The church needs a poetic imagination

By Ken Evers-Hood (Pastor at Tualatin Presbyterian Church) as published in Faith and Leadership

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Poet David Whyte teaches “conversational leadership” as a framework that helps organizations bring soul back into the workplace and more effectively navigate change, writes a Presbyterian pastor.

An Irish poet walks into a corporate boardroom …

It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, doesn’t it? And yet poet David Whyte has spent a great deal of his life in boardrooms, consulting with giants like Boeing, Arthur Andersen and NASA. Whyte, an associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, has been on a mission to bring back the soul to spaces known more for spreadsheets than sonnets. Whyte’s work isn’t merely about human resources and making people feel more happy and whole in the workplace; he believes an imaginative, relational approach to leadership is crucial for organizations navigating change.

David Whyte   “Corporate America now desperately needs the powers historically associated with the poetic imagination not only to see its way through the present whirligig of change, but also, because poetry asks for accountability to a human community, for rootedness and responsibility even as it changes,” Whyte writes in “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.”

All I would change is to add the church to the list of organizations in need of a poetic imagination.

In 2016, I had the privilege of being part of a cohort Whyte leads on what he calls “conversational leadership” through the Invitas Foundation on Washington’s magical Whidbey Island. In one conversation, I told Whyte that I loved poetry but was surprised that companies were so interested in hiring him as a consultant.

In response, he told me that the nature of leadership is seeing things that others aren’t seeing yet, articulating this unseen vision and having the courage to say what is unpopular or frightening — and that’s poetry.

Whyte’s understanding of conversational leadership stems from his relational view of reality. For Whyte, there’s a conversation, or dialectic, between the selves we present and what’s inside us, between ourselves and others, and between ourselves and the world. The worst meetings we attend, he will point out, are the meetings where everyone gathers but no one is truly present or says what he or she honestly thinks. We withhold ourselves, with no one actually showing up and engaging with vulnerability or honesty. We aren’t having, in other words, a real conversation. We’re staying safe but accomplishing little in the process.

Whyte identifies seven elements of conversational leadership:

  • stopping the conversation
  • cultivating a friendship with the unknown
  • coming to ground
  • cultivating robust vulnerability
  • artistry
  • making the invitation
  • bringing in the harvest

This framework isn’t about reducing leadership to seven easy, linear steps. Instead, when we find ourselves stuck, these elements serve to stimulate our wonder and curiosity.

Stopping the conversation

When we aren’t satisfied with how things are going in our organizational life, one of the most powerful questions to ask, Whyte says, is, How do we stop having the conversations that have grown tired and are no longer serving us?

Fruitless, complaining conversations distract us from the vital, life-giving conversations that can take us into a new future. But new futures are frightening, wild places, well beyond what we can control, so even though we’re tired of the old conversations, most of us spend a lot of time having them — gleaning the small, self-righteous satisfaction of blaming others behind their backs for their obvious incompetence and safely avoiding the risk of trying anything new.

While these tired, distracting conversations happen everywhere, the church is legendary for replaying them. If I hear one more church whine about not having enough young people … Or if it isn’t the demographics, it’s the number of folks showing up. I remember visiting a friend’s church and having a great experience in worship. But then during coffee hour, one of the regulars kept apologizing and telling me how great they used to be decades ago when they were, if I could believe him, bursting at the seams. I finally had to tell him to stop apologizing, saying that he was beginning to ruin what had been a great morning. I am confident this guy had been having that same, tired conversation for years, with every new person unfortunate enough to pick his table for bad church coffee.

And then there are the conversations we have with ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re capable of and what we aren’t. Whatever we tell ourselves repeatedly, no matter how false, begins to feel true over time.

Cultivating a friendship with the unknown

Once we have been brave enough to stop the old, tired conversations we’ve been having, a marvelous, threatening silence opens up. It’s marvelous, because this silence is the place where, as Whyte puts it in a poem titled “Sometimes,” tiny requests come to us, “questions that have no right to go away.” But this silence is at the same time threatening, because it opens us to the unknown, with questions that can “make or unmake a life.”

What we must learn, Whyte says, is to ask “beautiful questions.” Beautiful questions can be vast — questions like, Can I live a courageous life? Whyte’s vision of courage isn’t about heroics but about being present for the life we are leading. Living a courageous life means showing up honestly, knowing that we can, and no doubt will, be hurt many, many times. How many opportunities do we miss because we’re afraid we might not succeed or might be laughed at for trying?

