I’m swamped. The theme for the Second Sunday of Advent is peace, but how does one cultivate peace in the midst of chaos, conflict, and the everyday pressures of a to-do list that only gets longer? This is not a rhetorical question. Let me know!
Peace, at least in the context I’m most familiar with, i.e. the North American mainline church context, tends to be kitschy and clichéd: quiet woods, sandy beaches, laughing children, sleeping puppies, lamp-lit snow-covered villages. Bourgeois fantasies of escape tinged by nostalgia. Those aren’t particularly Biblical images of peace, thank God. While I love a walk in the woods or on a beach as much as the next person, I need peace when I’m sitting in front of my laptop or in a meeting with leadership.
The prophet Isaiah writes, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah then goes on to describe a divine king who will “with righteousness judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” This king’s power will be such that it extends beyond the human sphere to bring an end to violence among animals and between animals and humans.
Peace begins with a stump and a shoot. What made the stump? In the context of Isaiah, the stump is an image of the Davidic lineage cut down by exile. This suggests to me that peace is an expression of a life force that the devastating violence of human empire will never be able to eradicate.
Nicole and I bought our current house on short sale. The backyard was overgrown with trees of all kinds. The health of our backyard mini-forest required that we thin the trees, so we had a bunch of the smaller ones cut down. The next spring, of course, the stumps started sending up new shoots. So I rented a chainsaw and a stump grinder and ground the stumps below the soil line. Even after that, many of the ground down stumps continued to send up shoots. So I dug around the stumps and cut them out by the roots. Oh my goodness, so much work. Peace is a stubborn pain in the ass!
Isaiah concludes his vision of peace with another powerful image: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Biblical peace isn’t primarily a sandy beach or a snowy woods. It’s the bone deep knowledge that you, I, and the entire universe, no matter what devastation we may face can be cut off from life in God.
A print of bricolage artwork that hangs on the wall of my church office speaks to my understanding of hope. It shows two sparrows with twigs in their beaks flying above a jumble of houses and buildings, some tipped over. The landscape is jagged clump of fragments above which float fluffy green-gray clouds and an orange sun that looks a bit like a basketball. (I don’t know what the weird, brown, rock-looking things in the sky are. Giant meteors?) It’s not a particularly attractive piece. I bought it primarily for the quotation at the top: “. . . We are not in the least afraid of ruins . . . We carry a new world here in our hearts . . . .”
The quote is from Buenaventura Durruti. I didn’t know who Durruti was when I purchased the print from a funky little craft store in downtown Providence. At the time I was pastoring a dying congregation through a major transition, and the words along with the image resonated with me. The congregation knew that things were falling apart. They saw all the empty pews every Sunday. And they were afraid. Their fear, however, just made things worse. The more they tried to control the situation, the faster things deteriorated. Part of my job was to help the congregation calm down, step back, and accept that things would never be the way they were. The spiritual practice of simply sitting in the ruins of what once was creates a space in which a new world can arise. Later I learned that Durruti died fighting Facists during the Spanish Civil War. Key to Durruti’s struggle for a more just world was the ability to courageously face the ruins while carrying a new world in his heart.
The sparrows in the bricolage remind me of Jesus’ teachings on fear. In the Gospel of Matthew he says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father . . . So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (10:29, 31). Durruti also found courage in Jesus’ words, specifically the promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Durruti could face the ruins because he trusted the promises.
Once in a while as I work with a church in transition a member uncomfortable with change will say, “You are ruining my church.” That is 100% untrue. All I am doing is facing the falling apart that is already underway and inviting others to do the same. Why? Because I am committed to living not some fantasy world where nothing ever changes but in the reality that a new world is possible if we get out of the way long enough to let God bring it forth.
A new world is absolutely possible. It can’t be controlled. It can’t be manufactured. It emerges on it’s own timetable and in it’s own form. Our job as Christians is to observe and nurture it. That is difficult to do if we allow either despair or anxiety to take over.
