"A Kind of Heaven Below"

What do you see when you walk from your house to the mailbox, or from the parking lot to your workplace, or from the school to the park?  You probably imagine looking straight ahead, or from side to side.  That's the normal way of looking, to see where we're going, to be sure what's around us and keep safe. 

But what do you see when you look down?  We're used to looking down only when we're uncertain of our footing, but what's down there may be the most interesting of all, a kind of heaven below.  Heaven on earth usually brings to mind creation's grandeur: a mountainside, a desert landscape, the ocean, sunrise, sunset.  In our time outdoors we seek those kind of vistas to reconnect with our Creator.  There's another way of making that reconnection in a spirituality of small things. 

Our contemporary culture is fixated on living large.  The adjective extreme gets put in front of almost everything to make it seem appealing.  Extravagance is considered admirable.  Expressions like "too much is never enough" show up in songs, videos, and blogs, and in marketing for restaurants, motorcycles and consumption tours of London and Las Vegas.  The spiritual life, the authentic life, by contrast, has always been much more about living small.  It is about having less, being less visible and less known.  The name for this quality is humility, and it can be nurtured by various practices. 

One of the ways of living small is a simple attentiveness to what is under our feet.  Down there is a small world hidden within our world, below the level of ordinary perception, small things, objects that are visible but too tiny to catch our attention, so close to the ground or so much a part of background scenery that we just don't notice them.  Learning to notice these creatures, to observe these small communities, is a discipline of observation.  But it is also a spiritual discipline, because down there, hidden from our blundering eyes and vulnerable to our clumsy feet, is a world designed and loved by God.  It is knowledge gained when we are willing to be small, near the ground, the humus, from which the word humble is derived.  Any moment spent outdoors, even just walking down the sidewalk, offers the opportunity to practice  humility.  If nothing else, sidewalks have cracks, and those cracks all contain little communities of living things, small creatures as we walk by each day.  So does the bit of soil at the base of a telephone pole or the space between stones in a wall.  If we slow down a little, bend over or kneel for a bit, we will find ourselves face to face with wonders.  It may be a patch of moss with blossoms only a few millimeters in diameter, or a wild strawberry smaller than your fingernail.  Or it may be a cluster of dried leaves and pine needles with a half inch red mushroom cap peeking out. 

In any climate, any patch of earth, life makes its desire known.  We only need to change our attentiveness to see it.  Paying attention to small things can open our eyes to the Creator's glory in unfamiliar portions of creation.  It can be like seeing for the first time.  I remember a retreat when I was asked to look at a tree.  I could suddenly see not just swatches of color on the tree, but specific leaves and clusters of leaves.  Beginning to notice the world beneath our feet can be like that.  We begin to see things that were always there, just missed by our inattention.  G.K Chesterton wrote an essay, "A Defense of Humility," in which he says, "a beetle may or may not be inferior to man, but if he were inferior by a thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle point of view of which a man is entirely ignorant."

And how might one attain the beetle point of view?  Listen to Chesterton:  "Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all.  That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own rules and structures.  But to the spirit which has stripped off its own standards, the grass is an everlasting forest; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled upon each other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heathbells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other.  These are the visions of him, who, like the child in fairy tales, is not afraid to become small.  The towering vision of things as they really are shall perish with the last of the humble."

Gifts from a Ceaselessly Revealing God

The modern view of God as an infantile wish projection probably had its birth in March of 1907 when Freud read a paper "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices." In that paper, Freud claimed on the basis of his work with neurotic patients that the "petty ceremonies of religion" are basically a sort of personality sickness. God is only a symptom of deep inner insecurities. There is no reality in modernity outside the self. Therefore, what we call God is a projection of something within ourselves.

Certainly the human being is an inherently imaging and projecting creature. In order to live in the world we are constantly projecting images on our mental screens. For instance, the toddler has a fixation with a baby blanket. Whenever the child feels insecure, it grabs the blanket and feels better. Why? Surely the blanket is a reminder of the comforting presence of the mother. This feeling of closeness is a projection. But it is not a lie. There really is a parent somewhere. There really is a connection between the child's projection of the parent and the parent. Such a projection is essential to our self-definition. We are busy painting mental pictures of the world in order to live in the world.

