Friday, April 21, 2006


Photographers actually go where the pictures are. People generally do not buy photographs photographers take because they say, “I could take a picture like that.” And, the truth is they could. And the truth also is, they won’t. They won’t go to the trouble, take the time, pay the price to put themselves in position to take the picture.

They may take a vacation trip to the Grand Tetons, for instance, but they will sleep until 9 o’clock. Eat breakfast. Stop for gas and a soft drink, and get to Schwabacher landing at 11, missing the picture and the point. The point is to be at Schwabacher Landing when the photograph is there, not 5 hours later.

There are two rules to photography. Put yourself in position to take the picture. That’s the first rule. The second is: See the picture, get the picture. That’s it. Everything else about photography is in observance of, and in compliance with, those two rules. Seeing is the hard part.

It takes a lot of looking to be able to see. Hang around me enough, and you’ll hear me say that a lot. Photographers look at other photographer’s work. Photographers look at the world. Photographers walk around (positioning themselves to take the picture) and look at the world from different vantage points. Photographers imagine what something would look like at different points in the day, at different seasons of the year, in different lighting and weather conditions, and come back (positioning themselves to take the picture) at different times.

It also means taking the picture NOW that needs to be taken NOW. See the picture, get the picture, means don’t put it off. Don’t come back tomorrow, or next week, when you’ll have more time and it will be more convenient. This moment won’t be here then. Don’t walk by a picture, or away from one, telling yourself you’ll get it later. There is no “later” when it is there “now.” “Later” only exists when it is not there “now.” If it isn’t there “now,” come back “later.” If it is there “now,” take it NOW!

The work of photography is being there and seeing what’s there “now,” and not waiting to take what’s there “now.” If you pass up what is there “now,” it will be gone forever. Knowing the importance of what is there now, is the most important thing photographers know. Actually taking the picture is somewhat of an afterthought. Oh, yeah. Click. The technical side of photoing is essential, of course, but it isn’t the heart of photography. You have to know your stuff, but it's knowing about the now that what you really have to know.

Sure, you have to understand the camera, and the lens, and the filters, and the tripod, but technical expertise and being able to talk aperture, and shutter speed, and ISO settings, and graduated neutral density filters, and polarizing filters isn’t going to take a picture. You have to know the technical side of photography, but you can’t think much about it. You know it so you don’t have to think about it. So you don’t have to think at all. So you can just see what is before you, and move around and see what else is before you, and open yourself to the scene, and expose yourself to the moment, so that you can show the moment to the film or the digital sensor and to the people who see your photograph.

You can’t see the moment if you are thinking, “What would Ansel Adams see?” That is not putting yourself in position to take the picture. To put yourself in position to take the picture, you have to shut up and see. You have to walk around and look. You have to disappear into the moment, become “one with everything,” and be open and receptive to the “Yes!”, to the “Now!”, to the “That’s it!”, to the “Here it is!”, and get it on film or sensor before its gone.

To do that, of course, you have to practice always. Photography is spiritual practice in that it requires openness to the now, to the moment, in every moment. You practice seeing in the grocery store, with your camera on the shelf in your closet at home. You see the child looking at her mother, and catch the expression that sets the moment apart from all other moments. You see the carton of eggs out of position in relation to the rest of the cartons of eggs, and something shifts so that you no longer see cartons of eggs, but lines and angles and shadows, and a beautiful arrangement of forms.

To see the picture and take the picture, you have to see pictures you don’t take. You have to see the pictures that are everywhere. Driving home from work on the freeway you see the hay being bailed, or the low sun light catching the high school football stands and one goal post in a way that crystallizes every high school football memory of everyone who has ever been involved in any way with high school football. And, then it’s gone, because you are whizzing by at seventy miles an hour and if you stopped you would be stupid, but the vision remains with you forever. You saw, you’ve seen, you are seeing. Keep it up, and one of these days, you’ll have a camera in your hands.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


It has taken about five years to get things in place, but now I have my own wildflower garden just outside the back door. Just in time to beat the $4.00 a gallon shut-down. I don’t have to drive four hours to the yellow trillium and the wake robin, or two hours to the crested dwarf irises, or down the road to the bloodroot and the trout lilies. We can give ourselves a worthy future with a little imagination and planning. Why don’t we do that more often? Why do we continually wake up in a future we think we couldn’t do anything about? Why don’t we start today building a future we can be proud of?

