Ordination Message

(The following is a message I gave to Rebecca Driscoll, on her ordination to the Christian Ministry at First Baptist Church, Attleboro, Massachusetts on June 24, 2018)

Rebecca, I am honored that you asked me to give the charge to the Ordinand.  I’m not sure what a “charge” is, but anyway I’ll give you my thoughts after 42 years of ordained ministry.

I have grown to love the Psalms as a spiritual resource for the life of a minister, so my thoughts are drawn from Psalm 86:11-13, which rang a bell for me recently.  When we read scripture it is good to pay special attention to the bells that ring, the “ah-ha” moments.

Teach me your way, O Lord that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.  (Psalm 86:11-13)

“Give me an undivided heart” – the psalms are full of great prayers and this is one of them.  Attention is a major problem in the spiritual life – the heart is divided in its loyalties.  The heart means the self – it is who we are.  We need to be whole not divided, and we are whole as we give our attention to God.  Most times in the psalms the prayer is for the heart to be whole but here it is for the heart to be “undivided”.  I like “undivided” because it encompasses all the other things that I must lay aside in order to direct my attention to God.  When someone says, “you have my undivided attention”, you know that they love you.

This does not mean being super religious or super pietistic.  It means keeping God at the center, seeing God in all created things and in every human being and every situation.  Loving God means loving God in everything and everyone.   “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself” – the great commandments.

The psalms teach that prayer is the place to start because God gets us alone, all to God’s self, with undivided heart.  It is in prayer that we learn what the undivided heart is.  The psalms are a great resource for prayer and meditation and for journal writing, all good spiritual disciplines.  In my experience silence is the most important ingredient of prayer and meditation.  How can we ever listen to God if we do not first of all keep quiet?    The goal of prayer is to bring us into alignment with God’s way, to bring us to an undivided heart.  “Thy will not my will be done”, Jesus said.

Most of all we start with prayer because an undivided heart is the gift of God, not something to be achieved by our own effort.  Yes, we do our part, but ultimately even the desire for such a heart is gift from God.  It comes as God lives through us.

There are two things that bring us to that “undivided heart”.  One is the prayer of loving attention.  Another is suffering.  When I began pastoral ministry over 40 years ago, Henri Nouwen spoke to my heart with his books Wounded Healer and Creative Ministry, with their theme that we minister from our own experience of suffering.  I have tried to follow his prescription:

Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how… ministry is the core of the Christian life” (from Creative Ministry by Henri Nouwen).

We tell the stories of the faith filtered through our own experience of suffering and the joy we have gained through it.   The good news is incarnated in our own lives.   Rebecca, I was impressed as I read your biographical statement in your ordination paper.  I said to Jean, “the church needs young ministers like Rebecca.  She has a story to tell that speaks about a young person’s search for meaning and God.”  Young people need much more than what our entertainment culture offers them.  They need interpreters of the Christian Story who can speak their language and share from their heart a deep love of God and neighbor.  People will identify with your struggles and sufferings and joys if you have courage to share them.  Share with others what you experience of God in the sufferings of life.  That’s the call to ministry.

Prayer focuses our attention on God and so do the sufferings we encounter.  Dr. Johnson, 18th century man of letters, once said, with that dry sense of humor for which the English are known, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”  The prospect of suffering really makes us wake up and see the meaning in every moment of every day!  When I look back over my experiences it is definitely the times of suffering and trouble when I have given my undivided attention to God.  I’ve been reading the Book of Joy and it is the conclusion of both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu that suffering can ennoble or embitter a person.  Directing our attention to God can help us find meaning through our suffering and a greater compassion for all who suffer and a deeper joy.  “Great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” (Psalm 86:13)

Do not misunderstand me.  I am not wishing suffering for anyone – I’d rather we avoid it. And we should certainly work to alleviate it.  But one thing I know for sure in life is that suffering will come to all.

