Archive for December, 2014

A Christmas Silence

An unnatural silence

Marilyn and I joined a group of folks on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery at Snowmass this past weekend. If you have been there, or in that area, you know the mysterious beauty of the high alpine ranch land, the scrub, the red reedy bushes, the sweep of snow sifting down over the ridges and passes.

And you know the silence. There is great silence there. In the prayer room at the monastery guesthouse, if no one speaks, the silence is complete. It is a silence of deep reflection, a pregnant silence, a silence that is a presence in the room.

A few moments ago, we sang the dear and familiar words “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie….” As the note about the hymn text reads: “What gives the lines of this hymn their mysterious charge is buried memory. The Reverend Phillips Brooks, best known for his famous sermon on the Civil War dead, wrote his Christmas carol when, after the war, many little towns of the North and South were unnaturally silent, because so many of the young men were gone.

We all have experience of something like the wondrous silence of the monastery guesthouse. We also all have experience of silence that could be called “unnatural silence” like that of those Civil War towns who had lost so many of their young adults.

We have known the silence of the hospital room after the passing of a loved one. We have known the awful silence after the screech of tires and crunch of metal. We may have known the shocked silence of a police confrontation or battle zone where noise now gives way to a numbing quiet.

I tend to imagine the silence before the angel speaks to Mary as a blessed silence. And before the angels sing to the shepherds, I imagine them in simple quiet under a starry night. I’m sure there was some blessed silence in those moments. But we know from a full reading of the Biblical text that these were hard times as well.

Mary was poor, as was Joseph. Surely there was the anxious silence of fear about their new shared future. So she sings a song about justice in the midst of oppression. The shepherds also were on the edge of the social landscape, under night sky, out in the hills. I imagine they were not necessarily expecting good news that night. I imagine that the phrase “good tidings to all people” had particular resonance for them. All people. Spoken into the perhaps uneasy silence of their long farming labor.

And so we learn this, that the good news, the joy of Christ, the healing community of love and justice and forgiveness, comes not only into blessed silence, but into the unnatural silence, comes into the place of restfulness, but also into the place of shattering and loss. The joy of Christ has this capacity, to appear and come with healing and restoration for all times, all kinds of silence, and, as the angels sang, for all people.

May it be so among us, and especially on this Christmas Eve, may it be so among us. Amen.

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Whale breathing breaching

How important it is to be able to breathe freely. Nothing induces panic like restricted breath, whether due to asthma, or the travesty of water-boarding torture, or the scary practice of the choke-hold.

In the Christian tradition, we speak of the Holy Spirit – a name of the living presence of the divine among us – as the “breath of life”. In the Mennonite tradition, we sing a hymn that begins “Breathe on me, breath of life.” Breath is itself a metaphor for life: “As I live and breathe….”; “Can you fog a mirror?”; “He lives most life whoever breathes most air.” ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Smile, breathe and go slowly. ~Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Breathing is deeply woven into religious and spiritual practice in most cultures. Here is one example of a good reflection on breathing as symbol and metaphor of life, by Lynda Austin: http://www.vincegowmon.com/breath-as-a-metaphor-for-life/. And one more by Dennis Lewis: http://www.universal-tao.com/article/breath.html.

Unfortunately, the human story about breathing is like everything else (food, housing, wealth, etc.) – we have made it into something to compete about and to use as a weapon. In particular, the toxic processes and spirits of privilege, such as racism, become ways in which one people restricts the breathing of another people, literally and metaphorically. This may mean sequestering some of God’s folks into segregated living situations, accompanied by daily humiliation. That is a form of restricting breath.

And it may mean the literal use of choke-holds, which rightly have come to symbolize the poison and distortion of racism in our society. According to Michelle Alexander, the phrase “law and order” has, in the last generation, become the stand-in for segregation, and a phrase that covertly can carry the freight of horrific racist sentiment (p41). Under this “law and order” emblem, then, racist practices, the “lynchings” of the modern era, can take place (see James Cone’s powerful book The Cross and the Lynching Tree about the history of lynching and the atrophied Christian response).

Now our streets and byways are filling with people whose simmering rage is once again boiling over. What will Christians, whose very metaphors of the divine have to do with breathing, say about “breath for all people” in this moment? How will we lead and care and demonstrate solidarity for those for whom breathing is chronically restricted? What practices of “law and order” will we support that actually seek to affirm and preserve life, rather than seeking order and control through quite willingly threatening and ending life?

Just to be clear, this is not all to be laid at the feet of law enforcement. The poison is something born of and spread as a contagion through a society that:

–willingly maintains privilege at the expense of the basics of life for others

–creates endless laws that theoretically could make 70% of us into felons, all in the name of feeling secure (see the excellent editorial by Stephen L. Carter: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-12-04/law-puts-us-all-in-same-danger-as-eric-garner

–lets functional segregation persist because we are unwilling to do the extra work and take the extra risk to create strong and intimate relationships across racial lines (even with an uptick in inter-racial marriage)

And so on… (to quote Kurt Vonnegut). But let us not have it be “and so on….” Let us not despair. The great political and playwright Vaclav Havel is supposed to have held despair as the only unforgivable sin (see David Remnick The New Yorker “Havel in Jerusalem” December 1, 2014) Let us rather engage, move freely into this time of change and struggle with courage and whole hearts full of the love of breathing.

For all people. Unrestricted breathing. May it be as the angel’s announcement to the shepherds: “tidings of great joy… for all people.”

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A murder of crows

On our walk a couple of days ago, my wife Marilyn and I heard the proverbial cacophony of crows in the trees above our heads. The trees were on monastery property, near our home. Perhaps because of the setting, I started thinking that the crows were having a denominational debate. And the thing was, there was a magpie among them, a large creature of white, and blue, and black, rather than the full black of a crow. Magpies are also corvids, so it could fit in. But I wondered if they were debating about who could be included in the crow denomination. I’m guessing there might have been scriptures about black feathers and the like. But also scriptures about how all birds are in in the light of God, that sort of thing. By all accounts, it was a heated crow debate, and much flying about also ensued. I hope the magpie is doing okay, and found a home. There’s nothing like finding a home where people love you and want to love you and take delight in you. That’s also a human gift we may give to each other, with all the generosity, forgiveness, and mutual rejoicing and bearing of burdens for which the Holy Spirit gives our hearts ability. Or in the language of crows, the Holy Spirit gives us just “caws” to do so, to find magnificent ways of finding our home with each other.

Birds from Moonrise Kingdom:

Moonrise birds

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