Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Delight – Banana Slug Encounter

I have kind of a thing for banana slugs which are native to the redwood forests of the west coast. The second-largest species of terrestrial slug in the world, they are fascinating. One could hardly imagine a creature on land that is more alien to human existence. Among other things, they are all hermaphroditic (male and female at once). They have bright yellow color, long, slimy bodies and leave a glistening, sticky trail behind them. But, in their way, they are beautiful and move with a slow-motion grace. And they play an important role in the ecosystem of which they are part.

Several years ago, while on sabbatical, I enjoyed hiking around beautiful Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, California where I occasionally encountered banana slugs. One day I was sitting on the bank of the San Lorenzo River which runs through the park. I was enjoying the sound of the water below and the breeze rusting in the leaves above, delighting in the play of light through the trees and on the water, and the feel of sun and breeze on my skin. To my left I noticed a banana slug resting on the trunk of a tree.

As I sat admiring the slug, it occurred to me that we were encountering one another for just a moment in our respective lives. To be honest, I don’t know how aware the slug was of me. But, I recognized that just as I had been up to things before sharing this space and time with this particular slug and would eventually leave and get on with my human life, the slug had been living its slug life before our paths crossed and would continue after I left.

I wondered what the slug’s life was like. In what bodily pleasures did it delight? What pain had it experienced? Did it have desires and fears? I tried to imagine this slug enjoying the feel of sun or rain on its back, the taste of whatever food it enjoyed. I wondered what banana slug romance might be like. Then I thought, “Here we are in each other’s presence and I am wondering all these things about you–and I do not even know your name." That was followed immediately by, "Ah, but, God does. Before and after our encounter, God was paying attention to you. God delights in your existence moment by moment."

At that point I had one of the handful of mystical-like experiences I have had in my life. I became acutely aware of my being intimately and inseparably connected with this particular banana slug and all other creatures. As a fellow creature participating in the wonder of life and held in the gaze of God’s delight, this slug and I were profoundly related to one another and to the trees and deer and fish and all else. 

Humans, created in the image of God and charged with stewardship of God’s creation, have a special place in that creation. But, it is imperative that we never forget that we are also part of that creation and all other creatures. We are related to everything because everything is related to God. The rest of creation is not there just of our use and consumption. Each other part of creation has its own integrity as the creature of God.  Every part of creation deserves our respect and reverence. And it requires our care – for its own sake as well as ours. 

God delights in the banana slug and as a fellow creature it is my sibling. Not in the same way as is another human being, but my sibling just the same, and thus worthy of my delight, reverence, and gentle regard.

Learn more on banana slugs here:

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mercy - Small acts of mercy

In his novel, All Hallows’ Eve, Charles Williams has a scene in which a pompous and demanding woman is putting her daughter on the train.
Lady Wallingsford said, “Get in, Betty. You ride first class as far as Laughton, you know.” She added to a porter, “This part is for York?” The porter, having just called out, “Grantham, Doncaster, York,” exercised a glorious self-restraint, and said, Yes, lady.” He spoke perhaps from habit, but here habit was full of all its past and all its patience and its patience was the thunder of the passage of a god dominant, miraculous and yet recurrent. Golden-thighed Endurance, sun-shrouded Justice, were in him and his face was the deep confluence of the City [the New Jerusalem]. He said again, “Yes, lady,” and his voice was echoed in the recesses of the station and thrown out beyond it. It was held in the air and dropped, and some other phrase caught up and held. There was no smallest point in all the place that was not redeemed into beauty and good–except Lady Wallingsford’s eyes . . .

It is a bit overwrought perhaps, but I think he is onto something. If at the heart of everything is an All-merciful Love this might be what we should expect. If we are created to reflect and participate in that Love, every act of affection or mercy, however insignificant it might seem, reverberates with an awesome and eternal significance. In this case the porter’s seemingly small act of patience when he might have responded with some expression of exasperation. But, that small act of patience reverberated spiritually throughout the train station with beauty and goodness.

There are times when the grand gesture is called for – violence, injustice, falsehood to be resisted. But, everyday acts of mercy – patience, gentleness, kindness, peace-making, endurance, courage, forgiveness, forbearance, self-control, the sharp word or gesture withheld, speaking up on behalf of another – these are more important than we might think. Maybe, whether anyone else recognizes it or whether the one doing is even completely aware they have done it, every small act of mercy is celebrated in heaven.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.

In a world where rancor ricochets all around, maybe part of the Christian vocation is to be “shock-absorbers” practiced in defusing and deescalating. In a world grown callous and snarky, a world where the witty put-down is celebrated, the Christian vocation is to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), with gentleness and revernce (1 Peter 3:15). This is what it means to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). We are to be the fragranc of that sacrificial love..