Rebecca, as you struggle with these questions in your own life your ministry will always be fruitful.  As you seek meaning though prayer and the sufferings of life, you will be led deeper into God.  Remember that God is a God of joy and love and grace.  That’s why the Psalmist, after praying for an undivided heart, continues:

 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.  For great is your steadfast love toward me.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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A Cry From the Depths

Psalms 130 and 131 are a beautiful duo.  The first is a cry from the depths and the second is an answer from the heart.  Most people remember Psalm 130 as the haunting music “De Profundis” from the movie “Sixth Sense” when Cole (Hayley Joel Osment) cries out to Malcolm (Bruce Willis), “De profundis clamo ad te, domine” (“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord”).  The cry fits well with a young boy who hears the voices of the dead.  Despair rings through those words in Latin or English.  Those who struggle with the loneliness of sickness and death are very familiar with that cry.  Those who have lost their way to addiction are well familiar with that cry.  Those who have been trodden down by the jackboot of the oppressor are well familiar with that cry.  So, the soul waits and watches and hopes.  Note that psalmist moves from the soul of the individual to the soul of the nation in his prayer (“Israel, hope in the Lord”).  This back and forth between individual and community is commonplace in the psalms.

I remember in 1970 I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital near Southampton, England, for anxiety and depression.  I was 20 years old and found myself in a bed next to a guy who was withdrawing from heroin and I watched as patients went routinely for electric shock therapy and wondered if I was next.  I did not know Psalm 130 then but I certainly “cried from the depths”.   My recovery from this episode, precipitated by the stress of final exams, was slow but God was faithful for “with the Lord there is steadfast love and great power to redeem”.

Psalm 130 is known as a lament, that strain in the Bible where people cry out in pain to God in the faith that God hears and will respond to them.  There is something deeply comforting in the assurance that we can cry to God in our pain and be listened to, not turned away.

Our Lady of Vladimir

Psalm 131 is the salve to be applied to the woundedness of Psalm 130.  It is the love of the divine mother.   “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me”.  The response of God to the cry of the soul from the depths is to calm and quieten the soul, as a mother calms her young child, drawing close and snuggling.   A certain humility is required – “my eyes are not raised too high”.  We are reminded that God does not respond to those who think too highly of themselves.  This love and comfort is offered to the nation as well, as long as the nation and its leaders remain humble.

There’s something wonderfully simple in this duo of psalms, complaint and response.  The people complain to God and God responds with this metaphor of a mother’s love for a child.   But the proviso is included that God does not respond to an arrogant and selfish people.  God will not bless a nation that prides itself on being number one to the detriment of its friends, a nation that tears children from their mothers at our border with Mexico, a nation that undermines institutions working for international trade, peace, human rights and justice.  God does not listen to the oppressor, as Mother Mary sang:

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:41-42).

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Your Spiritual Journey: A Straight Line or a Series of Circles?

roseDo you feel like you are taking steps towards a well-defined goal or do you feel like you are going in circles?  From a mystical point of view the latter may be the more likely course.  Linear and circular images for describing the spiritual journey have long histories in Christian spirituality.  Many theorists, spiritual and psychological, have set forth linear stages by which to measure our progress.  Walter Hilton’s The Ladder of Perfection and Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind into God and Stages of Faith by James Fowler come to mind as examples of the spiritual, and the stage theories of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erickson, Daniel Levinson, and others are examples of the psychological.

We may feel that we are on a linear journey heading to a goal, but in retrospect we find that we moved forward in a circling motion, perhaps like an unfolding spiral (like the rose in the photo above).  Come springtime, says Chaucer, people long to go on a pilgrimage, as did his pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark before their journey to Canterbury.  But his book is not called the Canterbury Pilgrimage but rather the Canterbury Tales.  It is the meaning of the stories and the lives shared along the journey that matters.  Reaching the destination is a good goal but not one to be rushed.  The journey is not a competition – it is a sharing circle.

