Author Archives: watchingthespaces

About watchingthespaces

I like to watch the spaces between the things that other people see, the overflowing gaps and the chock-full emptiness.

Exceptions

“In the spring of 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur. This act provided an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.”1 The town of Silver City, where I live, held a mass meeting in December of 1885 and ruled that all the Chinese (who were the truck farmers of the area) be required to leave town within a week. In 1942, in the midst of WWII, between 110,000 and 120,000 men of Japanese descent were rounded up from all over the country and put in prison camps, one of which was in Lordsburg, NM, just 50 miles from where I sit. (My own Episcopal Church had a Japanese priest who was so detained.) Around the same time shiploads of Jewish families and children were calling at ports around the world seeking refuge from the Nazi’s. Charles Lindberg spearheaded a movement called “America First” that convinced Congress to deny them entry to the U.S. because they thought they would be a threat to our national security. I have a historian in my congregation who alerted me to these facts. He goes on to note that we do not learn from our past because as Kierkegaard said, every age believes itself to be an exception to the rule.

I remember all too well, getting caught with my hand in the cookie jar so to speak, receiving the usual corrective action, and protesting, “but this is different!” We all think we’re different, that the rules don’t apply, and that we ought to be treated differently than another who has done what we did.

On the one hand, this illustrates our own propensity to create God in our own image. Like Eve in the garden, we seek to take the reins of reality and steer the boat of existence to the port of our own choosing. It is blindly and presumptuously self-centered, and God granted no exceptions. On the other hand, St. Benedict instructed his monks in the 6th century to welcome all guests as if they were Christ himself—no exceptions. That attitude of radical hospitality has endured in the Benedictine tradition to the present day. Apparently it works—no exceptions needed.

An exception is the unique variance of an individual from the class. If we just get the nature of the class right exceptions would seem to be counterproductive.

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1https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=47

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Fear

A woman in a neighboring church complained to me recently that she felt pushed around by the liberals. Because of her conservative views she felt like a persecuted minority at Church and at work. She was looking for some reassurance and thought I might be able to give it. That I count myself in the liberal camp is no secret. To speak with me was no small feat for how she is feeling. I take her confidence as a bravely given token of respect and trust.

Fear is all around us, and people are playing to our fears for their own purposes all the time. If they are successful they control us, much to their economic, political or sometimes even religious gain. In C. S. Lewis’s introduction to his wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters1, he tells us that the devils thrive in two directions. They do best when we on one hand deny their presence, and on the other, find a demon behind every bush. How right he was. People tell me they aren’t afraid; they say they are angry—but they act afraid. Fear has great power when it is not seen for what it is—demonic in a very real sense. On the other hand, fear-mongering has almost become the political technique du jour, equally used by both sides of the aisle. The one who successfully plays to our fears, either overtly or covertly, becomes our master.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”2 I have resolved by the power of God to be a slave to none but the good of my neighbor and master of none but my own fears.

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First published by Geoffrey Bles in 1942, available now through HarperCollins.

2 (II Tim. 1:7, KJV)

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The Narrow Road

The denomination of Christianity in which my wife was raised has a motto: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” It captures nicely one of their central ideals, and one can find it almost always displayed prominently in any of their churches. However, it is an ideal, not a reality. Howard Thurman in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, (originally published by Abingdon Press, 1949) grew up in Florida under Jim Crow laws. He relates that his grandmother was born a slave and never learned to read or write. She would have him read the Bible to him, but forbade him to read from Paul’s letters, especially certain ones. In her younger years in slavery the white master’s pastor would occasionally hold services for the slaves, and he almost ALWAYS read from Paul’s letters, especially passages like, “ Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. (Colossians 3:22) and “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work….” (Titus 3:1, both from the New Revised Standard Version) Taken out of the context of the 1st Century Roman Empire, these passages were used to reinforce an economic and social system that was oppressive and anything but Christian.

Now it’s easy for us, this far from the Civil War, to look back and agree that the system of slavery as experienced in the United States was contrary to the teachings of the Christian faith. It’s not so easy for us to see the ways that we use Holy Writ for our own ends today. The phenomenon is not limited to Christianity, either. When we hear Muslim decry Muslim for being not-Muslim in their politics the same thing is going on. Ego so quickly preempts the authority of faith and, defending its narcissism with a thin skin of nobility, blinds our eyes to the actions of our hands. To let Scripture challenge the structures of our economic system is harder than getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

It takes an enormous act of humility to approach Holy Writ. Not all are up to walking such a narrow road.

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Morning

The rain bedazzled my window screen with diamonds this morning in the pre-dawn darkness. Drops of water welcomed spears from my office lights, broke them open into rainbows, and gently tossed them back to my hungry eyes. Diamonds do the same, but in any weather. Raindrops are ephemeral, diamonds are “forever,” yet both give us the same gifts of light.

My problems are ephemeral, here today and by tomorrow withered into memory. The diamonds on my wife’s ring are almost 39 years “forever.” Both gently toss gifts of light into my soul. Both beckon me into what Richard Rohr describes as the eternal glory of the Trinity in his book, Divine Dance (Whitaker House, 2016.) The relationship between Father and Son and Holy Spirit is the divine dance out of which all creation spins, and into which all creation is invited.

The Trinity was splashed all over my window screen this morning. What a way to start the day!

