Joy in Pain

It’s the end of a very, very dry July, with no rain in sight, and yet Little Mountain is beginning to be tinged in brown—not the brown of drought, but following the eons-long cycles of the seasons. One of my Katsura trees, the one snuggled up against the Cedar hedge, is always quicker to respond to the shortening days than the one on the other side of the drive. A maple in the park has a red streak down one side. We’re losing day-length at more than 2 ½ minutes a day. The trees know. Sap is sinking, even if the days are not getting cooler yet.

Author and spiritual teacher Richard Rohr quotes Barbara Holmes in noting that joy and pain are inextricably intertwined. When in the midst of pain we break out in joy it is not from denial or forgetfulness, but an act of revolution that declares that pain will somehow, somewhere, but ultimately without fail, bring us through to peace. Authentic joy in the midst of loss is prophetic. And so the trees begin to settle in, and soon every naked twig will become a latent promise of Spring.

The Delta Variant; the racial reckoning; the political equivocations; the voter suppression couched as patriotism; the fusing of the flag with Holy Writ; all these bode a shrinking toward a winter where profound changes will take place beneath the cold. Now is the time for joy, now as the shrinking steals our complacency, now as the strident voices get more confusing, now, as the world seems to be falling apart, is the time to break out in authentic joy.

Barbara’s words are better than mine: “Joy returns us to everything good and beautiful and worth fighting for. It gives us energy for the long labor. . . . ‘Joy is the gift of love: it makes the labor an end in itself. I believe laboring in joy is the meaning of life.'”1


1
Barbara A. Holmes, Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Global Village (CAC Publishing: 2021), 117¬¬, 119.  She quotes Valarie Kaur, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (One World: 2020), 307.

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Context

I’m at a conference in an old military fort facility on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s really pretty here. The grass is green and lush. The trees are full. Last night 3 deer fed unafraid in the commons. The rooms where we are meeting have 12 ft. ceilings covered in molded panels. The buildings were erected a hundred years ago, and while maintenance has kept them safe and comfortable, their age is obvious.

So here we are as a church group, talking about justice as willingness to open the door for a caged bird, in an old military complex. The vocation of the military has been described as being the exoskeleton of a people. But what people? Who is not protected? Who is preferred? I feel a tension in my gut. I’m having a hard time reconciling the context with the content.

But perhaps that’s the point. Can I hope that the energy we generate and leave here might broaden this place to become something more willing to open the doors of caged peoples, places and stories?

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Friendships

I have many friends. Some of them are brown. Some of them are black. Some of them are white. The most interesting ones to me are the ones that are most different from me. I’m with myself enough that clones of me don’t catch my attention. Those who are different from me do. There’s traction there for a relationship.

Someone wise once said that it is impossible to do violence to someone unless they are first put in a category. Categories of people are super-useful because they simplify the instant decisions we make about them. I just made some above in categorizing my friends by color. I could do the same by race, by culture, by age, by gender identification (or not,) etc. But ultimately my friendships do not rest on categories but experiences. These people are human beings to me, not just nodes of data that populate a chart. They have depth. They have passions. They have stories. They have personality. They are real.

I read in the news this morning about a young man who apparently drove into a Muslim family in Canada with the intention of doing them violence because they are Muslim. In my estimation, he did not see them as human beings, just members of a category against which he felt strongly. But they are people, and the dead ones are still people to those who loved them in this life. The pain of mourning for the survivors is real. The struggle for healing from the wounded one is real. They are real.

I find myself struggling to resist the temptation to dismiss the driver as a “violent and bigoted person,” without seeing that his angst was real to him. His demons truly terrify him. His self-perceived nobility is honorable in his eyes, even if it is twisted in mine. He will be judged and probably put in another category: criminal. Maybe that’s fair, but is it just?

Justice will only come when people are real human beings to one another and not merely faceless data points in a box.

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White Caps

Little Mountain wore a pristine white cap of cloud this morning. She appeared spritely and ready for the day. The double-green of her flanks between the light new leaves of the Alders vs. the dark Evergreens foretells work to do. Alders are in motion, through Spring to Fall and Winter’s barren branches again, overseen by the less visible march of the Evergreens through cone production, squirrels and added growth rings. I wasn’t feeling so spritely. We took care of our 19-month-old grandson over the weekend, and we fell into bed last night exhausted with joy. It’s a happy hang-over. There are always two sides to things.

I read about another white cap this morning. Daily COVID infection rates for the US have fallen to the September 2020 levels. A hint of a glimmer of what the CDC tentatively projected a month ago may be on the horizon. The work is not over, though. It’s almost as if, now that the disease is on the decline, we have the luxury of making it even more divisively political issue instead of a matter of public health. Hats off to the celebrities who raised $302M for vaccines for other countries. The bards among us know that until the world is safe, the US is not safe.

Biden’s raising of the immigration cap to 62.5K is for me another white cap. The world doesn’t work very well when those with lots don’t want to share. All the major world religions teach a different way, one of generosity, especially with those whose need seems so overwhelming as to look unreasonable. But in April alone, 170K undocumented immigrants were apprehended. We’ve still got a long road back to our roots inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

But white caps are white caps, and sprite gives hope, even if its incremental and sometimes glacially slow.

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Decentered Fullness

I read recently about a park filled with art. People are asked to be humble, respectful, and “decentered.” Since the artwork is not the product of White people, the signage especially encourages White people to approach in this way. I think it’s a good word. I used it in yesterday’s post, drawing from this article I read. I think in the end it is a spiritual term.