I like walking labyrinths because they confuse my rational brain and help me relax into a time of prayer with God.  I often think that life is like a labyrinth, with all its turns back and forward, and movement to and from the center.  Many of the psychological and spiritual theories of development from beginning to end of life choose the more rational model of stages (From Freud to Erikson et al).  Carl Jung turned away from the idea of stages and said that “every life is the realization of the whole (individuation)” and individuation means “the more complete fulfillment of the collective qualities of the human being.”  The circular model involves us in a journey with others and in service to them.  It is a shared journey, not a competition.   It is noticeable that the women who write upon this topic like Carol Gilligan draw upon circular images: the net, the weaving, the quilt, the tapestry.  Carole King wrote her song Tapestry when she emerged as a composer and lyricist in her own right.

When I was writing a research paper on this topic many years ago my definition of faith development was “the moving forward, the circling back, the unfolding from the center of our relationship with God.” Today I think the unfolding from the center is the most important part.   Richard Rohr (in his book, “Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”) describes how change comes about.  The Law of Moses becomes too rule-bound and needs prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah to focus on true justice and compassion, leading us to wisdom and discernment.  Youth need structure and discipline from parents to develop ego strength, then comes rebellion against excessive rules, leading to a loving synthesis.   We value the traditions and security of our tribe but growth takes us beyond this to tolerance and eventually love even for enemies.  These forms of spiritual growth are patterned after Aristotelian logic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  This represents the movement forward, the steps backwards and the resolution to a higher plane by the unfolding from the center.  I believe it is the loving energy of God’s Spirit which unfolds from the center and draws us to God.  It is a process of our response to a vocation.

Stages are helpful to clarify the issues we face at different seasons of life.  That awareness helps us be patient.  But there are limitations to stages: we think we are on a journey of our own making.   All rises and falls by our own strength and cunning.  Circles allow more credence to the unseen force at work in all of life.   Christian mystical tradition sees this unseen force as uncontrollable but merciful and loving.  I was impressed by the way the recent novel, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Duerr, wove this strand of an unseen, uncontrollable but ultimately merciful and loving power at work in the universe.

There is a place for stage thinking and its heroic journey, but I believe it is secondary to the unseen/ hidden process of a circular unfolding from within.  We grow spiritually as our circle expands and we become more conscious of and responsive to that unfolding, to that vocation.

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Holy Week and Politics

Christ Icon

Christ Icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

It was politics as usual in Jerusalem during that first Holy Week.  The echoes with contemporary politics are striking.  Take, for instance, the dialogue between Jesus and the governor, Pontius Pilate, described in John’s Gospel chapter 19.

1.       The wealthy and the powerful were calling the shots.  In this situation it was the religious leaders (“the Jews”) who had the influence with the political establishment and who demanded the death of Jesus.  Pilate would have let him go because he could find no crime Jesus committed.  John does not hold the people in general responsible for Jesus’ death but rather the religious and political leaders.  Matthew, Mark and Luke do feature the crowd calling for Jesus’ death, but make it clear that the crowd was incited by the chief priests.  However, in a modern democracy people have more power than they realize.  As Edmund Burke once famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

2.       Pilate shows a politician’s typical avoidance of responsibility for his actions, shifting responsibility to others (18:39).  It is a major theme of some politicians today not to accept responsibility for their actions, always blaming someone else.

3.       Scapegoating was all the rage then as now.  Pilate was willing to use Jesus as a scapegoat, even though he knew he had done no wrong.   The religious authorities colluded with Pilate in this (the Chief Priest Caiaphas said as much in 11:50: “it is better for one man to die for the people than the whole nation perish”).  Scapegoating is the name of the game with politicians today who rise to power exploiting fears and prejudices against minorities and immigrants.  

4.       Special interest groups knew how to manipulate politicians.  The religious leaders essentially blackmailed Pilate by threatening to tell the Emperor of his vacillation (19:12).  They demonstrate the power of a special interest group, a commonplace in Washington D.C. (the N.R.A. comes to mind), and the power of lies, which always travel faster than the truth.

