Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sustenance

We've had beautiful sunsets recently! 
I had a dream last week that was very telling about what I need to be doing to keep myself healthy. I am the priest of a small, vibrant, substantial Episcopal Church called Trinity by the Sea in Port Aransas. Recently, Hurricane Harvey rolled through (nature doing its naturing, thank you Jim Hollis) and created chaos among the buildings, homes, and infrastructure upon which we've come to depend, and knew as familiar.

The beach has even changed--with a water inlet along the beach side of our jetty, and an AMAZING assortment of shells. The few times I've snuck down to the beach I've been grateful for time well spent. Sunday, after working more than I intended to, I went down to watch my wife Laura surf, and my friend Mark demanded I get out there. He even had a board waiting for me. I did, and caught a few of the small waves that were rolling through; my body and soul felt better for it.

Episcopal Family Gathered at the Supply Depot. 
The response of people across the state and country wanting to help Port Aransas from a place of of love for our island, love for the people they know there, or just wanting to show compassion for a community that has been through a trauma is the most beautiful and grace-filled thing. Sometimes it's even overwhelming. As a community, we are learning to express exactly what we need, because some of the well-intended donations have taken more time and energy than we had to spare. Bodies and dollars is the greatest tangible gift. Maybe a mop and some duct tape.

The most sustaining thing for me, what orients me to the day ahead, and what connects me with workers nearby, as well as displaced people from afar, is prayer. We gather daily at 8 a.m. in the nave of our church (which received very little damage from the hurricane!) to pray daily devotions from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 137. I live stream the prayers for people to join in through facebook. I usually bring in an extra prayer or two, and I offer a brief "what's been happening" and "whom else we're praying for" at the beginning. It grounds our work in that living water, the well that never runs dry.

A quick sketch; Do the Work

The dream I mentioned above was a rousing reminder that I need to engage in doing my own spiritual work. I need my own prayer practices, and to draw from the well of life in my own way if I am to be of service to others; if I am to be a priest to my community.

So, here I am writing. I sketched after talking the dream over with my therapist. I'll go surfing again today. I had a beer with a friend at the end of the work day yesterday. I am certain I'll be writing and playing music when I get my dry guitar back from College Station. While there is a tendency to think having the right stuff will fix problems, these 2 1/2 weeks have been a violent reminder that the spiritual practices are what will sustain us. They will empower us with perspective, stability, guidance, patience, kindness, compassion, and hope. They will remind us to love one another as God is loving us.
Pray for Port Aransas and pray for your own community; turn to the practices that sustain you, and that connect you with God's living well.

Friday, June 9, 2017

keep it holy


"Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." "Amen. Lord have mercy." 
--Book of Common Prayer p. 350, see also, the Bible. 

My mentor, the Rev. Beth Fain, often pointed out to people that this is the most commonly broken of the 10 Commandments. What a gift it was to have a rector who modeled self care by going on retreat, and having a weekly "Sabbath Day" instead of just a "day off."

My friend and colleague John Price, a Houston-based psychologist and teacher, was recently musing on the sacred act of sleep: that time when we let go of control and allow our bodies to heal and our unconscious to speak to us in dreams.

Most of the teachings of our culture are against rest, yet rest may be the greatest act of trusting God. In the New Zealand Prayer Book we pray in the Night Prayer Service "It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep."

Having taken our rest, be it a weekly day off by any name, an annual vacation, or just stepping away from a problem long enough to get clarity, we often return better prepare to do the work we have to do. 

With these thoughts, I'm signing off by blog for the summer (I stop my regular writing projects each summer.) I slow down on some things to spend time doing other things; like spend time with family and friends, trying to keep it holy.

Integrating the Sacred and the Profane

"Theologians, they don't know nothin' about my soul..." So echoed the chorus from one of my favorite songs from the band Wilco. Fans chanted along, and I can't help but wonder if they meant the same thing the songwriter intended. With what felt like vehemence, the cheering crowd seemed to be speaking against the theologians, the religious professionals, and by association, perhaps, the church; they seemed to sing out against any efforts we who identify with the church might make at speaking truth regarding the human soul. They seem to lash out at some past wrong with the words from the song. A crowd of people disillusioned by organized religion thought they had their opportunity to sing against it.

Knowing the rest of the song, I believe there is a very different feeling and intention to that line from the chorus. I believe it is actually invoking a thread of our theological tradition known as apophatic theology that is more popular in Eastern branches of our church; apophatic theology begins by acknowledging that we cannot know God. It acknowledges that God is so beyond us, so much greater than the creation, and that remembering that is best starting point to move into reflecting on our relationship with God. A more western theologian in the apophatic thread is St. John of the Cross who lovingly referred to  God in Spanish as "Nada" or "No-Thing" in Dark Night of the Soul. It is a theology that has helped me begin to move through the images of God I've created, and to trust God to be God as the ineffable mystery. That particular song from a rock band in the same first person voice, sings, "I'm an ocean, an abyss in motion." It is one of the songs I return to again and again for inspiration and reflection. Instead of singing against the church, it is recalling an important if not the most popular aspect of our theology.

