Finding the Center

Yesterday we took a break from opening boxes to go to the movies.  We saw “A Quiet Passion.”  It’s not a film for everyone. The pace is slow. Not much happens. There’s no sex or special effects.  Instead it’s a story about Emily Dickinson—about her illness, her deep connection to family, her genius for poetry, and the gift and curse of isolation.  Two things struck me.

First, the strength of her core identity.  Dickinson knew what she thought, what she liked, and what she was called to do with her life and she seldom wavered.  Isaiah Berlin once said there are two kinds of people: hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes know a little about a lot of things but hedgehogs know a lot about one thing. Emily Dickinson was the quintessential hedgehog. Her scope was narrow but very deep.

The film gave the impression that her being a recluse was in large part because she had bright’s disease, but also because she was such an interior person. 

I thought about our culture’s addiction to stimulation and our inability to be still and explore our thoughts and imagination.   Dickinson got up at 3:00 am. It was just her and the blank page waiting to see what would happen.  Our culture too often forgets how important it is to cultivate our interior life: letters, journals, poems, essays. We tend to comment on others’ ideas and miss the opportunity to discover our own.

There’s a scene early in the film when the teacher of her school asks the students to step to the sides of the room to signal their conviction of faith. Emily stands alone in the center.  The teacher says to her, “You are alone in your rebellion.”  I wonder at this kind of strength and certainty.

Then the family.  She lived with her parents and her brother was next door.  In the 19th Century you were your family. Now we are our job.   Perhaps this is why Benedict in his Rule established the vow of stability.  You grow with a place as it grows with you. I think of my many moves and the people in our address book I haven’t seen for decades and I wonder if slower might be better in the long run.

I don’t want to duplicate Emily Dickinson’s life by any means. However, I do want to incorporate some pieces of it and incorporate them into this life in this tumultuous century. I want to “be still and know that God is God” more often. I want to make more space for my imagination—maybe not at 3:00 in the morning but early in the day.  Finally,  I want to pay attention to the roots I have with both friends and family.  I want to be more of a hedgehog than a fox because going faster will not make me wiser or happier or holier. It will just keep me distracted from the life God wants me to live.

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Seeking the City

I have to write fast because the movers are about to load the chair in which I am sitting.  Yes, we are moving. Again.  Jo and I will be married for 45 years Saturday and we have lived in Columbia SC, Atlanta, Porto Portugal, Nashville, Athens, Fairview, now full circle because we are moving to a house in Asheville two miles from where I went to elementary school.

The reason for all these moves was professional. Jobs move us around. But there’s something deeper. I seem to make a major move every ten years.  I have loved most of the homes we have inhabited---the one in Columbia didn’t have air conditioning so that was a challenge---but regardless of the setting there’s a stirring that happens. 

While I am sure there are psychological reasons for this, I believe God builds a restlessness in our souls.  As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” 

I sit on my back porch and there’s the buzz of the cicadas who have come out of the ground this year.  Some deep force has pulled them to move around and some deep force is pulling me. Because what we seek is not a house that makes sense for a 66 year old (smaller, one floor). What we seek is not comfort or a setting or convenience.  We seek our true home which is not on this earth. We yearn for the New Jerusalem where we know who we are and feel connected to the source and therefore to all our brothers and sisters.

I am looking forward to moving across town. I love our new house even as I have loved this one. But I know that at some point, the stirring will return because the truth is there is no cure for homesickness.

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Being Fed

It’s been seven months since the 7th Bishop of Western North Carolina was ordained.  Since October 1, 2016 I have been the celebrant of the Holy Eucharist four times (and during one of them I got completely befuddled at the altar).  The rest of the time I have worn a coat and tie, gone to the 8:00 service and sat on the back row. It’s been a fundamental reorientation. 

I confess I have missed preaching. No doubt some of that is ego. Years ago, when my daughter was in grade school, she complained about going to church by saying: “I have to just sit there while you get to do all the fun stuff.”  Preaching is definitely the most fun of all the fun stuff. I miss seeing what will happen when you connect scripture and this interesting befuddling world of ours. I miss the energy that comes from preaching and there is that ego thing.

But there’s a flip side as well. I love hearing other preachers. One of the downsides of being the bishop is that it’s always your turn. In twelve years, I seldom heard anyone else preach within the diocese except for funerals and ordinations. Now when I get in my car to drive home, I find myself marveling (in a good way) over the sermon. I say to myself, “Wow. How did she connect those images?” Often I am ruminating over them all week. 

Most of all, something happens by walking to the altar with the rest of the flock, kneeling, and holding out your hands to be fed—with absolute certainty that even though you don’t deserve it, the bread of heaven will be put into your hands. Our culture is embedded with a conviction of scarcity—there’s not enough of everything to go around. It’s why we have so much fear embedded into our national conversations.  Regardless of what we say, we all get infected.  Going to the altar and putting out our hands rewires us. We have confessed our shortcomings. We know we are sinners and yet we get to be part of The Great Thanksgiving.

