a Christian. I follow Jesus Christ, who when a group of men cornered a woman caught in adultery and handed him a stone, asking if they should stone her to death as the Bible commanded them to do, he replied: “Let the one amongst you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” They all walked away. (John 8:1-11) He taught that we are to love our enemies, not slaughter them.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that he came preaching peace, breaking down the dividing wall between peoples. His way is the way of peace. His commandment is to love, radically, compassionately. That, my friends, is the path that pleases God.

Someone to Learn From

Desmond Tutu 2007 at the Deutscher Evangelisch...

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While doing one of my favorite things (drinking coffee and skimming through books at Barnes and Noble) I came across a marvelous quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu. During this period in which many quite ignorant and intolerant speeches are being made that distort the essence of Christianity, it is refreshing to come across someone whose words reflect its beauty. I share his words with you:

“Any authentic Christian spirituality is utterly subversive to any system that would treat a man or woman as anything less than a child of God. It has nothing to do with ideology or politics. Every praying Christian, every person who has an encounter with God, must have a passionate concern for his or her brother and sister, his or her neighbor. To treat anyone of these as if he or she were less than a child of God is to deny the validity of one’s spiritual experience

Our love of God is tested and proved by our love for our neighbor.”

(Desmond Tutu, The Words of Desmond Tutu, New Market Press, N.Y., 2007. 26, 29.)

Christian theology makes a number of bold assertions about the nature of things. Christian  theology contends that the entire cosmos is created, loved and sustained by God. It contends that each and every human being is created in the image of God and that there is no human being anywhere who is not created in the image of God. It argues that there is no place where the Spirit of God is not present.

Bishop Tutu is absolutely correct to assert that “Christian spirituality is utterly subversive to any system that would treat anyone as less than a child of God!” Christian theology would argue that there are real differences between religious systems and not every system is healthy or true. But no one exists apart from God, and no one is to be treated as if he or she were any less than a sacred person created and loved by God.

As someone else has said, how can we say we love God, and then be quick to do harm to that which God creates and loves?

I have seen and heard such ugly distortions of Christian spirituality plastered in public places that it makes me want to choke. I pray that these are recognized as the ideological distortions that they are. May better voices, such as those of Bishop Tutu prevail.

(If you would like to see and listen to Bishop Tutu, click on the link located in the right column of this page. )

Hope for Peace

Some thoughts after hearing about the controversy over building an Islamic center near Ground Zero in NYC:

Perhaps be-

neath this com-

plex too often bro-

ken world a

seed of hope

silently pulses

perhaps

beneath shards

of concrete & bro-

ken glass & shear-

ed steel beams

seeds of peace

are unfolding

thick fibrous roots

pushing into the fertile earth

pushing fragile shoots upward

toward the freshness of air

perhaps.

***********

May God grant us peace.