We could start with walking around the block. Every day. Stop smoking. Lose 25 pounds—over time, by saying no to desserts and bread. We could give ourselves the future by doing any number of small things today. Planting a yellow trillium, for instance, or a wake robin.

Of course, there are large aspects of our future that we cannot figure out and do not control. I don’t know what we are going to do about the residue of George Bush. We will suffer from his excesses and deficiencies for generations. It’s amazing how much damage one wrong person in the right place can do, how bad one person can be for so many people for so many years to come. And, I’m sure he wanted to do so well. But, just because we are at the mercy of forces quite beyond us is no reason to fail to do the things we can do to make things as good as they can be.

We can still photograph the dogwood in the fog. Why? Because it’s beautiful. We can photograph beauty, and paint beauty, and draw beauty, and write poetry to beauty, and enjoy beauty. Beauty exists alongside the ugliness and sorrow of these days. One does not cancel out the other. And if we cannot deny that which is to be mourned, neither can we allow ourselves to deny that which is to be celebrated, embraced and enjoyed.

We can live toward the best future we are capable of producing. Why? Because our lives are our gift to the world. We are potentially as beautiful as the dogwood in the fog. We cannot fail to bring to life as much beauty as possible. Light in the darkness, you know. Hope, mercy, and love. Grace and peace. Comfort and laughter in surprising places. We cannot fail to be the wildflowers in our own back yard. A blessing of beauty to all who come our way.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


To live, we die, and in dying, we live. That is the message of the cross. That message is central to any, and every, spiritual path. It is as basic as it gets. Spirituality 101. Every spiritual journey is, essentially, “the way of the cross.” Every spiritual master understands, incarnates, exemplifies the cross’ message of life and death, death and life. The way of the cross is the way of spiritual growth and development. It is the heart of the spiritual process.

Jesus gets this as clearly as anyone has ever gotten it. “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel (or, in the service of that which is greater than they are), will find them.” The “gospel,” that Jesus was talking about was the “good news of the kingdom of God,” which was, through the lives of his companions, to become as real on earth “as it was in heaven.” It was a kingdom of equality, and justice, and compassion, and peace-without-military victory. It was the antithesis of the kingdom of Caesar.

To live the way God would live if God were human (Loving one another, loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemies, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you) would be to invite reprisals, to make sacrifices, and to die again and again. So, Jesus could say, “No one can be my companion who does not take up the cross daily and come with me.” Companionship with Jesus is a continual experience of dying to one idea of how life should be lived and living to another idea of how life should be lived.

How SHOULD life be lived? What is central to life? What is peripheral? What are the “first things” that we must do first? How would God do it if God were human? These are the questions that Jesus seemed to have asked. His answers were quite different from the answers of his contemporaries, both Jewish and Roman.

“If God were human, God would be like a Samaritan helping a Jew. Like a loving father welcoming a prodigal home. Like a vineyard owner who paid everyone the same amount no matter how much they worked,” said Jesus. “But that would be crazy!”, objected his listeners. “The world doesn’t work like that!” “Exactly,” said Jesus.

The way of the cross is NOT the way of the world. To say, “That’s the way the world works,” or “That’s just how it is,” is to keep things as they are. “If you pay everyone the same amount, no matter how much they work, you’ll never get anyone to work in the heat of the day. That’s just how it is.” The kingdom of God is not economically savvy. The world cannot wait to take advantage of a God like God. The huckster and hustler in all of us wakes up and begins to stir. “You mean I can live the life of a prodigal, whooping it up and playing fast and loose, and then come home and be forgiven, and made over, and treated like royalty?” We like the way that sounds, until we understand that “what goes around comes around,” and that we are expected to treat one another with the same reckless abandon and gracious love that God extends to us.

It isn’t only about what we get. It is also about what we give. And when we refuse to give as we have been given, we dry up on the inside and crumble away, like whitewashed tombs. And, there is nothing left of us to resurrect from the dead, because we have died in the wrong cause, and served the wrong master, and lived in light of the wrong ideas regarding how life should be lived. “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them.” They will be like the man “who built his house on sand,” and after the storm there was nothing left.

