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.


An anthropologist who grew up with me in Ecuador has for many years studied the Calderón Quichua people who live just north of the capital of the country, Quito. We asked him a number of years ago what the shamans thought of the turn of the century in the year 2000. He said that they said it was a day of great portent, unknown powers that may be unleashed. The future was far from certain and it was best to keep one’s head down. They were going to sit it out watching.

I would guess that people in Jerusalem on this day may have been doing the same about Jesus. He had marched into Jerusalem proclaimed as a king and then upset life in the Temple by driving out the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Everyone knew the temple leadership were looking to take him off the scene, but nobody quite knew how or when.  Unknown powers were being unleashed.  The future was uncertain.  I’m sure the disciples wished Jesus would keep his head down.

Today many people are keeping their heads down. Uncertainty that predates the current administration and extends well beyond its purview is shaking the foundations of global society in ways not seen since the Reformation. Scapegoating is rampant worldwide. Knee-jerk reactions by national leaders to crises get a mixture of acclaim and disdain. Phyllis Tickle traces these cataclysmic cultural changes throughout the Common Era and predicts that it will be long and rather bloody, but a new consensus will emerge.*

As a Christian I cannot help but see Jesus’ death and resurrection as something world society is living. Unknown powers are being unleashed. The future is far from certain. I’m not going to sit it out watching with my head down. I’ll keep my head up where my wide-open eyes can see clearly. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a person of faith!

*Tickle, Phyllis, The Great Emergence. Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI. 2012.

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Reverse Prayer

I read a meditation yesterday by Quinn Caldwell about alfombras.  These are carpets wrought in flower petals or colored sawdust during Holy Week by faithful in Latin America outside of churches.  They are meant to cushion Jesus’ bruised feet on his way to Calvary as an act of kindness.

He writes, “You might not have a roomful of free flowers to work with, but I bet if you look around today, you can find something to do that might make Jesus’ journey this week easier.   Make a piece of art for him. Feed a hungry person for him. Walk a mile barefoot in solidarity with him. Pray with a broken heart for him. Sing the most beautiful song you know to encourage him.   Let him—and all who walk hard roads—know he’s not alone.”

He ends with a simple prayer:  “Oh my dear precious Jesus, I am with you!”

How quickly we ask God to be with us.  How rarely do we pray the reverse!  Sometimes I think we still do not yet really understand the meaning of Holy Week.

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Thursday last my wife spotted a female Black-Chinned Hummingbird buzzing around the porch. During the warmer months we always have a feeder there, so the next day, my day off, I busied myself with cleaning out, filling and hanging the six feeders that we maintain around the house. For the last couple of days she has been coming to the feeder outside my office window, visiting me like a heavenly emissary during my prayers. Over breakfast my wife noted two of them in the back yard, chasing one another off of any of the four feeders hanging there.

For me, more than flowers on the trees, more than the greening of the grass, the return of the hummingbirds signals Springtime. How appropriate that it be during this week, Holy Week, when we Christians walk with Jesus through Good Friday to Easter Morning. For me the message is the central message of the faith: There is life after death, there is hope in the darkness, there are hummingbirds after the winter. That hope is enduring beyond expectation. Who would have guessed that a little 2-oz. flying machine that isn’t even supposed to be able to fly goes all the way to the northern coast of South America for the winter, and then returns to nest here, almost 3000 miles away? Who would have thought that the spunky Rufus Hummingbird migrates from northwestern Colombia all the way to Washington State? They have been recorded flying across the Caribbean, from the coast of Louisiana to the norther coast of Venezuela in one direct flight. They are my Easter chicks and Easter Bunny. In them I perceive eternal truths.

These little stories of our world tell me that the faith I practice is not removed from the reality I live in, but is rooted in it. If it is rooted in nature, as my own existence is, then my own life can expect the same kind of durable, unlikely hope.

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A Stand

President Trump condemned the chemical warfare attack in Syria, bemoaning the deaths of innocent children and babies. I was glad to hear his words because I feel the same way. This was an outrage, a calculated attack for political reasons hiding under a thin disguise of religion that did not seek to shield its effects in any way from the innocent. It’s an expression of extremism that is a demonic force in the world today. I’m glad my President took a stand.

I wish he would say the same thing about fast-tracking deportation orders for women and children back to areas torn by gang violence in Central America, especially in view of the role the United States played in bringing about the situation so many of these countries face.

Oh, wait, how could I be so insensitive. Political embarrassment carries an unbearably high price.

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Silent Letters

Our English word, “knowledge” has its root in the Greek word, “gnosis.” (The “g” in Greek becomes a “k” in early English, both of which are silent letters.) The Greek word literally means, “to know,” or “knowledge.” In the first centuries of the Christian era an eastern tradition had emerged called Gnosticism. One cannot really call it a religion, because it was more like a cosmology that influenced many different religious expressions, including the emerging Christian one. In the end it was rejected by Christians (for good reason) but for several hundred years it influenced the Church’s thinking in some pretty profound ways. Gnosticism held that the world was a tension between good and evil. Good was spiritual and evil was material. The “gnosis” in Gnosticism consisted of a secret insider knowledge that allowed the practitioner to transcend the evil, heavy and earthy material realm and reach to the ethereal, non-material world of spirit, almost like the silent letter that you have to know not to pronounce. Coupled with Neoplatonism, which taught that the “real” world was the world of ideals (heaven,) and on earth all we live in is shadows of the ideal, its influence is hard to underestimate. Several volumes from the early church exist that are called gnostic gospels in that they tell the story of Jesus from a gnostic point of view. One of the most commonly known is the Gospel of Thomas.