After two decades of preaching every week, it’s good for me to sit and listen and be fed.  Yes, I miss preaching and being part of the show at the altar, but I give thanks to be part of the crowd. One of the crowd who shows up without any food and yet gets to be fed because that’s who Jesus is. 

Most of all I am remembering about the core of what Church is. I don’t diminish the need for administration and oversight. I am not for burning the house down. But at the core, Church is being fed by word and sacrament week after week that reminds us of Christ’s love for us all the time. 

 

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Hope: The Hardest Love We Carry

Porter’s Weekly Reflection 4-26-17

In mid-June my son, Arthur, and I lead a workshop at Mepkin Abbey on Storytelling to Spread the Good News (also one in August at Montreat-http://www.theanchorage.org).   These focus on telling stories around themes in our lives. One of the these I have been pondering is hope.

Among the many books I have reread are Joan Chittister’s Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope and Joanna Macy’s/Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope.  Both insist that we don’t become hopeful by denying our pain or even despair, but by pushing through them to the other side. Unless we die young, sooner or later the world falls apart. It’s what it means to be human and exist on this side of heaven. Macy/Johnstone insist that there is a mix of gratitude, honoring our pain, and seeing with new eyes that enable us to go forth and be agents of hope. Sister Joan uses the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel as the image for our task.  We have to wrestle to receive the blessing and we always walk away with a limp, but we get a new name and a new calling as a result.

Sister Joan writes: “The Spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair. Hope is not something found outside of us. It lies in the spiritual life we cultivate within.  The whole purpose of wrestling with God is to be transformed into the self we are meant to become, to step out of the confines of our false securities and allow our creating God to go on creating in us.”

This is our task: “to feed the hope that comes out of despair” so that “our creating God” can “go on creating in us.”

We all have stories of being wounded or wrestling with angels all night or feeling betrayed.  In addition, it’s easy to become fixated on what’s wrong with our world in this time of information deluge.  But we are not born to be consumers nor are we born to wallow in despair. We are born to be agents of hope by honoring our pain and seeing with new eyes—by being honest about where we are and hopeful about where the living God wants all God’s children to be and then stepping out and walking in the dark.

We need to tell one another our stories of hope lest we relegate it to some sweet theological concept that’s confined to books.  When we speak of our transformations, everyone gets transformed. This is the simple rule for AA which the world needs to adopt.  I don’t want to talk about our politicians for awhile because that talk doesn’t feed my soul. I want to have real conversations about the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in real people’s lives so that I can claim my own story and witness that work in me now and here.  Hope won’t come from our President and Congress changing. Hope comes from the transformation in us which in turn has a ripple effect that changes everything.

You don’t have to go to a conference to tell your story (although you are welcome to come to one of ours). You just find someone who is real and open and begin. The next thing you know, you are in the elevator on the ground floor where things are clear and real and you remember more of who you are and where you are called to be. The process empowers you to be an agent of transformation. It’s how the world gets changed.

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Practice Resurrection

 

Go with your love to the fields. 
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction. 
Practice resurrection.

(From “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”  by Wendell Berry)

This week I have been reading St. Teresa both to prepare for a class I am teaching in the fall at Wake Forest Divinity School on Mysticism as well as to finish my Shalem training for spiritual direction.  What has struck me about this saint’s writings is how deep they are but how modest she is.  Teresa will write about an astounding spiritual experience and then end the chapter by apologizing for the vague writing of a neovite on the spiritual path.  She ends the book writing, “I confess that I am deeply confused and so I ask you through the same Beloved to remember this poor creature in your prayers.” Yet when you read the Interior Castle, there is not sign of confusion nor does St. Teresa seem anything but a poor creature.

She is a woman of faith who has a sure assurance that God will lead her into the inner chambers of God’s love and that God’s love will sustain her to transform her order of the Discalced Carmelites. Teresa was a visionary but was able to be a vehicle of transformation because all she did was rooted in the love of God.  She was always listening for what God called her to do and then she acted upon that call. She had her detractors but she didn’t spend her attention on them.

We are in the Great 40 Days of Eastertide.  The Risen Christ shows himself everywhere. He’s on the road to Emmaus; he comes to the Upper Room; he’s with the disciples as they are fishing. The disciples turn from their fear of the Empire to remember the Great Love and that turning enables them to change the world.

“Go with your love to the fields” the poet says.  “Make more tracks than necessary,/ some in the wrong direction./ Practice Resurrection.”

I don’t want to ignore the issues of the day, but  focusing on what I am against will never lead to new life.  Like Teresa, I want to get into the inner rooms of the Castle and that means letting go of my baggage and looking for on the Risen Christ among us.  I need to remember what I am for instead of focusing on what I am against because our lives are too short and there is so much of God’s glory to behold.

Teresa had no money; the Inquisition was against her; her family thought she was foolish; some or her spiritual directors thought she was crazy. Yet she had a vision of a new way of being human as a follower of the Lord and that vision moved her—literally and figuratively and changed the world.

What’s the love that moves us? Can we have courage to make more tracks than are necessary even if some are in the wrong direction as that love moves us out?  Can we practice resurrection?

