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There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” where the grizzled cow hand Curly played by Jack Palance passes on his wisdom to Mitch, played by Billy Crystal. It goes like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [bleep].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

There’s an only slightly less opaque conversation between Jesus and Martha that appears in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42). In that story, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed at the home of sisters Martha and Mary. While Jesus is sharing his message with the assembled guests, Mary is plopped down at his feet, listening attentively while Martha is “preoccupied” with getting everything ready for dinner. Martha’s not too happy about this arrangement and takes it up directly with Jesus.

Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’

Most biblical scholars pit Mary and Martha’s tasks against each other, either asserting that clearly contemplation and study are of higher value than domestic work, or, in the case of feminist scholars, pointing out that everyone would have gone hungry if Martha hadn’t been in the kitchen doing work that men have typically negated or taken for granted. I’m not so sure Jesus was dismissing domestic work in favor of contemplation so much as he was urging Martha to focus on the “one thing” that was important to her in that moment rather than being “worried and distracted by many things.” My suspicion is that if Martha had been peaceful in her meal preparation, doing what she could do by herself without succumbing to the pressure of time while allowing Mary to do what was important to her in the moment, Jesus would have honored her choice as much as Mary’s.

In his text Four Seasons of Ministry, Bruce Epperly notes the need for healthy balance in ministry and quotes Charles Hummel on the importance of finding “freedom from the tyranny of the urgent.” (62) Our Buddhist sisters and brothers teach the freedom that comes from doing even mundane tasks mindfully, as this mindfulness brings a sense of inner quiet. In Holy Adventure, Epperly notes that “the church as the body of Christ exists to join seamlessly the inner journey of contemplation and the outer journey of action in its vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and wholeness to all creation.” (123)

Maybe if we can learn to do just the one thing that is necessary in every moment, we’ll bring more healing and wholeness to our lives and the lives of those around us.

I think even Curly and Mitch might agree.

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Influenced by the surrounding zeitgeist of courtly love and the Beguine movement, 13th century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp embraced a very embodied mysticism. As Andrew Dreitcer writes in his notes for a class on Christian Spirituality through the Ages, “For Hadewijch, the Divine was known most fully in and through the experience (with attendant physical and emotional manifestations) of loving and being loved.” In courtly love, the love of the knight for his “sworn love” was infused with erotic human desire married to spiritual transcendent passions in a way that was both “exalting” and “humiliating,” “passionate” and “self-disciplined,” and “illicit” and “morally elevating.” [Maria Bowen, “Hadewijch: Background Notes” (San Francisco Theological Seminary, January 1995), 5, 7] These pairings were sometimes consummated though not generally.

“Hadewijch was the first to appropriate the image of courtly love as love for God,” writes Bowen, and she perceived a reciprocal relationship between God and humans as lovers to one another.  In the midst of this deep intimacy and mutuality between humans and God, God is still portrayed as “distant” and an “unattainable lover” who must be “conquered.”  With such an emphasis on mutuality, I wonder why she doesn’t see God more like Francis Thompson’s “hound of heaven” who either never ceases in God’s pursuit of us, or even a God who is deep within us and must only be awakened within? What if our longing for God is stirred within us by God’s already existent presence?

 I wanted to write a poem that honored Hadewijch’s style of mystical love poetry, and so this is what I will offer as my testament to the God in whom I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

 

The Beloved

My heart yearns for the Beloved

my body aches

to merge in union with the One

who sees my holiness.

If only my own eyes could see

what my Beloved sees of me.

If only my own ears could hear

what my Beloved hears of me.

If only my own mind could know

what my Beloved knows of me,

I would be healed.

If I, like Mary, let him

have his way with me,

I will conceive his Word

and birth divinity.

So ravish me, Beloved.

Satisfy my desire.

Enter every closed and darkened place

and pour your radiant Light,

your blazing Love

into every part of me.

Set me on fire,

so that all that is dross

is turned to ash.

And I am left

breathless,

shining.

 

 

 

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My transistor AM radio in 1970 was always tuned to WABC where I especially loved hearing Cousin Brucie. I’d carry it with me as I walked back and forth to Grace Wilday School in Roselle, NJ, the first community to be lit by electric lights and overhead wires in 1883. One of my favorite songs of that era was “Spirit in the Sky,”

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky

Goin’ up to the Spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best.
(© 1969 Norman Greenbaum)

At the time, I thought it was quite cool for a pop song to mention Jesus and I still think it’s a really catchy song. But I no longer believe in the Spirit in the Sky.

That is, I no longer believe in a Spirit that’s just in the sky.

I believe that God’s Spirit is present everywhere, in everything, and in every being, human and non-human.

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University, where I am a doctoral student, recently hosted an event featuring Brian McLaren as one of the speakers. McLaren serves on our Board and is a known figure in the emerging church. His books include A New Kind of Christianity and his most recent, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? During the presentation, he told us a very compelling story.

