the window had been decorated

A few weeks ago we received a notice from the power company warning of a Monday morning power outage due to scheduled maintenance.  A short window was given from nine o’clock in the morning until about noon, during which time people in our neighborhood were encouraged to make plans to be elsewhere.  I received the notice with a frown at first, noting that Monday was my day off and I wouldn’t be able to get as much done while the power was out.  How would I answer e-mails, run the washing machine, and so on?  No sooner had I begun to ask these questions than a wave of excitement washed over me.

When the morning in question rolled around, I was prepared.  After the early routine of breakfast and school drop-off, I arrived at home, where I brewed a fresh pot of coffee before the power went out.  As the steam rose from the percolating machine, large utility trucks pulled up at the curb outside.  At nine o’clock on the nose, the lights went out, the digital clocks faded to black, and the house descended into a sublime silence.  I poured a fresh cup of coffee and walked into the living room where I sat on a quiet patch of carpet by the window.  There in the natural light I simply looked and listened.  I heard the wind stirring the branches, the whistle and chirp of birds in the back yard, and the sound of my own breathing.  I remembered the words of the old Zen monk, “Breathing in, I am home; breathing out, I have arrived.”

The morning without power was strangely restorative.  Rather than rushing around as I sometimes do on my day off, I accepted the invitation to do nothing for a couple of hours.  Well, at least on the surface of things I was doing nothing.  To look a bit deeper, I think, is to see that I was grounding myself in gratitude (counting my blessings, as they say).  In the hush of the morning, I considered all that was right in my life.  I thought of my dear family and how much joy they bring me; I thought of my friends and the ways our paths had crossed at different times in life; I thought of how much I still love my work after many years; I thought of the simple good fortune of having warm coffee, a soft rug, and a window to sit beside.

Since next week is a short week, I suspect this will be my last blog post before Thanksgiving.  I offer this story as a way of countering the great consumptive pressure of the holidays with the simple awareness of the gifts we already enjoy.  I invite you to share the things for which you give thanks.  And I invite you to share the practices that help you slow things down enough to see and hear what is already there.

With aloha,

J

*Thanks to Vassar Miller for this expression from her poem, “Resolve.”

Last week I pulled an old album from the shelf and listened to it in its entirety.  I was marking twenty years since the release of U2’s “Achtung Baby,” an album that stands as a masterful combination of playful irony and dark soul searching.  Like so many fans, I lined up to buy it on the first day of its release, but I had no idea how deeply it would resonate with my own experience as an idealistic college kid studying religion and literature.

What most of us noticed the first time we spun the record was how wildly different it was from U2’s previous body of work.  Rather than the earnest, hymn-like anthems the band had mastered on “The Joshua Tree” and “The Unforgettable Fire,” which featured a trademark chiming guitar and reverb anchored by a solid rhythm section, “Achtung Baby” began with a garble of fuzz and funk, an indecipherable mishmash of sounds that wobbled into a pattern of moody swirls and jerks.  What followed was a classic rock and roll reinvention, where a once straightforward band applied layer after glossy layer of irony and cheek.  The track list tumbled effortlessly through a soundscape of melancholy bass lines, angular guitar riffs, and shimmering drums–the band’s old sound was now infused with the new club music of the early 1990s, the political energy of the fall of the Berlin wall, and a deep, brooding sadness brought about by the guitar player’s broken marriage.  It was a whale of a record (a point which I think can be proved by listening to it and then listening to anything else from 1991), but there was more to it than the music.