Sometimes when leaders ask beautiful questions, entire communities can be changed for the better. I live in a small suburb outside Portland, Oregon, called Tualatin (pronounced tu-WAH-luh-tin). While parts of Tualatin are thriving, the numbers of people experiencing poverty and food insecurity have been growing at an alarming rate. In a 10-year period, Tualatin went from having 1 in 16 people living below the poverty line to 1 in 8. Members of our community have been trying to help; churches like the one I serve have been instrumental in establishing our local food pantry. But we realize that food pantries are notorious for carrying inexpensive, processed foods that contribute to increasing rates of obesity. Further, helping people, while a good thing, can create a sense of dependence that isn’t positive at all. As the iron law in community organizing goes, never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Aware of all of this, one of our residents, Chad Darby, wanted to be of service, but he didn’t want to just participate in the same old conversation. Darby started by asking himself a beautiful question: Is there a way to feed hungry people healthy food and involve the whole community in the process? As an answer, Darby started Neighbors Nourishing Communities (NNC). NNC began providing volunteer local gardeners with seeds and growing instructions in exchange for 20 percent of their produce for use in the food pantry. Darby involved local homeowners, small businesses and city leaders, whom he asked to set aside city park land where low-income families now grow food. In the past year, 27 home gardeners and 14 low-income gardeners produced more than 2,000 pounds of fresh, organic vegetables for the Tualatin food pantry.

And this all happened because one local community member asked a beautiful question about how to help his neighbors in an innovative way. Of all the questions we can be asking, that is certainly one with “no right to go away.”

Coming to ground

People in ministry are generally hopeful. We’re a resurrection people in the business of impossible possibilities. But just because God is capable of parting rivers and raising the dead doesn’t mean that God will bring about every hope and dream we have for the church. Plans fail. Communities collapse. People die. And there are times, many times, when pastors cannot change these realities.

This is what Whyte refers to as “coming to ground.” In a poem called “Stone,” Whyte speaks of an immovability in a stone that “staunches your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere.” Whyte is encountering the fundamental otherness of the world around him, an irreducible “isness” that he can’t access, alter or rearrange. He can only stand in awe before it. When I was a pastor in Austin, Texas, I heard my colleague Fred Morgan tell a group of seminarians that ministry was about learning how to be impotent. While I watched the men in the room nervously shift in their seats, I sensed that the women were feeling anxious, too. No one likes feeling powerless. What Morgan was telling them was that the most important thing they could ever learn is that our job is to walk with people as they face situations no one can change — the slow-motion train wreck of a divorce, the tragic spiral into addiction, the death of a child. Our job, our calling, is to abide with people facing these immovable, unchanging realities.

Cultivating robust vulnerability

I was once told by someone I greatly respect that I should consider not being quite so vulnerable in the pulpit. He was genuinely concerned for me, saying that down deep, people really want their leaders to appear strong and project a sense of certainty and confidence. Although he didn’t use these exact words, I think he was afraid that my honesty about my many mistakes and foibles could make me appear a bit too human.

I understand the problem with pastors who overshare in the pulpit. Some of our worst moments in church have occurred when a pastor used the power of his position to turn a potentially holy moment into something about him. Talking about ourselves can transfer emotional work to the congregation that is ours alone to process. But pretending to be less vulnerable or less human isn’t the solution. It’s not even a real option.

The fourth foundation of conversational leadership is what Whyte calls cultivating robust vulnerability. He writes in “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”: “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without …; vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. … The attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others.”

I once heard Garrison Keillor tell pastors they should consider setting down their manuscripts and stepping out from their pulpits. We don’t do this, he said, because we’re afraid we’ll forget something. But, he quipped, we have to ask ourselves how important something really is if we can’t remember to say it. The only thing we really have to offer that’s worth anything, he said, is ourselves. And isn’t this the essence of Christianity, God setting aside what everyone just guessed was the very definition of divinity by assuming frail, vulnerable human flesh?

Artistry

Artistry points to the irreducibly personal nature of leadership. One of the poems Whyte often recites is Wordsworth’s “There Was a Boy.” In the poem, a boy stands alone in a familiar landscape of hills and trees and glittering lakes. He puts his hands to his mouth and makes owl sounds, hoping to elicit a response, and the entire forest erupts in a “concourse wild of jocund din!” This is that moment, Whyte says, when an artist or a leader discovers her unique voice to which the world responds.