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Love, Power, Justice

This week more than most weeks we are living in two worlds yet the sacred story and our story  are the same. We entered Jerusalem Palm Sunday with Jesus to the sounds of “Hosanna.”  We were certain everything would work out. All our doubts and suspicions about human failings and the dark side of our political institutions faded amid the cries.

But Friday is coming. Hosanna will turn to lamentation. 

What’s important about this week is not that we observe what happened 2000 years ago but that we claim the drama in us and in our world so that both might be resurrected.  Easter is less a noun than a verb. “Christ is Risen. We are Risen.” But to get there we have to be changed and to become agents of change in the world. Let’s remember that nothing is the same after that Sunday. There’s an earthquake between the old and the new. It’s a new age and a new world.

As I have been thinking about this, oddly enough what came to me is a small book by Paul Tillich (I know, I need to get out more), Love, Power, and Justice.  Because it’s Tillich it’s not beach reading and I haven’t read it in decades, but what it offers is a framework of what corporate resurrection might look like. I mean what if the world is made new?  How would that operate?

Love is our motive. It’s what drives us. It’s what connects us to one another. It’s what opens our heartsso that we don’t see one another as strangers or as threats but as friends in the deepest sense. Love moves us to communion and community.  It’s what prevents us from dragging people off planes or fixating on walls or any of the other acts of separation that are driven by fear. The Easter world is new. Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ are back in the garden and she hears her true name for the first time.

Justice is our aim.  Justice is about who has what. You cannot love your brother and sister and watch them starve or live a diminished life without responding.  In a new world, all the rules are open for renegotiation.  I have been privileged to go to India many times and I do so not for the Indian people but to cleanse my vision and open my heart.  Because being there alerts me that my worth as a human being is not connected to my monetary worth.  I realize that I have a hard time going to the Lord with open arms because I have identified with my things. In a world of abundance, justice makes us ask why so many have so little. Easter is not about our private resurrection; Easter is about a new world.

And then power. When love is in our heart and justice has become our objective, power is what enables us to become agents of transformation. However, power without the motive of love or the intention of justice is destructive because it’s about fear and ego.  The world cannot change without the exercise of power. Remember, Paul was no wimp. But we must be honest with ourselves before we act.

I know this isn’t my typical reflection and I know it doesn’t come off as a sweet Easter message, but looking at the world around me, I don’t want to celebrate Easter and then move on. I yearn for a new world. I hope for resurrection. For that to happen love and justice and power must be connected to the love, grace, and mercy of the Lord.

May it be so.

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A Great Sea Change

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

 

from The Cure at Troy

Seamus Heaney

This Sunday, Palm Sunday,  the great drama begins. We walk into Jerusalem with all our adolescent hopes and dreams.  With all these people screaming and shouting, what could go wrong?  And then it unwinds and we find ourselves undone.  The expected future has dissolved. As the poet says “like salt in a weakened broth.”  Then we are left with the almost undoable human act—to hope without any power to make that hope come true.

Holy week is the great drama of reversal. We act out the truth that to get to new life,  the hoped-for life, something has to die and that something is in us.  I keep thinking if only those people would change, the world would be so much better off. But I am not a spectator in this thing called life but a participant, a fellow traveler, a sinner in need of redemption.

So, this year as we walk into Jerusalem on Sunday, I am hoping my heart opens up to the drama that is coming.  I am hoping that God gives me the courage to move to Calvary so that the small skeptic inside me can be put to death and hope can be born again. I want to believe in “a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge.” I want to “Believe that further shore/Is reachable from here.” I want to “Believe in miracle/And cures and healing wells.”

I don’t want only to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection; I want for me and this broken world to be resurrected.  Resurrection is God’s job. Hope is my job. May I—and you—have the strength and faith to be about it.

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Life Near the Bone

We have been spring cleaning. We looked around our house and wondered where all this stuff came from: an exercise machine, college textbooks, old televisions, and computers, yes, books and books and books (23 boxes to our Public Library), shoes and shirts I hadn’t worn in a decade, a canoe that hadn’t touched water since our son was thirteen (he’s now 33) and increasingly more.

I confess this was hard for me. Even though we hadn’t used the canoe in twenty years, there’s a voice in my head that says, “But what if…? Maybe we’ll need to cross the French Broad River or maybe we’ll take a canoe trip down the Rhine River or maybe…?”

Our things not only remind us of the past; they also hold out a possibility for an imagined future.  Maybe I’ll suddenly use the weight machine every day.  It’s hard to let go of that part of us we remember just as it’s hard to let go of that part of us we envision. Our things aren’t just trophies of the past; they are heralds of a future as well.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is life near the bone that is sweetest.”  I think he meant that sweetness comes from shedding our imagined life of rewriting the past or inventing  the future and instead setting our feet on where we are in this moment.  What I need now is not stuff but a clear head and heart.  My things can tempt me into a past that never was and a future that never will be.