The lyrics to “Achtung Baby” read like a hymn book for skeptics.  I sang them on the sidewalk between English and Religion classes, aware of the allusions to Oscar Wilde, Delmore Schwartz, and most of all, the Bible.  One song, “Until the End of the World,” relates a conversation between Judas and Jesus; a b-side, “Salome,” imagines the dancing girl who asked for the head of John the Baptist.  Every song was rich in imagery and they all affected me.  A few years later, I found myself still quoting the record.  In a seminary paper I included a lyric from the song “Acrobat”:

And I’d join the movement / If there was one I could believe in / Yeah I’d break bread and wine / If there was a church I could receive in / ‘Cos I need it now / To take the cup / To fill it up / To drink it slow / I can’t let you go

The record sold millions, and perhaps for casual fans it was just another album, a bunch of great songs to play loudly at parties; but for me it was a soulful and searching experience, a moment when a silly rock and roll band began to scratch beneath the surface to get at some very deep questions.  Twenty years later, the record still holds up.  And it brings me a question:

What are the records that most influenced you?  What sets of songs resonated with you?  What works, when released, connected with your own deepest feelings and questions?  What do you still pull off the shelf after all these years?

I can’t wait to read your answers.  I’ll have my headphones ready.

With aloha,

J

I recently read of the death of a theologian who influenced me deeply.  Gordon Kaufman was a Mennonite who spent most of his career at Harvard Divinity School.  Kaufman’s theological method and his creative reinterpretation of the symbol “God” helped shape the thought of countless students.  While I was not his formal student, I kept up with Kaufman through books and articles; I heard him speak only once at a conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in 2006.

In his essay, “The Development of My Theological Thinking: Two Themes,” (which appears as an Epilogue in the book, In the beginning…Creativity), Kaufman reflects on a lifetime of theological work, identifying his two primary concerns:

[There are] two central themes with which I have been preoccupied throughout my life, and which are expressed in the development of my theological reflection from a very early age on:  the problem of God–the questionableness of all our thinking and talking about God–and my life-long concern that human relations should be pervaded, above all, by loving, caring, responsible attitudes and activities.

In his reflection on the problem of God, Kaufman puzzled with how to understand the mystery of God in ways that were not anthropocentric or superstitious but might fit within the picture of the world offered by the natural sciences, particularly the theory of evolution (biological and cosmic) by natural selection.  And in his consideration of human relations, Kaufman wrestled with the application of his earliest Mennonite convictions; namely, nonviolent ways of being that respected other people and the planet.

Kaufman’s theological project is too complex to summarize in the space of a short blog post, but I would like to share one piece of his work that helped me immensely.  Kaufman suggested that rather than thinking of God as “Creator,” we consider God as “creativity” itself.  In some places he referred to this as “the mystery of creativity,” but more often than not he chose “serendipitous creativity” as a way of referring to the deep mystery of the emergence of life.  Kaufman’s theology left room for ambiguity, but it took very seriously the idea of God and how that idea might be best understood in conversation with the natural sciences.  In his own words:

For many this creativity–God–manifest through throughout our universe (as we today conceive that universe) is very awe-inspiring.  It calls forth emotions of gratitude, love, peace, hope, and fear, and a sense of the profound meaningfulness of our distinctive human existence in the world…It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to think of God as precisely this magnificent panorama of creativity with which our universe, as well as our lives in this universe, confronts us.”  (“A Religious Interpretation of Emergence: Creativity as God,” Zygon Journal of Religion and Science, Dec. 2007)

What Kaufman did for me was provide a context for Christian faith that was intellectually credible and scientifically informed.  I always felt that as a Mennonite scholar he was trying to make peace between the worlds of religion and science, to reconcile areas of knowledge and bring us to a tough-minded wholeness.  His work offers deep senses of reverence, wonder, and awe–they are to be found in the sacred stories and symbols of our tradition and experienced in the ineffable beauty and complexity of the natural world.

As I reflect on the death of a theologian, someone who influenced me, I wonder who influenced you.  What theologians, philosophers, or writers have most deeply shaped the way you see things?  What thinkers puzzled over the same questions that you puzzle over?  What teachers have helped you to reconcile certain things in your own life?

With a bow to Gordon Kaufman, I look forward to reading your responses.