I’ve experienced this most through preaching. Being a dutiful student, I absorbed all the rules and warnings of my Reformed tradition: always start with the text, do careful exegesis before asking questions, and be wary of being personal lest words about me eclipse the one Word of God. While I see the wisdom in these rubrics, I really learned to preach when I encountered Robert Dykstra’s “Discovering a Sermon: Personal Pastoral Preaching,” which encourages the opposite approach. Instead of starting with our exegetical heads, Dykstra says, preachers should begin with our wonder and curiosity. For me, this opened the way to finding my voice and actually preaching.

Making the invitation

Inviting another to have a real conversation may be the most significant of all the elements. This is the moment when, with robust vulnerability, we finally reach out to another. The way we cast these invitations shapes the way they are received. Without reflection, we will often over- or understate our requests, making it difficult for others to accept them. Much of the time at Invitas is spent crafting our various invitations, practicing them with another person or in a group setting, and receiving feedback from others about how they land.

Reaching out to others isn’t done by magic. It takes work, the willingness to hear feedback, and the openness and creativity to try new and ever-different ways to make contact.

Bringing in the harvest

Last fall, I attended the Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising, a program of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. I’m not a huge fan of the word “executive”; even less, the word “fundraising.”

When I think fundraising, I think sales, and I didn’t go into ministry to sell people stuff. I don’t sell church. I don’t sell myself. And I certainly don’t sell God or salvation. Before this training, it always seemed to me that the churchy word “stewardship” was just an ecclesial euphemism for sales.

Before the course began, fundraising and poetry seemed miles apart. Fundraising felt like trying to get people to cough up what they didn’t want to give; poetry felt like being thankful, expansive and open to new possibilities. But what I learned is that fundraising, when done faithfully and well, is also primarily about thankfulness, expansiveness and opening to new possibilities. Fundraising, the course taught me, is never about guilt; it’s always about gratitude.

The program required me to develop a project to implement in my congregation. Every month now, I pray for a group of people and write each family a short note letting them know I lifted them up in prayer and explaining my petition. I don’t ask for money or thank them for money. I’m praying and giving thanks for them and their presence in my life, and I have seen an incredible response. Some people write back heartfelt notes, telling me my prayer came at just the right time. Other people I hadn’t seen for a long time have come back to church.

Leadership isn’t about having all the right answers but about showing up in vulnerable ways and having real, courageous conversations. Leadership is knowing, as Whyte says, that one conversation will lead to another. We are never “there.” We never “arrive.” We are, like the first Christians, people of the way.

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Guest Opinion: No room for hate

When I was in the seventh grade I attended a lily-white high school. We had, as far as I knew, three religious minorities — two Roman Catholics and a Jewish girl.

The next year that same school was around 45 percent African-American. We integrated, and we did it without incident. There were no khaki-clad marchers carrying tiki torches chanting racist slogans. There were no white power rallies. Sure, there were individual skirmishes around the state, but for the most part, most people recognized that education should be equal for all people.

Having grown up in that environment, perhaps it is understandable that I thought racism was mostly dead in America. Sure, there are a few fringe groups who advocate hate against African-Americans, Jews, Roman Catholics and anyone else who is not pure white and Protestant. But those people are far out on the fringes.

Last weekend was a wake-up call. The sight of white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville, openly and proudly, was distressing. The fact that the president of the United States made no moral distinction between racists and those who opposed the racists was even more distressing.

As a pastor, I find it even worse that many of these people claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

I should not have to say this, but I will. Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, but who feels that someone is inferior because of their skin color, nationality, sexual orientation or even their religion, has rejected the Gospel, and has embraced a false version of Christianity. One cannot be a neo-Nazi, white supremacist or ultra-nationalist and still follow the way of Jesus Christ. Again, I should not have to say this, but it seems the world has gone crazy, and the obvious needs restating.

There are times when we need to be tolerant of the beliefs of others. But this is not one of those times. The New Testament is so clear on this issue that there should be no question. From the beginnings of the church at Pentecost, where the Gospel was preached in many tongues, to the inclusion of outcasts, such as eunuchs, Samaritans and gentiles, the love of Jesus has known no boundaries. Those who preach a gospel of hate are betraying the very God they pretend to serve.

Christianity does not stand alone as the only religion that rejects racism as a core value. Malcolm X learned that Islam was not a racist religion while in Mecca. The civil rights movement in the South had many Jewish supporters, some of whom died defending the rights of all Americans to have equal rights. Gandhi was a Hindu who worked tirelessly to see the rights of all upheld. Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs, and many other religions teach and practice that all are worthy and that no one should be discriminated against because of race or national origin.