Of course, I still have way more than 23 boxes of books on the shelf, and of course, I still have way more than I need. But I feel lighter—which is less about spring cleaning and more about aligning myself with God’s promise of resurrection.  Lent is the season of the light lengthening to remind us that anything is possible. Mary Magdalene isn’t going to the tomb with her things but just with her hope and the Lord’s promise.

Now that some of our baggage has been carted away, what’s left is the real work of internal cleaning: letting go of my prejudices and pre-conceptions of how the world works; of the ways I have labelled others and myself; of my notions that my expectations of the future have anything to do with what God has in mind.

I need a yard sale for my mental baggage so that I can get closer to the bone where the sweetness lies. 

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Remembering Our Story

I am caught between a deep unease about where we are as a country and a yearning to embrace a realistic hope.  The political middle has vanished and there is a cynicism that is infecting us. When we are in doubt about the integrity of our elections, we distrust our leaders and are suspicious about their motives, there is a stain on our capacity to feel connected to something larger—especially a sense of the arc of justice.  I mean if we do not think tomorrow will be better than today, then we are in danger of losing our sense of purpose.  I work hard because I like to work, but also because I believe I am part of a movement of making this world move towards God’s reign of peace, justice, and mercy. I need to believe my grandchildren’s world will be better than mine in order to fully engage in the here and now.

 

I urge you to read David Brooks’ editorial from yesterday’s New York Times: “The Unifying American Story.”   He says what ails us is that we lack a cohesive narrative that binds us together and gives us hope in these bleak times.  Our public narrative for centuries has been the Exodus story---once we were slaves but God brought us into a new land.

 

Brooks ends the article with this: “We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.  It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What’s needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be.”

I have come to the limits of what I can do about the President, the Congress and the North Carolina Legislature, and the way I am interpreting their actions isn’t helping me and is making my world darker and smaller.  In the Episcopal Church’s Eucharistic Prayer, we ask God to “lift up our hearts.” I think that’s about giving us a larger horizon or a broader story. We ask God to remind us that God is working God’s purpose out. God is in this and calling on us to be part of the story of moving from “error to truth, from sin to righteousness, from death to life.”

Once our horizon largens, we continue to work, but it’s not all on us, nor do we have to have immediate results. Perhaps we have lost our way but The Way isn’t lost. We as faithful citizens need to call our leaders back into our common story.  We need to remind them and ourselves of who we are. Our story gives us hope.

This is all I know to do: pray for all our leaders and pray for the ones who drive you to despair by name. Pray for their wellbeing and that they grow into the person God intends them to be. Pray for your heart of stone to become a heart of flesh so that you can feel what you feel but not be hardened.  Look at what is---it doesn’t help to hide—but hold on to what is promised. And the hardest thing: keep believing that our leaders can behave differently and our world can be true to its calling to move towards God’s kingdom because we are part of a larger story of God’s redeeming the world. 

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The Gift of Dante-world

Jo and I got home yesterday from being at Virginia Theological Seminary for six weeks.  It was wonderful to be there. We were able to connect with old friends that go back forty years.  Then there are the museums.  One cold February afternoon Jo and I were gazing at a Van Gogh painting and I realized we were the only people in the room. And of course, what a gift to take the Eucharist every day.

What struck me the most, however, is what a joy it is to immerse yourself in one thing for a period of time.  For the past six weeks I have been in Dante-world.  I had this great idea that my class could cover the whole Divine Comedy in six weeks (I know—crazy).  Of course, we didn’t. We skipped around, but the gift for me was to go into this alternate world that was ordered and focused on a soul going from hell to heaven.

Thomas Merton once said that one of the problems with modern life was its fragmentation. “Patchwork” was his term.  We seldom do one thing to its completion or focus on one thought all the way through. We are flipping channels even when we’re not in front of the television.

At VTS I realized how much my brain had been rewired to that culture of distraction.  It took me some time to be able to focus intently on one thing instead of going down my daily to do list or allowing an hour to slip away gazing at the endless pages on the computer.

Kierkegaard said “the purity of heart is to will one thing.”  I don’t know that my heart got much purer, but I do know at some point I gave into being in Dante-world. When that happened, I was more at peace and in some sense at home.  I wasn’t as distracted and I wasn’t focus on my own status in the world. I was in Dante’s world. I walked down into hell with him and up the seven story mountain with him and floated up into paradise with him. 

That kind of attention changed the way I looked at the world around me.  It gave me a lens to see our politicians and a perspective to think of my own journey.  It made me less reactive to the current craziness.

So I invite you for a time to lose yourself in one thing---it doesn’t matter too much what it is (well, probably not gambling) so long as in some way it feeds you and reminds you of the person you have forgotten to be. 

Truthfully, I have had enough Dante for a while, but I am reluctant to return completely to distraction. If I can keep awake, the Holy Spirit will open another door.

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Dante.jpg

In the Belly of the Whale

Porter’s Weekly Reflection

3-8-17

It’s been five months since I retired (but who’s counting?).  There are many things I don’t miss about being the bishop—I’ve discovered you can have a happy life without meetings. But I do miss peaching. I am sure some of it’s ego. There’s a dark side of me that loves being above people talking as if I am Moses delivering some crucial news from the Holy One. But I also miss the creative movement. I never know what’s going to happen when I finally sit at my computer to write which is the wonder and the agony for all creative endeavors. The Spirit shows up whenever she wants.

