The Keys to Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

 I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

 Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

 I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.” 

 I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life. 

 I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

 I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think. 

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said. 

His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..” 

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

 And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are. 

 The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

 So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.  I am always your brother,

Andreas

On the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

On the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

 

I sat down under the food court canopy

at the Big Box store

and paused before eating

the Big Box hotdog

which everyone agrees is the best of all hotdogs.

 

I paused to ask that it would be blessed to my body,

blessed and not cursed.

 

I paused to recall the Day of Diagnosis,

to think through once again the fat portfolio

of foods and ingredients I must no longer ingest,

to recite to myself the litany of

common, ordinary, everyday, ingredients

in all their varied and marvelous, delicious, featured or hidden forms

that my body now reacts to as if they are poison.

I paused to guesstimate how many

of my allergens, my demons,

might be in this Big Box hotdog.

I paused to calculate the risk.

 

I paused to think if there had been other recent

times when I had crossed the line

for I am allowed some small indulgences

once in awhile,

if I do not eat or drink too much,

if I first take the medicine that dulls the reaction,

if I use it sparingly,

only once in awhile

on a special occasion,

such as a Feast Day.

 

I was prepared.

I had not indulged in other forbidden fruit…

that I could recall, not to my awareness.

I had taken the medicine.

 

I was prepared.

 

And so was the hotdog:

one stripe of deli mustard, one stripe of ketchup,

a generous spill of perfectly cubed sweet onion,

warm and waiting in my hands,

an elegantly beautiful and aromatic still life.

 

The sausage stretched

beyond the snug embrace of its bun

and as the skin snapped

in the pressure of that first small bite

and flavors washed across my tongue

 

my eyes were opened

and I could taste and see the goodness

 

and in the goodness was remembrance.

 

I remembered my grandfather’s wheat fields in Kansas.

I remembered driving all night through the desert,

to get there in time to help with harvest.

I remembered wondering if the bread

in the sandwiches my mom packed in my lunch for school

maybe, just maybe, had some small taste of wheat from our farm.

 

I remembered when the corral by the barn was turned into a turkey pen.

I remembered the multitude of those fearsome beasts

—have you seen them up close when you’re only 4?—

milling about in angry close quarters

and me being sternly but unnecessarily warned

not to get too close.

I remember thinking my grandfather,

who I knew as a quiet and gentle man,

must also have a fearsome side

because those turkeys would give him

a wide circle of respect when he waded into their midst.

And I remembered thinking at the next Thanksgiving

as Mom put our turkey in the oven,

“I hope this is that big nasty gray one that followed me along the fence.”

 

And I remembered all the early morning milking

on my other grandfather’s dairy farm in Arkansas,

in the years before he and my uncle switched to beef cattle.

I remembered them hooking up the machines in the pre-dawn cold

to the cows that would take them

and milking the others by hand.

I remembered churning butter on the porch

from the cream we had skimmed that morning,

then later picking fresh sweet corn, tomatoes, okra and string beans.

I remembered feeling rooted to the land because everything on the table

came from the fields and garden around us.

 

And mindful of the flavors in my mouth I remembered other sacred meals.

 

I remembered eating an almost inedible chicken in the jungle in Colombia,

barely sheltered from the rain in a poor couple’s lean-to.

I remembered finding the will to be honestly grateful

for this god-awful chicken because to them it was the richest

gift of gratitude they could bestow. And I remembered

feeling so unworthy of that gratitude because we had given them

so little. Some vitamins. Some antibiotics. A few sutures. Some sulfa powder.

A prayer. A little hope.

But the wound in the man’s leg had healed and he could work again.

So we were invited to share in a meal of their one and only chicken.

 

I remembered eating delicious, mysterious, robust greens in Tanzania,

greens cooked in oil, with a side of ubiquitous peanut butter and some bits of meat.

I remembered how the women of the clinic and the village

had worked for hours to prepare the meal,

how it was delicious and filling,

how a little went a long way.

