Sheer Silence: Part Four

This is the fourth installment, where we explore a key question:  In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?

This question is particularly compelling during the holiday season.  The demands and expectations can be overwhelming and unrealistic.  The busyness can drown out the underlying spiritual essence of the season.

Within my tradition, Advent marks a four-week journey, ushering us towards the promise of the Christ child and the hope He represents.   My Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate Hanukkah, marking the eight-day festival of light as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Still others find meaning in the rhythm of the seasons. The Winter Solstice marks the longest night (honored with fire, dance and reflection).

Each of these ritualized events create cosmic space for a meeting of awe, wonder, gratitude and humility. A space which reminds us of the enormity and mystery within which we find our place.

What then can we do to step away from that which distracts us?   How can we enter more fully  into the cosmic search which the various religious traditions invite us?

Walking through the woods at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, during a silent retreat for Advent.

Here are a few suggestions:  Carve out 30 minutes each day to simply be quiet.  The premise is that in silence we become open and are met by a Source of wisdom, which is greater than oneself.

Be mindful.  For a period of time each day, whatever you are doing, do so mind fully.  Be fully present to where you are and who you are with.  Imagine what happens when you are fully present to your child, to your beloved, to nature, to ___.

Be grateful.  Studies show that a leading indicator of happiness is an intentional practice of being grateful.  Consider making a list each day of at least three things you are grateful for.

Be kind.  Each day offer at least one-act of kindness, large or small.  Kindness expands our heart and mind.

Be unplugged.  This one is particularly challenging.  Recent studies show that many of us are addicted to our smartphones.  Indeed, social media platforms are designed to train us to spend more and more time on our devices.   A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania https://www.thecollegefix.com/college-students-happier-when-they-limit-social-media-campus-roundup-ep-36/ indicated that college students who limit themselves to 30 minutes on social media each day, saw a significant increase in their sense of mental well-being and connection to others.

This sacred season, whatever your spiritual path may be…may you carve out space to simply be and listen for the wisdom that is yours.  In the mid 19th century, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard said: ‘God is always present, simply waiting to be found’.

May it be so, for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

 

 

Getting Ready for the Big Storm

People are fascinated by talk of a BIG STORM. The weather professionals heighten our anticipation giving us a step by step breakdown of the storms impending arrival. We rush to the store for milk, bread and batteries.

Those of us with miles on our odometer hearken back to the ‘Great New England Blizzard of 1978’.   The ‘Blizzards of 2015’ which dumped nine feet of snow on our coastal town remain a vivid memory.

Blizzard of 1978

Storms have a way of bringing people together. In many ways it brings out the best in us. We check in on our neighbors, help out strangers.

Storms also highlight the precariousness of neighbors living on the streets.  I’ve been thinking about two friends in particular, Earl and Lyle (not their real names).  Earl is an alcoholic active in his addiction.  Lyle wrestles with mental illness and  self medicates with alcohol and drugs.

Earl and Lyle come to the church I serve for a hot meal, use the rest room or warm up in the hallway.  We’ve gotten to know one another.  I’ve learned about their past, their struggles, their hopes for the future.  I’ve come to see them as brothers, each of us doing our best to get by.

Tonight as I often do, I worry for their safety.  We have a limited emergency shelter system here on the North Shore.   Most shelters are ‘dry’, which means they won’t accept a person like Earl or Lyle if drunk or high.  The one ‘wet’ shelter for the most fragile of the fragile is full.

On this eve of the storm I’ll offer a prayer for my homeless sisters and brothers.  I’ll offer a prayer for city workers who plow our streets and first responders who do their best to keep us safe.  A prayer too for those who staff our shelters.

Tonight weather experts tell us the BIG STORM will come.  In the days following the temperature is forecast to plummet down to the single digits.

My hope is that we will take good care of each other.   My hope too is that we will recommit ourselves to strengthening our fragile social service safety net.  It will require an ongoing commitment and collaboration of faith communities, non-profits and government.

This storm will pass.  The need to take care of each other continues.

Why We Sing

For thirty plus Christmas’ I’ve led groups of carolers.  I can’t carry a tune.  But I understand the importance and value of singing.  Particularly when singing to those among us who are feeling vulnerable.

First Baptist in Beverly, sharing the love.

We sing in nursing homes, memory centers, jails, retirement communities and on street corners.  We sing to folk who have lost a loved one.  We sing to encourage neighbors wrestling with addiction.

We sing to remind people that they are not forgotten.  To remind ourselves and those we sing for,  that as dark as any given moment may seem, that the light will come.  To lift up and celebrate the beauty found in community and mutual care.

In the Gospel of Matthew we hear these words:

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.

Matthew quoting words from the prophet Isaiah, reminds us that the embodiment of this light is Jesus.  It is this light come to earth in the story of Jesus, which inspires us to sing, to hope, to persevere.

Christmas is often a difficult time for people.  We have so many expectations of what the season should be…family, gifts, comfort, joy, peace.