To me, to be de-centered is not to lose one’s center, but to recognize that no one person and no one people reside at the center of the universe, for the Center is everywhere. For the individual it is a radical turning away from one’s natural narcissism. For a people it is a conscious relativizing of their natural ethnocentrism. This recognition is the primordial act of selfless love, and therefore a spiritual endeavor.

All major spiritual traditions of humanity know that this work is so difficult, that the pitfalls are so many and so seductive, that success requires help. One must be guided. A people must be guided. A competent spiritual guide will adapt guidance to the specifics of the need. Nevertheless, until we engage competent guides and embark on this difficult and painful work, the path to the fullness of human life for all will continue to evade the human race.

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Exotic

Yesterday our Bishop’s office, in cooperation with an association of ministers of color in the Diocese, hosted One Service for Turtle Island, a service highlighting worship practices by Episcopalians who are Native American, representing a number of different Native tribes. One of the comments made by the head of the association beforehand was that this was not supposed to be “exotic.”

That got me thinking. What is “exotic?” Whatever is both unknown and attractive can become exotic to us. The tourist industry makes billions selling the exotic. But the tourist experience is shallow, like going to the zoo. Her request was an attempt to circumvent the idea that these are exportable static cultural factoids we can gawk at and move to the next cage, never letting the full human life experience in which these events have sacred meaning and trajectory come into focus. The exotic can be insulating. Worse, it can strengthen the facile and dismissive counter-narratives used to keep others under one’s feet.

The exotic does not have to so quickly serve dominance. If one is humble, “decentered,” and open, the exotic can become a window into another world, inspiring what the preacher called “holy wonder.” No competition allowed in this sacred space. What beauty might one find? What deeply human mix of joy and pain?

In this “space for grace” a different kind of humanity can be born.

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The Reckoning

Yesterday Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd. Jubilation rolled through communities of color and whites who stand behind them. I count myself among the joyful—not at the pain that Mr. Chauvin will experience, but at the high profile step down the long path of racial reckoning we are on. I would have been deeply troubled at any other verdict. However, my joy is tempered by the fact that police shot and killed a person of color every day this week since Sunday. As Mr. Obama has said, this is still much to do. My joy is also tempered by the many for whom this moment is fraught with fear. Some of them are people of color fearing repercussions. Some of them are white, for whom this is fuel on a raging fire of the fear of being replaced.

For those for whom life is not yet safe, this moment shows that another way is possible. I pray for a glimmer of hope.

For those who fear being replaced, there is a pernicious lie that must be faced. No one is really afraid of being replaced. They are afraid of someone else occupying their place of power and privilege. As long as identity is fused with social location there can be no real justice. When true spiritual maturity reveals the fusion to be illusion, then true justice can heal our divisions. I pray for a vision of truth.

It seems to me that the communities of color in this nation are not nearly as divided as the white community. If so, that gives me hope.

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Treadmills

I read a story recently about a couple of White Canadian law enforcement officers making rather unprofessional comments while on the job about “our time is done.” They were bemoaning the idea that the days when White people ran things were numbered. I can understand the sadness, nobody likes to get toppled off the top of the mountain, but not any sense of surprise. Peoples have replaced peoples repeatedly since modern humans replaced (and absorbed) Neanderthals. Over and over again, those in power lose their footing and others take their place. It’s death and rebirth on a mega-scale. If history teaches us anything at all, the underdogs in this struggle have a whole lot to gain and not much to lose, whereas the over-dogs have everything to lose and very little to gain. A defensive fight is not easily won. Unprofessional or not, the officer’s comments are most likely prophetic.

Again, if history is any teacher, the new order will be created by people who remember the former days. They will construct a system that benefits them, and others significant to the new leaders as they perceive their needs. The next generation will follow in the footsteps of their elders because they saw the former days as from a far. The third generation will have no personal memory of the former days. The inevitable sense of entitlement will settle in—and the process will repeat itself. The replacement itself is rather predictable, a treadmill of peoples rising and falling. 400 years seems to be an average interval.

The spiritual traditions all teach another way. We have examples of it in human memory: Siddhārtha Gautama, Mahavira, Zarathustra, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few of many. These leaders were spiritual adepts before they were political figures (if they ever were.) They all sought change as a moral reckoning, not a political reversal. Their different ways of walking the path of selfless love gives evidence of a leadership willing to surrender significance in pursuit of service; that springs from the spirit, not self. The voices that are now being heard in Western society are telling the other side of the story of White rise to supremacy. They are revealing the profound birth defects in White foundations that require our moral reckoning. What we need is leadership rooted in the practice of some form of the common disciplines of the human spirit, willing to lead the moral reckoning—not as a way to save White supremacy (it can’t and shouldn’t try)—but to mark out a path to change that is not ego-driven. Only then will we step off the treadmill.

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Passion as Love

I want to share another Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. Cynthia Bourgeault unpacks the wisdom behind the events in Jesus’ life we Christians call The Passion in a powerful and refreshing way. Maybe it can influence the way you live the next three days.

https://cac.org/the-wisdom-of-the-passion-2021-04-01/

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Overcoming Evil without Becoming Evil

I heard it once said if a thousand, I am not what I eat or I would be a pizza. No, food ingested is transformed before it becomes part of us. Yet that kind of simplistic thinking drives our behavior in relation to that which we fear, hate, are jealous of, and love. To the degree that we engage those experiences they form us within. Therefore, we tend to become what we hate, what we fear, what we’re jealous of, and what we love. This nation that rebelled against England to dismantle a class system that favored the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is recreating the same thing. We failed to transform it.

The spiritual paths of humanity have always offered another path. Here is a beautiful description of the Christian way, taken from the daily meditations of Richard Rohr, who quotes a Jewish woman: https://cac.org/opposing-evil-without-becoming-it-2021-03-30/

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