I remembered how it seemed

both mysteriously wonderful and not mysterious in the least

that the boisterous crowd of us all fit around one small picnic table

and the whole night was lit by lanterns, starlight and laughter.

 

And I remembered sharing tortillas and rice and beans

with migrants in Tijuana

as they told me about the hazards of a life lived on two sides of the border,

of how hard it is to hold family together when your lives

are laid across borders, of how hard it is

to work and pay the bills when the work is on one side

and the family is on the other,

of how easy it is to end up on the wrong side because of a lapse in paperwork.

I remembered my soul being fed by their sadness and their tenacity

as we shared tortillas and beans and rice.

 

And I remembered, also in Tijuana,

my friend the surfer-priest pushing a bowl of mariscos soup away from him

because he saw a baby shark’s fin in it, saying “I made a deal with sharks.

I don’t eat them and they don’t eat me.”

 

And I remembered barbecued ribs shared with a brother

as our motorcycles cooled in the shade of giant redwoods.

I remembered the brewpub owner/entrepreneur

who gave us those ribs the night before and told us

to save themfor the redwoods, the same generous man

who took us into his home for the night

and treated us at his brew pub to the best jambalaya we had ever had,

who, next morning, set us on the road

with a breakfast of smoked salmon and kale smoothies,

who did all this so easily and casually

even though he didn’t know a thing about us

except that we were friends of his friend.

 

And I remembered

the overpriced New York airport hamburger split three ways in 1974,

and Cervelle au Beurre Noir in Paris,

and a hundred nights of gourmet meals in Boston,

and freeze-dried meals beside high Sierra lakes,

and Mexican food on the way to Death Valley,

and my Aunt Roberta’s fried chicken and fried okra,

and my Mom’s lutefisk and potatis korv at Christmas,

and my Dad’s prime rib and steak and lobster.

 

On the Feast of the Epiphany

Under the food court canopy of the Big Box store

I tasted and I saw

 

and there was remembrance

of flavors, and places, and persons.

 

I tasted and I saw the goodness.

 

I saw that the plastic table under the food court canopy

where I was mindful of each slow bite of my Big Box Hotdog,

this table anchored to its polished concrete floor

was sitting on the same earth as every table

or carpet or blanket or tent floor or towel or spot of ground,

where I have ever been fed.

 

I saw that my life has been

one continuous communion

at one great and continuous table

where the foods have been a memorable delight

whose flavors are still fresh on my tongue,

but the true sustenance was in the companions.

 

O taste and see. And remember.

 

 

 

 

The Broken Hearted Season

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” – Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting. It’s about waiting. It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming. It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive. It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be. It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold. It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation. It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting. We live in a season of waiting.

“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning. Feel the yearning. Let yourself fall into it for a moment. Wallow in it for a moment. Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole. Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled. Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be. Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart. Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world. It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived. It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be. It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together. It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking. It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.” –Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving. But not yet. Almost. Get ready. It’s coming. It’s arriving. But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny. Keep moving toward the moment. Keep moving toward the encounter. Keep still in the not-yetness of it all. Decorate. Decorate your house. Decorate your heart. Decorate your language. Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding. Decorate your soul—from decoratus in the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments. Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish. From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum. And yes, we need to decorate. Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation. We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness. We need to keep moving toward the music and the light. We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come. We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem. We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born. We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival. We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power. We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness. We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come. We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.” –Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Arrive. But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas. Christmas arrives to us. The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate. We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place. We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest. Be not afraid. I am with you.”

Dear White People

Dear White Working-Class Persons—especially you White Working-Class Men:

I get to say this because I am one of you. I am white. I’m a Boomer. I’ve worked as a roofer and a liquor store clerk. I’ve harvested wheat in Kansas and tossed hay bales in Arkansas. I’ve also worked in advertising and in academia, and for the last 20 years I’ve been a pastor. That’s right, a clergy person—right now one royally, righteously pissed off and more than a little depressed clergy person. But I’m still the guy who puts new guts in the toilet at home when the parts wear out and the guy who knows how to patch the roof. I’m still the guy who struggles to balance the household budget. I still load up my motorcycle with a tent and a sleeping bag when I have to get away from it all and blow out the cobwebs. So I get to say this because I’m one of you.