Today I am preaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. The text is Jesus telling the people the only sign he will give is “the sign of Jonah.”

As I ruminated over this, what came to me is that the only way we find repentance—which is what the Ninevites do to Jonah’s great disappointment---is by going underwater in the belly of the whale.  I mean wouldn’t it be so convenient if we could just dictate how other people should behave and they would automatically conform to our wishes? Wouldn’t it be swell if we could just text the President and the Congress and tell them how to make our country work for everyone and it would happen?

But we are on this earth for our communal conversion.  If it weren’t for the people of Nineveh how would Jonah find new life?  What else would push him into the deep end where you have to let go of your agenda and hold on to God’s agenda?

I don’t mean to minimize the mess we are in as a country, but I do believe with all my heart that messes are also places for conversion—everyone’s conversion.  Because they make us look at what Anne Lamott calls our “ledger”—the list we have inside of who has wronged us or hurt us.  Getting in the belly of the whale helps us let go—and maybe is the only way some of us can let go—of the list so that we can be free to live the life God calls us to live. Still committed to our principles but not bound by those we perceive as the enemy.

I give thanks for the occasion to have this come into my head and heart and hope it’s helpful for my and the congregation’s healing.

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Things That Last

This weekend Jo and I went to the National Arboretum.  Created in 1927 it’s in the Northeast corner of the District of Columbia and covers 446 acres. Because it’s February (even though it was 65 degrees Saturday) not much was in bloom, but being there was stunning.

What captured my attention was the Bonsai Exhibit.  As I was walking through mesmerized by these small gorgeous plants, I saw a Japanese White Pine that was first planted (if that’s the right word) in 1625.  That’s the same year (according to the source of all knowledge—Wikipedia) that New Amsterdam (which became New York City) was established.

This small plant has lived through changes and changes: regimes, countries, technologies, even the atomic bomb (the tree was donated in 1979 but was only two miles from the bomb in Hiroshima in 1945)—all of it. People have cared for it and nurtured it and pruned it so that it’s here.

As I gazed at it, I wondered, in this time of noise and conflict; in this era of change and technology, what will last for six centuries or for one or for another generation?  And I liked that what was there wasn’t a building but a plant. It wasn’t a monument but an organism that needs attention.  It wasn’t something generations could ignore, but this living tree that had to be cared for with detailed attention.

I have become weary of the noise of the news cycle that takes my energy and attention but has so little substance over the long haul.  Instead I find myself reading The Divine Comedy—a text older than the bonsai---and looking at plants that predate the founding of this country.  Both are alive and both have something to say that sustains me.

I am not declaring a separate peace from the political scene. There is too much at stake. However, I am saying that for the long-haul I need to see and read and be touched by things that are true and connect with something that has lasted over time.  The bonsai and Dante reminded me of how essential it is to be anchored in something bigger than this moment and to focus on the quality and nature of our work so that we might do something for which future generations will give thanks.

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Thomas Merton

Part of my time at Virginia Seminary has been spent teaching an Adult Sunday School class on Thomas Merton at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown.  I had forgotten what an amazing and generous mind Merton had and how helpful his observations are for us today.

Merton’s interests were beyond the Church, spirituality, and contemplative prayer.  He engaged the issues of his day—racial justice, peace, ecumenism, and interfaith work as well as poetry and photography.  He reminds me that we can’t control when we are born or what we must encounter.  He lived through the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the Vietnam War. the struggle for civil rights, and Vatican II.  Although he brought great attention to the Roman Catholic Church and the Trappist Order, he also was constantly pushing the boundaries even as those in authority pushed back.

The point is he showed us how to keep a contemplative stance in a tumultuous world.  Among his many writings, I hold on to a handful for constant solace and direction.  In 1965 he wrote a letter to James Forest that I come back to again and again.

And then this: do not depend on the hope of results.  When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real.  In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything…. 

So the next step in the process is for you to see your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important.  You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness….All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.  Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.

 The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths.  If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the invincible disappointments…. The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see.  If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process.  But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.[i]

 Our times are so confusing. It’s hard to know what action will help. I often wonder if I am merely contributing the increasing noise around us.  However, to think about personal relationships instead of abstract causes helps, and to think about just trying to serve Christ’s truth instead of win some struggle over those whom I have identified as the problem reorients me.  At the end, I have to find a way to be true to who I am and what I can do now to increase Christ’s presence where I am, and that’s enough. That’s more than enough.

So, I give thanks that almost fifty years later, Merton’s words are still a guide and a comfort and a light in the darkness for me.

+Porter

[i] in Thomas Merton: The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), pp. 294-297)

 

Your Place in the Family of Things

2-8-17

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things. 