Yet the reality for many doesn’t match the expectations.   Many of us are estranged from family, struggle to pay the bills, wrestle with addiction, face health challenges or worry over the future our children and grandchildren will inherit.

There is a lot of darkness in the world.  This is true.

Yet our faith teaches that the light enters into the darkness.   Light which cannot be extinguished  or contained.

Each year the story of Christmas comes to remind us that light has come.  An unlikely light in the form of an infant, born to peasant parents, during a time of military occupation. This child born homeless, wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough.

From this humble beginning a life-sustaining light has come.  A light which still burns.  A light that rests upon each woman, man, girl and boy.

This is why we sing.  To remind ourselves and those we sing to, that darkness never has the final word.  The light has come, once again.

Let us raise our voice in song.

 

 

Stories from the March: Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us

The Women’s March https://www.womensmarch.com on the day following President Trump’s Inauguration was a grassroots movement that brought millions into the streets.  They marched in Washington D.C and in cities large and small across the nation (and around the world).  They marched with the message that ours is a nation of inclusion and that the moral health of our nation is measured by how we treat one another, particularly those who are most vulnerable. 

Each person who marched has their own story.  Below in two installments is a reflection by my friend and pastoral colleague, Julie Flowers.  I invite you to read and  get involved.

Installment 1: In Which We Arrive in Washington

 I looked at my suitcase, giving it one last check to make sure I had everything. Full raingear, ski pants, ski jacket, mittens, emergency rain ponchos, first aid kit, extra wool socks, portable phone charger, bandana, shirts with feminist messages on them – all there. Granola bars, water bottle, small bag to carry with me – also there. I looked by the door where things were piled up and ready to go. Large white foamcore board, markers, paints, and paintbrushes were all set. I was headed to the Women’s March on Washington, and I wanted to be prepared for anything.

The next morning, following our 12 hour drive traffic-filled (all marchers!) to Maryland, my friend Elisabeth and I woke to an unseasonably warm day (I didn’t need any of my emergency supplies!) and headed out. We climbed into the hotel’s metro shuttle, already filled with other women of all ages, and it took us to the station, where we hopped on a train headed into D.C. It was filled with women and men of all ages and from all over the country and of all races and with diverse stories – all headed to the March.

The train was crowded, but the atmosphere was warm and celebratory. People looked one another in the eye. They connected. They spoke with warmth. We were there, together, for a shared purpose. We were there to show the new administration that, together, we would stand up and fight for women’s rights, for LGBTQIA rights, for an end to racism and

photo-womens-march-2
Elisabeth and Julie

systemic oppression, for the environment, for our children, for our public schools, and for peace and justice for all people.

 

The metro stopped at Judiciary Square. Elisabeth and I got off, along with thousands of our closest friends. We could not do much more than get off, however – the metro platform outside the train was filled with those headed to the march. In both directions, along the platform and up the stairs toward street level, all we would see were other people, holding signs, linking arms, ready to stand up, ready to show the beautiful and diverse face of this nation to its new leader. We were ready to show the new administration what democracy looks like; ready to show the President that America’s diversity is her strength.

A cheer suddenly rolled along the crowd as we waited to ascend into the light of day. Like a rumble of thunder coming over a plain, it started somewhere in the distance of that metro station and it roared over us, growing steadily as more voices joined in. People clapped. And cheered. We were ready.

I looked ahead of me, and a sign carried by another woman caught my eye. “Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” it read.


photo-womens-march-1Now, if you, like me, are a Hamilton fan http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com you will recognize that as a line from the song “The Story of Tonight.” I was struck by the poignant message – and by the promise – of that sign. It spoke of a movement, not just a moment (more Hamilton references!). It spoke of a commitment to stand up, to speak out, to fight for our planet and for its people, for our sisters and brothers, for our children, that would extend far beyond that one Saturday.

“Raise a glass to freedom,” Hamilton and his friends sing in that song. “Something they can never take away no matter what they tell you.” Those words echoed in my head as we climbed the stairs toward the street level, following the woman carrying the sign. I felt tears well in my eyes as I felt the power and poignancy of that moment – that moment when I, along with millions of others all around the nation, were taking to the streets to insist that freedom is, indeed, something that can never be taken away; to insist that we the people are stronger than fear, stronger than hate, stronger than division, stronger than executive orders designed to turn back the clock and strip us of our rights.

“Tomorrow there’ll be more of us,” I thought, as we stepped out, blinking, into the daylight.

Installment 2: In Which We March to follow.

 

 

No Time for Silence

Some of us are better at being quiet than others.  Me?  I love to talk.  Give me a crowd and I become energized.

Yet, for a long time I’ve been aware of a part of me that yearns for silence.  When I was a boy I sought out quiet places, often in nature, to rest and reflect.  I remember finding refuge under a large Blue Spruce during a snow fall.  The flakes were large and quickly carpeted the boughs of the tree and floor of the forest.  Sound became muffled and I felt safe and fortunate to be in such a place at such a moment.