Last night you screwed the pooch. Last night you took the final steps down a primrose path that is nothing but dust and feathers. You were led there as deftly as any pied piper ever absconded with the village children. And it didn’t just happen overnight or even during this latest election cycle.

You’ve been played.  For the past 35 years you’ve been listening to a very loud and very skewed story about how awful everything is for you. And yes, I know that things have been tough. Things have changed. The ground has shifted. Jobs have been tougher to come by and they pay less. You’ve got a legitimate beef.  But instead of looking at why all that is happening and what you can do about it and who maybe has some solutions, you just listened to the loud, sad, bad story of punditry which was really nothing more than a lot of finger-pointing in all the wrong directions.

Don’t you get it?  Well, clearly you don’t. It’s all been a big carnival trick of misdirection. All the Rush Limbaughs and Fox News Personalities convinced you that it was those nefarious (it’s a real word, you can look it up) Liberals who were to blame for all your troubles. And you bought their fertilizer by the bagful. And if any legitimate news source tried to give you some actual facts that didn’t agree with the story those windbags were spewing, they taught you to just dismiss it as “Liberal Media.” My God in Heaven, with all the competing information out there you had to choose to be ignorant.

And over and over again while you were memorizing their evil little song about how bad everything is, you let them guide you into making it worse. You let them lead you into electing people whose primary role has been to create schism and dysfunction. You let them pull you by the nose into electing people who manufactured the worst, longest-running war in our history out of nothing but fairy tales in the desert. You let them convince you that the people who were deepest in bed with the lobbyists, big money, big pharma, big oil and all the other special interests were, somehow, the best people to represent you!  You let them lead you into electing people who pulled the brakes and steering out of our financial industry so that they could crash the economy and make you pay for it!

You let them lead you into electing people who brought the whole government of the United States of America to a standstill. You let them tell you it’s a matter of principle, that you have to take a firm stand. Well guess what, compromise is also a principle. You can actually take a firm stand on that, too. Finding common ground is a principle. Finding a common vision is a principle. Opening doors so that everybody has a chance to enjoy those unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a principle. And maybe if you had shut off the Angry Red channels for a week or two you would have heard a few interesting facts about where we stand and a few workable ideas about where we could go from here.

But no. You let them convince you that our government, itself, is at worst evil and at best incompetent. You swallowed their blame story about The President or The Party We Don’t Like. How could you not see how insane that is? Didn’t you study civics? Didn’t you learn about the balance of powers? Didn’t you understand that the balance of powers only works when there’s an effort to actually balance the powers? And didn’t you learn where the ultimate responsibility for all of this really lies? Didn’t you learn that WE ARE THE FREAKING GOVERNMENT??? Oh…you didn’t? Well that explains a lot.

So you let them make you angry. You let them take that cold little trickle of fear that everybody feels from time to time in our ever-changing world and convert it into a gleeful little flame of self-righteous anger. You let them take all the things that make you nervous—your discomfort with people of color, your discomfort with immigrants, your discomfort with different religions, your discomfort with LGBTQ people, your discomfort with women in positions of leadership, you discomfort with freakin’ CHANGE which is simply a fact of life—all your myriad little discomforts—you let them play on all those anxieties like a fiddle until they had you dancing down their lane right into the voting booth. And there you voted your fears instead of your hopes.

Don’t you ever ask yourself who wants you to believe what and why? Don’t you ever stop to think about the crap you’re hearing through your radio and TV and social media and ask who those pundits are working for and what’s their agenda? I’ve got news…your well-being is not their top priority.