5.       Who is really in charge of events?  Many tyrants have thought they were in charge only to end up on the dust pile of history.  An overarching theme of the Bible is that God is in charge of history, even though it is hard to see in the moment, as Jesus’ friends experienced.  It is the same today – hard to see where God is in control of the politics of our day, with all the blaming and scapegoating, lies and false reports, but we must keep the faith that the unseen hand of God guides our world.  Or in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” 

6.       The most striking theme of John’s account of the Passion is the triumph of Jesus.  Jesus says unequivocally to Pilate “You have no power over me (19:11)”.  There is great irony in 18:13 which may be translated that either Pilate sat in the judgment seat or that he sat Jesus there!  There is more irony in the notice Pilate pins on the cross, “This is the King of the Jews” – in three languages just to show the universality of Jesus’ kingdom, including Latin the language of the Roman empire!  Jesus is in control of the conversation and even the trial and his own death.

7.       The Cross is the moment of glorification not humiliation.  As Jesus yields up his spirit to death it is not in defeat but in anticipation of the glorious victory of the resurrection.  This is the ultimate reframing of human suffering.

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What Does It Mean To Be An American?

Statue of Liberty

Like many immigrants, I came to the USA for new opportunities.  I personally did not have any grand goals in mind.  I was married to an American, and Jean wanted to return to her homeland after two years in London.    My career needed a shake-up and a colleague at the Department of Health and Social Security, who had worked in New York City, advised me to tear up the return portion of the airline tickets we had bought.  His words were prophetic since I have been here for over 40 years!  Becoming an American has been an adventure of learning and growing and I am grateful for the freedom and creativity and generosity I have experienced here, especially in the Church.  

Much has been said about polarization in our nation.  An age-old political and religious tactic is to divide the people into “them and us”.  Paint “them” as the enemy, whether they are immigrants, ethnic minorities, people of different sexual orientation, different religions, even though they are fellow citizens and long-time residents in this beautiful country of ours.  Such exploitation of people’s fear of the unknown is wrong and Christians should avoid this tactic.  Think about what unites us.  This is a beautiful country, with some of the best national parks in the world, some of the best universities and museums, some of the most creative, inventive and generous people.  Our diversity is an opportunity for learning from one another.  Our diversity is a strength when we respect one another and refuse to be exploited by the fearmongers.  Unity in diversity is our motto.  In fact, it is on the great seal of the United States and printed on our money: “E Pluribus Unum” (unity from the many). 

Remember the 1960s song, “If I had hammer” by Peter, Paul and Mary?  “Well I got a hammer / and I got a bell/ and I got a song to sing, all over this land. / It’s the hammer of Justice/ it’s the bell of Freedom / it’s the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”  Does not our pledge of allegiance speak of liberty and justice for all?  Do not all religions speak of love for all our brothers and sisters?  Christian faith also speaks of freedom and justice for all but recognizes that with freedom comes the responsibility to treat one another with respect and kindness.  Treat others as you wish to be treated – that’s the Golden Rule Jesus teaches. 

To be an American is a high calling, meaning to seek freedom and justice, to promote unity amidst diversity, and love for our brothers and sisters across this beautiful land.  In my experience, if folks let go their political hobby horses and work alongside others who are different, and let the barriers of prejudice down, they will experience a unity of purpose (“e pluribus unum”) which is admirable and hopeful.

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Looking For Light

“You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14-16)

December Sun on Primrose Hill, London

I was in London in December, when the days are the shortest of the year.  It rained a lot and there was a snowstorm, the first in five years.  Sunshine was scarce.  One Saturday I walked from the Regents Canal, near the London Zoo, up the steep hill known as Primrose Hill.  It was a glorious view over London.  Despite living in London in the 1970s and visiting many times since, I never knew that Primrose Hill was the highest point in London.  At the top there was a low semi-circular wall on which people were standing for the view.  I noticed there was a quote from William Blake carved into the concrete surface of the wall: I have conversed with the spiritual sun.  I saw him on Primrose Hill.  At that very moment the sun burst through the clouds and I received the double blessing of sunshine and a quote from one of my favorite poets.   The next day I enjoyed a day with my niece and nephew and their spouses and delightful daughters.  Even though the rain had resumed the sunshine was in their eyes.