Last night we watched Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” (1986.) It is a long, graphic story (the R rating is fully warranted) extremely loosely based on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. In some places it is anything but gnostic, as when Jesus picks up a handful of dirt and says, “God is here.” However, the treatment of Judas in the film is right out of the Gospel of Thomas. Judas is the hero who betrays Jesus at Jesus’ own behest and against his desire because he has come to know the “insider knowledge” that Jesus’ death and resurrection would make him the savior of the world.

Insider knowledge is still really seductive. We see it today in conspiracy theories, most of which (to reveal insider knowledge) are a means of income for their perpetrators and not much more. Politics always seems to play out its power games behind a thin veneer of good will toward the American People and ill will toward the opposing party. High-powered sales will get you to focus on what you want to see and not the price or the imperfections of the product, all the while offering you “insider knowledge” like special deals only for you, quirky qualities of the product that no one else knows, etc. The News Media are always coming out with “the real story.” We are fascinated with silent letters.

Each of us carries silent letters. I do not mean information that is not appropriate for a given situation, which is just good manners. I mean the silent letters that escape our own knowledge, and, buried deep within us, taunt us with images of the unreal. These are the untold stories that really do determine our behavior, often against the conscious will. They inspire scapegoating, blaming and addictions, oppression and violence against the innocent and a hundred other social ills. We see St. Paul unmask these silent letters when he writes “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Get the whole insider story at Romans 7:14-25a; the above quote is from the NRSV.)

“In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the maxim ‘know thyself’ as his explanation to Phaedrus to explain why he has no time for the attempts to rationally explain mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, ‘But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.'” (Wikipedia) Gnosticism is seductive because it feeds the ego, not the spirit that it claims to serve. Naming the silent letters is the first step toward wisdom and compassion.

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Power of Ritual

Social science is finally catching up to religion. Shankar Vedantam of NPR and host of the podcast, Hidden Brain, did a piece on the power of ritual to influence what we believe. Research by social scientists at the University of Toronto find that rituals, even arbitrarily constructed ones, oriented our thinking toward certain topics and tended to increase trust between people who share the ritual. Of course, this can work the other way as well, where ritual tends to make people distrust those who do not share in its exercise.

True ritual, the science of cultural anthropology tells us, arises organically to meet a deeply felt need. It may have an explaining story or myth behind it, but it expresses some deeply held assumption by a person or community. It is also formed and adjusted by intentional action by those who have the authority to define them. We stumble into some ritual—finding that a given action captures for us something important, and we repeat it. Some rituals are short-lived, like seeing how many teens one can squeeze into a Volkswagen bug, whereas others last for millennia, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Jewish Shema, or the more ancient Hindu chants.

If Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence(2008), is right (and I think she is) we are going through a period of social disintegration that will lead to a new social synthesis. She traces the same pattern in Western society, especially as it relates to the Christian Church, about every 500 years starting at the time of Christ and leading right up to the present. The social disintegration is like the innards of a caterpillar in a cocoon that literally dissolve into an organic soup and reform into new structures that allow it to emerge as a butterfly. In human society it is a bloody, hard-fought process, but she notes that the Church (and every religious tradition that engages it authentically) emerges stronger than before. The process affects ritual, of course. Sometimes it changes the form, but more often its deep understanding. A lot of trial forms punctuate the transition, most of which are not very lasting. The ones that do endure capture the future synthesis in some way and emerge with a feeling of being eternal.

A lot of ritual experimentation is going on today, within organized religion and beyond it. People want to feel the anchor that ritual provides, even if for a short time. I think it is time to hold ritual tightly and lightly. Repeat the time-tested forms, and let new organizations of their innards simmer in the psychic soup of our collective soul without a lot of direction. With time (and we must be especially patient because, though the internet and mass communications move information so much faster, this time the process is global rather than just western European) a new form will appear. If I know anything about the history of the Spirit of God throughout Christian Church history she can be trusted through this process to bring us forth into a new vision of God that is at once faithful and relevant to the day.

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Powerful Rulers

Last year Senate Republicans refused to vote on then President Obama’s s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. The position has stood open until now, when President Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is up for Senate confirmation. The Democrats have threatened a filibuster and the Republicans have responded that they will resort to the “nuclear option,” and vote to change 200 years of tradition and do away with the 60-vote rule. Each side is blaming the inability to get their way on party politics.

It looks to me like neither side cares a fig about the rules. They are just willing to beat up on the other side and blame them for it in order to get their way. Maybe if all those good people on Capitol Hill had to deal in the “real world” market of health insurance, travel and banking, and if their wages were a matter of public referendum they would have to play by the rules they made for us. But what is the chance of them voting themselves out of such power?

The first seduction of power is a confusion between what is good for the people and what is good for the ruler. When the “ruler” is a body of people rather than an individual the challenge is more complicated. Yes, the wisdom of the group ameliorates the foolishness of the individual, but one bad apple that is willing to play the system for their own good can ruin a whole barrel of good-hearted people. Here strength is needed among the many to call the self-centered maverick to accountability. The seduction can prove even more difficult to resist. Only the truly strong can handle power wisely. Only the truly strong ruler makes—and keeps—powerful rules, that is, rules that seek to serve the long-term good of the most people, even if it be to the ruler’s own detriment.

I don’t find many truly strong people in politics who make the news.

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