But you followed them. Boy did you follow them. And this time they were led by the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum. Remember him? He’s the guy who said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American People.” Yep. Last night you elected a showman. And face it, when all is said an done, that is all Donald Trump actually is. He sure isn’t a successful businessman, although he plays one on TV. He sure isn’t a family man, unless your idea of a good family man is a guy who blows through wives like candy and makes salacious comments about his own daughter. He sure isn’t a paragon of moral virtue. Do I even have to cite examples of how much he is NOT that? And for all his buddying up to the Fundagelical Religious Right, he sure as hell doesn’t look or smell much like a Christian to me. Yeah, I know. Judge not. I’m just saying, if I was his pastor, we’d have some words about the Word.

No, when all is said and done, Donald Trump is nothing more than a showman. He is P.T. Barnum writ larger than Barnum ever dared to portray himself and that’s saying something. Last night all y’all elected a huckster. A showman. I hope you like the show. The previews give me nightmares. May God forgive us all for electing entertainment over substance.

Make a Wish

Make a wish—

If you could make one wish, not for yourself, but for the world, what would it be? If you could make one wish for your significant other, your spouse, your kids, your grandkids, all your friends and neighbors and family, for your town, for your state, for your country, for the world—what would it be? What would you wish for?

How many of you would wish for Peace? That’s a pretty good wish. I think that’s what most people in the world want. Almost everybody wants to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about violence erupting around us at any moment. There aren’t too many people who actually enjoy conflict, and those who do usually end up getting some kind of professional help or incarceration, whichever comes first—although some seem to go into politics. A good debate is okay. Fighting not so much. Sometimes opposition can help us sharpen and clarify what we’re thinking or planning, but opposition can be friendly. It doesn’t have to disintegrate into aggression. Competition has it’s benefits. It can bring out the best in us, it can even be fun when you know it’s part of a game. But it’s pretty destructive as a lifestyle. Debate, opposition, competition, they all have their place but they can all too easily degenerate into conflict if we don’t learn how to rein them in. And we have to rein them in if we’re going to have peace.

What does it take to make peace? What does it take to remove the seeds of conflict? If you’re going to wish for peace, aren’t there other things you need to wish for first?

If you want peace, wouldn’t you first have to wish away greed? Wouldn’t you have to eliminate coveting? Wouldn’t you have to find a way to short-circuit the human tendency to always want more, even if it means that someone else gets less? Wouldn’t we have to find a way to fill that endlessly hungry place in the human heart that never feels like it has enough? Wouldn’t you have to remove the desire to keep score by means of money and possessions and status symbols? Wouldn’t you, in fact, have to eliminate the desire to keep score at all? And wouldn’t you need to find a way to take away the fear of running out of money before you run out of life?

And what about Tribalism? Wouldn’t we need to wish that away if we’re going to have peace? How about our tendency to be fiercely territorial? Wouldn’t we have to tone down nationalism? Wouldn’t we need to develop a healthier kind of patriotism, pride in our country that’s rooted in a deep respect for all that’s good and reveres the price that others have paid to create and sustain and maintain that goodness but at the same time a patriotism that isn’t blind to our faults and defensive about our shortcomings? And wouldn’t we need to open our eyes to what’s good and worth celebrating in other countries and cultures, in other histories? Shouldn’t we wish for all that if we’re going to wish for peace?

For peace to happen, what would we have to do with religion? Wouldn’t every religion have to dial back their tendency to insist that they’re the only ones—that we’re the only ones—who get it right, who understand God, who really get Jesus? Wouldn’t we have to learn to find some peace in our own ranks with the idea that our voice is a valuable and important instrument in the symphony, but it’s not the only instrument playing the music of heaven? Wouldn’t we all, for the love of God in whom we live and move and have our being, for the love of God who is among us and within us and beyond us, for the love of God who transcends all knowing and yet is more intimate with us than our most dearly beloved fellow passengers on this earth—shouldn’t we learn, for the love of God, to practice some sincere humility in our God talk? Shouldn’t we wish for understanding and cooperation between religions if we’re going to wish for peace?

