Only an illusion

I had never seen this brilliant trompe l’oeil mural by artist Richard Haas on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia until we happened by it last week. I love it, not just because the deception is so effective, but mostly because the space it suggests is so inviting. I really wanted to walk right into it because it seemed so spacious, clean and bright. Rather more appealing than the city around it, to be honest. Illusion can be like that, and it’s OK to visit–just take care you don’t try to live there.

Compassion through Contemplation

This article was featured in the November 2017 Shalem eNews)

Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.

The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book titled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”

I propose that contemplative practices can facilitate direct connection with other beings, in ways we are only beginning to understand, enlarging our capacity for profound compassion. If contemplative practice can awaken our compassionate hearts, it can help us minister to people—even, or perhaps especially, those we might see as annoying and maybe even try to avoid.

The seed of my interest in this subject was planted in something that took place some years ago, during a period when I was faithfully maintaining a daily practice of Centering Prayer. I walked into a crowded convenience store and crossed paths with a store employee. I was heading for the coffee; she was carrying some bottled drinks to the refrigerator. As she walked by, I experienced a powerful sensation that she was carrying a great deal of pain – not physical, but emotional – and I offered a prayer for her. I felt that same sensation again when I went to pay for my coffee and she was back at the cash register, and this encounter stayed with me for a good long time after I left the store.

What just happened? I wondered. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I sensed that it was more than just a matter of emotional intelligence, i.e. picking up on visual clues such as her facial expression and body language. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, since it involved my feeling some of what I perceived to be her pain; on the other hand, it also felt sacred. Even after those impressions faded, I continued to reflect on what had connected us for those few moments, and how it was even possible.

Much later, when I had returned to the regular practice of Centering Prayer after a time away, I had another similar experience. This one was even more intense. While sitting with others in contemplative prayer, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of the goodness of one individual in particular. To be honest, this was someone I had previously found rather annoying. But now it was as if this goodness were a tangible quality that was overflowing into the room, blessing all of us; the word that came to my mind to describe this person in the moment was “golden.”

Another time, while sitting in silence with a woman who had experienced real pain in her life and whose physical appearance bore mute witness to what she’d been through, I glanced at her and was overwhelmed by her beauty. Again, it was as if what I perceived as beauty was not a matter of looks but more a kind of energy that radiated from the depth of her person and had moved between us.

As we develop our compassion for the world, we become better positioned to lead our parishes in responding to those needs and fulfilling the baptismal promise expressed in the Book of Common Prayer to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” As Thomas Merton wrote after his well-known Louisville experience, “If only they could see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Additionally, many of us believe that good preaching requires becoming aware of what the text might have to say to the particular circumstances in which we preach, and what the people we preach to need to hear. I think the perception of contemplative compassion has something to contribute in both of those areas, but especially in the understanding of who the people we preach to really are, what they are experiencing in their lives, what hurts and doubts nag at them, what they need to feed their souls.

I cannot think of any quality that is more needed in our world today than compassion, and each parish is in its own way a microcosm of that world. If a greater capacity for compassion is a natural outcome of contemplative practice—and it seems that it is—that is a wonderful and valuable asset for anyone in pastoral ministry. We so need that open-hearted connection to God, and to our people.

A sermon for All Saints Sunday

When I was a kid, I liked to sit very quietly in the shadows when my parents got together with aunts and uncles for the holidays, just listening to their stories, hoping they wouldn’t even notice I was there, so they’d tell the real stories, with all the details.

They talked about relatives I would never know, and others I had met but could barely remember, because they died when I was still very young, and somehow I sensed that all those little bits of information about who they were was also part of who I am.

Lately I’ve been working on my family tree again, trying to flesh out those stories, connecting individuals and tracing those connections back to ancestors I’d never even heard of. In one part of family now I can go back seven or eight generations, to the 1600s.

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Hungry

I was moved by the new statue of Hungry and Thirsty Jesus outside the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, and also by the urge some obviously had to give him something–the coins are not part of the sculpture. Though I couldn’t help thinking that if we’d only put bread on that plate instead, he might have fed our hunger.

A sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40

Beautiful baby

When my kids were little, I liked playing with some of their toys more than others. Legos and Duplos were high on my list. Today’s joy: seeing that my granddaughter likes Duplos as much as I do.

The bright colors, the even rows of bumps, the interesting way they stick together and come apart, even if the intention to build something is still a long way off. Call it mindfulness or just the wisdom we have as babies but lose as we grow up, you know if you stop and pay attention that there is such pleasure in these little things. Even the simple act of passing a blue block back and forth, hand to hand, an act of connection, can be a moment of happiness.

Terrible things are happening in our world; don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think this talk of bumps and blocks is just a silly distraction from what really matters. Yes, we must be about the business of making things right, but we’ll never have strength to persist in this work if we don’t remember to stop and enjoy the simple pleasures of being human.

I loved the way people smiled at me today as I pushed my granddaughter through the streets of the city. The man who said “beautiful baby” as we passed spoke the truth, but I know that what he really meant was that life itself is beautiful.

Back home we played with blocks some more and then she fell asleep on the couch, leaning against my leg, as I sang “You Are My Sunshine” (my repertoire is limited) and rubbed her back. And that made me about as happy as I think it is possible to be.

Beautiful baby. Beautiful life.

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Today we begin those couple of Sundays people like to call “stewardship season.” That isn’t really a very good name, but it is a convenient shorthand. Church people know what it means: You’re going to get a letter with a pledge card and a deadline for returning it, and for the next couple of Sundays the sermon’s going to be about giving in support of your parish.

But good church people should know that true stewardship has no season. It’s not a synonym for fund-raising.

It’s a way of life that begins with recognizing God’s abundant generosity, and it’s all about our grateful response. It’s about how we use what we’ve been given in all areas of our lives. It’s about how we spend our money. It’s about how we use the abilities we’ve been given. It’s about how we care for the earth.

Wee wisdom

Life has been feeling harder than usual lately, for various reasons. I seem to know a lot of people who feel that way these days. Best antidote I know: spend an afternoon playing with a baby if you can, and for those who have no easily accessible baby at hand, I offer these bits of baby wisdom about living well:

Laugh a lot. Cry when you’re sad. Wave at everyone you pass. Blow kisses if you see other people kissing. Pat the dogs if their owners will let you. Share your toys. Applaud for yourself often. Eat what you like, and feel free to toss what you don’t like on the floor. Make funny sounds with your mouth just because it feels good. Check out everything you see, even if the tall people tell you it’s trash; they have no idea how much interesting stuff there is down at ground level. And go ahead and let them put funny hats on you. Sure it’s silly, but it makes them smile and keeps them coming back for more.

A sermon for Sunday, October 8, 2017

The city of Assisi in Italy is built halfway up a low mountain in the region of Umbria, and when you approach it from a distance it’s strikingly beautiful. What you see is this long expanse of white buildings, and in the sunlight they have a pinkish glow. You have to go up the mountain to get to the city, and you can’t park or drive in the middle of it, and so when we visited last year, we parked at one end of the town and then walked down the main street to the other. The first place we stopped was the church that contains the font where St. Francis supposedly was baptized toward the end of the twelfth century. From there we went on to the place where they now have the San Damiano cross, that famous cross before which Francis was kneeling in prayer when God gave him the commission to rebuild the church. And finally, at the far end, we came to the Basilica of St. Francis, where Francis is buried. Now to get into the basilica, you have to go through a checkpoint that’s guarded by armed soldiers. And I couldn’t help wondering what Francis would think if he came back and found that he had been buried in such a grand place, and found it protected by armed soldiers. …