Like Christianity, many of these religions also have narrow-minded adherents who cannot see beyond their own prejudices. But it is time to set the record straight.

I do not speak for other religions, but I can say this: There is no room for hate in Christianity. There is no room for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or anyone who feels they are superior simply because of where they were born or what color their skin is. No room at all.

— The Rev. Murray Richmond is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Medford.

The Culture of Curiosity

Brian Heron

Angst. Wrestling. Struggle.

For those of you who have read my blog for awhile you will recognize a certain thread of angst that shows up from time to time, usually in waves. If I felt that this was particular only to me I would make sure that my angst was worked out on the therapist’s couch and leave you out of my personal dramas. But I am quite convinced that my struggle to find my  place in this shifting religious/spiritual realm is not confined to me, but is just a symptom of the deeper and larger issues our religious institutions are facing.

It may be just a little more pronounced in me because my livelihood is tied to this. The average parishioner who is lamenting, “I hope my church doesn’t go away” is just the tamer version of my lament, “Might my livelihood be in jeopardy?” Almost never are my blogs just playful intellectual exercises. They are efforts to negotiate our way into this emerging new world and to work through where I fit, if I fit and whether there will be any paychecks associated with it when “it” comes.

A few days ago I had a breakthrough.

Somewhere in the midst of my last two blogs on the deeper meaning of my vertigo attacks and the comments to my blog something broke loose. I think I found the source of this angst, this wrestling and this struggle that keeps surfacing in my writing and my life.

I am calling this blog “The Culture of Curiosity.” I think it was a combination of two comments, one from Roy and one from Herman, that broke this open for me. Their comments seemed to jar me into finding the source of all this. And I suddenly found myself going all the way back to my days in college taking religion courses.

You see, the thing is, I never intended to become a church pastor. In college I worked on a double major. I took a Sports and Fitness Center Management major thinking that I would likely work my way into being the executive director of a YMCA or similar health-centered community center. But I also worked my way through a religion degree simply because I loved the studies so much that I couldn’t keep away from it. I took religion for the sheer joy of it and majored in Sports Management as a decent way to make a living.

I know people around me saw what I couldn’t, but following college I headed off to seminary for a master’s in religion. Still, I had no intention of becoming a pastor; I just couldn’t curb this deep curiosity I had for religious studies. (I know you are thinking, “He’s getting a master’s in religion and doesn’t want to be a pastor? This dude is a little slow!”)

It wasn’t until I was only fourteen months from graduating that an internship in a church convinced me that being a pastor was the right place for me. Where else could I satisfy this insatiable desire to study religion, dive into the realm of the sacred, and the ponder the role that humans should play in the cosmos.

In seminary I took advantage of theology courses with every elective I had. I studied the writings and speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. I dove into the theology that emerged from the Holocaust, studying both Jewish literature and Christian literature. I wrote a paper in my Reformed theology class on the “Death of God” theology that emerged in the 60’s. And I studied Latin American Liberation Theology that was at the root of confronting political corruption in Central America in the 1980’s. In other words, I had all kinds of fun satisfying my theological curiosity.

When I graduated personal friends who were just a couple of years ahead of me in seminary gave me a copy of Bill Moyer’s Power of Myth, the transcript of his interviews with the famed anthropologist and professor, Joseph Campbell. These friends were my contemporaries and like me they lived in a “culture of curiosity”, a culture that many of my Baby Boomer friends also resonated with.

I was on a roll. I had bachelor’s in religion with honors for my work on “The Protestant Response to the Holocaust.” I had a master’s degree in religion with an emphasis on theology. I was stretching myself into understanding our Christian tradition through the lens of religious mythology. I was becoming a bit of a theologian in my own right. I was completely in my element.

And then something happened. I became a pastor and my culture of curiosity clashed with the culture of church. What had served me so well in college and seminary suddenly unnerved many in my congregations. I remember so very clearly the conversation with a pastor twenty years my senior who cornered me one day with a wrinkled smile on her face saying, “I hear you caused quite a ruckus over at your church this Easter.”

I said, “Yeah. And the weird thing about it is all I did was preach the stuff we learned in seminary.”

I will never forget what she said next, “Oh Brian, I know. But you don’t bring that stuff into the church.”

