Cracked Pots

The Kintsugi pot, is the ancient Japanese practice of mending a cracked, chipped pot with a sealant. Originally cracked pots were sealed with melted lead, allowing the pots to hold water, rice, barley. In time the seemingly imperfect pieces were deemed to be beautiful because of the cracks and chips. Later, artisans would melt gold and silver to seal the cracks ensuring that the works became pieces of art.

photo Kintsugi vase

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk, believes that ‘our human imperfections/brokenness opens us up to receive God’s restorative grace. In his book ‘Falling Upward’, Rohr explores the spirituality of the two halves of life. In the first half of life we are generally clarifying our identity. We ask question such as: What am I good at? What am I passionate about? What values are important to me? Who to I belong to? Who will go with me? Such questions help us determine our identity.

“By the second half of life’, writes Rohr, ‘we’ve been humbled’. We’ve been humbled via poor choices or by circumstances beyond our control. Rohr suggests that by being humbled we become open to asking new and challenging questions: What is really important to me? What do I really believe about God, about life? (Not, what do others tell me I should believe, but what do I really believe to be true?). Knowing what questions to ask and wrestling with the question until an answer is found or an insight gleaned, is the gift that comes with falling on one’s face.

The paradox of growing older is that through our mistakes we can begin to glean wisdom. This surely isn’t true for everyone. I know people well on in years, who cling to childish ways of seeing and being. I know people who cling to bitterness and resentments going back more than 70 years. Such persons remain broken and profoundly wounded, trapped in their past. If they were a pot they would remain fractured and useless.

cracked-pots

But for those who do the hard work of growing beyond their pain, for those who wrestle insights and lessons from their brokenness, such persons become a source of inspiration and encouragement. Such restored persons encourage others who also struggle to move beyond a poor choice or painful circumstance. Friends in recovery from an addiction know what I’m talking about. An AA or NA meeting is full of cracked pots that have become beautiful precisely because of the hard work each person does to stay clean and sober. People in recovery know that their restoration to health is due not only to their hard work but also the support of community and their ‘higher power’.

Do you know a broken person who inspires you? Who inspires you because of their imperfection and because of their courage in overcoming difficulties and the hard won wisdom that they’ve acquired? Who are the Kintsugi pots in you life? Are you a cracked pot that has become beautiful too?

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The Poetry of Sabbath Walks

For thirty plus years the poet and Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, has spent Sundays walking his farm along the Ohio River. Mr. Berry writes: “On Sunday mornings I often attend a church in which I sometimes sat with my grandfather, in which I sometimes sit with my grandchildren. But I am a bad-weather churchgoer. When the weather is good, sometimes when it is only tolerable, I am drawn to the woods on the local hillsides or along streams. In such places, on the best of theses Sabbath days, I experience a lovely freedom from expectations – other people’s and also my own. I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am willing to call inspiration.”

photo of Wendell Berry

Mr. Berry is inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing.’ In the unhurried pace of his Sabbath walks he listens, reflects and often responds with a poem. ‘This New Day’ is an anthology of Sabbath inspired poems going back to the 1970’s.

Listen to ‘Poem IV’ inspired by a walk in 1998:

The woods and pastures are joyous
in their abundance now
in a season of warmth and much rain.
We walk amid foliage, amid
song. The sheep and cattle graze
like souls in bliss (except for flies)
and lie down satisfied. Who now
can believe in winter? In winter
who could have hoped for this?

Whether you be religious, spiritual or not, may we too find our Sabbath moments. Moments to listen for those voices that speak to us from the land and from within. Wendell Berry reminds us that taking time to walk and reflect, offers the space to be inspired. Where will your Sabbath walk take you?

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For a Friend I Never Met

Thirty five years ago my life was enriched immeasurably by a book. I had just moved to Montana from the east coast and was given a book by the great Montana writer, Ivan Doig. His classic memoir, ‘This House of Sky’, told of his boyhood on a ranch in central Montana within sight of the Crazy Mountains. For me as a twenty something raised in the suburbs of Rhode Island, the book was an epiphany. Doig’s wonderfully descriptive writing awakened me to a way of life I’d never known.

The book was given to me by another iconic Montanan, Belle Fligelman Winestine. Belle then in her 80’s, as a journalist and later as a state senator, had known many of the men and women who settled this beautiful, sometimes unforgiving landscape. Belle said: “If you want to understand Montana, you need to read Ivan Doig. He sees great drama in the often overlooked lives of small town Montana… cowboys, waitresses, teachers, children, Crow, Blackfoot, ranchers. If you can learn to see and listen like Ivan Doig, then you will discover the real Montana.”