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To not have…

I recently read Ken Follet’s two-part book on Medieval England, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. I found myself getting so worked up over the injustices perpetrated by the strong against the weak that it kept me awake at night. I realized that it went back to my childhood. Growing up in Ecuador the strong regularly abused the weak. It was legal, it was expected, and the weak had no recourse. As a foreigner I was weak in that I had no citizen’s rights. Officers of the law were often arbitrary toward us—because they could get away with it. Furthermore, they were usually convinced of the common belief that all Gringos were in the possession of huge amounts of money, and therefore subject to extortion in various forms, an abuse that infuriated us but against which we had no recourse.

However, I had an out. When I was preparing for ordination in Ecuador I requested special permission to leave the country shortly after my ordination. My bishop granted it, saying sardonically, “Oh, yes, the Gringo has to go home.” It was a sock in the gut, but at the same time I knew it was true. Howard Thurman in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, (originally published by Abingdon Press in 1949,) points out the difference between Jesus, a Jew who had no defense against the cruelty of the Roman occupying forces vs. Paul, a Jew who was a Roman citizen and could always call on those rights. Jesus called his followers to a peaceful, inner power in the face of oppression while Paul’s writings exude a confidence born of power. He suggests that the Church has been more a follower of Paul than Jesus. His question in the book is, for a church that has preached from the position of power for so long, what does the faith say to the disinherited?

Frankly speaking, I am more like Paul than Jesus. The question is not whether or not I have power. The question is what I will do now. In the native hymnody of Latin America there are themes that do not often appear in White American songs, themes of community, of shared suffering, of a call to endurance, and of hope in the midst of darkness. These are the hymns of the disinherited:

Un largo caminar en el desierto bajo el sol; no podemos avanzar sin la ayuda del Señor. (A long journey in the desert beneath the sun; we cannot advance without the help of the Lord.)

The shifting sands of politics have left many feeling disinherited. Maybe the tradition of the disinherited can now find their voice with those whose power is now in the balance by showing how to endure graciously and without violence. Maybe the powerful should, like a lion lying down peacefully beside a lamb, sit quietly, listen and learn.

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Contrasts

Every morning in my prayers I spend 5 minutes doing what our Buddhist friends call “sitting.” Zazen, in Zen Buddhism, is the practice of getting beyond the monkey-mind by minding one’s body. One sits in a quiet, contemplative mode, and counts the breaths. At 10 the exercise repeats itself. If the meditator gets distracted before 10 the exercise begins at 1. I do this looking out my southeastern facing office window at sunrise, watching the light emerge behind Cooke’s Peak, 30 miles away. I have long ago given up trying to get to 10. I usually just go, “One.” “One.” “One.” I get a sense of the given-ness of my body, that I am here, right now, right here, and therein is the miracle of creation. That miracle is not limited to me, either, but extends to the whole of the scene outside my window. There sits Cooke’s Peak, 30 miles away, right here, right now. It is as eternal as I am, caught as we both are in the moment, the eternal Now of God that holds both that magnificent extrusion of granite and this collection of cells, tissues and awareness. We draw our being from the same Mind of God. I am not one with it, and it is not one with me—we are one in God.

Last night I listened to the ongoing argument between our executive branch and our judicial branch over recent developments. Acrimonious slings were hurled both directions. It was as if the media, feeding as hungrily on our anxiety as the government, was intent on making this a real war. Perhaps it is a war, and hopefully the wisest side will win and work to woo the other side into harmony, but somehow I doubt it. Our society likes a good fight.

And I will sit every morning. I will let the monkey-mind of our society drift downstream to do its thing, whatever it is, and I will find that the world and I are one in God, right here, right now, in this moment of eternal peace.

If I am lucky, if I am given the strength, I will find it possible to live before the fight sitting in peace, and if asked to respond can do so in true wisdom.

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Super Come-back

Twitter is abuzz with yesterday’s Super Bowl game. The Patriots pulled off the greatest come-back in Super Bowl history. The Falcons were ahead by 25 points late in the 3rd quarter, and somehow the New England team pulled it together and stopped the falcons in their tracks.

Why do we love a come-from-behind hero? It’s the way we tell the story of our separation from England in the Revolutionary War. It’s the way we tell the stories of the Frontier. For centuries we’ve felt like the come-from-behind unlikely hero that rose to the top against unbeatable odds, leaving the world agog and roaring its approval. It gives hope to the little guy and breaks apart the apathy that can paralyze us before The Machine of society. We American Christians even tell the Christ story through that lens. Jesus, come from humble beginnings, beats out the greatest threat to human salvation, the Devil, by rising from the dead. (Talk about negative odds!)

This little lesson in our collective myth is timely. Those who voted for our current president are telling the same story about Donald. Those who did not are calling for our David to stand and slay Goliath. Every one of us feels like the underdog somehow or other, sooner or later. It’s nice to hear stories that give us hope. Hope is good. In light of the Resurrection of Jesus I believe there is ALWAYS hope. However, the conditions of our hope are really important. Hoping for the wrong thing, for the wrong reasons, with the wrong ends in view is bound to be counterproductive.

Hope is linked to surprises, for both have to do with our expectations for the future. Surprises can be fun, and can be disappointing. Surprises happen when our projections on the future are contradicted as that future works itself out. People are often surprises, pleasant and not-so-pleasant. However, if we can hold our expectations lightly, recognizing them as the ego-driven, self-directed thing they are, then maybe we can be quicker to see the reality for what it is rather than what we thought it would be. The sooner we can see reality as it is the sooner we can come up with creative ways to live in and with it. It is from an apprehension of reality as it is that true wisdom springs. Anything short is a knee-jerk response which is almost guaranteed to be unwise. Come-from behind heroes are nice, but hope must be grounded in reality to become wise and long-lasting.

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