The Belonging that is our Birthright

So you tried love.  And it worked out okay… for a while.  But after a few episodes of feeling star-struck and then blind-sided, drawn in and then disillusioned, you decided to be a little more careful.  You discovered love wasn’t always reliable and you felt your tender heart preferred more guarantees.  You needed some rules.

 

And for a while you had religion… which was nice… sort of…because religion seemed to be about rules.  Even if they were a little confusing at times… but they also seemed comforting… and offered a sort of overarching reassurance that no matter what, God loved you… and Jesus loved you… and the church loved you… at least as long as you believed the right way and prayed the right way – according to the rules – everything would work out.  And it did… for awhile… until it didn’t.  And it was all good… for awhile…  Until it wasn’t.  Until you began to discover exceptions.  Until you realized that sometimes, despite believing and praying and living according to the rules, your heart could still be broken.  You could still feel betrayed… empty.

 

Many people experience those feelings with religion.  And it’s often at this point where they decide to make a change.  Although they can still feel a deep sense of spirituality alive inside them, they feel the need to separate themselves from all the inconsistencies and hypocrisy they discovered in the rules of religion.  They vow to begin making their own rules.   And with that vow, they go around and collect the various examples of lessons and practices they’d been handed about God and Jesus and prayer – and throw them all out the back door.  The whole kit and caboodle.  The baby and the bathwater.

 

They work hard to forge a new set of rules – their own set of rules… which they reason will be more reliable, leave them less vulnerable.  And this strategy  works… for awhile.

 

But, despite this, they notice still occasionally feelings of a familiar emptiness.  And when they dare to get quiet enough, or take a really long walk or have a really honest conversation with themselves, they recognize that what’s missing is some inherent sense of belonging.  Some connection that they know was meant to be theirs by birthright.  And though they are rarely able to say by whom such belonging was promised to them or in what form it should appear, they go off in search.  Until the day comes when they finally look out in the backyard of their own house and see, peering out from the tall weeds, an old man and a rusty old tub, out in the back yard where they’d been thrown away so many years ago.  And they notice that old man staring back at them… expectantly… wondering if it’s finally time to have a real conversation about love.

 

Prayer for Peace

This is a draft of the prayer I will offer at
The Second Annual Interreligious Prayer and Dialogue for Peace
this Sunday evening, September 29, 2013 at 7:00 pm
at St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Triangle, Virginia 18825 Fuller Heights Road, Triangle, VA 22172.

 

This service is based on the Assisi Decalogue for Peace.  I was asked to comment and pray upon decalogue #4:
“We commit ourselves to defend the right of all human beings to lead a dignified life, in accordance with their cultural identity, and to start their own family freely.”

 

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If there is to be peace in the world
There must be peace among the nations
If there is to be peace among the nations
There must be peace within the cities
If there is to be peace within the cities
There must be peace among neighbors
There must be peace in the home
If there is to be peace in the home
There must be peace in the heart.
-        Lao Tzu

 

I overheard a conversation this week about conflict among cultures.  The conversation touched on what is happening today in Syria.  In Iraq and Iran.  It touched on what took place in Rwanda and Bosnia, in the 90s.  And what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s.
-        Finally, came the question: ‘What is genocide?’
-        Someone responded: ‘Genocide is when two different groups, fight.  And the dominant group attempts to exterminate the other so as to maintain their dominance.’
-        ‘No’, came the response.  ‘Genocide is when two groups of people WHO BELIEVE THEY ARE different, fight.  And extermination and survival become the dominant strategies.’

 

It is the beliefs underneath actions that are powerful.  To paraphrase writer, Kurt Vonnagut, “We become who we believe we are so we must be very careful about who we believe we are.”

 

There is so much fighting of ideologies in the world.  And not just in the world.  Closer to home.  Fights about beliefs… ideologies… traditions… rituals…  And sometimes we lose.  And feel overpowered.  And helpless.  And, eventually, isolated and desperate.

 

In my tradition, there is a reading which appears in our hymnal from poet Marge Piercy which speaks to this.  She writes.

 

What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.
They can set you up,
they can bust you,
they can break your fingers,
they can burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk,
can’t remember,
they can take your child,
wall up your lover.
They can do anything you can’t stop them from doing.
How can you stop them?

 

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse,
you can take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
… But two people fighting
back to back
can cut through a mob,
a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon,
an army can meet an army.