Hope is the theme for the first Sunday in Advent. The difference between Biblical hope and false hope is that Biblical hope courageously faces the impermance of every human endeavor. There are always ruins to face because always somewhere something is falling apart. Biblical hope as opposed to false hope trusts not humanity’s ability to create the world we long for but in God’s ability to keep God’s promises and our ability to cooperate with God’s work in our world. In the immortal words of songwriter Leonard Cohen:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Maybe your new world isn’t in some far off place at some far off time. What if it’s shining through the ruins right now? Will you notice it? Will you nurture it? Will you, even now, celebrate the abundance to come?
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (John 6:27).
Recently my wife’s aunt Susan shipped her a set of family silver table settings and a set of family China. My wife, Nicole, and I have been hosting Thanksgiving for family and friends since we started dating 26 years ago. And as we’ve moved around the country, our extended family have made it a priority to travel any distance to be a part of the celebration. This year the family will be joining us to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family silver and China.
The China has been passed down from Nicole’s grandparents. Burleigh Crane and Dorothy Warren had set their wedding date for the summer of 1942 when Burleigh was called up for active duty in the U.S. Army. The wedding date was moved up to February. After the wedding Burleigh was deployed to Italy as an artillery commander. Upon his return in 1945 Burleigh and Dot settled into their home in Milbridge, Maine where they would live for the next 60 years. They raised two children and were fixtures in the community. At their wedding they received two sets of China. They used one. The other was never opened. They stored it in the attic where it remained for over 75 years. Until this year. Next week the family will gather for Thanksgiving to use Dot and Burleigh’s China set for the first time.
A couple weeks ago, Nicole and I talked with Aunt “Sue-sue,” as she is known, about our Thanksgiving plans. Susan wept as she talked about how meaningful it was to pass something of the family legacy on knowing that it will be used to celebrate the rituals of gathering together and giving thanks.
This year the gospel lectionary for Thanksgiving is John 6:25-35. In this text Jesus unfolds a complicated metaphor around food. Backstory: Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish and then left to sail across the Sea of Galilee. The crowds, amazed by Jesus’ miracle and wondering if there was more where that came from, followed Jesus and his disciples across the sea and caught up to him in the town of Capernaum. When the approach Jesus, he says, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
What is the food that endures to eternal life? In the context of the Gospel of John, this “food” is faith. For Nicole and me, our commitment to giving thanks, gathering family, and honoring legacy arises out of the faith that was passed on to us, a faith that sustains us day to day, moment to moment through scarcity and abundance. Let’s face it: family can be a real pain in the ass. Traveling long distances to attend family gatherings can be difficult and even dangerous at times. There are family conflicts, losses, absences, and griefs. There are times when we set our own preferences and agendas aside for the good of the group. There are some days when the sacrifice doesn’t appear to be mutual. Faith means looking beyond the moment to what endures.
All of us–Nicole, Aunt Sue-Sue, me, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and the rest–are looking forward to feasting on brined turkey, mashed potatoes, squash au gratin, roast vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce, gravy, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping, pies, ice cream, carrot cake, and Nicole’s famous espresso-and-Grand Marnier-infused chocolate mousse for dessert all served on the family China. Left-overs will keep us fat and happy for another week or two. But the food that endures is faith, love, and a legacy of gathering to give thanks.
I’m sitting in one of the living-rooms-turned-into-conference-rooms of the Edwards House Retreat and Conference Center in Framingham, MA. Edwards House is a giant farm house situated on several acres that serves both as the (now former) Massachusetts Conference UCC headquarters and–as the name would imply–a site for conferences, retreats, meetings and other types of church-related gatherings.
I’m here for a week-long training in leadership coaching. This is the second part of a Lilly Endowment funded program to train an ecumenical group of clergy–who were selected through an application process–in the theory and practice of coaching groups and individuals for the purposes of raising awareness, clarifying values, and maximizing effectiveness.
Coaching is NOT therapy. It is not spiritual direction or pastoral counselling. It is a way of working with people through deep listening, artful language, and powerful questions that is designed to produce real world, life-changing results.