As we have seen before in this series, this sounds nice, but is not easy. Dorothy Day reflected that being patient in little things takes a heroic virtue. In his book on forgiveness, Williams compares a life of patient endurance with the singular act of self-sacrificial martyrdom and suggests the former might actually be harder.

We are told the porter’s heroic act of patience and glorious restraint might have come from habit. By practice, with the Holy Spirit working in us, we can hope that day by day, moment by moment, we might develop the habit of doing our small part to keep the darkness at bay and see the world redeemed into beauty and good.

Here are some others who have said something similar:

Monday, November 21, 2016

Delight – Thanksgiving & Our Mutual Dependence

This Thursday is Thanksgiving in the USA.

“On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.”
~ William Jennings Bryan

One of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is this one from the Order for Compline:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, p. 134

It is a reminder that the world in which we live, the lives we live – all that we are and all that we have – is all the sheer gift of God. It is not something we can seize or hold. We can only receive and give thanks. This receiving is not passive but rather an active attentiveness to each moment as the irreplaceable, intimate gift of God. We thank God who wonderfully created us and still more wonderfully redeems us. It is no accident that the central practice of the Church is the Eucharist the root meaning of which is “thanksgiving.”

The prayer from Compline is also a reminder that we are dependent on each other’s toil. The notion of an autonomous individual, rugged or otherwise, is a false one. It is fundamentally absurd. We are born into, and dependent upon from start to finish, a web of relationships. We always and only live at the hands of others. Part of the discipline of active, attentive gratitude is giving thanks for everyone else. Margaret Visser writes, “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other” (Gratitude’s Grace Can Be Itself a Gift).

Thanksgiving is a good reminder to pay attention to our interdependence and appreciate others on whom we depend. So, this Thanksgiving, thank God for his unfailing sustaining providence. And thank all those other folk on whose toil your life depends. Thank family and friends. But also thank everyone who had a hand in making your Thanksgiving feast possible: those who planted, those who harvested, those who processed and packed, those who drove the trucks and those who loaded and unloaded the trucks, those who stocked the shelves and those who checked out the groceries. Thank the utility workers who make sure the power gets to your home – sometimes in inclement weather. And thank sister turkey and brother pig for the sacrifice of their lives for your enjoyment and nourishment. And thank all who participate in one way or another in the web of mutual dependence.

Of course, the third Thursday of November is but a particular, public reminder of our dependence on God and one another. We can seek an active attentive gratitude day in and day out. One way to do that is to end each day with an adaptation of the Jesus prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thank you for ____________.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Mercy – Resolve to understand every person fully

A version of this post was already planned for today. It seems even more pertinent now. There has been a good deal of consternation following the recent Presidential election in the United States. One common refrain has been that the election has revealed just how deep and wide are the political/cultural divisions in America. We do not seem to understand one another. Often enough it seems we do not really care to understand one another. But this is not new. And it is not unique to America.

Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize Community in France, wrote this reflection about a decision he made as a young man in the wake of the hatred and violence of the 1930's and 40's:

When I was a young man, at a time when Europe was torn apart by so many conflicts, I kept on asking myself. Why all these confrontations? Why do so many people, even Christians, condemn one another out of hand? And I wondered, is there, on this earth, a way of reaching complete understanding of others?

Then came a day – I can still remember the date, and I could describe the place: the subdued light of a late summer evening, darkness settling over the countryside – a day when I made a decision. I said to myself, if this way exists, begin with yourself and resolve to understand every person fully. That day, I was certain the vow I made was for life. It involved nothing less than returning again and again, my whole life long, to this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood. 
– The Wonder of a Love

Resolve to understand every person fully. What might that look like? Here are three other quotes that I think begin to point the way:

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say, like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
– Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Peace will only begin to be possible when we try to do justice to the side with which we do not feel sympathy, and earnestly try to call up in our imagination the sorrows we have not suffered and the angers we do not feel.
– G. K. Chesterton, London Illustrate News June 25, 1932

This requires a degree of self-denial. Before I can see my neighbor, before I can love the other as they are, I need to get myself out of the way. I need to make peace with the discomforting challenge their difference presents to me. I need to let go of my own prejudices and convictions that incline me to interpret the other on my terms rather than on their terms. In order to give the other the benefit of the doubt, I need to be willing to doubt my own assumptions and certainties. I need to entertain the possibility that I am wrong and/or have something to learn from the other. I need to die to myself in order to make space for the other, to imaginatively get inside the other’s skin.

