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 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


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


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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


I'm in Denver for Bob Burns's funeral and while here, I got word that Dee Tomaszewski died this morning. Both of them were older adults, and either of them could have possibly lived longer under different circumstances, but as it is, their earthly pilgrimage is complete.

In our funeral liturgy, we pray "You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return..." In this regard, life is finite. We are born, and we die. We are set on a course, and we know the final destination.

At Christ's Eucharistic table, in the same liturgy, we pray: "For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is  prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens." That's the spiritual reality of life: that while we are mortally limited, we are also connected to something much greater than the limited existence we call "I." We come from, and return to God. God dwells in us, so "even at the grave we make our song, 'Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.'"

To teach about this, Tich Nhat Hahn uses the metaphor of a wave and water. From a wave's perspective there is a beginning and end; it goes up and then goes down. But if the wave realizes it is water, it will become aware that it is always there. It is actually something much greater than just the occasion of the wave.

Remember that we are water; remember that while we experience a beginning and end, we also have an indwelling spirit that is part of something much larger. When I pray for Dee and for Bob I will remember both realities: I can't help but mourn their death, and they are still right here with us. They now know something much larger, that I can only catch glimpses of now.


Thursday, March 16, 2017


I have a confession: I'm judgemental.  I know, "...judge not, lest ye be judged," right? That's why it's a confession; not something I'm proud to know about myself, I just know it. I've fought against being judgemental as long as I can remember. I even judge other people for being judgemental. (Let's add hypocrite to the's easier for me to see my problem in others.) Here's how I tend to judge people; here's how I might judge you: I see your car in the parking lot taking up two spaces, and there are no more spaces. In my mind I begin weaving stories about what a selfish person you must be. OR I see a bumper sticker on the back of your car that expresses some hateful worldview, and I make up a story about how you are hateful. OR I may even see you frowning your way through the grocery store, never making eye contact with anyone and (again) I make up a story about how you are so bitter at the world, and you resist showing love to others. 

Then I see someone I know coming down the aisle and the critical, judging monologue is in my head defeated. My silent judgemental perspective on the world cannot stand up to the real live human beings whom I actually know. My judgemental attitude does not survive the piercing, transformative energy of love that grows in relationships. As long as I don't know someone, I can fall into the temptation of judging (and making up a whole story about that person's life.) When I take the vulnerable risk of relationship, judgement is replaced by something much greater. 

I know this because I've experienced and witnessed that transformation again and again. I'm in the relationship business. My work is about putting people in relationship with one another and with God. The central action (and what informs the life of our community) is the act of Communion. We eat together with God. We become community through a shared meal. That leads to lots of other great things like sharing a cup of coffee and a story; discovering a relationship with God; teaching spiritual practices and why they are difficult; our day school has a lot to do with building relationships between among the children and teachers. 

When we remember the complexity of humans, and risk getting to know one another as fellow human beings, the survivalist instinct to judge thaws and melts away. When we actually meet and discover how God is at work in one another's lives, we can no longer depend on the weak labels we may try to apply to one another. So for now, until we can actually get to know one another, when that judgemental voice comes up in my mind I will try to remember that I shouldn't trust it. I will try to remember that even if you take up two spaces in a crowded parking lot. You are still a human being, and God dwells in your heart. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

seeking to pay attention

Most days, if I slow down enough, I remember to be grateful for the simple miracles of life. They almost feel like jokes at times, like when I pick up my phone to call John Price and he is calling me right then, too. (It has happened twice this week.)

Then there are the greater things like a few years back, when my soul got so stirred up, and situations in my life became disturbed enough that I started looking for a new ministry opportunity on the coast, and then when I made a phone call to a diocese I once lived in, there was this recent opening at Trinity by the Sea, Port Aransas. (And four years later, I am falling ever more in love with this place and it's people.) I wouldn't dare try to explain how those things happen, I just marvel that they do. Looking back at journals through my life, going way back to High School, I describe the subtle urges as Spirit-nudges. When there is something alogical, a tug in the direction of a decision, or just having a gut feeling that what was planned should be abandoned. I try to listen to those Spirit nudges. Sometimes I stubornly ignore them (and when I do, life often becomes more difficult than it seems it needs to be.)

I like to compare that experience of going-with-the-Spirit's-flow to swimming in the San Marcos River. When I lived in San Marcos, a swim at the falls was a regular occurance, and I learned to respect the power of the flow of water. I learned to pay attention, and to work with the current rather than against it; always aware that things could change.

I should say that this is not the only way I make all my decisions; I engage logic plenty, and make reasoned plans, and weigh tangible factors. I want to share the Spirit nudge aspect because we are often taught to ONLY use the logical way. There is a deeper mystery to things, dwelling below or behind, and it is such a blessing to seek to pay attention to that reality.

The Inner Journey Retreat has been an important part of my learning to listen to the Spiritual dimensions of life. Going to my first Inner Journey came from one of those nudges (with help from the admonition from a friend to "Get my ass to the Inner Journey Retreat.") There I learned the dynamics of my psyche, how to pay attention to complexes, how to work with my dreams, and how to live a fuller life, more aware of how I serve something much greater than me. I am so grateful for my Inner Journey Community, too. They help me continue to pay attention to the invisible, spiritual reality of life. It has made me a better priest and person.

This is only half an ad for the upcoming (April 17-21)  Inner Journey Retreat, the other half of my intention in this reflection is for Lent, when we seek to adhere to practices that draw us closer to God; that help us prepare to experience the death and resurrection of Jesus in Holy Week and Easter.

Whatever this reflection may stir up in you when you read it, I encourage you to pay attention to your soul's needs. It will not lead you astray (though the journey may be winding!) It will lead you to wholeness and connection.