Seems an economist friend and McLaren were discussing our current environmental crisis and what might be done about it. The economist had written that he believes we have been operating under two narratives in the U.S., both of which are “ecologically devastating”:

  • The first is the story of the “Grand Machine” that undergirds naturalistic science. In this story, the world and all of its non-human components are just machines or machine parts that have only instrumental value, and no intrinsic value or subjectivity of their own. According to the economist, this story is “bankrupt” and “cannot catalyze human energy” for addressing our very present crisis.
  • The second is the story of the “Distant Patriarch” that undergirds Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. In this story, there is “a dangerous and threatening divine being” and all of our human energy must be focused on appeasing this being. This story also has little power to mobilize us to take action even while the crisis worsens before our eyes.

What’s needed now, said the economist to McLaren, is a new narrative, the story of the “Integral Spirit.” This story says [in as close a paraphrase as I can offer],

The world is not just math and physics. There is a Spirit here that is involved in the processes of the universe, a present Spirit working within the universe that can help us deal with our problems. Everything has value and is a manifestation of this Spirit, and we’re all connected. Only this story can offer hope and has the power to heal, but this story – embraced by many – has no institutional home.

No institutional home. Is the Church listening?

This story of the “Integral Spirit” has been told by process theology for decades. As Bruce Epperly has written in Emerging Process,

In contrast to Enlightenment deism and conservative supernaturalism, both of which are grounded in the belief that God operates from “outside” the world, intruding occasionally in ways that subvert nature’s regularity, process theology affirms that God’s Spirit moves within all things, inviting us and them to be ‘more’ than they or we can imagine…Imagine a spirit-filled world! Imagine God’s spirit, breathing in and through all things, giving them life, energy, chi, ki, prana, ruach, and inviting them to evolve toward the wholeness in God’s realm of shalom, beauty, and love. (p. 88-89, 91)

Imagine how much could change if we embraced this story, if we really believed that God’s wondrous, grace-giving, enlivening Spirit was right here, right now. I think even Norman Greenbaum could tap his toes to that tune.

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The other day, a friend posted a link to a blog entitled “5 Tips for Becoming Fearless After 50” by Barbara Hannah Grufferman.  In it, Grufferman writes about fear – especially the fear of aging. “We can either let fear stop us in our tracks, or we can use it to move us forward. What will you choose?” Quoting her own previously published article, she continues:

The best advice I can give you is this: Be fearless after 50. Fear will stop you from pursuing your dreams and could cause you to give up and give in, keeping you a prisoner in your comfort zone. This is the simple concept I learned from researching, writing and living the advice in my book. If you’re healthy, you feel good. If you feel good, you look good. If you feel good and look good and have a vision for your future, you feel even better. If you’ve got all that plus the knowledge how to stay that way, you feel amazing. And if you feel amazing, who cares about age?

Age and fear are not insignificant blips on our radar; they’re right up there with such powerful adversaries as death and public speaking. But they are inevitable dance partners, so how do we dance and not run or collapse in the face of them?

Let me give you a bit of background on my own journey to set the context for what I want to share here. After graduating with honors from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree, I moved to the Atlanta area seeking work in human resources, but it was a terrible time to find a job. I struggled for a few years doing low-paying work as a credit clerk until I finally landed a position in advertising and communication for an agricultural chemicals company. I spent the next 20 years moving back and forth between positions in corporate communications or marketing; moving not because I was bored, but because I was “downsized” out of 7 jobs within a span of 15 years. The first time I lost a job, I was devastated; by the fourth or fifth time, it was old hat.

By 2003, I’d vowed to make a leap of faith and follow my heart and the pull from God that I felt toward more creative work as a performing songwriter. I spent the next six years writing and recording music, performing for appreciative audiences, marketing three music CDs (all available on iTunes) and a book of essays (via AuthorHouse), leading workshops, and generally performing my way around the Southeast – all while managing marketing projects on the side. Yet, by 2008, there seemed to be no more traction or momentum in that path than there’d been the first year in. I finally realized that I needed to find something else to do, some other path to follow; one in which I could support myself.

After much time spent in discernment and prayer, an idea began to take shape, evolving from earlier nudges that never felt quite right, and I began investigating the possibility of going to graduate school in theological studies with the hopes of becoming a professor of religion or theology. But by this point, I was 48 years old. Granted, I had no one else in my life to have to plan around, but going back to school meant pulling up all my long-established roots in Georgia, leaving everything I knew and loved, and leaping out into the unknown. I remember talking with a friend about how afraid I was about beginning an educational path toward a Ph.D., knowing that I’d probably be 55 years old before I earned that degree. My wise friend said, “You’ll be 55 years old anyway, you may as well have a Ph.D.”

I stand here now having completed a two-year master’s degree, and one year into a four-year doctoral program, having moved from Georgia to Chicago to California – dog and cats in tow – and I can’t tell you how many times people have told me how brave I am or how inspiring my journey has been.

And they’re right that I have been brave. But I will tell you without hesitation that I have not been fearless. Everything I have done has been accompanied by fear. At times, terror. Dancing with age and fear is not so much about being fearless as it is about being courageous in spite of one’s fear. It’s about being willing to move forward even when you don’t know the whole journey ahead of time or how it will turn out because the place that’s calling you is more persuasive than the place that’s holding you.