J

Last Wednesday, I received a curious package.  I opened it to find a bright red St. Louis Cardinals necktie.  The tie had been sent as a gift by a friend who knows how dear the redbirds are to me; he also knows the reason for my sentimental attachment.  My father was a big fan of the game.  He raised me to love it, too, sharing his biases for the National League, which was undefiled by the designated hitter, and the position of catcher, the noblest on the field.  (Dad was a former catcher.)

When we lived in St. Louis, I went to a lot of games with my father.  Baseball courses through that city like the muddy river upon whose banks it is played.  I have shared with many of you the memory of reaching into my father’s shirt pocket to fish out roasted peanuts while we leaned forward in our seats cheering every pitch.  To this day, watching a Cardinals game is an exercise in remembrance.  And every time they play for a pennant I find myself laughing like a little boy and asking out loud, “Dad, did you see that?”

The friend that sent the tie knew that I would be excited about it.  What he didn’t know is that I would take it out of the box and put it on, wearing it for the rest of the night, though it didn’t match my shirt.  The deacons took note a couple of hours later, smiling at my brazen ensemble as the Cardinals beat the Brewers.  The following evening, I forgot to wear the tie and the Cardinals lost.  A day later, I wore the tie and my team won again.  Now I’m not superstitious, but…

So yes I was wearing it when the Cardinals clinched.  But something much more important was happening.

Along with all of the silliness of the necktie, the joking about baseball superstition, and the simple pleasure of listening to ballgames on the radio and hearing my favorite team do well, I had taken a sentimental step.  I gave my son his first Cardinals cap.  Donning it proudly, he asked me about the St. Louis Cardinals, the rules of how baseball is played, and what it was like to watch baseball with my Dad, his grandfather.  Every day we’ve been telling stories.  And every day I’ve laughed, cried, or both as I give thanks for my father and my son.  The seasons of this life are a gift, and this fall feels especially sweet.

Covenant is a church full of baseball fans.  I wonder, this week, what the game evokes for you.  What lessons has it taught you?  What memories does it bring?

With aloha,

J

outside the Live Oak Friends Meeting

Recently I was asked about my own understanding of the good news.  The person who asked did so in earnest; I was struck by the simple beauty of the question.  Afterwards, I stumbled through an answer that I later feared was a bit dry.  That initial answer had to do with my understanding and application of Jesus’ teachings and how those teachings had been transformative for me.  (Just in this one-sentence description you can get a sense of my mind’s drift toward the academic.)  A day later I woke with an answer, clear as a bell.  The answer wasn’t a series of theological bullet points or a philosophical dialectic on the nature of liberal Christianity as interpreted by a religious naturalist.  No, my real good news is a story.  Here it is:

When I was a little boy, my mother noticed that I was building something out of couch cushions.  I set the cushions in the shape of a square with an open door and began to work on how I might make a roof out of the available quilts and blankets.  I was building a clubhouse, and, when my mother asked about it, I told her that my club was called The Everybody Club.  “Who can be in it?” she asked.  “Everybody,” I replied, with the seriousness of a boy on a building project.

The good news, in my view, is The Everybody Club.  Though I am now a grown man, it seems to me that my work is essentially the same.  What I hope to do is make of my life, my work, and our church places where everybody can belong.  Rabbi Jesus, as I read him, set about doing this kind of work in his welcome of all, particularly those who were at the margins of his society.  So the basic good news for me is that our church is a place where everybody is welcome.  This has manifested itself in different ways at Covenant as we have evolved over time, expanding the circle of this little beloved community to include people of every gender, sexual orientation and identity, race, ethnicity, class, and religious or philosophical perspective.

Perhaps what has surprised me most is not how strongly this welcome has been felt by visitors to our community.  What caught me off guard was how much I needed this welcome myself.  Finding an expression of Christianity that welcomed me as a minister with doubts, a poet and naturalist, a feminist, a believer in social justice, an oftentimes conscientious objector, a parent, a partner, and a lover of jokes, turned out to be a kind of saving grace.  Over and over again I have found my whole self included (not excluded) and that inclusion has made all the difference.