Coaches work with pastors, lay leaders, congregations, non-profit and for-profit organizations, managers, “C-suite” executives, parents, teachers, and leaders of all types. The idea behind training clergy in leadership coaching is that clergy can, in turn, coach their staff, volunteer leaders, and teams. Coaching is a leadership style that brings out the best in individuals and groups.
I have greatly benefitted from working with a number of coaches over my 20 years of ministry. If it weren’t for the coaches who have encouraged me and helped me grow as a leader, I probably wouldn’t be in ministry today. I’m glad for this opportunity to give back. Once we’re certified, those of us who are being trained are required to donate 50 hours of coaching to churches, teams, and/or individual leaders of the Southern New England Conference UCC.
My training requires that I log 500 hours of coaching for certification. If you are interested in a sample coaching session, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
I’m sitting in the Burbank Hollywood Airport waiting for my flight to Hartford. The screen on the wall chatters with a morning show. Around me people take, then vacate the seats at the gate as their flights board. My flight to Hartford isn’t for a couple of hours, so I have an opportunity to let you know what’s up!
I’m returning after spending a couple of days in Los Angeles. My trip had a dual purpose. The primary purpose was to serve as the UCC delegate to the National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian dialogue, which took place on Tuesday at Hsi Lai Temple, a Chan Buddhist temple, in Hacienda Heights. The secondary (although a very close second) was to visist my daughter, Olivia, who is a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
The dialogue was interesting. This is our second time meeting. This is how it goes. About twenty of us, Buddhists and Christians of different flavors, sit at a large oval table in a conference room and listen while members of the group make presentations on different topics that the group has previously identified. I was asked to speak to the topic of “Renunciation and Repentance.” Others topics for this dialogue included Buddhist and Christian perspectives on social justice and Buddhist and Christian perspectives on “ultimate reality.” I could tell that the group was going deeper compared to last dialogue because this time “difference” was allowed to arise in the group.
What do I mean by “difference was allowed to arise?” At one point we were talking about Buddhist reincarnation as it relates to Christian salvation. One of the Christians tried to make a connection between the two concepts. The Buddhist presenter shook his head and said, “No, they are not the same.” The conversation then shifted to a discussion of language and its limitations when faced with ultimate reality, which, by definition, is unspeakable.
The purpose of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue is to build connections across religious differences. The first impulse in building connections is to look for commonalities. We naturally do this when we meet someone new. “Where are you from?” one might ask. “Sacramento,” she says. “Oh, my cousin lives near there,” you say. And on it goes. We relax. There’s a good feeling. We’re not so different after all. And we aren’t. A foundational claim for both Buddhists and Christians is that all of life is connected. But if we stay in this easy place of “we’re all the same,” are we really getting at the truth?
Recognizing difference is vital to genuine connection. Integrity has boundaries. It is able to say both “yes” and “no.” Difference gives energy, variety, and beauty to life because difference is also truth. The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Difference can feel sharp. It can feel scary. “What’s happening? Will we lose our connection? Will we argue? Will we fight?” Healthy dialogue allows both commonalities and differences to arise without getting caught in any of them. Instead, we calmly apprise and appreciate them. Commonality and difference. Connection and disconnection. This is the path to truth and beauty. This is the way of the unspeakable.
Presentation to National Council of Churches Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
Hsi Lai Temple
Hacienda Heights, CA
5 November 2019
Good morning, everyone. It is an honor and a joy to have the opportunity to speak with you this morning on the topics of renunciation and repentance. These are topics of enormous importance, but we only have a short time together. So I will begin by setting the frame and focus for my brief remarks.
Renunciation and repentance are spiritual practices that save my life. For me, they are important not as abstract theological concepts but as concrete actions. As theological concepts, renunciation and repentance in Buddhism and Christianity are in many ways worlds apart. But they intersect in profound ways in my personal spiritual practice. I would like to show you those intersection points by sharing with you a little of my spiritual journey.