We’re back to the question, “How SHOULD we live our life?” Jesus doesn’t spell it out, because it cannot be spelled out. There is no formula for right living, no recipe for doing it as God would do it. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” says Jesus. “You figure it out,” says Jesus. We live our way into the heart of truth. We stumble into the kingdom of God. There is no plan for realizing it. We do the right thing that is before us and see where it takes us. We live toward as much as we see that is right in this moment, and trust ourselves to find some way of continuing the process in the next moment. Already this is different from the way of the world.

The way of the world is to calculate the percentages, run the numbers, do a cost/benefit analysis every fifteen minutes, and keep an eye on the bottom line. If it isn’t profitable, we cut our losses while they are still manageable, and put our money on a sure thing. The way of the world is the way of gaining, and maintaining, and extending, the advantage. In the world, we don’t do anything that doesn’t pay off. That isn’t smart. That doesn’t turn a profit. The way of God is a gamble all the way.

God takes wild chances, forgives seventy times seven times, and keeps welcoming the prodigal home. And, doesn’t have a plan for making things happen as they should. It all hangs by a fine thread. Why should we care about doing it God’s way? What’s in it for us? The huckster and hustler in us can’t help asking “What’s in it for us?” Already, we have stepped aside from God’s way, from doing it the way God would do it if God were us. God wouldn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” It may take a while for us to “be as God is.” That’s why the spiritual journey is the way of the cross. There is a lot of dying involved. We don’t get to the life part except through the death part. And, if we decide not to bother, well, that’s death, too.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


The secret is that we have to live this life just as it is. The secret is that there is no secret that will give us the way out, or that will transform our lives like the kiss of a handsome prince or a beautiful princess. This is it. We can change what can be changed, but that will not be as much as we want it to be, as much as we wish it would be. Even when we have changed everything that can be changed, we still have to live with life as it is. We still have to make the best of it. We still have to grant concessions, make allowances, get up each day and make our way through the reality of things as they are.

There is much to not like about our lives. If we spend our time not liking it, whining, complaining, moaning, and moping about because it is so awful and we are so woe, we will miss the good when it comes along, and will not enjoy what can be enjoyed about our lives as they are. So, we do what can be done with what we have to work with to change what can be changed, and live to enjoy what can be enjoyed, while tolerating the rest; while refusing to let the rest interfere with our ability to celebrate and embrace all that is good about our lives as they are.

The bad doesn’t cancel out the good. The good doesn’t cancel out the bad. Both are true at the same time. Our lives could always be better. Our lives could always be worse. Things are not so good and things are unbelievably, wondrously, wonderfully, fantastically great—both, at the same time. What gets our attention?

I’m not talking about denial. I’m talking about emphasis. I’m talking about seeing with awareness and mindfulness how things are and how things also are, and what we choose to focus on, where we choose to live. In which world do we spend the most time? In the world of the not so good which we wish were better? In the world of the perfectly, beautifully, marvelously, right now, just as it is, right out of the box, good?

We look at a day, and what do we see? This is spiritual practice. Don’t think I’m pulling a Norman Vincent Peale on you. This is not “the power of positive thinking.” This is not making sour sweet. This is not the Lawrence Welk Dancers coming at you over the internet. There is much about our lives that is not good which we have to deal with every day. I’m saying acknowledge that and deal with it without succumbing to it; without being overwhelmed by it; without surrendering to the temptation to think that nothing is right with the world and we may as well end it now because it is only going to get worse.

Victor Frankl found men who brought meaning and hope and beauty to life in the worst prison camp experience that Hitler Germany could create. There were men in that environment who held on to the good in the midst of evil. They did not deny the evil. That evil could not be denied. They did not pretend that things were better than they were. They did not withdraw into Polly-Anna-ism, smiling sweetly, and skipping through merrily the mud and the misery. They shared their bread. They whistled symphonies and sonatas. They remembered and recited poetry. They told stories of happy times. They kept hope alive. They became the good which was missing from their experience, and brought the wonder of caring relationships to life, and transformed the world of the death camp by choosing to live as servants of light in the deep darkness of that awful night.

It’s all about what we attend, what we pay attention to, what we think about, what we see when we look at the broad scope of our lives, what we emphasize, what we choose as the center around which everything that is “us” coalesces. It’s about what we bring to life as we live through the day. What do we see? What do we say? Is our orientation toward the good or toward the bad? Are people better off for our being in the world with them? What impact do we have on the way life is lived around us?

