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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Thanksgiving--A Time for Mourning

Coffey Park

“There is a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens...
...a time for crying and a time for laughing,
a time for mourning and a time for dancing...”    Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4

Not long ago a dear friend who lost her home and her studio in the fires told me how she’d gone to a fundraiser for victims of the fire. It was at a winery and the music had been so amazing, that to her surprise, she’d danced all night—for the first time in years. She’d just let the music carry her into the “zone”—away she went for a beautiful night.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is not really about separate times—it’s not that laughing and crying have different scheduled times, nor mourning and dancing either for that matter. We most often find ourselves in times where we are all mixed up. We dance in the midst of mourning, we laugh in the midst of tears—and sometimes our tears of laughter flow into tears of grief in a split second. Dancing can express our mourning as well as our hope and even joy. Our bodies are where these deep emotions are stored. Tears and dancing are two ways to express their truth.

Thanksgiving is upon us. Our national holiday inviting us to give ourselves over to gratitude. It’s rooted in a history that is generally told from a skewed perspective, but in any case, for Christians and people of many faiths, it is one national holiday that is rooted in bedrock spiritual practice. Gratitude is a practice that reminds us of our interdependence— with the earth, with one another, and, with those who have gone before us. It’s a time to honor the gracious gift of life. Gratitude puts us in a humble place—a place where we recognize our dependence, not our independence.

And, Advent is right around the corner—a time to live into our longing for the presence of Christ and for new life. At just about the same time, our Jewish brothers and sisters will be celebrating their feast of lights, Hanukkah. In our society though, the emphasis is not on spiritual longing nor on the miracle of the oil for the menorah, instead it is on being consumers! Buying gifts, putting on lavish parties, and hosting the meal for the extended family. The images we see everywhere are of happy people, surrounded by things—many things.

How could we not grieve? How could we not? As I write this we are just over a month since the fires. The messages that already fill the news and internet are so often: “Time to Rebuild,” “Sonoma Strong,” “Let’s get on with it!” And, yet the grieving of losses has barely begun--painful losses for those whose loved ones and friends died in the fires. And such complicated losses for those whose homes have burned. Most not only lost their place, their possessions, their neighborhood—in some cases relationships built over decades. They’ve been displaced on so many levels. Those who’ve been fortunate enough to find housing at all in Sonoma County, find themselves in strange places, driving different routes to work and school, different neighbors, sleeping in a bed not their own.. The homes they lost, many of them were places that had been built and rebuilt, added on, recreated time and again—they’ve lost places where they put in hard work and creativity—some have lost their workplaces as well as their homes. And some their beloved pets.

Ours is a materialistic society. Our national identity these days seems to be as Consumers. We know we have too much stuff. And yet, when people say, “It’s only things, we’ve got our lives,” it’s important to acknowledge that while that is certainly true, “things” often are laden with meaning, beyond what you might guess. Family photos, drawings your children made for you, gifts from loved ones, just the everyday things you loved—maybe a favorite blanket, toy, sweater or watch. Who knows? We’re talking comfort and memories, but we’re also talking history and generational connections. That lamp that was your mother’s is a link to her and to your past. These are real losses.

And we’ve hardly begun to realize the other displacements. The family home where Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hannukah were celebrated. Who will be the new host? Who will sit at the table in some new place? Who might be missing? It’s not that there can’t be some new and deeply meaningful way to be together—but it’s important to live into the truth of loss.

There is the land, the trees, the creatures... even those who have survived with their homes intact look out on a decimated landscape that once brought them peace and beauty. They look out on a neighborhood and all the losses of their neighbors and friends. They weep.
Coffey Park
They weep if they have time to weep. So many of those who sustained losses are facing the overwhelm of dealing with insurance companies—some demanding lists of every possession in the house—others with such impenetrable processes and hoops to jump through that it’s hard not to despair. Add this to the uncertainty of what lies ahead... can we rebuild? Can I find a place to rent? Will I be able to find a new job? How do I help my children get over this? It’s exhausting.

Because of course, the children and adults who raced from their homes in the dead of night have harrowing memories still coursing through their bodies—and their sleep. The terror that was mixed in with the flames, the wind, and ashes has not been erased.

To grieve is to honor the truth in which we live. To grieve is to create a spaciousness inside where the pain of loss can be acknowledged an felt. That space allows us really to live fully in the place we are in. To grieve is to acknowledge the losses, material, economic, and spiritual. In our tradition, the prophets have much to teach us about grief. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and cries out from the cross in his aloneness. The words of the prophets start in grief. They lament how things are—and how far they are from where God would have us be. Eventually, the prophets move to hope—but not before grief. Not before.