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan and baptized as an infant in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). The CRC is a small, conservative, Evangelical denomination of Dutch immigrants based primarily in the Midwest and Canada. For generations all of my family on both my mother’s and my father’s side have been CRC. When I was in high school, my mom left the CRC to become and ordained minister in another denomination. She left because at that time the CRC did not allow women to become ordained ministers. At about that same time my dad came out as a gay man. He also left the CRC because the CRC, like many conservative Christian denominations, is not supportive of LGBTQ people. After my parents left, I left the CRC, and I seriously considered leaving Christianity altogether.
Instead, I decided to study theology at the graduate level. First, I moved to Germany and studied there for a year. I then returned to the U.S. and studied theology at the University of Chicago with the intent of becoming an academic theologian. But God called, and I answered. So instead of pursuing a Ph.D. I ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and have been serving as a pastor for the past 23 years. The United Church of Christ is a Protestant Christian denomination that shares many of the theological roots of the church of my childhood, but they have taken those roots and grown in some very different directions, the most important of which for me are that the UCC ordains women and supports the equality of women in every aspect of church life. The UCC also welcomes LGBTQ to serve equally in all aspects of church life, including ordination. The UCC is also very active in ecumenical and interfaith work, which will become important later in my spiritual journey.
The CRC placed a heavy emphasis on renunciation and repentance. Every Sunday worship featured a reading of God’s law and a call to repentance, which each of us made individually and silently sitting in pews, our heads bowed, our eyes closed. There were many things we were expected to renounce as Christians. Sex outside of marriage was a big one. Also dancing, swearing, and secular music–especially rock and roll. Working, shopping, playing with friends, or any other kind of “secular” activity were forbidden on Sunday. Renunciation was about resisting temptation. Repentance was the remedy for succumbing to it. Renunciation and repentance were the twin practices for maintaining the behavioral norms and cultural boundaries of the community.
My understanding of renunciation and repentance have changed since I was a child. It’s not that I have rejected the practices of my childhood. Rather, my spiritual journey has challenged me to expand them. Let me explain.
One of the things I really appreciate about my upbringing was its emphasis on what we called “personal devotions” or “quiet time.” The idea was that as Christians we were to extend the practices of renunciation and repentance into our daily lives. I took this very seriously as a child. I would set aside 10-20 minutes a day to read my children’s Bible and then to pray. The Bible reading I found difficult but doable. We were taught that prayer was “talking to God.” So I would fold my hands, close my eyes, kneel next to my bed and say what was on my mind. It would take maybe two or three minutes before I would run out of things to say. I found the procedure spiritually unsatisfying, but I wasn’t offered any alternatives, so I kept at it for many years until eventually as a teenager I just stopped. I longed to develop myself spiritually, but nothing in the narrow range of options available to me made that connection. The practices I was taught didn’t offer enough “quiet” (since most of the “noise” was coming from my chatty brain) and not enough “time” (since once I was done “talking to God,” I didn’t know what to do.)
Fast forward many years. I am serving my first call as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I am the solo pastor a small church in a small town in the Chicago area. It is not going well. The church is dying. The parishioners are fighting with each other and with me. One day I’m pacing my office looking for answers to some church problem or another. I don’t remember what, exactly. I find myself absent-mindedly looking at the books on my bookshelf and I spot one entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. When my wife and I married, we put our books together. This was one of hers. I pulled it off the shelf, started reading, and that began my Zen meditation practice, which I’ve maintained for the past 20 years. I’m currently a member of the Boundless Way Zen Temple in Worcester, MA. My teacher is David Dae An Rynick, Roshi. I received lay ordination in the Boundless Way Zen lineage in 2018.
What does this have to do with renunciation and repentance? Let’s take renunciation first. In my current understanding renunciation is a process of self-emptying. I find that in the practice of renunciation the Jesus way and the Zen way intersect at profound levels. Self-emptying in the Christian tradition is often talked about using the Greek term, kenosis. This word appears in the famous text from Philippians 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied (ekenosin) himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.”