That was the day my world changed and the day that probably serves as the origin of my angst, my wrestling and my struggle. I got into this whole religion business because I found that there was nothing as satisfying as reading, discussing, thinking about, and pondering theology and spirituality. I got into this business because I wanted to be part of an institution charged with asking the big questions of life such as, “Why am I here?” “What is my ultimate purpose in life?” “How ought we to be treating each other?” “What is the nature of life itself?”

But the deeper I explored those questions the more I felt I was skating on thin ice in the church. I could feel a subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to spend more time reinforcing people’s already chosen beliefs rather than venturing into new worlds. My curiosity has led me to Bali where I was able to experience a Hindu “baptism” and rituals of absolving. I powered my way by pedal and two wheels into Muslim Turkey where I shared with brothers and sisters the spiritual discipline of five times a day prayer. In two months I will fly to Nepal and cycle to Everest Base Camp all the while visiting Buddhist temples and monasteries and getting a taste of Buddhist daily life.

I have two degrees in religion not because I wanted to be well-prepared to serve as a pastor. No, I have these degrees because I am deeply curious about the religious questions that simmer in the hearts and souls of every human being.

This is what makes my heart sing. This is what drove me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on degrees  with nary a plan for how I might use it professionally. This curiosity for the religious and soulful impulse of people and cultures is what drives me despite the puzzled I looks I sometimes get from church folks who seem to wonder, “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”

My angst is this. By virtue of my age I am part of a culture of curiosity. My Baby Boomer contemporaries aren’t just satisfied with the answers that the church gave them as children. They want to know how those answers stack up against the questions of our time that include pondering the truth behind Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Native American spirituality and a host of other smaller religions and spiritual orientations. They want to know how our tradition is going to face the growing environmental crises that we have brought on ourselves. They want to know if and how our theology confirms the truth of science and whether the two can co-exist in the world in ways that are not mutually exclusive. They want to know if religion can become a force for unity rather than the reason for ongoing division.

At their core, they want to know if their theological curiosity will be welcome or a threat.

On that issue the jury is still out.

Words that break our hearts, again

by Beth Neel

On Friday, May 26, a white supremacist began threatening two teenage girls -one African American, one presumably Muslim, wearing a hijab – on the Max train in Northeast Portland.  Three men came to their defense, and were stabbed.  Two died, Rick John Best and Taliesen Namkai-Meche; the third, Micah Fletcher, was wounded but survived.

The first inkling that something had happened showed up on Facebook, as friends wondered why there were so many sirens, why so many police were racing down Broadway.  Then a post that there may have been a stabbing at the Max station.  Then the news.  Then the disbelief.  Then the tears.

What do you even say?  That the violence was so sudden and vicious?  That hate is ever present, and love is too?  The words of my sermon on Sunday felt flimsy; I’m not sure there are even the right words to say.

Except when I read that Taliesen’s last words were about love, his love for everyone on that train.  Except when I read that Micah is a poet, and he has spoken since the attack, words that I find encouraging and courageous and challenging.  Maybe words do matter.

Later that same evening I learned that one of my favorite crafter of words, author, prose-poet, essayist Brian Doyle, died, having succumbed to the ravages of a brain tumor.  I wish I could have read what he might have written about the Max train and the girls and the men.

I went to bed that night with my heart broken in new places.  I woke up Saturday and worked on setting aside all the feeling and thinking about all of it.  Oregon has a terrible history when it comes to welcoming people who aren’t white.  Portland does too, from red-lining to KKK presence to new threats.  While researching how to pronounce Taliesen’s name, I ended up on a white supremacist blog, which I quickly exited but not before reading part of a ghastly post.

The president, by his thrown-off, impetuous words, has opened the door to freedom of hate speech, which took the form of harassing two young women who were sitting on a train, doing nothing more than that.  Haters are emboldened.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will terrify us.

Words led to actions.  Words of hate led to a knife being brandished.  Words of love led to quick courage.  Words led to death.  Words led to fear.

And now words are bringing our community together and tearing at it too.  The mayor tried to limit a free speech rally.  The ACLU said he couldn’t.  Words of sympathy are pouring out, as are donations for the families of the victims.  Words of blame, words of being afraid are heard and printed.

What would happen if there was silence?  What would happen if all the words written in chalk at the Max station were erased?  What if there were only our tears, and the flowers, and quiet?  Would our silence be understood as cowardice or defeat or acquiescence?  Would silence be healing or hiding?

Are words hollow, or all they full?