Over the years I’ve read many of Doig’s books, his Montana trilogy (my favorite English Creek), The Whistling Season and his last book A Bartenders Tale. As a storyteller myself, I’ve enjoyed the rhythm of his storytelling, his use of language, his ability to elicit the heroic in the most unlikely of people. In his stories children are often the voice of wisdom, to a fragile adult world.

photo of Ivan Doig

Recently I read that Ivan Doig had died. I felt like I’d lost a dear friend even though we’d never met. Such is the power of a good storyteller, who awakens the reader to new ways of seeing and hearing. All who have been befriended by a good book know the loss that I speak of.

Thank you Ivan Doig. Your many readers will be forever in your debt.

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Is Religion Irrational?

The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) famously said: “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.” Russell was a champion of humanitarianism and freedom of thought.

There’s much that Mr. Russell and I agree upon. But where we part company, is his belief that ‘religion is something left over from the infancy of intelligence’. For me reason and critical thinking need not be contrary to religious life. Even Russell for all his strong views towards religion considered himself an agnostic, ‘in that I cannot disprove the Christian concept of a divine being, just as I cannot disprove the reality of the mythical gods on Mount Olympus.’ Perhaps Mr. Russell has cracked open the door for a conversation.

A few semesters ago I served on a college panel on the topic of cosmology. My role was to offer a theological perspective. With me were professors representing chemistry, physics and biology. Each panelist spoke of creation with theories going back to the Big Bang, approx. 13. 8 billion years. Not holding to a literalist Biblical interpretation of the creation story, I had no problem listening to and accepting the science of my fellow panelists. One offered the provocative theory that there may have been a Big Bang before the Big Bang. New instruments had picked up energy waves suggesting a pre-Big Bang. Try to wrap your mind around that!

Photo Hubble One

I am a ‘cosmological theist’, in that I believe/sense that great mystery called God, is in the midst of this ever-expanding cosmological study. The poetry in Genesis 1: 1, 2 reflects the awesome and humbling nature of the cosmos: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’

The poet who wrote Genesis, reflects the truth that the most sensitive scientific instruments and most brilliant scientific minds, can only begin to glimpse the intricacy and grandeur of the cosmos. Photos from the Hubble telescope reinforce this sense of wonder.

The common ground between science and religion is a shared sense of awe, that which many call the mystical. The mystical refers to those ‘aha’ moments when we sense that we are part of something greater. Rather than being random we see the mystical at work in the delicate dance of molecules that hold life together rather than flying the cosmos apart.

photo Hubble Two

Religion for all its human construction serves a purpose when it helps unite us to the mystery that transcends our imagination.
Bertrand Russell might suggest that mine ‘is an infant’ notion. Perhaps. Yet for me, an openness to that realm we call mystical/spiritual doesn’t limit but rather expands my mind, imagination and dare I say ‘my heart’, to embrace that which is greater than anything we can possibly imagine. In all humility all I can say is ‘Amen’.

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Outdoor Religion: Part One

The Latin for religion is re-ligio meaning to attach or re-attach. Our word ‘ligament’ is from this root. Religion in its myriad forms is intended to help us attach to a source which is greater than oneself. Since the beginning humans have collected stories that seek to describe our relationship to the mysteries of life. Rituals help us connect so that we might be transformed and transported.

In Celtic theology both pagan and Christian, there is the concept of the ‘thin place’. The Celts believe that there is a permeable membrane that separates the conscious world from the supernatural. Thin places are often found in nature where our senses are heightened. In nature we become aware of a different level of reality and are invited to consider our place within it. The island of Iona in Scotland for a thousand years has been a thin place for countless pilgrims.

photo Iona

Today many in our western culture are moving away from traditional forms of religion. A book called ‘The None Zone’ point to a trend particularly among the young, away from organized religions. Yet, the majority who say that they have no religious affiliation, consider themselves to be spiritual. By that, many refer to an openness to a source of wisdom greater than oneself. A presence that inspires and transforms.

Many whether they be religious or not, find spiritual meaning in nature. Mountains, rivers, deserts, forests, oceans, the night sky remind us that nature is complex, mysterious. Such complexity both humble us and inspire. The natural world calls us to look up and out and in so doing, to go within. Religions seek to guide us so as to tap more deeply and intentionally into this mystery that some call God/Creator/Sprit/Sacred Mystery/Other.

Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 12th century Christian mystic said: ‘The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw – and knew I saw – all things in God and God in all things.’ John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club put it this way: ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’

What helps you to attach or re-attach to that which you hold sacred? What rituals do you practice that help you go up and out and within?

A few days ago I went skiing at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire.

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The day was crystal clear, the temperature a bracing 10 degrees. For me it was a mystical place that blessed and transported me. Rather than simply observing I felt connected, attached to this beautiful and complex ecosystem to which we all belong. Perhaps this is what the mystics and monks of various religions aspire to, to feel apart of all that is.