Self-emptying in this context goes far beyond the understanding of renunciation as avoiding certain behaviors. In fact, my early experience of renunciation as primarily avoiding sex, swearing, and “bad thoughts,” whatever that meant, only served to reinforce my ego and self-consciousness. I had continual anxiety that I was being a “bad Christian.” My Zen practice has invited me to step beyond judgments of good and bad and into a practice of unconditional availability, letting go of self-concern so that I can be more effectively present and helpful in whatever circumstances I find myself.
Repentance is the spiritual practice of changing one’s mind (Gk: metanoia) or “turning around.” St. Paul famously described it thus: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). Jesus’ first sermon was a call to repentance: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In my upbringing, repentance was closely linked to renunciation. One repented indulgence in things one was supposed to have renounced. For me, it took a form something like this: sitting in worship, head bowed, I silently pray, “God, I’m sorry for fighting with my brother this week. Amen.” One is supposed to feel remorse and vow never to do the repented-of thing ever again. But much of the time I did. There were always more sibling conflicts to work through, sexual thoughts to arise, or sweets to sneak from the cupboard. Repentance was a repetitive, guilt-inducing grind that once again only reinforced my ego-centric consciousness. The Kingdom of Heaven was not near. As far as I could tell, I was far, far from it.
What are we turning from and what we are turning toward in repentence? Christian teaching focuses on turning away from “sin” and turning toward God and toward our fellow human beings. Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from God or from our neighbor. When asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, there are sins that harm our relationship to God (this is called “idolatry” in Christian theology) and sins that harm our neighbors, or put us out of right relationship with them. The root of all of these sins is the tendancy of human beings to prioritize the wants and needs of the individual ego above all else. This is how repentance in the Christian context can be understood as self-emptying. Turning away from the focus on self and turning toward a focus on God and neighbor.
Zen repentance can also be understood as self-emptying, but it is rooted in the understanding that there is no such thing as a separate self. The individual “I” is a construct of habitual thinking that if observed very closely in the process of meditation slowly begins to deconstruct itself. The turning in Zen involves noticing how we get caught up in our thinking processes and then returning attention to the breath over and over again without judgment. Over time this creates an expansiveness of spirit born of an experiential knowledge that in the view of absolute reality, we are one.
Repentance in Zen involves acknowledging our mistakes for the simple purpose of seeing clearly how we get carried away again and again by our thoughts: our thoughts of separation, our thoughts of oneness, our thoughts of good, our thoughts of evil, our thoughts of God, our thoughts of no God. The power of awareness is that it gives us the opportunity to get ‘street-smart’ (as my teacher puts it) in the ways of the mind. The point is not to eliminate thought. That is a common mistake. Our brains are thought producing organs. It’s just what they do. The point is simply not to mistake our thoughts for reality. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart famously said, “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God.” His point being that the word “God” itself can become an idol if we attach an idea of reality to it. God, in this mystical convergence, is simply the bare present manifesting moment after moment. Just this. Repentance is seeing with compassion how we continually “miss the mark” and returning to just this.
The practice of zazen has taught me in profound ways that the Kingdom of Heaven is indeed very near, in fact, right here, right now, just this. Repentance is nothing more and nothing less than reconnecting with right now. I have found that repentance practiced in this way leads to exactly the kind of spiritual development St. Paul was writing about when he warned Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world,” and exhorted them to instead “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
Renunciation and repentance tend to have negative associations in modern, Western cultures. This is understandable. For centuries Christian institutions have used the practices of renunciation and repentance as tools for social control. I don’t think my parents or the Christian Reformed Church had any bad intent in raising me to practice their particular forms of repentance and renunciation. They truly believed that they were loving me by saving me from hell. Unfortunately, the practices themselves plunged me into my own personal hell realms of anxiety and depression that to this day I visit from time to time. The difference for me now is that a new understanding of repentance and renunciation gained through meditation practice means that whether I find myself in the hell of suffering or the heaven of bliss, I have the tools to engage the present moment whole-heartedly. This whole-hearted engagement with reality is the fruit of renunciation and repentance. Whole-hearted engagement produces salvation for me and perhaps even for the entire world.