Other churches may have a more exclusive understanding of the good news.  For me, however, the good news is that everybody is welcome.  No matter what.  I can’t think of a better word than that.  And the house I build out of cushions will never have a door.

So how do you understand the good news?  What is your word or story?

With aloha,

J

the hands of Chagall's "The Praying Jew"

At a recent church meeting, I was struck by a certain sheepishness.  As a group of us gathered to begin doing some work for the community, the leader of the meeting asked if someone would be willing to offer a prayer.  The room fell silent as people shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.  I looked around, smiling, to see folks glancing at their shoelaces or fiddling with their smartphones; it’s a scene that has played out any number of times at Covenant meetings over the years.  We did good work that night, but I walked out of the meeting wondering why we were so reluctant to pray.

Some of the reasons, of course, are perfectly understandable.  Like most liberal religionists, we excel at deconstruction.  So we all too often know exactly what prayer isn’t, what we don’t mean by it, and what troubles us about the practice.  We have long since given up ideas of ancient petitionary prayer, where one might seek to persuade God or the gods to intervene in the natural order of things (bringing rain, say, or gifting us with material good fortune).  We have long since moved beyond traditional anthropomorphic images of the divine (in a litany our children wrote, they say, “we’re pretty sure [God] is not an old white guy”).  We have long since dismissed the notion that prayer is something done only by a priest or sanctioned arbiter, some holy person with the credentials to move between worlds.  It is good that we have left some of these ideas behind because they aren’t really authentic for many of us.  But what is authentic?

As many of you know, I have moved among various practices of prayer in my own life and ministry.  There was a time, as a child, that I prayed to an anthropomorphic image, asking mostly for help in being a good boy.  Later I understood prayer more as a way of naming people who were struggling with something (e.g. illness, recovery, grief).  For a period after the death of my father I didn’t pray much at all because I couldn’t make much sense of it; rather, I went for long walks and let the path itself become a prayer as I remembered things he told me and wondered who I would become.  As a minister at Covenant, I have held two primary forms of prayer–on the one hand, I pray publicly in our worship, naming the dreams and needs of our community and holding us in a shared time of reverence; on the other hand, I pray personally in silence, sitting on a zazen cushion or in my writing chair by an east window where sunlight streaks across the floorboards and warms the quiet.  In my silent prayers, I hold images of those I love and care about without quite knowing exactly what I am doing.  Lately I have been writing poems as prayers.

There is no one way of praying, but the more I try various forms of prayer, the more convinced I become that prayer is a way of attuning ourselves to reality, both the things that we cannot control and the things to which we can respond in meaningful ways.

This week I’d like to ask what prayer means to you.  Feel free to share your hang-ups, but what I’m most interested in is what you hope and need prayer to be.  There’s no need to stare at our shoelaces hoping the question will pass.  Let’s lift up our eyes and make ourselves a bit vulnerable.  How might we (re)learn to pray?

With aloha,

J

South Boulevard, Houston

I’ve been reflecting on the questions that have been important to me at different times during my life, considering how things have moved in and out of my moral imagination.  There have been times when the question of God’s existence or nonexistence was a primary concern.  There have been times when grappling with the Christian tradition (and some of its worst expressions – sanctioning violence, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and neglect of the Earth) was a primary concern.  There have been times when engaging other religious traditions and their truths was a primary concern.  There have been times when learning the roles of ministry and trying to exercise them in artful and healing ways was a primary concern.  It’s a long list, really.  My questions have deepened and changed, casting dappled light and cool shadow on the proverbial spiritual path.

I find this enlivening.

One of my favorite things about our church is its commitment to the deepest existential questions of all.  Everyone is welcome, a point we press on a weekly basis as we count theists and nontheists, traditionalists and skeptics, those who grew up in church and those who were wary, among our number.  We bring different sets of questions; they change as we do over time.  Yet in our sharing of the questions, which strikes me as a communion of sorts, we find nourishment.  Perhaps what sustains us is how real the conversation is.