It might also mean that I need to take care how I think and talk about others, what I post on Facebook and Twitter about them. It is so tempting, isn't it, to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree or who we find it hard tro understand. It is easy to roll our eyes when they are mentioned. It is easy to jump to conclusions about them that are less than generous.

This does not mean that we give people a pass for words and actions that are hurtful or violent. It does not mean that in the end everyone is OK just the way they are. It does not mean we do not challenge one another. It does mean that before I can challenge another, I need to take care that I truly understand them as they understand themselves rather than how it is convenient and comfortable for me to understand them.

How might I commit to getting to know others as they understand themselves? Muslims? Evangelical Christians? Liberal Christians? People in the rural heartland? People in coastal cities? Gays, lesbians and transgendered? Conservatives? Liberals? Immigrants? The other person in front of me right now? It begins by learning the story they tell about themselves rather than resorting to the often more comforting stories others – particularly their opponents – tell about them. I can invite others who I find it hard to understand to tell their story and listen carefully, patiently, and non-defensively.

In my experience, this is much harder than it sounds.  But, with Brother Roger, I am convinced it is part of what it means to live into the way of mercy that is the cost of following Jesus. It means making this irrevocable decision: seek to understand all, rather than to be understood.

Related posts:

Monday, November 14, 2016

Delight – Expressing beauty in the everyday

Philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes that we can demonstrate delight and enact beauty in the everyday:

There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a web-site, which seems at first site quite remote from the aesthetic heroism exemplified by Bernini’s St Teresa in Ecstasy or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. You don’t wrestle over these things as Beethoven wrestled over the late quartets, nor do you expect them to be recorded for all time among the triumphs of artistic achievement. Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.
– Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, p. 9

How will you attend to the way of beauty today? How will convey meanings and values which have weight for you in your day to day activities and day to day encounters?

You can watch Scruton on beauty here: Why Beauty Matters

Friday, November 11, 2016

Mercy – The Geometry of the Kingdom of God

Dorotheos preached a sermon once to the other monks in his monastery.  It seems many of the monks were grumbling.  They were unable to love and worship God properly because they had to put up with one another’s shortcomings.  There was so much hypocrisy, so much gossiping, so much petty jealousy and backbiting.  In other words, it was church as usual.  Or family as usual, business as usual, politics as usual. It was people as usual. How can you love God when you have to put up with other people’s ordinary, irritating presence, let alone those who we find extraordinarily offensive or threatening?  “No,” Dorotheos told the monks.  You don’t understand.

Here is the ending of a sermon, On Refusal to Judge our Neighbor:

Each one according to his means should take care to be at one with everyone else, for the more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw an outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us consider that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men. To the extent that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do indeed come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another the closer they become to God.

Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God.

May God make us worthy to listen to what is fitting for us and do it. For in the measure that we pay attention and take care to carry out what we hear, God will always enlighten us and make us understand his will.

I have found Dorotheos’ image of the circle of love to be particularly fruitful and inspiring. It helps me understand Jesus’ Summary of the Law, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40). It helps me understand the Church as the school of that twofold love.

It also reminds me of Dorothy Day’s saying, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” That is the axiom of the geometry of the kingdom of God. Jesus is the proof. And that is the challenge of serious Christian discipleship.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Statement Concerning the 2016 Election of the President of the USA

Wednesday, November 9, 2016
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP, p. 824)
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Here are some thoughts on the election. I know that some in our congregations are celebrating the result, others are feeling distraught, and others are just feeling confused as they seek to understand what it might mean. This election cycle has revealed more fully the depths of the divisions in our country that we live in a deeply divided country. How might Christians respond? As the earliest Christians prayed for the Emperor of Rome, we pray for the President. We will pray for President-elect Trump. And we will pray and work for the healing of this nation and the world. How do we respond, especially since these divisions exist within our own congregations? I suggest a few things.
First, let us commit ourselves to the hard work of life together. Let us dare to enter the uncomfortable space of listening, learning from, and seeking to understand one another. Let us be willing to speak the truth to one another in love, challenging one another to better follow the way of Jesus – with patience, gentleness, humility, and mutual reverence. Living together is not easy. Loving one another in the way of Jesus is not easy. Our Lord demonstrated it is the way of the cross. He calls us to take up that cross and follow him. It is hard. But it is also the way of God’s mercy and delight and is part of our call to be the light of the world.
Second, we need to acknowledge that elections and policies have consequences. Many believe the election will lead to greater security. Many others feel more vulnerable and afraid now than they did before the election. Whether one believes these fears are justified or not, it is imperative that a Christian – however he or she voted – reach out to them with care and compassion. The Gospel is not neutral. Remember that we will be judged based on how we treat “one of the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). There is a clear bias in the Bible and the Church’s tradition for the poor and vulnerable. There is a clear bias for peace and reconciliation. Christians have disagreed about what these mean for public policy, but I challenge us all to make those gospel biases our own.
Third, elections matter, but they do not matter ultimately. Neither do our national or political loyalties. As Christians, our true citizenship is not as Americans but as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our real allegiance lies elsewhere. Our hope and faith lie not in any political party, ideology, or program, but in the life-changing, world-changing message of Jesus.
We must continue to live faithfully and hopefully. Be merciful. Be kind and patient and gentle with one another. Love and enjoy those dear to you. Love and be charitable to those you find it difficult to love. Delight in and give thanks for the joys of life – the presence of loved ones, the wonder of creation, the beauty of art, a good nap, etc. Say your prayers. Attend worship. Love God. Love your neighbor.
Under the Mercy,
The Rt. Rev. Matthew Gunter
VIII Bishop of Fond du Lac