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Channeling Martin

Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_editWhat would Martin say if he were alive today? Maybe: ‘It’s deja vu all over again?’ On this the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are mindful that as a nation we are in the midst of a curious political season. The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump a demagogue who plays upon the ignorance and fears of many. His almost exclusively white followers seem enamored by his ‘us against them’ mentality.

In addition, the great sin of racism continues to be at work. We see it in the prison system where 60 plus % of inmates are black, while comprising only 12% of the population. Thanks to camera phones, we have citizens capturing rogue cops using excessive force and even murder against young black males. While I have no doubt that most police officers conduct themselves admirably, it is hard to deny that the judicial system doesn’t have a bias against people of color, particularly young black men.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in his powerful book, ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his fifteen year old son. As an African-American father he wants his son to understand that built into the psyche of the American story, is a bias against people of color. Coates believes that most white folk don’t understand it or see it. He wants his son to understand this dynamic and learn to navigate within in it. Those that don’t, points out Coates, ‘too often die young or find themselves in jail’.

What would Martin say if he were alive today? I think he’d call people of all races, religions and backgrounds to come together for the common good. I think he’d call us to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, which will not let us forget that systemic inequality persists (in the judiciary, economically and politically).

He’d persist in his commitment to non-violent resistance against injustice. He’d challenge our government spending more on the military than the next eight nations collectively, while social services go under-funded. He’d say the answer to terrorism is understanding and addressing the root causes of terrorism, most often rooted in poverty and despair.

And, I think he’d call us to continue to believe in the restorative power of love. “We cannot solve our problems through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus, “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” We must love those we fear no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. WE must meet hate with love.”

45 plus years since his assassination Dr. King’s words may seem hopelessly idealistic. But has violence, retaliation and demagoguery made things any better? No, the wisdom of Martin King remains. His Dream still inspires. It is a dream based in the wisdom of ancient sages, with names like Jesus, Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Ruth. Are we listening?

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Living in Sabbath Time

The concept of the Sabbath in the Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in the Genesis creation story. God created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day God rested and said ‘it is very good’. In the book of Exodus, Moses, God’s messenger, comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, one of those is the commandment to rest on the seventh day. This rest was not only for the landowner but also the servant, the slave and the animals. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow so that the land could replenish itself. The idea was that people and the earth need time to rest, renew and reflect.

This was a particularly radical teaching during Biblical times when life was so hard. Most people were subsistence farmers and lived through bartering skills and resources to acquire a little money to purchase what you couldn’t make. It was a time intensive, physically and emotionally demanding process simply to survive. Into this pattern of surviving is instituted this commandment to rest. Implicit in this commandment is the acknowledgement that each person is a child of God and has inherent worth. Not only people, but animals and the earth itself need time to rest too.

Sabbath Time remains relevant. Billions of people in developing countries work in a subsistence economy simply to survive. A health ministry I work with in Nicaragua called AMOS, sends delegations from churches in North America to live, learn and serve in impoverished rural communities. I remember being awakened in a village called La Pimenta at 4 a.m.. You awoke to the crowing of roosters and hearing the sounds of women rising to build fires to cook as the men rose to go to the fields. The work was relentless before sunrise until the sun set. But on Sunday the pace slackened, meals still needed to be made but the pace was slower rooted in an ancient teaching to rest, renew and reflect.

In orthodox Judaism the Sabbath is a day for sexual intimacy. Time to be with one’s beloved. (This may make the Sabbath suddenly more interesting or more foreboding). My friend Rabbi Alison invites her community to begin Shabbat during the summer by gathering on a beach facing the ocean as the evening comes and the Sabbath begins. Each ritual a reminder that the Sabbath is different, special, set apart for a life-giving purpose.

In my Christian tradition, our concept of Sabbath is too often shoe horned into one hour for gathered worship then on with the day. This misses the point. Sabbath is not a prescribed hour but a 24 hour space to rest and renew. Whether you are religious or not, we all need Sabbath time. This is particularly true in developed nations with technology at our fingertips 24/7. It is so easy to become obsessed with the minutia of social media that we miss taking time to breathe, to savor.

When we live in Sabbath time, we slow down long enough to think and feel. Thich Nhat Hahn says it this way: ‘When I eat I know I’m eating. When I walk I know I’m walking’. Buddhists call this ‘practicing mindfulness’, a form of Sabbath keeping. As we live into a new year, I invite you to create your own Sabbath ritual. It may be rooted in a faith tradition or not. Regardless, we all need time to rest, renew and reflect. This is true whether we are a subsistence farmer in Nicaragua or a tech driven person living here in Beverly, Massachusetts. We each deserve time to catch our breath and even count our blessings. In an upcoming blog I’d like to explore ideas for creating rituals for rest and renewal. I’d like to hear your ideas too. Happy New Year and may we too live in Sabbath time.

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