How do you grieve? Do you cry? Do you feel depressed? Is your heart breaking? Do you obsess over your losses? Do you find yourself distracted? Unable to get a good night’s sleep? Do you feel stuck and unable to move on? Do you feel alone? Is God absent? Are you angry? Short with others? Or, does it come in spurts for you? You’re driving along maybe, and suddenly from nowhere comes a memory, and there you are. Do you try to stuff it? This is us, grieving.

We’ve been through a crisis: a time that cracks us open and truth becomes visible that had been shrouded in ordinariness. During the time of the fires, we saw uncovered another truth--the beautiful truth of our human capacity to care for one another, to act courageously to save another, to reach out with compassion. We saw our basic oneness.

But we also came to know something else. All of us lost something in the fires-- the illusion that we have control. We now know a vulnerability which is real, but is a truth we’ve mostly pretended wasn’t so. It reminds me a bit of the grief that some here in Sonoma County felt when the results of the last presidential election were clear. There was at that time a stripping away of illusion that many had lived with—an illusion about who we were as a people, who was hurting, and what was important to the country. This moment now in this place gives us a hard opportunity to live into our very real vulnerability as humans—a certain humility presents itself.

We know there is a risk as we go ahead—a risk that these two truths will be covered over, forgotten, and it will be back to “business as usual.” “Sonoma Strong” “Every man for himself.”

The days ahead may be difficult for many of us. Thanksgiving, Advent, Hanukkah, Christmas, “the holiday season” may serve as measures of our displacement. I hope that, no matter what, we will be able to honor our grief and to stand with one another in it. We have hardly begun really.

Of course, we can and will move ahead. People will deal with their insurance companies, communities will gradually be rebuilt. New ways of being together will be discovered. New ways of honoring our past. What will rise out of the ashes will not be the same. There will be new life. But for now, it’s important to grieve and to honor our losses. We may do so in the midst of tears, and dancing, we may laugh even from time to time, and cry as well. There is a time for every matter under heaven. Strangely enough, grieving is one spiritual practice that can open us to the divine: it honors the value of the present.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grieving in the Apocalypse

David Whyte. The Well of Grief*

Those who will not slip beneath
     the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
     to the place we cannot breathe,

                   will never know the source from which we drink,
     the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,
     the small round coins,
                    thrown by those who wished for something else.

We are living in an apocalypse. The time of the revealing of things hidden. The unraveling of illusion. The great uncovering.

My teenage granddaughter told me she cried most of the day after the election. She had imagined a woman as president, and people she cares about—safe.

These days people tell me of their sleepless nights, fitful tossing and turning, horrifying dreams—their inability to focus.

There is fear and uncertainty in the air. Every breath we take—we inhale it.

The news is not good. And if you are checking your Facebook or Twitter accounts you’ll get more than your share of judgement and hysteria.

Whoever you voted for—or even if you did not vote—every late-night tweet by the president-elect can inflame your emotions—up or down. It’s a roller coaster ride at top speed.

Many of us have become addicted to the news (fake or real)—we are bombarded day and night by ceaseless sound bites and texts. We seek them out, responding to every ping on our phones.

There was a day not long ago when you and I read the paper once a day or watched the news in the evening—or maybe we went days without. We somehow knew the world would continue to spin without our being constantly in the know.

Today though we seem caught in the grasp of a paradox: we know more and more news sooner and sooner, day and night--and we ride those waves or sink under them. We’re addicted to hype. We’re exhausted. Stressed out.

On top of this, the Apocalypse itself is a time of danger. That revealing of truth we dared not face. The unraveling of our illusions—of dreams and hopes too for some. The Apocalypse is a time of vulnerability. The turf which seemed solid, is not. No wonder we feel so stressed.

One instinct is to flee—to withdraw into a cave or move to Canada perhaps. Hunker down. Become invisible. You know about fleeing the scene—there are so many ways to do it. There’s a certain allure to withdrawal—after all it’s all so overwhelming. We know too much...

In the know, we are also not in the know—in fact many of us are in a state of ignorance about one thing: what are we to do? Who are we to be in times like these? As followers of Christ, what are we to be up to in the days of apocalypse?

I suspect that one of our deepest fears—one that lies under the surface of a myriad of others is the fear about our faith –untried and untested for so many years—the fear that our faith will not carry us through the days that lie ahead. Just when we need to call on it—it will fail us. How is it possible that the long-expected Jesus could come in such a time as this? How?

And, if in fact, the divine is present in this now, how can I possibly open myself to receive, when my instincts are to shield, protect, ignore, and run away?

I take a page from the prophets here—from people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea—that lineage of truth-tellers that Jesus came from.  For them it all begins with grief. The revealing of the truth that things are not what they seemed to be—that truth that we have refused to look at even though it has been in our midst—this is an old theme in prophetic work and literature. The calling of the people to recognize that they have been living a pretense. When the unraveling comes and the revealing is made clear: the prophetic response is grief.