Jean and I (back in Attleboro, Massachusetts) were exercising by walking at our local indoor shopping mall on an inhospitable day in January (for 2 weeks we endured temperatures as low as -5 F/ -20 C).  I noticed a 30 feet long dancing light display on a wall with all the colors of the rainbow (like the up and down motion of a hospital heart monitor).  I stopped to watch this amazing light display and detected that it was the result of sunlight being refracted through water from melting snow at the base of a series of skylight windows.  My scientific explanation in no way lessened the marvelous light effect.  I doubt that any artificial light source could replicate the miracle of that dancing rainbow light.

Carriage and Dog by Maud Lewis

Recently we participated in the Art Lovers Book Club at the Attleboro Arts Museum in a discussion of the life and work of Maud Lewis, Canada’s premier folk artist.  I confess we had not read the book but watched a movie instead, “Maudie” with Sally Hawkins playing the heroine.  Maud as a child in the early 1900s was overcome with rheumatoid arthritis, which gnarled her hands and bent her back.  She had a wonderful mother who took her to the Baptist church in Yarmouth.  But her mother died when Maud was 34 years old.  Her brother took all the money and Maud was left in the care of a stifling aunt.  To get away from the oppressive atmosphere Maud sought a position as a live-in housemaid with an austere bachelor, Everett Lewis.  They were married and there was love between them, more from her than him, but he did give her a home and freedom to pursue her art.  And she produced the most beautiful works of folk art.  We were left wondering how did she create such beauty out of such miserable circumstances.  Video of the real Maud Lewis was included at the end of the movie and her eyes were radiant.  There was the inner light that shone in the darkness.  As Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes: I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.  That was Maud Lewis.

Brockton High School Concert Chorus

We attended the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interfaith celebration held at First Baptist Church, Attleboro recently.  The Brockton High School Concert Choir (about 60 strong) sang several pieces including Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn, Precious Lord, Take My Hand.   The choir was too numerous for the front of the sanctuary so they stood in a circle around the perimeter of the sanctuary and the director, Matthew Cunningham, stood in the center of the church.  It was an amazing light-filled experience to hear these multi-ethnic young people surrounding us, embracing a diverse congregation with the beauty and power of their voices.  They were followed by a group from Providence RI called Project 401 who introduced the congregation to the beauty and power of Hip Hop.  It was another marvel to behold.   For an interfaith congregation which included many social activists it was a needed shot in the arm, a spiritual boost of light in this time of national darkness.

In the Christian Year we are in the season after Epiphany, the season of light.  I thank God for these and other light-filled moments.  They illustrate the encouragement of Jesus in Matthew 5:11-14:

“You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others …”

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A New Year: Walking With God

I stumbled on this post I had written several years ago and found it helpful on this bleak New Year’s Day (the temperature this morning was -1 F / -18 C). May these thoughts inspire you as you walk bravely into 2018.

The Still Point

Each New Year’s Day I am confronted with the challenge of wanting to get physically and spiritually fit, but also confronted with the challenge of my all-too-human inclinations.  I found some help in my reading this morning of Ephesians 2:1-10, or, to be more accurate, it was the commentary on Ephesians by Markus Barth (Anchor Bible) that provided the help in understanding the Apostle Paul’s words.  Barth’s translation of Ephesians 4:1-2 reads:

(1)You, especially, dead as you were in your lapses and sins … (2) in the past your steps were bound by them.  You were following this world-age …

The literal translation is “the sins in which you formerly walked”.   “To walk”, Barth tells us, is one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite verbs, which he used as a metaphor for living an ethical life.  Walking is “a choice of steps on a given ground in a given direction

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