Mary Oliver

I have been in two worlds for the past three weeks. I have been in Alexandria, VA at The Virginia Seminary—just across the Potomac from Washington.  The fast pulse of Washington with its adrenaline as well as its division flows across the river.  Since the election I haven’t been able to watch the news channels on television.  They make me want to move to Canada.  Instead I rely on Judy Woodruff on the News Hour to keep me not only informed but to some degree comforted because she offers a sane perspective.  She is the news version of Mr. Rogers.  But these days even Judy looks perplexed and perturbed.  There is a fundamental disorientation in our country that we, or at least I, feel on some molecular level. 

Of the many blessings of being at VTS, perhaps foremost is being at the Eucharist every weekday.  Regardless of the news; regardless of the outrage or the smug sense that the people I agree with have gained some upper hand, I get to hear God’s Word, say the Prayers of the People, be absolved of my many sins, and eat the Bread of Heaven and drink the Cup of Salvation.

I mean the jagged edges of my current story get gathered in the never-ending story of God’s redemption of the world and like the poem, I rediscover my place in the family, not of things, but of God’s ongoing movement. I get hope that in Christ God is bringing this world “from error into truth, from sin into righteousness, from death into life.”   This grounds me in something bigger and true and makes me believe that I really am sent into the world to “love and serve the Lord.”

In all honesty, I think that’s why I am at VTS. It is less to teach students about preaching and the spirituality of Dante and more for my own realignment.  I did not know how hungry I was until I was able to be fed every day.

You may not be able to receive the Eucharist every day, nor may you want to. We all have our own path. But we all need to be fed.  “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely” the Lord calls you to remember your place with Him and to recall beyond the noise of Washington, the wild geese call you home.

+Porter

 

Resting in the Grace of the World

When I was in seminary, I spent a summer at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga for my Clinical Pastoral Education.  I was assigned as a chaplain in the Oncology and the Cardiac Care Wings. I talked to a lot of people with cancer and heart attacks.  About four weeks in I hit a wall. A woman that I had been seeing every day for weeks died. I went to talk to Phil Summerlin, my supervisor, and said, “I feel as if I work in the House of Death,” and after a pause he said, “You know Porter, the Chattanooga Lookouts have a game this after. Why don’t you take it in?”

So, I spent the afternoon eating popcorn and watching baseball. Honestly, I quit liking baseball when I quit drinking because what’s the point of sitting in the sun all afternoon without beer? But this day I felt a great relief in watching a small world with rules and a field with boundaries and an order beyond disease and death.

There are no baseball games in February and politics aren’t the same as suffering and confronting our mortality, but I am in a similar emotional and spiritual place: an inner fatigue from the political drama and upheaval of the past weeks much less the future Supreme Court hearings. I have come to think that this turmoil isn’t a blip on the radar screen but will be with us for some time.  Therefore, I am discerning a strategy to combine endurance and presence.  How can I be engaged with the issues of the day but avoid cynicism or despair or a hard self-righteousness?  How can I find a way not to label everyone with whom I disagree as a Neanderthal, yet also attend to our deep differences and the high stakes of some political moves? How can I be a faithful lover of God, follower of Jesus and engaged citizen for the long haul?

There are many possibilities, but the one which has come to me came from a Wendell Berry poem:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

There’s a reason Jesus periodically left his work and his disciples and went away to pray.  Like all of us, he needed to remember who he was and who finally was in charge of everything.  He needed to “rest in the grace of the world and [be]…free” just as you and I do.  There is a rhythm to living a holy life in the world—which is what I hope we are all trying to live. It’s by engagement and rest.  It’s about being in the public square and in a place where you remember who you are in God. That balance is what keeps us human and sane and holy.

I, for one, have political fatigue. I haven’t withdrawn. I am not cynical, but my soul is weary and like the speaker in the poem, I am waking in the night “in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be.”  So, I will find for a time my version of where the wood drake rests—which could look like the National Gallery (since we are in Alexandria, VA).  After I “rest in the grace of the world” and feel as if “I am free,” I will re-engage as a responsive citizen because you can’t stay at the ball park forever. The next day you go back to work.

 

+Porter

My Story--The Story

This weekend Jo and I drive to Alexandria, VA for six weeks. I am teaching two classes at the Virginia Theological Seminary. Yes, we will go to the museums; our favorite custom on Sunday is to eat lunch at the National Gallery after church and then just walk through the rooms and wonder.

Both the classes I’m teaching have a strong literary bent: “Dante: Going to Hell and Getting to Heaven” and “Using Poetry and Fiction in Sermons.”  As I looked at all the classes offered at VTS this semester, I realized how much of my theology is through a literary lens.

A long time ago I was teaching 12th Grade English at Lovett School in Atlanta. I was walking to my car on a hot April afternoon and one of my students was sitting under a tree crying. Bawling. I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen her so I could get on with my life away from work, but my better angel steered me to her and I asked what was wrong. She held up Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a novel by Thomas Hardy. Through her sobs she said, “It’s this book.”

I stared at her because I had been afraid no one in the class would actually read the book much less appreciate it. But this student’s story in some way was Tess’s story. When she read the text, she was reading her life, and because of that on a hot Atlanta afternoon, it wasn’t Tess she wept for.