We cannot be human without projections. As children we learn to play with toys and games. Later as students we learn to play with ideas and words and images. All of this is our attempt to do business with the world. When I say the world is a 'rat race' that is an image. When I say life is a 'bowl of cherries' that is a projection. Think of our tendency to project images upon our world not as arising out of childish wishes, but from the natural human tendency to think about the world. Maybe the reason Freud's thought is so abusive toward religion is that it sees religion as a major competitor for the question of, "who gets to name the world?"

What if the world I live in is not only my projection, but God's. Think about that. The God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and Mary, is more than a helpful metaphor. This God is reality. It is typical of modern humanity to think that we are the only actors, the only speakers. But what if God is busy acting and speaking to us? What if my images of God are not simply projections out of my own ego needs, but gifts, gifts from a ceaselessly revealing God who is determined to be known? What if God is also busy projecting images upon the screen? What if, when I say God, I am not just throwing my projections and wishes out into the universe, but I am also being bombarded by images of the good shepherd, the waiting parent, the crucified savior, the patient teacher, and the living bread which comes down from heaven? These are images which have been projected on me by the faith. Jesus is the Word, the Word that formed the world, now made flesh and dwelling among us. So God in Christ projects love and revelation toward us. What is the basis of our faith- not what we feel or imagine or try to do, but rather what God reveals.

-Reverend Glover Wagner

Drinking the Full Cup of Life

"So I was reminded that the heart's job is not to play seesaw with life and death.  The heart's job is to stay open to both territories at once. 

It is the soul's natural want to keep both horizons in view- the horizon of life always becoming and the horizon of death always undoing.

I now have a felt understanding of the Roman deity Janus, the two-faced God who is always looking - at the same time - to the past and the future.  Janus the God of beginnings ad transitions, the seer of gates, doorways, ending, and time.  Regardless of the culture or the era we're born in, we always live into this knowing that we must keep both the beginning and the end in view at once.  In real terms, in a single life, it means not forgetting that my father is struggling to breathe as he lies on his side and not muffling the awe in this young girl before me as she hears violin music for the first time. "  

                                                      -from The Endless Practice  by Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo surges to the epitome of spiritual vision as he recalls the Roman God Janus and asks if we too can be all-faced.  Can we regard joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, and beginning and ending with an equal eye?  Can we savor the delicious yellow peach even as our body suffers illness?  Can we delight in the perseverance of the little boy who meticulously puts on each sock even as evening breaking news of the killing of young children in a Florida School sounds from the television screen?

What kind of consciousness is attuned to the rhythm of life and death in the fabric of creation?  Ego consciousness is characterized by choice.  We fragment life by choosing what is pleasant or secure or beneficial for our own maintenance and avoiding what is threatening or hostile to our well-being.  As Nepo says, we seesaw between life and death.  Our conversation with ourselves typically revolves around the refrain: "I want this.  I don't want that."  Yet the more we press for security, the more we are conscious of our fear of insecurity, and so the escape from fear is fear. Nepo call this vicious circle a seesaw; Buddhists call it the wheel of birth and death or monkey mind.  How can we be free?

Understanding that every hard choice produces the opposite of its intention grants us a felt understanding.  I think this is what Jesus was about when he said that he came to fulfill  the law.  Use the law, see that its effort to wrench life into a particular form diminishes the spirit.  Be obedient to all your efforts to do good works, and ask yourself if your compulsive trying has given you inner joy and lightness of being.  The understanding of the gulf is the breakthrough- the moment that choiceless awareness comes to you like a gift, blowing on your life like a gentle breeze.

When I was minister of the Westmoreland United Church in New Hampshire, I thrilled each fall to the vibrant colors.  We surely have a fall season in Montana, but the prodigious amount of hardwoods in New England produce a full palate.  And yet the vibrant color of the leaves is the death cry.  They are most vibrant at the moment of their falling and transition.  To be conscious of the leaves is to move beyond the perspective of my little life.  To see the leaves and appreciate the rhythm of their life and death is to enter creation.  Matthew Fox says that the cosmos is in us and we are in the cosmos.  To behold the leaf, to let its doing correspond to my own quality, is to overcome any distinction between inner and outer and come upon a cosmological consciousness.  Then, I and creation are in harmony.  We are doing one thing.  It seems to me that the more we ca dance with nature's passion- its all-faced view of beginning and ending- the more we can rest in that awareness that drinks the full cup of life -  the frothy brew and the dregs at the bottom.