What we do with our attention is our spiritual practice. What we spend our time thinking about is our endowment to the world. Where we place the emphasis is the legacy we leave behind. How we take a day, each day, and treat it, and treat the people in our lives is our gift to the day, to the people in it with us.

Our lives will never be as different as we wish they were. How we deal with the difference between what we have and what we wish we had is what makes the difference in our lives, in the lives of those who are with us in this place, and in the world as a whole. The way we respond to the day is the one thing about each day that is pretty much up to us. We are the gift we give to the day. Every day.

Monday, April 17, 2006

04/16/06, Sermon

When you aren’t going anywhere, it doesn’t matter how fast you walk. No one was in a hurry in Itta Bena, Mississippi, or, anywhere in the Deep South, for that matter. We ambled along, meandering through the day, hoping to stumble upon something of interest, an emerging butterfly, perhaps, or a dog fight. Anything would do as long as it was novel enough to break the boredom and give us something to talk about for a while.

The problem with conversation in the Deep South is that you weren’t encouraged to be novel yourself. It wasn’t proper to say things that weren’t expected. That hadn’t been said before, and had stood the test of time, and proven its worth by having been said many, many times before. Bringing something new into the conversation could not be done if you had somehow managed to think something new. You had to see it before you could talk about it.

“Cud’n Ned (You never said “cousin.” You said “cud’n.” That’s the way it had been said and was to be said. Just as you never said you and your family were going to have Sunday dinner with your parents, or even with your mother and father, or your mom and dad. You were going to eat with “Momma and ’em.” There were strict rules governing subject matter and syntax, which had to be obeyed down to your tone of voice if you were to be one of “’em”) “Cud’n Ned caught a gator last night on his trot (Not “trout”!) line and put him in the fountain down at the square.” You could say that, if it happened. But you couldn’t say you imagined it, or that you dreamed it. You couldn’t make it up. No one talked about their dreams, so far as I know, or had any. And, no one most surely ever made anything up. The poets and the novelists had to grow up somewhere else. In Itta Bena, You had to stay safely in the realm of what was supposed to be said, which diminished the likelihood of anyone paying attention to anyone, and reduced everyone to the level of functional invisibility.

There were no actual people in my childhood, only stereotypes. Everyone had a role, and a script, and everyone read from the script, and played the role. If you couldn’t bear it, you moved away, or lost your mind and were relegated to a backroom, where you lived out your life and served as a model for children of what happened to you if you were “different.”

It was a tense atmosphere in which to grow up, but no one would have recognized the tension, or commented on it if they did. You couldn’t call attention to yourself by commenting on how things were. You could observe, and have an opinion regarding, something distant, like President Truman firing General MacArthur, or impersonal, like the weather, but the closer to home it got the less you could say about it. You couldn’t comment on how life was being lived in town. To say something about it may have been the catalyst that brought change about, and change was the thing most feared.

We didn’t know we feared it. If you had suggested it, we would have denied it, but we were terrified of it. It represented the end to our way of life. We were afraid there was no way but this way, and if we strayed too far from the way things were thought and done, life would disintegrate before our eyes, and we would be lost and alone, without the guiding path trod into a well-worn rut by those who had gone before. If we called anything into question, we ran the risk of being on our own and not knowing what to do. A desperate state of affairs if there ever was one. So, no one dared challenge the traditions and policies, practices and customs, or do anything that had not been done, or think anything that had not been thought, because to do so would have been the end of life as we knew it.

This was the kind of social climate that was ripe for the arrival of a handsome stranger after the manner of an Alan Ladd, or a Clint Eastwood, or a Jesus of Nazareth, who could shake up the status quo, transform the way things were done, and bring a new way of thinking and being into being. The handsome strangers were evidently busy elsewhere, because none came to town on the C & G, or got off the bus, or drove in from parts unknown to work their magic, and break the spell of death and isolation.

Of course, it didn’t feel like death and isolation. No one would have said, if you had been so bold to ask, what the problem was, “We’re dying here, from isolation,” but that was the case. We were dying from isolation. We were cut off from ourselves, alienated from our own voice, our own perspective, our own slant on things, our own gift, our own genius, our own soul. We sacrificed all that for the sake of a communal way of life that killed us all. Because we were afraid. Of dying.