 

Two people can keep each other sane,
can give support,
conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge.

 

With four you can play bridge and start an organization.

 

With six you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds,
and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

 

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,

it starts when you do it again
after they said ‘no,’
it starts when you say ‘We’
and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

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Our greatest battle in this world is one which we all wage against the illusion of our separateness.  We form powerful distinctions based on our age, our gender, the color of our skin, our lineage, our sexual orientation, our habits and preferences, our religion and our politics… And we distort these distinctions – expressions of our uniqueness – into conclusions that we are different.  But we are not.  We are fundamentally one people.
And beyond that, we are one with all other life on this planet.  Indivisible and interdependent.
Let us pray.

 

God – who is to us the alpha and omega – everything and oneness – who is known to each by a different name…

 

Call us together.

 

Help us listen, beyond the barriers of pride and ego, beyond anger and fear and desperation.

 

Fashion from the tensile strength of our distinctions, the unified bones of one body and charge us with the work of bringing together neighbors… and cities… and nations until the Love you created within us is made manifest among all people around us.

 

Amen.

 

 

The Map of Mercy

Consider how you were made.  The well-loved blueprint that outlined your frame… the careful instructions that described how flesh connects to bone… the prayers which guided your soul to join to head and heart.

 

Consider the first time you expressed helpless need – fingers outstretched into a fuzzy world… that first thing you saw that taught you the word, ‘fair’, the great battles between fear and love which revealed the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; the first sight of something that might die which engendered mercy, the wish for relief and its application upon all things that helped you understand liberty.

 

Consider, what made you as if, arranging its shape can turn it from fear and trembling into the cure for cancer, or a heliotron producing fully formed suns – complete with planets that orbit your world.  But don’t ignore all the naivety that came pre-installed in your operating system, or the crooked teeth that came, and the gait that stays even after the injury is healed, or the arthritic joints ushered in by age, or the baldness, or the trembling that won’t stop.

 

Consider, as well, the brilliant number of endings that came with your birth and the equal number of beginnings – plus one.

 

Now imagine the response when your fear is revealed… your desperation… your reluctant conclusions that something else must surrender for you to be safe.  Imagine the discipline with which one of you applies force, creating a cascade of sorrows.  Imagine what your maker might say.

 

Do the impossible.  Restore life to those you have been dead to you, wholeness to those you compartmentalized, resilience to what you have hardened, trust to the forsaken.

 

Bless each other with heart and soul, hands and feet, soft gaze and a tender tongue.  Make brain and brawn, blood and sweat and muscle and bone the carrier of burdens on one and another’s road to bountiful.  Do this for the clothed and naked, the too poor and too rich, the infirmed and the invincible.

 

All this has been given to you – without your asking – like grace.  Like a bridge built by others that stretches to the island you made out of your loneliness when you gave up looking for a way home.   It comes without guilt or shame, shoulds or oughts or any pains of the past.  It is offered with promise and purpose and a blessing written onto a life-sized map of mercy.

The Flight of Wonder

The Flight of Wonder

(inspired by Heather McHugh)

The toddler

Besides being an energetic ball of boundless wonder

was quite ordinary.

A little pale, lanky

and not yet completely familiar with the owner’s manual

that came with his body

-        evidenced by his drunken gate,

-        and the wide eyes and wide open heart,

he displayed as he stumbled up and down the aisle.

He was one of us

    – only more so –

one of the heard of passengers

headed to some place

too far to imagine

trying to get there

in the fastest way we could think.

When he passed my seat the second

and third time at full tilt

I turned my attention from Lethal Weapon 4

to see what was so urgent.

Then I noticed…

He’s running back and forth
across a small sun-blazed circle shining on the carpet

The mesmerizing brilliant beam

magically connected

-        by floating dust particles

to a small crack in a window

some 10 rows back

at just the right magic moment

at the end of the day

right before the sun sinks over the horizon.

‘It’s light!,’ I thought.  ‘Only light,’

But then, I caught myself

diminishing his wonder

and I summoned myself toward accountability

trying to recall

Why had I stopped noticing such things?
Why I had stopped appreciating such things?

Stopped looking for such things?

Indeed, it’s worth asking why I

– and the hundreds of others on board –

propped in rows and sitting obediently in a line

not, also in that moment, fallen captive to wonder?