-Reverend Glover Wagner

Embracing Our Brokenness

"I understand that I don't do what I do because it is required or necessary or important.  I don't do it because I have no choice.  I do what I do because I'm broken too.  My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression and injustice had finally revealed something in me about myself.  Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn't just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish, it also exposed my own brokenness.  You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world's sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones.  I guess I'd always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.  We all have our reasons.  Sometimes we're fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we're shattered by things we would have never chosen.  But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis of our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

 We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity."

-from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

I can only call Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy a revelation.  After Bryan graduated from Harvard Law School he became a legal advocate for death row inmates and those facing unjust and cruel sentences in Alabama.  The book centers on Bryan's representation of one Walter McMillian who was unjustly accused of murder.  Through painstaking work over many years Bryan uncovered the real facts of the case and won Walter's release.  As I thought of Bryan's confrontation with a racist and corrupt criminal justice system, I wondered how he kept his composure and simply pressed on through many setbacks and occasional victories.  I attributed his stick-to-it-tive-ness to his professionalism, but still wondered if even this quality was the secret of Bryan's strength.  In a poignant disclosure, Bryan revealed the truth- his capacity to endure in the face of overwhelming injustice and prejudice was his own brokenness.

What did the admission of brokenness grant Bryan?  What does it potentially grant us?  I think of Jesus in the wilderness and in the garden.  By revealing his own temptations, his own weakness, Jesus becomes part of our shared humanity.  He is human as we are human.  He hurts as we hurt.  He is not on the other side of our experience and that is why he can become our guide.  As he struggle for wholeness we can find courage to face our own demons and seek release.  Jesus give us assurance in our human struggle by telling us that we are not alone.  I have been where you are.  I understand what you are going through and I will accompany you in your journey.

After declaring that admitting his brokenness joins him with others in a shared humanity, Bryan quotes Paul.  Paul, as we remember, discovered that his very weakness, that thorn in his flesh, was his strength.  He says that God told him, "My grace is sufficient.  My power is made perfect in your weakness."  Paul discovered that his own vulnerability created a need and desire for mercy.  The presence of this mercy enabled him to say, "When I am weak, I am strong."  Bryan came upon the same power in his own brokenness.  He says, "Even as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness we're also in a web of healing and mercy."  Experiencing mercy for himself, Bryan was able to show mercy.  Bryan concludes his mediation on brokenness by recalling words he heard while working as a musician in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia.  He would play the organ before the choir sang.  The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say: "Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken, may rejoice."  Acknowledging his brokenness with broken people, Bryan knew at last the meaning of these words.

Oftentimes we believe that if our thoughts just align with others, that if we are both in sync as to what we believe, we will have shared intimacy.  And often we believe that if we just lead what we deem a morally good life we will have intimacy with God.  Bryan's insight reveals something far deeper.  It is only by going downward in acknowledging our flawed humanity, that we ascend upwards in compassion for ourselves and others.  And it is only by acknowledging our weakness and our inability to redress it though our own will, that we become open enough to receive and know God's grace which empowers us when we have no power.

by Rev. Glover Wagner

Behold I Am Doing A New Thing

"And waking as human beings, where the human is finite and the being is infinite, there's always more spirit in us then one life can carry.  By our very nature, each of us is challenged to grow out of one self into another.  I am not the same person I was ten years ago, nor was that self the same as the one I inhabited twenty years ago- though I am the same spirit.  We blossom and outgrow selves the way butterflies emerge from cocoons.  Except that being human, we have the chance to emerge from many cocoons.  Mysteriously, saying yes is one of the ways we begin to emerge.  Saying yes is how the infinite spirit we're born with keeps moving through us into the world, redefining us each time it emerges."   -Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo describes well this eternal dance between the infinite and the finite or the absolute and the relative or the universal and the particular.  We can easily see how we inhabit many different selves in our life while our essential spirit remains the same.  If the spirit in us is the actor then it plays many different parts on the stage of our life.  Imaginistically, I perceive the absolute spirit in me and everyone as the background in our specific painting which holds up in bold relief the foreground.