So much of my faith is like this. I have never spent much time worrying about whether the Bible is “true.”  I don’t think about the archeological data or whether if we could carbon date the Shroud of Turin, we could be more comfortable with our beliefs.  Much of my faith comes from knowing that this sacred story I am reading is reading me. When I read the scriptures, I could also sit under a tree and hold up the Bible and say “What’s going on with me is because of this book.”

I am teaching these classes at VTS more for myself than the students.  I constantly need to be grounded in the wonder of the never-ending story of salvation.  I need to believe that if I feel as if I am in exile, the Lord will bring me home because that’s how powerful God’s love is.  Or if I feel as if I am crippled and can’t get to the source of healing, my friends—my community of believers—would chop through a roof if they had to because that’s what community means. My story makes sense to me because it’s part of God’s larger story of salvation, and honestly that’s the primary way the Biblical story makes sense. If scripture is just about God doing something amazing a long time ago with the people lucky enough to have lived in sacred times, then what difference does it make to me or you?  The Bible is not the last word; it’s the living word.

Yes, at VTS I am hoping to teach something useful to my students to make them better priests and not to bore them or spend our time puzzling over the proper way to write a bibliography. But most all I am praying that we play in the world of story--that like the film Jumanji, when we open The Divine Comedy or the poems of James Tate or Mary Oliver or Naomi Shihab Nye, we don’t analyze them. Instead we find ourselves in this new world where we can look back and see our own more clearly—as if for the first time.

 

+Porter

Living A Life You Can Edure

Amid the drama of this week—the Inauguration, the Women’s March, the Hearings---amid all of that, I gained a different perspective. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of any of the above, but our headlines are only a piece of what is going on in the world. Moreover, often what in the long run turns out to be important happens in the corners. This week I found myself thinking about Marge Piercy’s wonderful poem and an article in The Economist about Vera Rubin (I know—random).

Frist the poem:

The Seven of Pentacles
by Marge Piercy

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harv
est comes. 

Whatever we think about the events of the week in Washington, we have this one life to live which requires that we make connections that endure; that we grow gardens that feed us and the world; that we be part of bringing God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and mercy on earth as in heaven.  This is a life-long project and often the growth is underground and doesn’t make headlines.

Which brings me to Vera Rubin.  Born with a brilliant scientific mind, In the 1940’s she was told in high school to “stay away from science.”  At Vassar, she was the only astronomy major to graduate her year.  She thought about a Ph.D. at Princeton but woman were not allowed into the program until 1975.  Married at 19, she gave up a place in graduate school at Harvard and instead followed her husband and took night classes at Georgetown University for her doctoral degree. 

When she visited Palomar Observatory in 1965, the home of the world’s largest telescope, there were no women’s bathrooms. Vera Rubin stuck a handmade skirt sign on the men’s room door.

She kept persisting. She kept following her passion—digging underground. She had a major role in discovering “dark matter.”  She discovered “NGC 4500, a galaxy in which half the stars orbit in one direction, mingled with half that head the other way” (The Economist, 1/7/17, p.70).  She won the Gold Metal of Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society and the United States National Medal of Freedom even as she raised four children.

Yes, we have a civic responsibility to have our voice heard in conversations about our country’s/world’s direction.  But the main work of our lives is to live our life; to follow our passions regardless of what is going on the world.  Some of that effort will be underground and hard and long term. In 1947 Vera Rubin asked for a graduate catalogue from Princeton and was told “not to bother: women were not accepted for physics and astronomy.”  None of the leaders of the field were aware of this woman going to night classes. She kept at it because it was her work.  It was the garden she was given to grow, and if she didn’t she couldn’t become who God made her to be.

May we have the courage and vision of Vera Rubin to do our work. Amid all the noise of this new chapter in our country, let us find a way to “live a life you can endure” and that connects us to God’s work, so in God’s good time the harvest will come.

+Porter

 

 

 

Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart

In Western North Carolina we have had snow and cold. We are not Maine or North Dakota so it was hardly a blizzard, but it doesn’t take much to put everything to a stop. Jo and I live on five acres of land in a development that is on a non-public road.  So, Sunday morning, I began shoveling our driveway with images of heart attacks in my mind.  One of my neighbors has a fancy tiller with a plow on the front and he helped. Since both of us are over sixty, we rested often. We talked about the day, the Christmas some years ago that was a blizzard, our kids, when to plant gardens. As we talked, another neighbor had hitched up a plow to the front of his tractor and was plowing our street.  And in a quiet way, it felt as if God’s kingdom had drawn near. 

 

I was thinking about this yesterday when I read the words from the Epistle in the Morning Office: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you” (Ephesians 1).

 

My neighbors and I have little in common. We don’t talk about our work or politics. We don’t talk about religion. However, there are times when our pace stops; we come out of our bubbles and “the eyes of our hearts [are] enlightened” and the kingdom comes near. On a snow day, it doesn’t matter how you voted  or how you have mapped the world. We all want a clear road that connects us to community and one another, and the truth is we can’t clear that by ourselves.