Why were we not also running back and forth

darting across the beam

watching it trace a line across our body

marveling in astonishment

that it did not cut us – or the whole plane – in two.

Then, after the umpteenth time
he ran past my chair,

I began to notice

that besides having lost wonder and whimsy

I was also becoming alarmingly low on patience.

Which is exactly when,

suddenly, he noticed me noticing him

and stopped –

leaving one daring hand on my armrest

to inspect the wonders of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some cannot walk.
But everyone was sun-struck once,

and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how astonishing this world is?

So perfectly turning our attention

to the practicalities of life,

have we also become deaf and unmoved

by radiance?

Looking back on that moment

now a generation of years ago,

I wonder if that toddler lost what he once radiated.

If his wonder and imagination faded in importance

like Mel Gibson faded from prominence.

I wonder if the stewardess

who came and took that little boy

to his seat

was just ushering us all toward our inevitable destination.

Telling us to buckle up

so that we can prepare for take off

toward all that cannot stay young forever.

The Masks We Wear

Dear Friends,

Recently an article appeared in Psychology Today about a four year old girl who wanted desperately to be a pirate for Halloween.  Her mom took her to a costume shop where she was very clear she didn’t want to be a nice pirate.  She wanted to be a mean, scary pirate who isn’t afraid of anything.  So she got a pirate mask and a swashbuckler hat and an eye patch.  And, as soon as she got home she donned her garb and ran to the mirror to check herself out.  But after taking a gander at herself, she screamed in horror and tore off the costume.  When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m too scary.”  That’s when she decided to be a fairy instead.

It’s fall which brings two things to mind: change and masks.

Change often has to do with seasons… with the texture and color and location of leaves as well as the temperature we’re in and the clothing we don.

Masks come to mind because of Halloween.  But also what we do while addressing changes around us we may not feel prepared for.  When we’re young, Halloween gives us a chance to ‘try on’ a new persona that may stretch our understanding of our own personal ordinary-ness.  But sometimes, either because we’re lazy or have an inkling that ‘we’re not quite done with it,’ we wear the same mask we did last year.  Sometimes for years on end.  For a myriad of reasons, this can become an approach to life.

It stands to reason that as we move through life our story and our narrative change.  It evolves as we evolve.  It reflects and integrates the complexities we’ve encountered.  If we’re honest and true to that changing story, our face – the face we present to the world – changes as well.  But sometimes we’re not completely ready to change our story.  Or the way we face the world.

In his book, ‘Mother Night,’ writer Kurt Vonnegut introduces the main character as expatriate American playwright Howard Campbell, who lands in Germany, marries a German woman and passes coded messages on to US generals.  As his cover, he pretends to be a Nazi propagandist, but things become horribly confused and he not only ends up botching his assignment and ruining his marriage but becoming an unwitting inspirational icon to bigots.  In his 1966 introduction to the paperback edition, Vonnegut says this: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

Of course, this moral is as applicable to entire communities, societies and cultures of people as it is for an individual.  When our efforts to hold on to the stories or masks which have outlived their usefulness, we can bring about great internal as well as external conflict.   Holding on to a narrative of personal innocence can keep us apathetic instead of motivated to learn about the things around us that need our help.  Continuing to believe that we’re a frontier society surrounded by danger can be one of the reasons we own so many guns and why we seem unable to keep violence from spilling into the public square. Clutching onto old stories that society is an equal playing field where anyone can succeed blinds us to the increasing numbers of people falling through the cracks.

The greatest religious and moral breakthroughs – for individuals and communities – comes when we begin to see clearly.  Like the little girl standing in front of the mirror, seeing herself as she really is instead of how she has imagined herself to be, she becomes willing to be honest about where she is.  Which helps her get where she wants to go.  Sometimes these experiences can be painful.  But think of it as breaking through the painful constrictions that reveal our wise and expansive selves.

Songwriter Jim Morrison once described it this way:  “Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio.  It’s sending us a signal of our own reality. If you feel ashamed of that signal, and try to hide it, you’re letting society destroy your reality… The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are.   When you trade in your reality for a role, you trade in your life for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”

To be religious these days has nothing to do with reciting old stories, believing by doctrine or acting holy.  To be religious these days means to be fiercely transparent and courageously vulnerable.  It is being willing to let what is old die, so what is new can be born.  It is seeing the impotence of what’s dead so as to understand the Glory of Life.