I gained an immediate sense of how the spirit incarnates in my present awareness through regarding the story of the wise men who came to the manger with their gifts.  Now I have certainly contemplated this story many times in my life and have written about the symbolism of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, in regarding the wise men this epiphany, their offerings to the baby Jesus spoke to me in a new way.  The gifts remain the same and absolute if you will, but the way they manifested themselves to me was revelatory.  I am not the same person I was last year or five years ago, and so my understanding of the gifts was different  than before.  This is what Nepo means when he says that "the spirit keeps redefining us each time it emerges."  

So what is the truth of the gifts?  It is neither absolute in a one-dimensional sense or relative to my present interpretation.  Truth is not a noun; it is not locked in a static definition.  Truth is a verb- it is a meeting of the absolute and the relative.  The effective reality of the gold, frankincense, an myrrh meets my personal subjective understanding in the moment.  That is the truth I have to tell now.  Next year the truth will no doubt have a different flavor.  To me this is how God is always speaking a new thing in our lives.  In the words of Isaiah: "Behold I am doing a new thing.  Do you not perceive it?" 

The antique lowboy that was given to me by my mother has sat in the same corner of the living room for sixteen years.  This Christmas Eve as I was opening presents I glanced up from my chair and beheld its glory as if for the first time.  I saw is unique shape and the glow of its golden oak finish; I saw my mother's hand brushing across its surface.  Yes, "we have the chance to emerge from many cocoons" and see anew with a different, vibrant self.

During the Christmas Eve Service I found myself speaking again about the challenge of receiving.  Surely I had stood in the same place on other candlelight services addressing the same theme.  Yet this year I wanted to feel what it meant to receive as personally as I could.  Thus, I began with an injury which happened to me as an adolescent and which caused me to say the word 'help' for the first time in my life.  The spirit in me has remained constant and unchanging through a multitude of Christmas Eve Services.  This year it became flesh and dwelt in my heart and mind in a startling way.  

How is the spirit manifesting in the flesh of your own experience now?  How will the old verities of love and peace assume new shape in your life this new year?

The Inner Marriage

The Greek Classics are an eternal source of meaning.  The stories in Homer's Iliad are veritable parables.  The outward facts of the story contain an inner, unspoken truth. In The Heart Aroused David Whyte draws attention to the story of Cassandra in order to hold up the task of integrating the parts of ourself in order to become an authentic person.  The outline of the story takes place during the Trojan War.  The Greeks and the Trojans are involved in a ten year struggle.  Priam is the king of Troy and Cassandra is his daughter.

Cassandra has the gift of prophesy and seeks to warn the Trojans of the plight that awaits them.  She has been given this gift by the god Apollo in exchange for her love.  Cassandra, however, refuses to give herself to Apollo and the god in return decrees that all of her prophesies, while spoken, will never be believed.  And so Cassandra is fated to make emotional cries which others regard as the ravings of a hysterical woman.  Whyte is astute in describing the psychological rift within Cassandra.  Apollo represents the light of reason and clarity, and by rejecting the god, Cassandra fails to join her intuitive wisdom with discriminating intellect.  In order to become whole she needs to effect an inner marriage between thought and feeling.

As the story unfolds, Troy is sacked as Cassandra has predicted.  Agamemnon, the king of Greeks, takes Cassandra home as a prisoner.  She warns the king of impending disaster, but according to script, Agamemnon does not heed her warning.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter in order to secure favorable winds for the Greek voyage to Troy.  His wife, Clytemnestra, has never forgotten this sacrifice.  As he is taking a bath, his wife throws a net over his body and murders the king.  Agamemnon represents another inner, psychological split. His masculine dominance has resigned  his inner feminine to the shadows of his self.  In essence, his journey toward wholeness is the opposite of that of Cassandra.  Agamemnon needed to recover his intuitive wisdom while Cassandra needed to balance her insight with discrimination.