Monday, November 7, 2016

Delight – Attending to the grace & beauty woven into all creation

In a, well, delightful book, Mark Clavier writes,

Fundamentally, delight is enjoying something for its own sake. Delight is devoid of expectation and demand. It springs from the simple pleasure that something exists rather than doesn’t. That’s what makes delight completely different from entertainment. Entertainment has to stimulate us in order to remain entertaining; it distracts us. Delight, on the other hand, takes us deeper into the world around us. It involves a sot of communion or communication between that which pleases and the person who is pleased. Aquinas refers to this communion as “expansion” whereby our affection reaches out to the object of our delight “as though it surrendered itself to hold within itself the object of delight.” If I delight in a wildflower, for an all too brief moment I connect through something–an intuition, a feeling, call it what you will–with that flower. Love is present.

. . .

If you believe in a creator then a whole new dimension appears. I may not in the midst of delight love a wildflower in the same way I love a fellow human being, but something akin to love caused me to stop, notice the flower, and devote my attention to it. Augustine stated boldly that there is no love without delight and I argue that the reverse is also true–there is no delight without love. Because I believe that God created that wildflower, imbuing it with gentle beauty, I believe also that he, in a sense, wove grace into its atomic structure. My delight in the flower’s graceful beauty gives me a taste God’s own grace and beauty and that experience engenders love. Perhaps the reason for this is that God wove the same grace and beauty into me. In that sense, perhaps our appreciation of beauty and goodness in the other is really a resonance between the delight woven by God in us both.

Part of the discipline of paying attention is weaning ourselves from distraction and training ourselves to notice, appreciate, attend to, and give thanks for the beauty that surrounds us. As Clavier suggests, doing so is an act of worship and a means of communion with God who has woven his delight in all of creation.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Mercy – The only work that matters in the end

Frederick Buechner is a favorite of mine. His memoirs, essays, sermons, and novels have been an inspiration to me. If you are looking for a good read, I recommend, Brendan, a novel about the sixth century Irish saint.

Toward the end of the novel, Brendan has been talking with another saintly man named Gildas. At the end of the conversation, Gildas begins to stand. Then, Buechner has the narrator, Finn, recount:

Pushing down hard with his fists on the tabletop, [Gildas] heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leaped forward and caught him.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with his but one leg, Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We was cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said, “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”
– Brendan, p. 217

If it comes to it, we are – all of us – cripples in one way or another. Each of us limps. Some limp physically, but all of us limp emotionally or spiritually. We carry emotional wounds. Some wounds are more profound than others. Some are less able to hide their limping. We might want to pretend otherwise. But, all of us limp. Each of us stumbles or falls from time to time. To lend each other a hand when we’re falling, Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Delight – Let me tell you why God made the world

The Third Peacock by Robert Farrar Capon in one of my all time favorite books. It begins with this whimsical version of creation:

Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things, new ways of being and new kinds of being to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff. Why don’t I go out and mix us up a batch.” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific, I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in. And after supper that night the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs. Pinecones kept dropping all over the place and crazy fish swam in the wine glasses. There were mushrooms and grapes, horseradishes and tigers, and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! Just what I had in mind. Tove, tove, tove.” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing, “Tove, tove, tove.” So they shouted together, “Tove me’od – very good.” And they laughed for ages and ages saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And forever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine, inu ta te Spiritus Sancte, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia secula, seculorumAmen.”

As, I said, it is a whimsical take on creation. Capon recognized that. But, it does remind us that the Christian vision of the world begins and ends in celebration. And that in, with, and under all that is – at the heart of everything – is the celebration that is the Holy Trinity.