 

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος

Elusive Joy

by Beth Neel

Truth be told, I would rather conduct a memorial service than a wedding (but for those of you whose weddings I officiated, you were the exception!)  I also find planning the Good Friday service much more interesting, fun, and worthwhile than planning the Easter service.

This is not new information to me. I have been ruminating on it for a while, as this year’s Good Friday service flowed out of me so easily and elegantly, while getting Easter off the ground felt like wading through lime jello dotted with shredded carrots and crushed pineapple – colorful, but not so good.  I think it may have to do with joy and grief, with the elusive nature of joy in this life, and the immediacy and intimacy of grief in this life.

Grief bombards us all the time – grief in death, grief in horrible diagnoses, grief in all the tiny losses that add up, grief that is the constant companion of change.  Joy seems more sparing.  Every since I became a mother, which is one of the greatest joys of my life, I’ve been aware that joy, at least for me, is always tinged with fear: there is this person I love with the depth of my being and to lose her might kill me.  It is the fear of joy being taken away, or the crush of joy evaporating. Grief being taken away is a good thing, a sign of healing, a reprieve from that emotional pain.  Grief evaporating is something wished for, but not always attained.

The shared joy at a wedding is tinged with what might happen as the years unfurl: a fight, a divorce, job frustrations, children frustrations.  But I think my hesitation about weddings is about something else: they can become productions, and petri dishes of family systems theory, and studies in excess.  The true joy that is there can be overshadowed by all the stuff.

Then again, memorial services have as much joy as they do grief – joy for a life well lived, for love that was poured out, joy for having known this person.

And Good Friday and Easter – what about those?

Good Friday pierces me, in the way that it gets to the reality of injustice then and now; violence then and now; anguish then and now.  We have Good Friday experiences all the time, whether we want to or not.  We don’t have Easter experiences very often, or at least I don’t.  The small resurrections we know – remission, healing, reconciliation –  they are good and great, but still tinged with impermanence.

And really, the Easter service can be a bit of a production too.  There are a lot of moving parts: eggs, flowers, trumpets, Handel’s messiah, banners, extra bulletins, extra people, and hats.

This side of the door (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ image) maybe impermanent joy is all we get, joy that is elusive and fleeting.  I suppose fleeting joy is better than no joy at all.  But I do wonder what joy is like on the other side of the threshold.  Tangible and permanent, maybe.

Hopefully.

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A dalliance of daffodils

By Beth Merrill Neel

A dalliance of daffodils –
they would, of course, dally, with that ruffled collar all set out
like some Elizabethan earl
happy to be out of the cold dark of the earth
happy to have burst the bonds of the bulb

Then there’s the intoxication of the daphne –
Thymelaeaceae her proper name
A rose by any other name could never smell this sweet, this heady,
this alluring, this…
She is joy touched with poignant lemon
sad perhaps that she cannot flower for very long
But she’ll be back next year

The trees are all budded
Like middle schoolers waiting for their first dance
A little embarrassed to be there at all, at the ends of the limb
But when they burst open the fun begins

Spring is not my favorite season, but maybe it should be
there’s so much LIFE everywhere
And relief that soon enough the rains will end
And the bees will come pay a visit to the raspberry blossoms
And the crows will start moving acorns to the car’s path, instant dinner
And whatever attention span the kids once had is now so very gone

No matter what,
No matter the plagues, the politicians, the ploys,
Spring arrives, like your favorite cousin visiting again
Keeping you up late in the moonlight
Inviting you to her own world
Promising so much
Never growing old
The season that never dies
Immortal yet fleeting, she is

And worth every minute

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God Goggles

by Mike Hubbard

Wikipedia tell us, “A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own”. As writing, I’m not a fan of the genre, but am at least familiar with it. In a nut shell, there’s some place that’s not here, a place one can only access by means of spell, code phrase, or magic token—a ring perhaps. Or, magic glasses.

In Christian tradition, the notion of parallel universes is hardly hypothetical. The idea of two kingdoms, one, the Kingdom of the World, and the second, the Kingdom of Heaven could be the prototype for the whole fantasy/fiction genus. Both are populated by fanciful creatures—clapping trees, angels, precious sparrows, and wee mortals. Yet, while the Kingdom of the World is beset by villains at every turn, the Heavenly realm is blessedly free of such. No surprise here, at least, not in a linear sense. The valiant mortal, by whatever means, journeys from the near edge of the earthly realm to its far headland. If, upon arrival, he or she earned passage, transportation to that blessed and higher place awaits.