Mark Nepo in The Endless Practice describes "a world where tragedy is broadcast every hour; where situation comedies are rerun nightly; where confusions and betrayals replay themselves; where dark histories repeat themselves."  He says that "we have no real choice but to meet our own experience until, moving through us, it makes our song knowable."  He says that "we can dare to effort our way into harmony."   

We come upon this harmony, this integration of self, when we make the inner journey of the soul.  What are the voices within you that cry our for reconciliation?  What marriage needs to take place within the inner sanctum of your self?  Doing this inner work produces that light within which we can then shine on the world.

Joga Bonito! by Rev. Glover Wagner

 Pele

Pele

I recently watched the film, "Pelé: Birth of a Legend," and was so taken with the story of this premier soccer player from Brazil, that I watched it a second time.  I had read bits and pieces about Pelé 's life over the years and can well remember going to Yankee Stadium with my father to watch him ply for the Cosmos when he first came to America.  I have long felt at an intuitive level that sport at its highest level reveals universal spiritual truths.  I am not dogmatic in this assertion and do not obsessively seek to impose this paradigm on every likely occasion.  However, Pelé 's story clearly shows that matter is something that spirit is doing and that the physical is an incarnation of an invisible spirit.

Pelé grew up in poverty in the state of San Paulo shining shoes. His father was a footballer and at an early age he played on the dirt with a sock stuffed with a newspaper and tied with a string or a grapefruit.  He went to Santos and played for their team when he was fifteen.  His first appearance in the World Cup was in 1958 when he was just seventeen.  The Brazilian style of soccer is totally unique.  They call it "Joga Bonito!"- the art of playing beautifully.  Brazil advanced through the early qualifying rounds of the Cup and was pitted against Sweden in the finals.  The coach of the team believed that only a set, organized, and predictable defense would defeat Sweden.  The film beautifully depicts what changed his rigid attitude.  One morning as the Brazilian players are having breakfast, looking forlorn and defeated, Pelé begins bouncing a soccer ball on his chest, off his head, and down his back in the cafeteria.  There is a lighthouse in the distance and he points to his players and says "let's go."  The players arise in unison and begin advancing the ball in the cafeteria, through the kitchen, down the hallways of the hotel and out into the open space leading to the lighthouse.  As they spontaneously dance with the ball and improvise on the fly, the coach watches their brilliance and pure joy.  Before the final match he tells his players to forget everything he has said and just play Brazilian soccer- "Joga Bonito!"  He says he doesn't know if they will win, but everyone will witness a beautiful style of play.  Sweden scores first in the finals, but then Pelé and his teammates come alive as one.  The beauty of the film is that the footage of the young actors is superimposed with actual black and white footage of Pelé and his team.  The artistry, the joyful exuberance, the spontaneous glory of the Brazilians is a delight to behold.  Pelé scored twice and Brazil overwhelmed Sweden 5-2.  Pelé was the youngest player ever to win a World Cup.  As Brazil is winning on the field, the film switches back to his father and mother and brothers and the whole town witnessing the game.  Soccer for Brazil and other countries is a national sport.  Pelé 's victory was a triumph for all of Brazil.  Their style of playing was not just a physical technique but the embodiment of the Brazilian soul.  Pelé went on to win two more World Cups, and even under enormous pressure to leave his homeland and play for other teams, he remained with Santos where he had started.  His inner essence, that style that was particular to him and his teammates, was the style and grace of Brazil itself- "Joga Bonito!"

I was genuinely inspired as the credits rolled on the screen.  Pelé said once that God had given him a gift.  He had to practice hard, of course, and he once said that his father would exhort him everyday with the words "repeat, repeat."  Yet what was unique about Pelé is that he remained true to himself- to his own style.  He said to a teammate before the finals with Sweden when his coach was unrelenting in his approach: "I can't play like this."  Each of us is God's unique creation.  Each of us has been given a gift that is unique to us and the challenge in our life journey is to stay true to who we are and let that gift find material embodiment.  "Joga Bonito!"