We needed a handsome stranger to break the spell, and wake us up, and bring us to life, because we did not have what it would have taken to do that on our own. And, none came calling. But, in an ironic, paradoxical, sort of way, the absence of a handsome stranger can be as transformative as anything an actual stranger might do. The absence of the stranger makes resurrection as likely and as real as his presence. In the absence of the stranger, we have to become the stranger if we are to have a chance. We bring the stranger to life in our own lives and come alive because of him. Because of his absence, we live and he lives because of us—through us. The deficits and deficiencies of our youth can become the obsessions and compulsions of our advancing years, and I find myself compensating for what was missing when it mattered. Or, trying to. Trying to redeem the irredeemable. Trying to resurrect the dead, by being the person who was most noticeably absent from my life, and living, vicariously, through him.

I step into the role of the Handsome Stranger, and say the things that were not said, and ask the questions that were not asked, and exhibit the qualities that were not evident, and offer what was not given, as if to say, “It may be too little, too late, but I cannot perpetuate the illusion that an unexamined life is worth living, or that it can even be taken for life at all.” We bear the impact, for better or worse, as the blessing or the curse, of where we have been into the far reaches of where we are going. “What we do not embrace as destiny comes to us as fate,” (Carl Jung). One way, or another, we will be who we are. One way, or another, we will live to express what is most important to us. Unless, of course, we die.

The one thing we must not do is die by being afraid of death. The one thing we must live to avoid at all costs is dying before we are dead. To believe in the resurrection of the dead is to step into our fear. It is to look deeply into the empty eyes of that which we are most afraid, and without flinching, do the thing that threatens our future and keeps us from being alive. To believe in the resurrection of the dead is to say the thing that cannot be said, to do the thing that cannot be done, and to know what that thing is, what those things are.

What is anathema? What is life? What is death? How can we be raised from the dead, raised to new life, if we don’t know what constitutes death, or where life is to be found?

Let me take you back to the time of the martyrs. Who killed the people who would not recant their faith? Rome, or the Church? Rome made Christianity punishable by death because the Christians weren’t playing by the rules, mainly by refusing to buy animals to sacrifice in Roman temples to Roman gods and goddesses. It was wrecking the economy. It was creating unrest. Their way of life was coming under fire. It was a lot like Itta Bena, Mississippi.

We protect our way of life at all costs. So Rome instituted the death penalty for Christians who refused to pay appropriate homage to Zeus. And, the church resisted the Roman initiative by telling its members to go to their deaths for the sake of their faith without renouncing their savior and their reward would be great in heaven. Who bears the greater shame here? Rome, or the Church? Who killed the Martyrs? Rome, or the Church? What is it that cannot be done? Sacrifice to Zeus or not sacrifice to Zeus? To do what cannot be done would have been to do what?

How much more inventive, and imaginative, and creative, and life-giving it would have been for the Church to sacrifice to Zeus as a gracious concession to the fear and insecurity of Rome and a testimony to the all-inclusive nature of the God Who Is God! Sacrifice to Zeus every Thursday, winking at each other, with our fingers crossed! Jesus will understand! And laugh! How gracious and compassionate can the one be who is called Lord of Life if he requires our deaths in the coliseum in order to be certain of our faith in him? The belief in the resurrection of the dead enables us to live by dying to that which cannot be. What is it that cannot be? That is the thing we can do, and live, here and now, in this physical life, today! What is it that we cannot do—sacrifice to Zeus, or renounce Jesus? That is the thing the resurrection enables! Die to that thing, and live!

Would the handsome stranger lead a rebellion? Killing the Romans and establishing the Church? Would the handsome stranger support the local economy, sacrifice to Zeus, and wink, and establish the Church? What would he, what would we, do in the service of life? We cannot talk about the resurrection of the dead—of the resurrection to life everlasting—without talking about what we are going to do as evidence of our resurrection, as an expression of our wonder and joy for life, and living, and being alive.

Tombs can be cozy, safe places of refuge. What is the nature of the tomb we are called to abandon? What must we do to do the thing that keeps us from being alive? Sacrifice to Zeus? Question the status quo? Speak out of our experience to say that which must not be said? What is the thing standing between us and life? What do we need a handsome stranger to help us do?

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Implementation is the task of the church over time. It isn’t believing the doctrines that will do it, but consciously, and conscientiously, living in ways that are aligned with, express and enable the principles, the fundamentals, of community formation, development and organization. Jesus laid a new foundation for community: radical equality around the table and across the board. That’s the idea. Now, how do we put that into practice? How do we live that out, in every moment, for the rest of our life? That is the work of the church.