Another musician who has recently inspired my theological thinking is Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album "DAMN." Has songs that parallel the Psalmist's struggle to understand how God could let us suffer, as wrestles with his relationship not only with God but with those who seemed to support him. "Ain't nobody praying for me," he laments. I don't anticipate that any of our churches will be using Mr. Lamar's lyrics in our church services, but I would love to be proven wrong.

These two examples are the low hanging fruit in beginning to look at non-church music as spiritual. They are explicitly engaged in using the language the church has taught us, even if it may take some careful listening, and understanding the larger context to relate to the spiritual message of these poets. I would like to push further, though, and propose that all music is spiritual, even if it is not using the language we use to speak of the spiritual dimensions of life.

The act of being creative is allowing the imago dei (image of God) to shine through us. T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem "Rock," "The Lord who created must wish us to create." The act of being creative in any arena is engaging in the life of God. There is plenty of music that I don't enjoy listening to, and plenty I think would be contrary to the purpose of the worship life of the church. Our process of selecting music for congregational music seeks to provide common language about our relationship with God in a singable format so that the teachings might sink into our soul, and provide us with guidance along our own journey.

Much of the secular music out there is without such vetting. It is often without guide rails, and delves into the deep desires we experience as humans. The longing for temporal satisfaction found in much pop music today is honest and raw; it is often a spiritual hunger that lyrics from the song seek to fill by non-spiritual means. In that way, it can be the beginning of a spiritual journey. The desire for a lover might reflect our deep desire for connection with God. The desire for freedom might only, ultimately be found in the liberating relationship with Christ. Even the quest to get high is about a longing for an elevated state we ultimately experience when in God's close presence.

I don't know how many of the musicians writing about those temporal satisfactions are conscious of the spiritual roots of their longing, but we have the ability to hear and understand. It may even lead to a deeper understanding of our own desires, and those of others. It may help us to lovingly walk with those who are spiritually lost, like those Wilco fans chanting "you don't know nothing about my soul." No, but I know my own soul's longing to connect with the mystery of God. I know that God is at work in unimaginable ways through unsuspecting musicians. I know God's ineffable presence when I begin to create, and through the creativity of others. I believe God is still at work and is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.






Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Religion, Science

Originally published in the South Jetty Newspaper 

The more I learn the less I know. My spiritual journey is driven by curiosity: this desire, placed in my heart by God, to learn and explore the world continues to lead me deeper into the way of unknowing described by the 14th century English (anonymous) author of the Cloud of Unknowing. It is an approach to prayer that invites God's ineffable presence to so surround us that we might see the Mystery at work in all the world. The Spanish mystic John of the Cross wrote of God as "Nada" or "No-thing." This approach of leaning into the perpetual and mysterious presence of God is called Apophatic Theology. It begins by acknowledging that if God is God, then God is beyond our human comprehension. It is a way of trusting the mystery of God. Jesus, in St. John the Evangelist's Gospel, explains this sort of letting go of certainty when he yells at his disciples, "The one believing in me does not believe in me but the one having sent me."  (John 12.44)

It is with this sort of trust that I continue to marvel at God's presence in the creation. As I learn bits and pieces from astronomy and evolutionary biology, I am amazed at the vastness and microscopic miracles of our existence. As I learn bits and pieces from quantum mechanics and of dark matter, I recognize this deep, ineffable force that binds all things together. That's not to make a direct parallel, to say that God is the dark matter, but that there is something at work in the Universe and urging us to discover, explore, and further understand the amazing universe we live in; we humans are in the unique position to be part of God's creation becoming conscious that we are part of the creation. We are the creation becoming conscious of itself.

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer's Eucharistic Prayer C, we pray: "God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of glory and praise...at your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space...And this fragile earth, our island home...from the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another."

At Walt H. Sohl's funeral,  I said I wanted to continue an unfinished conversation he and I started about humanity's place in creation, and how science and religion might remember their more harmonious relationship. On May 23 at the Gaff, in Port Aransas we continued this conversation. It wasn't a debate, but a  celebration of the harmony between the two. It is one of the gifts given to me by my mentors, and I'd like to share the perspective. It is one that trusts both the scientific method to explore and understand, and the wisdom teachings of my religion which has taught me to experience the mystery of God's presence in all things, seen and unseen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

the good sheep

Reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday (May 7, 2017) at Trinity by the Sea, Port Aransas: 

Greetings from Austin, where I officiated at the marriage of one of my dear long time friends. I originally had plans to drive back Saturday night or Sunday morning, then Laura reminded me that I am a human, and cannot be everywhere, all the time. So this Sunday I'll be worshipping in Austin, and these wonderful lay leaders are leading worship at Trinity.

Good Shepherd Sunday is actually an appropriate Sunday for your pastor to be away, and an opportunity for all of us to remember who our Good Shepherd is. Christ reminds us that he is our Good Shepherd who is leading us beside the still waters and restoring our souls, even in the presence of those we perceive as enemies.