Grief was in my granddaughter’s tears and is in my own and those of men and women who have told me that when they have dared to sit still and silent these days—they find themselves weeping.

Who knows for sure what is in those tears? Perhaps tears of grief for shattered dreams. Grief for how far our reality is from God’s own dreams and visions. For our own complicity in systems that oppress so many and ruin the earth. Grief for the revelations of the depths of racism, sexism, and all the other isms and phobias we were afraid to acknowledge. Tears of frustration and powerlessness. Tears for the poor and the shut-out, who it turns out, include some of our neighbors some of us hadn’t paid much attention to. Tears that our own vaunted democracy has been revealed as not so perfect after all.

Tears have an honored place in Christian mysticism. The desert fathers and mothers talked quite a bit about tears, and the necessity to weep. Grief makes us humble. It is a measure of our losses—a measure of our love—a measure of our relationships. We grieve for what is important to us. And grief can be a shadowy place—as David Whyte says, It is a well –dark and cold even. It may leave us gasping for breath.

This is on-going work. We grieve in different ways. But, however we do it, it is our human way to acknowledge the truth of our situation. Things are not as they should be. This truth will set us free. Tears are our offering. Our acknowledgement that we have a place and a responsibility for the fabric of life. To grieve is to relinquish detachment and any pretense of control—not by running away, but by entering deeply.  It is to acknowledge our fragility.

However it is that we are to open ourselves to the depths and strengths inherent in our faith—however it is that we are to grow up into Christ so that we might stand upright in the days to come—it needs to begin in grief. And, my guess is that we will have continuing grieving to do in the weeks and months ahead.  

Jesus’ life—from his birth in the cave to his death on the cross—assures us that he is present in the vulnerability and depth of life. We have to dare to enter those places to meet him there.
Grieving will break open your soul to receive the Christ.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


“Dying isn’t hard. What is hard is relinquishing.” So said Chris Graham, as he goes deeply into ALS.(1) ALS IS a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. People with ALS may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. So many losses come with ALS—so much relinquishing on the way to death.

At the Bishop’s Ranch where I work, a bit of a walk from the main campus in a grove of oaks just beyond the prayer flags, is the Cristo—a metal rendering of Christ on the cross. This powerful sculpture was the creation of Skip Gathmann an artist who lived not far away. He made the Cristo after he was diagnosed with ALS. The Cristo has only stubs for arms—no hands—no arms really. “Dying isn’t hard. What is hard is relinquishing.” There came the day that Skip had to relinquish his hands, his gift for making art.

The dying learn to let go, many of them do so with grace. But in our daily lives, it's a challenge.

What’s so hard about relinquishing anyhow? Some things seem easy to let go of—but others not so. What is it about the bookshelf full of books that is hard to let go of? Books I’ve loved to read. Books that have taught me, challenged me. Books that represent my years of study. How much of my identity is tied up in my books? Who would I be without my books? You could say the same about a piece of jewelry, a car, a house, clothing, a job, a dream you have for your son or daughter, your political certainty. How about a relationship? Who would I be without him/or her? Would I cease to exist? What are the things you clutch? The things you have an iron grip on. Think about it if you let yourself imagine losing X or Y, you get that feeling in your gut, you can maybe feel yourself tightening your grip.

We live in a culture of fullness, not emptiness. So fasting is one of those traditional disciplines we don’t talk about much. Today it’s fashionable to go through short fasts for health reasons But spiritually, your hunger can remind you of your hunger for the divine, and your dependence on sustenance from outside yourself. Fasting can help keep you humble in that sense. Your emptiness is your readiness for the New Thing God is doing.

The material world is good, the incarnation affirms that. But, the amazing popularity of the Tidying Up books that have swept the western world is an indication of one fact: we, most of us, have too much stuff. Our lives are over full, cluttered: our homes, garages, storage spaces, our desks, our offices, our minds. We know it, yet we most often refuse the path of relinquishment that would free us. Relinquishing is about freedom and spaciousness. The things we hold on to, clutch, whether material or immaterial, hold us captive.  They define our world. We have to care for them, protect them, we worry about them, and focus on them. Our value as human beings gets all tied up in the things we possess-- in our illusions of control.

There’s interior relinquishing too. Meditation at one level is a practice of letting go: we sit there, and notice our myriad thoughts, obsessively running around in our heads. We can gently let them go and return to our breath. How many times? Thousands and thousands. It’s a practice of relinquishing. I am more than my thoughts. I can let them go.

Whether interior or exterior, relinquishing is all about letting go of our illusions of control, and creating a spaciousness and freedom to be present and vulnerable in the here and now—where that “pulse of life” awaits.(2) Relinquishing, a spiritual practice.

 (1)        Quoted by Walter Brueggeman in Reality, Grief and Hope.
 (2)    From a poem, Where is God? by Mark Nepo.