To have peace, wouldn’t we have to first get rid of every last vestige of racism so that nobody feels put upon simply because of their color? Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge the existence of our own latent or not-so-latent bigotries?  Wouldn’t we all have to purge ourselves of all those lingering internal voices and habits and conditioning that want to assert that some people are better or even more human than others simply by virtue of the color of their skin?  Wouldn’t we have to acknowledge that some of us have blithely and blindly lived lives of privilege simply because of the color of our skin while others have had to develop stringent habits of caution for the same reason in another color?  Wouldn’t we have to take a hard look at the painful history of racism and not simply suppress it deep in our collective psyche if we want to be healed of it? If you want to have peace, wouldn’t you have to wish away all those ugly words we have used to describe each other when the other doesn’t look like us? To have peace, wouldn’t we have to wish for something the opposite of color blindness—a what?—a celebration of color? a gratitude for color? a love of color in every shade of humanity? Shouldn’t we wish for that if we’re going to wish for peace?

If we really want peace, if that’s our deepest, truest wish, wouldn’t we have to first wish away sexism and paternalism and patriarchy and every other ism and archy that wants to maintain systems in which half the human race has more value, more power, more rights, more freedom than the other half simply because of gender, as if that’s some kind of accomplishment? If we really want peace, doesn’t it mean that we have to discard archaic and primitive structures of our societies and cultures and religions that not only have outlived their usefulness, but that were, in fact, never really useful at all, structures that evolved simply because one half of humanity was generally more capable of physically dominating and subduing and forcing its will on the other half? Isn’t it time, for the sake of peace, for us to take a step above our cousins the chimpanzees in this particular matter? If we really want peace, should we not wish first for real parity between the sexes?

And doesn’t our endless focus on differing sexualities undermine our quest for peace? Doesn’t the fact that someone is always ready to hate or censure or exclude or diminish someone else because of who they are attracted to or who they love or even because they are still trying to understand who they are kind of get in the way of peaceful coexistence? Aren’t we all children of God even if some have different love interests? Just because some men wandering through Judea 4000 year ago found certain things distasteful, are we bound to their prejudices forever? They also didn’t care for shrimp, barbequed ribs and pulled pork and we seem to have got past that okay. So wouldn’t it be a step toward peace if we could all just stop worrying about sexuality and realize that in God’s creation it seems to come in a variety of flavors?

If we’re going to wish for peace, wouldn’t it make sense to also wish that there would not be so many weapons at large in the world and that they were not so readily at hand?

If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish away hunger and homelessness? Don’t people fight for food and shelter?  Wouldn’t you be tempted to if you didn’t have it? If we’re going to wish for peace shouldn’t we first wish for health and healthcare? And should we not wish for equal access to systems and medicines and technologies that heal and sustain life? If we’re going to have peace, shouldn’t we eliminate the possibility of people ruining their financial health just to maintain their physical health?

If we’re going to wish for peace, shouldn’t we first wish for justice? When the people are chanting “no justice, no peace” in the streets, isn’t it more than a slogan?  Isn’t it a prophetic voice calling us to make the rough places plain and the crooked straight so that peace has a straight and easy pathway to our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation and our world?  If we’re going to wish for peace, don’t we first have to wish for equity and fairness and level playing fields? If we’re going to have peace, don’t we first need to eliminate injustice and replace it with restorative justice? In fact, isn’t justice the one word that encompasses everything we need to have peace?

Of course, there is another way. You can simply eliminate everyone who doesn’t see things the way you do. You can eliminate everyone who doesn’t look like you or think like you or worship like you or vote like you or love like you or contribute as much to society as you think you do, or isn’t the same sex as you, everyone who you think is competing with you simply because they want the same basic necessities that you want. In the end, if you’re really diligent, you would, in fact, eliminate everyone who is not you.

How peaceful would that be?