Christ is the Good Shepherd and while I strive to be the best priest and pastor I can be  to this community, I lead as one more sheep in the flock, listening for the voice of Our Good Shepherd.

Following the Good Shepherd is a practice of trust. Trust that God knows more than we know. Trust that even in the valley of the shadow of death, God will provide safe passage.

It also means trusting that all our fellow sheep are seeking to follow this same Good Shepherd. One of us may go over the bridge, while another skips across the rocks in the creek; as long as we are headed toward the Shepherd's voice we will arrive.

Pay attention, as you go through this week, to the many voices in our world that would distract us from God's voice,

who might keep us from hearing our Good Shepherd. Notice, too, when we do we give into the anxious and fearful outlook that would leave us thinking we don't have enough; that we aren't enough; or even that God is not enough. Then simply return, intentionally, to listening for the voice of God.

The message of Psalm 23 is that whatever situation we find ourselves in, that God will be with us, that we will want for nothing, that God is enough, and that as the flock of the Good Shepherd we are enough. I am grateful that I get to follow the Good Shepherd with you, where God is leading us, setting a feast in the wild places, and protecting us when we would otherwise be afraid.

May the Peace of our Good Shepherd be always with you.

Brother James

Friday, March 31, 2017

prayer

Originally Published in the South Jetty

I recently taught a class on meditation. This was not guided meditation, or a walking meditation (like the labyrinth), this was just an opportunity to learn the simple and challenging practice of sitting still in God's presence.

There are a thousand ways to pray, and I count among my prayer practices surfing and running; they are just as sacred to me as playing music and painting; just as sacred as our Sunday worship with the whole Body of Christ gathered around the altar or working the beads of a rosary.

Meditation is not conversational, it is not words-based. It is a practice of stopping. Sitting, and most of all listening to the silent presence of God. Our prayer book describes the prayer of adoration as "the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God's presence." Simple and challenging.

Culturally, we don't receive a lot of support, nor training in being still and sitting quietly. The world expects us to be busy, to be active. If possible, we are asked to do several things at once to show how important we are. Meditation is counter-cultural. It places value not on what we do, but on marking time spent intentionally in God's presence.

The World Community of Christian Meditation suggests finding a quiet spot, sitting up straight, and following the rhythm of our breathings to repeat the word Maranatha in four parts: Mar-a-na-tha. It means Come Lord Jesus. They recommend sitting for 20 minutes (morning and evening.) I am working on once a week right now; there was a time in my life when I meditated each morning, and I miss the centered, grounding experience. Setting a timer, or having someone else keep time is essential, so you can let go of keeping track of time.

The practice of meditation makes a qualitative difference in the rest of my life. It slows me down, and creates a more spacious, aware way of being in the world. It makes me more present to conversations and to my work. It makes me more aware of God's presence in the midst of everyday life. As close as my breath. Teaching the class brought me back in touch with that, and makes me look forward to the next time I accept the gift of God's presence, and stop for 20 minutes to enjoy it.

Friday, March 24, 2017

facebook

For Lent, one of my disciplines was to take a FaceBook break. I'm back on it, and we have a little less than a month of Lent to go.

The reason I got off facebook was to see how it changed the way I spend my time. When I think I have some spare time, I tend to check FaceBook. My thinking is: "Someone may have liked something I posted; Someone may have a question about an event; Someone may have posted a really insightful video; Someone may have figured out a harmonious way to move forward in our political arena." So then, I open the app on my phone and time slips away. Sometimes it's a quick check, sometimes it's longer than I'd like. It might give me a sense of gratification. For example, when we posted pictures from Trinity's becoming a parish. It was great to see the comments and likes for that wonderful occasion. Or, I go down rabbit trails and end up watching the "Top 20 Action Stunt Fails" or "Dogs that Climb Trees" video (I just made those up, but I'm sure they are out there.)

The lenten break has been beneficial. I have not had that time-filler since Ash Wednesday (March 1) and when I felt the impulse to check FaceBook, it reminded me to do something meaningful: pay attention to Eli; read a chapter on Meditation; Meditate; go surf; fold laundry; look up a new recipe to try for dinner (I just made that last one up...but it could happen.)

Then yesterday, my friend Joanne Chu led John Price and I in a Problem Solving Template (PST) for
something we were working on for the Inner Journey Retreat. The PST is a process that gets to the heart of the problem, and helps bring explicit clarity to the purpose for making decisions. Again and again, she asked us, "Why is that a problem?" And we would dig deep and then again: "What causes that to be a problem?" Finally, we got down to the purpose, as we saw it then, of the Inner Journey Retreat. I won't quote us here verbatim, but we are doing this retreat because it creates a container for people to be transformed and grow in the midst of a society where those containers are often lacking or inaccessible. 

That purpose is worth getting back on FaceBook to promote the upcoming retreat. It is less than a month away, April 17-21, and I want to help people learn about it between now and then. (Easter is April 16, and that's not much time to promote the retreat.)

I'll continue to pay attention to how I use FaceBook, but this has become clear: It is a good tool to share good things, and this is a good thing.