Don’t count on it! Recall where this started—parallel universe. Trapped in linear perspective, the pronouncement “You are very near the Kingdom of God!” would strike fear in its hearer, death seemingly immanent. Worse, would be living past the pronouncement, easily construed as having missed the train. The kingdom isn’t linear.

If open to alternatives and hearing “The kingdom of God has come near to you”, look about and ask, “Where?” “If not at the end of a long, treacherous road, where is it found?” “Where’s the map?”, you ask. A kind stranger says, “First, go down to the the river; then approach a table set in the presence of the terrible powers of this world. There, with friends, take the bread and cup, eat and drink your fill.” Then, as if inspired by some steam punk fantasy, he hands you a pair of goggles. “Put these on and look around.” Rather crudely fashioned, their lenses seemingly of cheap glass, they don’t look like much. You put them on anyway.

You have arrived. And, you haven’t. At first, the landscape, viewed through the goggles, looks a lot like it did before, but somehow more substantial, more real. The world as it looks minus the lenses appears strangely transparent and flimsy. It’s unnerving, so you close the cover of the steam punk fairy tale. The stranger is still with you. He grins, winks, and says, “Keep the goggles.” And vanishes.

Fantasy aside, how would our world look if viewed through “God Goggles”? Put them back on and stroll around a bit.

Enter the bar area of one of those national franchise restaurants whose commercials, along with ones for hemorrhoid medication, bring you the evening news. It’s happy-hour and with cable news supplying the soundtrack, division is rampant. Blue/red, conservative/progressive, gender based or generational, disagreement is rife. Snatches of conversation sound angry, personal, and ugly.

Now, put the God Goggles on. The jumbo flat-screen is gone, along with most of the people. The depth of character of those remaining is manifest. Conversation is quiet and measured. Passion still runs as deep as ever, but angry rawness has disappeared. For every one person talking, two or three are listening, before taking the floor themselves. “You may have a point; I’ll need to think about this.” “I don’t agree at all, but you raise an interesting argument.” You think you hear the stranger’s voice; “Yes, what you see is real; what you walked into isn’t” You leave the goggles on until you’re out the door.

Later, walking through a popular shopping district, you find yourself annoyed by the crowd’s obsession with phones, tablets, watches and such. Mother’s ignore children. A well-dressed businessman on speaker rants and his phone rants right back. Some guy skateboards through the throng, earbuds the size of snails making his head visibly throb. You search your pockets for your goggles.

Again, where the crowd swirled earlier, there are now only the dimmest shadows. “The few remaining belong here; they are real.” The voice quietly informs. “But what,” you ask “of the real world?” “Real world?” “Huh”, he says, “How real are flickering images generated by electron trails on a thin glass screen?” He has a point. But you leave the goggles in your pocket for now.

Headed for church Sunday morning, you remember your strange eyewear. Maybe on a quiet Sunday morning the effect won’t jar the senses overly much. You’re wrong. Solid as rock churches assume the visage of movie set props. Signs advertising denominational distinction have disappeared altogether. You do recognize the local rabbi, but he seems lost in thoughtful conversation with several folks standing in a spot you remember hosting an Evangelical megachurch. Intuitively you know the fate of the good old First Whateverian you’ve called “your” church. As you surmised, it’s gone. Yet it’s presence isn’t diminished, for folks are still there, joyfully singing and worshipping, dogma and edifice a thing of the past. As you make your way toward them, their joy envelopes you and you determine to leave God’s goggles in place from now until forever. Yet, somehow, you know you won’t.

That place where true reality dwells is very near. We can stand in its peace and beauty as long as we desire, yet the outline world is but a distracted step away.  Perhaps, when the shadowy tawdriness of the Kingdom of this World becomes brutally hard to ignore, when unity is mocked and hatred incubated, the time will be right for us to join our brothers and sisters at the river. Sit with them at table. The place is easy to find. If you wear your God Goggles.

 

 

Drum, Dance and Sing!

drumsby Brian Heron

“Drums, Dancing and Singing.”

Those were the words that a friend shared me with as we talked about how to survive this time. Both of us were feeling that the very foundation of what we thought was American was falling away like chunks of an iceberg during a spring thaw. I was sharing how the impact of the swift and brutal changes was leaving me alternating between a deep rage and numbness. At this she said, “You know the Native Americans, who have lived with centuries’ worth of national trauma, have a saying: ‘Every day drum, dance and sing–every day!’”