The work of the church is treating one another well. The work of the church is caring for one another the way we need to be cared for. The work of the church is implementing the Greatest Commandment. The work of the church is being the right kind of help. The work of the church is being the right kind of company; the right kind of community.

Jesus came creating the right kind of community, the foundation of which was justice and compassion, and an abiding respect for the value of one another. He prayed, “May they be one, even as we are one,” and said, “As you do it to the least of my brothers (and sisters), you do it to me.”

The right kind of community is characterized by caring presence. Members of the right kind of community are with one another in ways that are good for the other. Members of the right kind of community are good company, and the right kind of community is a good place to be.

Members of the right kind of community understand, along with Shel Silverstein, that “some kind of help is the kind of help that help is all about; and some kind of help is the kind of help we all could do without.” And, they endeavor to offer “the right kind of help,” which is, of course, where it gets tricky.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” and members of the right kind of community respect the boundaries that separate us as much as they honor “the ties that bind us with bonds of mutual love.” Members of the right kind of community do not “mind one another’s business.” They are not “co-dependent.” Their happiness does not depend upon, or require, others being happy with them. They can very well set limits, draw lines, sing their own song, and march to their own drummer. They can very well “define themselves while staying in touch,” and “be a self in relationship with other selves.” And, they can bear their own pain.

Bearing our own pain is an essential requirement of community. Carl Jung and his disciples have all understood that the failure to bear legitimate suffering is at the root of all pathology. Suffering—pain—that is not borne is passed along, passed around. When we don’t carry our own cross, others have to carry it for us. We become a cross when we refuse to carry our cross. The right kind of community understands the nature of cross bearing, and refuses to try to be more helpful than is possible, or helpful.

The cross can be understood literally as a tool of political oppression and control. It is how the state executed its opponents and detractors. It is a particularly cruel way of driving home the point that you better not mess with City Hall. On that level, the cross is “borne” only by those who incurred the wrath of the state during the time it was used by the state as a means of execution. On a deeper level, the cross (and communion table) represents the essential truth: “Ain’t that how it is, though?”, and stands for all of us as the way of “the life of Christ,” and of our life together. The right kind of community understands the place of the cross in its life and in the lives of its members.

The way of the cross is the way of life and death. The way of the cross is the way of choosing how we will live our lives; deciding who we will be; determining what we will do; resolving who we are and what we are about; coming to terms with how it is with us; reconciling ourselves to the nature and circumstances of our lives; and making our peace with the fact that living requires us to “give up this to get that.”

One of the truths that define me, for example, is that I want to be the best father in all the world, and I don’t want to be a father at all. The question is what am I going to do about that? How am I going to live in light of that? There is a cross to be borne here. There is a price to be paid to “live well.” What will we sacrifice? What will we embrace? What will we surrender? What will we embody? Who will we be? The right kind of community understands the nature of the struggle, the place of the cross, and the price that must be paid to be who we need to be for our own sake and for the sake of one another. The way of life is also the way of death. We carry our cross daily in the service of life. “Ain’t that the way it is, though? Amen, ain’t that the way it is!”

Friday, April 14, 2006


Things are not just fine as they are. Things are what they are, and what we can do about them is what we can do about them, and we can imagine a better world than we can live in, and we can make ourselves crazy trying to will what cannot be willed, trying to have what cannot be had. But, things are not just fine as they are.

We have to live with the things that can’t be changed, and we have to live to change the things that need to be changed, and “the wisdom to know the difference” is part of the struggle of being human. There is no strategy for knowing. We step into life and mix it up. Who ever gets it right? What does “right” mean?

We fiddle, we tweak, we improve, we perfect, we play around, we try different combinations. We rearrange the furniture, paint over the pain in the room, sell the house and buy a new one, which is “just perfect,” and becomes less and less so over time. We are constantly morphing, altering, adjusting, throwing away and starting over. That’s how it is with us. We aren’t going to get it right, ever. And if we do, we aren’t going to be happy with it for long. Adam and Eve threw paradise away in the effort to achieve a higher level of perfection. That is who we are.

All the advice about “blooming where you are planted,” and “being happy where you are,” and “letting things be what they are,” and “not pushing the river,” is wasted on us. It’s pushing the river. It’s denying our urgency for increasingly higher levels of perfection. It’s refusing to let things be what they are. When I say life should be different, and you tell me I should accept life as it is, you’re telling me I should be different, which is what I’m saying.