It has been a long time since I was that boy but I still remember the sound of silence.

Such is the tension I find within myself.  This enjoyment of conversation and being active…while an inner voice invites me to slow down and simply be.

Yesterday I arrived late to an organizing meeting of multi faith leaders in my community.  We were a mix of Buddhist, Jewish and Christian. We spent time exploring our purpose which took us down many paths.  As this was the early stage of our coming together we spent much of our meeting ‘muddling’ moving from topic to topic.

In the end we ran out of time and set another meeting to continue our search for clarity.

Our Buddhist host invited us to sit with her in silence.  Most had other items on their calendar and needed to move on.  I had items on my check list too but to my surprise decided to stay.

‘How long can you sit’, she asked? ‘I have ten minutes’, I replied.

So we sat.  In silence.  Facing the wall to minimize distractions.  She rang the Buddhist prayer bowl and we became quiet.

photo-zen-meditation

Ten minutes is nothing to a Zen Buddhist.  But for me this busy extroverted Baptist it was everything.  Those ten minutes of shared silence were like oxygen.

I felt my blood pressure drop and my breathing deepen.  When the bowl rang at the end of ten minutes I wanted, needed ten more.

Something happens in silence that doesn’t happen otherwise.  Ancient spiritual paths know this to be true:

‘Listen and your soul will live’. ~ Isaiah the prophet

‘Silence is a source of great strength.’ ~ Lao Tzu

‘The Creator’s first language is silence’. ~ Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and mystic

Perhaps by temperament you are naturally drawn to silence.  Perhaps like me you’re not.  But I know too that ones comfort with silence can be nurtured, cultivated.  In so doing we may find ourselves gradually going deeper and deeper, to hear a voice that paradoxically is silence itself.

 

Wounded Warrior

Afghanistan photoToday I attended a conference for mental health providers serving our Veterans. This conference focused on the emotional and spiritual cost of war. With soldiers returning from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan we find that many of our veteran’s carry wounds that may be physical but also of the mind, heart and soul. The VA estimates that 31% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan war suffer from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How can it be otherwise? Since Sept. 11, 2001 our nation has placed an incredible strain on our men and women in uniform. Many have served multiple deployments in often brutal conditions, while placing a strain on marriages and families. A friend who served as a chaplain in Iraq, speaks of the human cost to families as they struggle to find a new normal for life after the war.

The conference focused on the need to get services to our warriors who deserve our very best effort. A speaker from the Veterans Health Administration (VA) offered these disturbing statistics: Veterans dealing with depression wait on average 8 years before seeking help; those with substance abuse average 22 years before seeking treatment. And, only 50% will seek treatment. Imagine the pain that these wounded warriors carry.

The challenge said the speaker, is for the VA and community partners, secular and religious, to strive to grow the number of those who do seek help and to shorten the time in which they receive services.

The poet William Stafford wrote: “Every war has two losers”. People of good will can debate whether a particular war or any war is justified. But what should never be debated, is our nation’s commitment to honor and take care of our warrior’s (and their families) who have sacrificed so much. They deserve our very best effort.

Contemplative Paddling

We live in a culture that celebrates our ability to spin many plates, both professional and personal. We also remain highly connected through multi-media, not the least being the ubiquitous ‘Smart Phone’.

I’m not writing to bemoan the state of our culture. There is a lot to be said for the ability to multi-task and staying connected to our immediate and wider community.

Yet there are times when our brain, heart and spirit ask that we let our plates drop (for a while) and tune out from technology (for a while). The reason is that physiologically, emotionally and spiritually we need time to rest, reflect and restore.

A wonderful way to do this is through contemplative paddling. Recently I paddled with a group from the church I serve. We met early in the morning on the banks of a local lake. Our instruction was to limit our talking and to paddle slowly. We were given a meditation mantra from the Vietnamese Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in I calm my spirit….Breathing out I smile….(inhale) Living in the moment….(exhale) This is the only moment…”

Kayak lone paddler photo

As we paddled on the lake, we were invited to practice this mantra when we found our thoughts pulling us away from being present to where we were. Half the time we simply floated and allowed the wind to take us where it would.

As we slowly paddled or simply floated we found that our minds, hearts and imaginations slowly began to be filled with the simple and profound beauty that was under and around us. Those busy spinning plates or glued to their computer, were missing the beauty that we floated upon.

3000 years ago a Jewish prophet named Isaiah offered this: “Listen and your soul will live”. From the waters of the lake we listened deeply, to the call of a mallard duck, to the soft wind, to the hopes and dreams that slowly emerged as we paddled or floated.

There’s a reason Jesus often removed himself from the demands and busyness of life, to go to a quiet place to pray, to listen. In the late 19th century a mystic and theologian named Soren Kierkegaard said: “The Sacred is always present, simply waiting to be found.”

Sometimes all it takes is time on the water to rest, renew and restore one’s soul. Sometimes all we need to do is slow down to find that a blessing is simply waiting to be found.

Paddle well.