It didn’t take a doctor or advice from a friend to get me there. Already in recent weeks I had made it a goal to exercise daily, practice some therapeutic yoga, and pluck away on the guitar. Of course, the day often gets away from me, but more days than not I get to the gym to join others in a spinning class or take a walk through the cow and horse pastures near my home and get a few minutes of guitar practice. I never miss my yoga!

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I always knew that these things were good for me. Doctors remind us to take care of ourselves–eat well and exercise regularly. Pastors remind their flocks that Christian living isn’t all serving, but also enjoying God’s creation. Exercise gurus remind us that we will live longer if our bodies are healthier.

But never have I felt the need to commit to these daily disciplines like I do now. This has to do with keeping my sanity. I wished I could say that I am offering that slightly tongue in cheek, but I am not. I am quite sure that I mean that in a clinical sense! I have to slip a handful of daily joys into my life or this madness will sweep me away.

I am baffled beyond comprehension by what is happening to our country: Precious presidential hours spent on crowd sizes, alternative facts (can those two words go together, really?), travel bans that serve to help in terrorist recruitment rather than to curb it, and confused, nonsensical jibberish-talk from the president. I have a spent my whole working life dealing with difficult people and situations and I have to admit, I presently don’t have the tools to deal with this.

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I have a friend who is one of the brightest people I know who recently admitted, “There is a darkness emerging from me that I never knew was there. I have never felt such rage nor ever experienced such dark thoughts. How are people coping?” I told her she wasn’t alone and then shared that I have had to resort to a daily dose of goodness–cycling, walking, yoga, beer, chocolate, singing and guitar. Another friend who has been at the forefront of social justice work said he too was resorting to simple pleasures–time with family, fly fishing, a good bottle of wine, a day in the forest.

Of course we are saying the same thing that the Native American motto has long advised–“Drum, dance and sing–every day!” I used to think of those things as adding richness to my life. Now I think of them as survival tools. Now I think of them as holding on to what is good in a world that is rapidly slipping away.

But these reminders tell me something. They tell me that I am in for the long haul on this. This is not a retreat. This sudden commitment to carve out a portion of each day for joy and pleasure and goodness comes from the realization that recovering a compassionate politics and a just society isn’t going to happen with a single million-person march, or a seven-week series of inspiring sermons or a signed petition to our senator.

This battle will take years, maybe my whole working life, and possibly to my dying day. This isn’t going to be one of those endeavors that we put heart and soul and body and mind into and then rest and relax and enjoy when we are finally done. This is not one of those times we can sprint to the finish line with one dedicated burst of energy. This will be a marathon. We will have to pace ourselves. We will have to even smell the roses along the way.

Drum, dance and sing now. Why? Because that’s how we’ll survive. Why? Because those are the things worth fighting for.

Another Road After Epiphany

by Paul Belz-Templeman

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On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

–Matthew 2:11-12

When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

–Matthew 3:16-4:1

What comes to mind when you think of Epiphany? Is it precious gifts or camels or Wise-ones wandering with a star?  Our images of Epiphany tend to focus on the journey of the star-following Magi (often called “Kings” or “Wisemen” but more likely astrologers) from their home in the East first into Jerusalem and from there on to Bethlehem.  In Bethlehem they present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus.  But that is only half of the story.  There is more to epiphany for Jesus, for the Magi, and for us.

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.  In the East, this celebration is also known as Epiphany. Epiphany means manifestation.  When Jesus is baptized the dove descends and the heavenly voice is heard.   At this moment the Divine Trinity is made manifest: The Father speaks, the Son comes up for air and the Holy Spirit descends.

There are two epiphanies remembered during Epiphany: the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles and the manifestation of the loving Trinity at his baptism.

But the manifestation’s “aha!” and the ensuing celebration do not settle the matter.  There is more: another way opens up and we are invited to take a different road than the one we have travelled so far.

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Magi] left for their own country by another road….Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The epiphany marks the beginning of a new journey, a pilgrimage on a different path.  The Magi refuse the regnant politics and choose to bypass Herod and the big city on their homeward trek.  Jesus does not take the well-trod trail from the Jordan back to civilization but instead is driven by the dove into the wilds where he must rely on God as he did not pack provisions for this quest.  There is more to Epiphany for the Magi and for Jesus.

What about us? Is there more for us after Epiphany? What path is God calling us to follow this year away from our habitual meanderings?  What sacrifices must we make or hardships must we risk? Where do we go after celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus; manifestations of God’s love to us and with us?