A Channel of Peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.The Prayer of St. Francis

We are crossing the equinox once again. This is the time of year when we get busy again. The schedule shifts back into high gear. Meetings and classes resume. Choirs starts up again. Certain dates loom large on the calendar. Reformation. Advent. Christmas. Election Day. We begin to cram more things into less time and, while there’s a certain kind of comfort in all the momentum, there’s also the increased anxiety that comes from a fuller calendar. “Anxiety is the garden in which sin grows,” said St. Augustine, and it’s easy to see why. This year, especially, with all the violence that has filled the news and with an acrimonious election cycle building to a climax, anxiety seems to be washing over our world, our nation, and our communities in waves. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” says Jesus (Luke 12:32). I don’t know about you, but I find myself praying more fervently than ever, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

 Much as I would like for God to hurry up and simply give us the kingdom, it seems to me as I look at the long sweeps of human history that God has been giving us the kingdom all along, making God’s divine rule a reality on earth as it is in heaven in a very slow but inexorable process. Oh…so…slow, this process—more than two thousand years in the making so far. And it’s been precarious every step of the way. That’s because God, in God’s wisdom, knows that the systems by which we operate—the systems that tend to create winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, the systems that encourage us to see life as competition rather than collaboration—the systems of the world won’t be transformed into something that benefits everyone until the people of the world are transformed. God knows that if the divine values of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control were simply imposed on us they would be brittle and false; they would crumble and leave cynical bitterness behind. But when this fruit of the Spirit grows in each of us organically and naturally, when we cultivate it in our internal life it gives us a resilience and strength that enables us to meet the nastier currents of our time with deep-rooted grace. When antagonism, depression, conflict, impatience, meanness, stinginess, faithlessness, violence, and self-indulgence are abroad in the land we, as followers of Jesus, must stand against them, but we must draw from the deep wells of grace, love and truth in doing so. When the voices of misogyny, bigotry, racism, separatism, and scapegoating are loud and strident in the land, we who are disciples of Jesus must, as gently as possible but as firmly as necessary say No. That is not the way forward. That is not who we are called to be. That way lies dystopia—that road leads to hell, not heaven. “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 Christ tells us that we are the light of the world and that idea is affirmed throughout the Scriptures. “For once you were darkness but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) The work we do together, the thinking we do together, the lives we live together are God’s antidote to forces that would divide us and set us at each other’s throats. As we cross this Autumnal Equinox, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it’s easy to feel sometimes as if the darkness is winning. But we are children of light; we have the light within us and as the nights grow colder the light and love of Christ can keep our hearts warm if we remain conscientious and faithful in gathering together.

“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) We gather together in all kinds of congregations.  We gather together in our places of worship.  We gather together, often spontaneously, in like-minded communities in social media.  We gather together in community events.  The important thing for us to remember as we gather, though, is that “provoking” each other to love and good deeds should be the highest priority.  It’s so easy to simply form echo chambers for our biases and pre-conceived ideas, but if that’s all we’re doing it would probably be better if we didn’t see each other so much, online or elsewhere. There is already more than enough acrimony, bigotry, and mutually reinforced deafness bouncing off the walls of the world without us adding to it.

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20)  I’m thinking of getting that tattooed on my right forearm where I’ll see it all the time.  My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  On the contrary, when I release it into the blogosphere or let it bounce down the labyrinths of social media it simply adds to the strident blare that deafens us to each other.  The light of compassion, grace and honesty can illuminate and bring clarity to the dark corners of our collective psyche, but the glare of anger and opposition simply blinds us to each other.

I’m writing all this to myself  more than to anyone else.  I’ve needed to give myself a good talking-to for a while now.  This political season has not always brought out the best in me.  I have a tendency to do some of my most exquisitely pointed and logical writing when I’m good and pissed off.  Anger is my pony and I tend to ride that baby till it drops. I need to remind myself that “if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, if I have faith to move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) My anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  There’s a time for anger.  It is sometimes a useful and necessary tool.  Sometimes.  But it’s not a safe place to live, and I, for one, have been spending far too much time in Angryland.  When your eyes adjust to the glare you begin to realize that it’s really a very dark place

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Now is the time. Let your light shine.  Make me a channel of your peace.

(Written 9/16/2016, revised 10/5/16)