 

When it snows, there aren’t Democrats or Republicans; there are just humans, citizens, fellow men and women on the path trying to find our way.  In this age of division and sometimes anxiety, suspicion and rancor, my hope is that we remember it’s always snowing. Every day we need to help one another clear a path.  We need to help each other connect our driveways to the common thoroughfare so that we find our way to the city of the New Jerusalem—which is our common destination.

 

A passage from O’Bama’s speech last night that lifted me up: “Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when this disappoints you. But…it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith…will be confirmed.”

 

That presumption of goodness in others opens us up for God to make “the eyes of our hearts” be “enlightened” so that we might remember “the hope to which God has called us.”  The truth is somewhere it’s always snowing, and we are called out of our little boxes to the common road that leads—if we can see with the eyes of our hearts---to the New Jerusalem.

 

+Porter

The Brightness of a New Page

 

1-4-17

I am living just as the century ends.

A great leaf, that God and you and I

have covered with writing

turns now, overhead, in strange hands.

We feel the sweep of it like a wind.

We see the brightness of a new page

Where everything yet can happen.

Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure

And look at one another, saying nothing.

Ranier Maria Rilke---Book of Hours

 

          What did you resolve for this year?  Lose some weight?  Exercise?  Take on that project that has lain dormant? 

          I read this Rilke poem every New Year because it holds that tension between our enthusiasm of starting new with the realism of knowing that there are so many forces beyond our control.  I want to finish a book I have been working on for at least six years. I want my children to flourish and avoid all the mistakes I made at their age.  I want to believe that my country can live up to its dream of being that city shining on the hill.  I want the Church to be the Church. And I want less nonsense from our leaders and more true vision that leads to improving the common good. I want to recapture that great hope I had eight years ago when Barack Obama promised “Change you can believe in.”

          Yet there are the last lines of the poem: “the fates take its measure.”  We live amid forces beyond our control.  The recession; the falling of the Twin Towers; Katrina; the wounds that come because life is fragile and the world is complex.

          Our calling in this New Year—with all the confusion around a new President—is to hold the polarity of hope and fate and live into the tension.   Everything can happen because God is God and the Spirit still broods and always will brood over the earth.  This is not a time for despair or for playing it small. It’s “the brightness of a new page.”  I will not give up on hope simply because of an election. God is bigger than that.

But I will also not—or at least try not—to be so foolish to think that I or anyone knows what will happen today or tomorrow or the rest of 2017. The fates say nothing about the future.

This is a long way of saying my resolution for this year is to be more faithful.  To live this day for the Lord and believe there will be manna tomorrow.  God’s calling is too big for me or you to spend 365 days or even one day worrying about Donald Trump and the Congress.  We have to live this life today—because it’s the only day we have. We also have to know that out of our hands the fates take their measure and say nothing to us.  Things will happen in 2017 that don’t fit into our life plan. This is why we have faith. This is the wonder of being alive.

Happy New Year,

+Porter

Home A Different Way

                                                                         12-28-16

The days are getting longer.  Unnoticed by us the light is increasing day by day.  In this Christmastide let us reorient ourselves by turning towards the light.

Our Lord commanded us to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves.”  No doubt we have gotten the serpents’ part down.  Our news is filled with a repetition of all that is wrong and all that we must fear. This is especially true on this day of the Feast of the Holy Innocents—the day King Herod ordered all the males under two to be rounded up and slaughtered.  Yes, it’s important to keep a healthy awareness of the ramifications of sin.

However, we live too much in the serpent land of skepticism and cynicism and need to move to the land of the doves—of innocence and wonder and hope.  Let’s remember that after the magi saw the child and stood in the light, “they went home a different way.” 

It’s too easy to despair or to make our world smaller out of fear.  If we lock our doors and close our lives, we will never get to the place of the new birth that is also a new beginning for everyone. Christ is born in all people—and all means all. Everyone goes home a different way because the world is finally turned rightside up.  God is distant from us but in this world—closer than our own breath. 

Regardless of the news, we are called to base our hope and our lives on the conviction that the Word has become flesh in us—in this world—closer than our own breath.  The pilgrimage we must make is not to Assisi or Iona, but to the holiness in each of us regardless of how scary the headlines are or how unworthy we may feel.  That means we all get to start over—Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory/ Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  The new birth isn’t about an event two thousand years ago but is happening now.  It’s the wonderful part about being born in a stable---there are no doors. It’s open season for grace and it’s free.

The world has always been filled with darkness and light. However, we become what we attend to. In Jesus’ days, it would have been the smart thing to pay attention to the decrees from Herod—to hunker down and play it safe.  But the Lord calls us to follow the light; to find the Christ, and to take a new way to a home that is bigger than we are comfortable with.  Because this new birth is too big for definitions of Left/Right. The Word has become flesh everywhere in everyone. We are all invited to take a different road.

In this bleak midwinter, let’s do more than look to the stars. Let us let the light inside us, so that through us God might make the world new.

+Porter