So don’t wait until you feel no fear, or you’ll wait until they lay you in your grave. Feel your fear. Honor it. And then take the next step anyway. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? …Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
~ Matthew 6:25-34 (Common English Bible)

What time zone do you live in?

I’m not actually asking about your geography, rather, I’m asking about your temporal state of mind. In other words, do you live primarily in the past, in the future, or in the present? How much do you worry about what has already passed or about what has yet to happen? Or, how often do you fling your “true” life out into a dreamed-of time when everything will be just as you imagine it “should” be?

Ah, that last one. That’s the time zone I’ve spent most of my life in.

The verse above – fresh from its appearance in today’s readings for those churches following the same lectionary system – shows that long before Eckhart Tolle, Jesus was teaching about the power of now. Buddhists and others who embrace meditation call it “mindfulness” – that intentional perspective from within the present moment.

But how do we find the exit ramp for the whirlwind interstate of non-presentness? I think the best and only way is to ground ourselves fully in our bodies and in our sensory perception; it’s only when we allow our sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and bodily sensations to hold the core of our attention that we can truly be “in the moment.”

Let me tell you about my day so far.

Today, I was the guest musician at the Redlands (CA) First United Methodist Church, and as soon as I entered the sanctuary, I was struck by the beauty of the place, and especially loved the way the blue sky and the building across the street were visible through the huge round window. When it came time for my musical contribution, I began plucking the introductory notes of my arrangement of the traditional hymn “Abide with Me,” and I imagined myself as one with the guitar and as embodying the words. As I sang and played, I felt completely in my body, grounded in the now of the music.

On the way home, I marveled as I drove up Indian Hill Boulevard in Claremont at the beauty of the jacaranda trees as they waved bounteous purple blossoms above our heads, dangling and dropping them like confetti upon the streets and sidewalks. It felt like a joyous celebration.

The same energy was palpable in the farmers market, where the riotously colored produce in abundance and bustling shoppers all out enjoying the beautiful sunshine made it feel like a festival. And then, once home, I walked the dog and relished the almost beach-like breeze that danced across my skin. The breeze, combined with the retro scent of the sunscreen took me right back to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, NJ and it seemed that if I listened closely, I might hear the surf, the carnival barkers, the music, and the merry-go-round.

Do I have worries? Sure. Like everyone, I wonder how the things I’ve invested my time, money, and passions in will turn out.

But today? Today, my friends, is beautiful.

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For the two and a half years before I went back to school to get a masters degree, I rented a 100-year-old farmhouse on eight acres of land in the northeast Georgia mountains. That region is definitely my soul’s home, and I loved living there more than any other place I’ve lived. Many days I would sit on the front porch watching the local traffic go by, or the horses in one of the nearby pastures.

On one of those days, a small fire began when a tree fell and took a power line with it that then set the grass on fire.  Because of a drought, everything was frighteningly dry and so it didn’t take much to get things smoking.  Luckily, the fire was out and the power restored pretty quickly and aside from a scorched place in the pasture, everything turned out fine.

I’ve read that a fire in a forest can spark new growth; the combination of more sunlight getting to younger trees, more air and maybe needed nutrients getting into the ground seems to kick start the life force again.

I think that can happen with people too.  We’ve all known periods in our lives that can only be described as fiery; those times when things get so hot and hurt so badly that we’re left as dark as scorched earth.  Maybe those fires are sparked by loss, illness, or by changes that we just didn’t see coming.  No matter the reason, when we’re in those furnace times, we usually just want to get out as quickly as possible.

Yet I’m always inspired by people who came out of their own fires with more courage, strength or wisdom then they had going in.  Can’t we all name people that lived out the definition of “grace under pressure?”

I was amazed several years ago to learn the story of Thomas A. Dorsey (a Georgia native) and his writing of the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”  Dorsey had been a blues pianist, working in bars, until a spiritual healing after a nervous breakdown led him to commit his life to God.  The result was the creation of modern gospel music.  In 1932 he left behind his pregnant wife to perform at a revival in St. Louis, when he finished singing he was given a telegram saying she had died in childbirth.  He rushed home to learn he had a son.  Dorsey held that baby all night, but by morning the boy had died.  He was bereft and withdrew from life, until a friend left him in a room containing only a piano.  In those quiet moments, the notes to “Precious Lord” – one of the most beloved gospel songs ever written – came pouring out.

A while back, I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” (as a lifelong Lutheran, it seems kind of like a requirement) and Garrison Keillor led the audience in a singing of “It Is Well with My Soul.”  Horatio Spafford, who penned the lyrics to the song, was also no stranger to fire.  He was married with five children but lost his only son in 1871.  Just a few months later, the Great Chicago Fire consumed his real estate investments and he lost all his savings.  Then, in 1873, the family planned a vacation to Europe.  Spafford sent his wife and daughters on ahead so he could tie up some loose ends before joining them a few days later.

The ship on which they sailed collided with another, and 226 people lost their lives.  When she reached safety, his wife sent him this heartbreaking telegram: “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”  He left immediately to bring her home, and when his own ship crossed the waters where his daughters drowned, he wrote these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Out of the ashes; life.  Out of the ashes; song.  Listen, and you’ll hear the sound of faith.

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