The knock on the liberal church is that we aren’t always good at coming up with answers or constructing theologies in which to ground ourselves or offer to others.  I appreciate the truth in the rub, but I have found that with a bit of persistence a great many answers are on hand.  The answers are not fully formed, however, they are not without ambiguity, and so they lead to more questions.  In my own case, the answers of liberal Christianity have to do with Jesus’ commitments to prophetic critique, radical inclusivity, and creative nonviolence.  I hear each of these three ideas very clearly in his life and teachings, yet the more I embrace them, the more I am challenged by, you guessed it, questions.

I wonder this week about the state of your own questions.  What questions once occupied you?  How have the questions changed?  Most importantly, what questions do you wrestle with now?

This is theology.

This morning I am holding the following questions:  How am I to raise a boy in the tradition of which we are a part?  What can I do to create a stronger relationship between myself and the natural world upon which I depend?  Why does religion so often lack a sense of humor?

The questions will no doubt change as the days and weeks pass.  But they shape the direction of our moral attention, which is why I ask:  What questions are guiding you, shaping your imagination, offering you trouble or challenge?

With aloha,

J

On a recent trip to Galveston Island, I found my thoughts drifting to a few ideas to which I was exposed this summer.  Professor Tony Pinn has suggested that we expand our definition of text to include the texts of our bodies, the flesh and blood reality upon which our lived experience is incribed; he further invites us to consider other texts beyond the traditional sacred books (e.g. music, visual arts, film).  Pinn’s work is deeply engaging, and I hear in it the invitation to examine all of my life experiences theologically.

In a complementary way, Professor Ann Taves’ recent work in the philosophy of religion moves from the traditional academic conception of “religious experience” to the broader category of “experiences deemed religious.”  Taves argues that experiences deemed religious are the building blocks of the more complex systems of religion and spirituality that we form.  Taves balances the subjectivity inherent in experience with an academically critical approach that encompasses the natural and social sciences as it advances a broad view of what might constitute the religious.

I suppose it’s a peril of the trade, but these are the thoughts that swirled in my mind as we boarded the Port Bolivar ferry.  It was an especially windy day as the boat set out, providing strong currents upon which the seabirds wheeled and dove.  As we crossed the bay, pods of dolphins rose and sank to the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” of the passengers.  The smell of the saltwater was strong and refreshing; we leaned against the side of the ferry looking out.  Slowing as we reached Port Bolivar, a host of brown pelicans glided in at the boat’s side and bobbed there in the swell.  We waited for the ferry to unload and load again, then we rode back toward Galveston, enjoying the show a second time.

I couldn’t help but think that to read that scene was to read a great sacred story.  I saw and experienced it in the dolphins, the birds, the breeze, and the bay.  I felt it in my own body, too, as I breathed island air much cleaner than the Houston smog, thick with ozone and particulate matter.  Our ride on the ferry was an experience that I would deem religious, by which I mean that that moment in my story brought the realization of a much larger story.  As I stepped off the ferry, I felt once again in love with the Gulf Coast ecosystem of which I am a part.  And I felt obligated to relate to it, to care for it, to be ever mindful of it.

I wonder, then, how you relate to the book of the world?  To what texts do you currently turn for wisdom:  sacred stories, music, visual arts, film, your own body?  And what experiences would you deem religious:  a church service, a morning walk, a good meal, or something else?  I invite you to tell a story or share an example.  I can’t wait to read your thoughts.

With aloha,

J

*see Tony Pinn’s The End of God-Talk (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered (Princeton University Press, 2009)

The title of this post was colored onto the poster I had made as I walked to the Mecom Fountain in late 2002.  I was early for the antiwar demonstration, and I stood there alone for a time, holding my sign as the cars whizzed past.  Some drivers waved and shouted their approval; the city buses usually honked their percussive horns, which startled me pleasantly.  Others shouted insults, questioned my patriotism, and flipped me the bird; one threw a beer bottle (not the sort of thing one forgets).