We all agree that things should not be what they are. We also all agree that we will not all agree about how things should be. And we all can accept that that’s how it is. And get to work, lining things up with our ever-changing image of how things ought to be.


What are we working toward? How are we going to know when we have achieved it? Peace? Contentment? Equanimity? Equilibrium? Ommm? We seem to be discontent, disenchanted, at odds with ourselves and/or our circumstances, and in search of something, but what would it take? Would a kayak do it? A nice, new dog, perhaps? A spouse that adored us and dotted over us? What exactly is missing, and what is going to be the result of having it in place?

We don’t have a clue, do we? We just know this isn’t it. No matter what “this” is, it isn’t “it.” What does that tell you? It tells me the “urge” isn’t going away. The urge for “it,” I mean. There is no “it.” There is just “the urge for it.” Make friends with the urge. Settle down with it. Get to know it. Come to like it, enjoy it. It’s with you for life. Maybe beyond.

Oh, you can try to get rid of it if you want. That’s called the urge to escape the urge. Shame it. Kill it. Exorcize it. Excommunicate it. Ignore it. Deny it. You’re still driven by it, by the urge to achieve “it” by being free of “the urge to have it.” It’s the same game. You sit and meditate on your breathing until the urge goes away. Oops. Here it comes again, better sit some more. We spend all our time sitting, driven by our urge to be free of the urge.

We think there is an ideal, optimal, urge-free state of “just being,” where all is well, and we are serene and blissfully at one with the heart of the universe, and don’t even want to go to the bathroom. We have an urge to be free of our urges. And, don’t understand that a rice bowl is just another form of a pink Cadillac.


There is no steady-state of happily ever after. There is no having it made. I can enjoy a cup of coffee in one minute and not enjoy spilling it in the next minute. We can love a beautiful lawn and hate mowing the yard. We have a way. And, there are things in our way. We have to go out of our way to deal with the things in our way. How do we deal with having to deal with the things in our way?

Being enlightened, and highly conscious, and deeply aware is just a way of managing our response to our lives. There isn’t any more to like, any less to not like. Our reactions are just less extreme. We can like it, or not like it, or have no opinion about it, but we still have to deal with it. The lower our level of reactivity, the greater our chances of responding appropriately to what is being asked of us in the moment of our living—which has nothing to do with having our way and getting what we want.

Enlightenment is a buffer between ourselves and our-way-ness. It doesn’t mean we are any better off than the unenlightened. Nirvana doesn’t do a thing for us. We just have less of a way and don’t feel as bad about the things in our way. It’s a way of feeling better about not having what we want; a way of adjusting ourselves to the unacceptable aspects of our lives; a way of redefining “successful living.”

We have to define it somehow. We may as well define it in a way that brings us more joy, gladness and peace, and less stress and conflict, lower blood pressure, and fewer ulcers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Nothing to gain, nothing to lose. That’s the position of power. When there is no bribe to offer, no threat to deliver, there is no leverage to gain. Then, we are true equals, and must seek cooperation on some basis other than what we can give, or take away.

The traditional base of power is controlling the advantages that might accrue to the other. If I can position myself so as to determine your advantage, I hold the position of power over you. Then, you have to make me happy in order to be happy yourself. You take that position away from me when you no longer care about anything I can offer or remove.

What becomes of negotiation when there is nothing to gain, nothing to lose? The idea of negotiation is that we give up this to get that. Remove extortion and ransom, threat and promise, and how do we proceed? What is the basis of life together among equals? Mutual interests? Common values? A unified desire to serve the true good of all?

As things currently stand, the basis of our life together is getting, keeping, and taking away. I live to have more than you have. I want the advantages for me and mine, and the disadvantages for you and yours. No one asks, “What’s the advantage of having the advantage?” Everyone is sure it is the thing to have, else why all the trouble to get it? Yet, how much better off are we for being increasingly better off? At what point does having the advantage shift over into not being advantageous? What is the swing point, where additional advantages do not make us better off? What do we really need to be well off? “You can’t be too wealthy,” we say, ignoring the fact that after a certain point more money does not equal a better life.