After a few minutes, I saw someone crossing to join me at the circle.  He was an older African American gentleman, and he waited for a break in the traffic before shuffling across Main to join me at the circle.  The man introduced himself, we shook hands, and he inquired after the sign, which I held out for him to read.  He smiled an old grizzled smile and began to laugh.  “Man, that’s good,” he said, “Dr. King would like that.”  “Thank you,” I said, “I hope he would.”  As we struck up a conversation, I learned that the man had marched with Dr. King and had come out to oppose the war based on Dr. King’s admonition that the silence of good people represented spiritual death.  We continued to talk, and I learned that the man was a person of Christian faith — together we wondered aloud at Jesus’ instruction to lay down our swords; we questioned our nation’s ability to heed his reinterpretation of religion (“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye’…But I say to you…”); we worried that our small voices would be drowned out by the growing drumbeat for war.  Then we laughed and told a few more stories as we held the sign together.  Before long, others began to arrive at the fountain and we were slowly surrounded by the ramshackle Houston peacenik community carrying signs and passing out candles as darkness fell.

This is just one of dozens of memories I have of the last ten years.  As we approach Sunday’s tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I find my thoughts drifting away from that one particular day and its unspeakably traumatic images.  Rather, I am sitting with an entire decade.  I can’t help but wonder this week what exactly has happened to us in the past ten years.  Who are we and what are we doing — as people, as a nation, as religious communities?  These are deep questions, I know.  Perhaps they are best answered in story form.  Maybe you could share a story.

With aloha,

J

I never considered talking about the weather substantive conversation until this year.  As the Texas drought has drawn on, I find myself deeply affected by its signs–the patches of dirt and pale grass that were once my lawn, the decreasing shade in our neighborhood as the live oaks drop leaves and limbs, the cracks in earth and stone that are beginning to give our Gulf Coast ecosystem the feel of a desert.

A few weeks ago, Richard Parker wrote an article in The New York Times entitled, “As Texas Dries Out, Life Falters and Fades.”  In the space of a page, he detailed the suffering caused by excessively high summer temperatures coupled with a year-long lack of rain.  Ranchers, hunters, and boaters are all telling stories about how they have never seen anything quite like this.  Parker went on to detail Texas’ tendency for “megadroughts, events that can last 30, even 40 years.”  I am not an alarmist, but I was fascinated to read that scientists studying tree rings have documented severe droughts spread throughout Texas’ natural history; in geologic time, we may be due for another, though no one can say for sure.

Whether this is just a bad summer or the beginning of a cycle of drought, I find myself considering the question of how to respond.  Sara has actually led the thinking in our family, and, as one dry week has tumbled into the next, she has encouraged us in a number of ways.  We are now more conscious of our water consumption and have sought to diminish it in certain ways (e.g. having one laundry day per week, taking one shower or perhaps forgoing one, and saving excess water to pour at the base of our trees).  We are becoming much more aware of our power usage, knowing the grid is taxed, and we have been trying to conserve (e.g. raising the thermostat a few degrees, unplugging unused electronics, hanging clothes to dry).  We have also been carpooling a bit more and even taking bikes and walking in the heat.  I mention these things not as a form of shameless self-promotion, but rather as a few earnest attempts to lower my impact on an ecosystem that seems especially fragile this summer.

On the drive to school today, I heard Ian’s voice from the back seat.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “Sorry about what?” I asked.  “I’m sorry about the animals because it’s so hot.  Can we take them some ice?”

Part of my own commitment to living as a religious naturalist includes relating to the whole as ethically as I am able.  Ian’s question raises the idea of what we might practically do to respond.  Perhaps this week we can share some good ideas.  What are you doing to respond to the record heat and drought?  What might we all do to help out?

With aloha,

J