My hunch is that we need only enough resources to be who we are. We need the freedom of self exploration and self expression. We need an atmosphere in which we can be true to ourselves, where we can be most truly “us.” A gardener needs to garden, a painter needs to paint, a writer needs to write. There is that within which needs to get out, which needs to be released, which needs to be given to the world. We come packed with a gift within, a genius, a soul, a self which needs to be shared with our neighbors as a boon, a blessing, the true advantage, for all.

WE are the advantage for the true good of all! Each of us is to be about the work of unfolding the gift of ourselves and offering it to each other. We bring the advantage of ourselves to life and give it away, serving the advantage of the whole, so that everyone benefits from her, from his, association with everyone else. The benefit, the advantage, is our life together. Our lives are made better by the presence of one another. We live together as a blessing for all.

What would it take to reorient ourselves from getting, keeping, taking to unfolding, expressing, sharing? In the center of our essential self, there is nothing to gain, nothing to lose. At the level of the heart, we have all we need for the expression of our genius in the world. The boon of us is for everyone, ourselves included. We gain everything in giving it all away.

It’s a hard sell, of course. We don’t believe we already have what we need. We are sure a sail boat would do it, or a home in the mountains, or fame and fortune. It’s “out there,” whatever it is, the thing we need to be whole, complete, at peace, and happy. We are sure of it.

But, the treasure is within. We carry it with us when we go in search of it. “Zen is like a man riding his ox in search of his ox.” “Well, that’s stupid,” we say, sitting on the treasure looking for the treasure.


We believe in cause and effect. We think that if we do “this,” “that” will happen. We try to arrange “that” by doing “this,” “this,” and “this.” And are nonplussed when the outcome isn’t to our liking. “We don’t understand,” we say. “We did ‘this,’ ‘this,’ and ‘this,’ but ‘that’ didn’t materialize.” And, we have no idea of what we must do for no reason other than because it must be done.

All of our doing is done in light of getting something to happen because of our doing. We don’t do anything just to do the thing. We do whatever we do to manipulate some outcome into being. We do “this” to get “that.” What is it that we “just do”? Because we must? Because we want to? Because we like doing it? Why don’t we do more of it, more often?


The path to the center, to the heart, of our “essential self,” is a playful path. It is not serious. It is not something we think about. It is something we find ourselves doing, absent-mindedly, while we are thinking about doing something else. It is something we do to “get our minds off” what we spend all our time thinking about. Where do we go for relief? To recover and be restored? What do we do there? What constitutes “play” for us?

Playfulness unfolds, discloses, reveals, makes plain. We wish all moments could be like that moment. That all days could be as free as that day. We see a side of ourselves in play that we could never be in “real life.” We touch something about ourselves in play that we could never reveal in “the real world.” There is a spontaneity in play that we have to reign in, box up, put away when we put our “serious face” back on. Or, think we do.

Live playfully. That’s the rule. What would you do differently if you lived playfully? Do those things. As one who has nothing to gain, nothing to lose.

Monday, April 10, 2006

04/09/06, Sermon

Bart Ehrman says there are lots of good reasons for being the church, none of which has anything to do with the accuracy of the New Testament, or of the entire Bible. Or, I would add, with getting to heaven when we die. Wielding heaven as a weapon to coerce people into becoming “believers” and doing what they are told to do, and saying that “the Bible says” do this, and don’t do that, and don’t even think about doing that over there ever, constitutes the entire scope of the church’s presence in the lives of most of us. We don’t have any other experience of church than this. The church is constantly bludgeoning us with heaven in one hand and the Bible in the other. The only variation in that scenario is when the church puts the Bible down to pick up Jesus and throw him at us. That’s the church of our experience. Heaven, the Bible, Jesus, though not necessarily in that order.

We can do better. We have to do better. The future of civilization as it must become depends upon it. Here’s the deal: The church is the catalyst for the transformation of civilization. It is not heaven that hangs in the balance here, but civilization. We are shaping, molding, forming the future of the planet, and, once we figure out space travel, beyond. Nothing is more important than what we do together. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by heaven, Jesus, and what the Bible says. We have bigger fish to fry.

We have to learn the lessons of life together. The bedrock of civilization as we are reconstructing it cannot be me over against you and us over against them. We cannot be pitted against one another in an on-going and unending fight for the advantages. Love one another. Love your enemies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. Get it? Those are the principles we have to put into practice if civilization is to become what it must become for the planet to survive. As it is, we are killing ourselves and destroying the world trying to have what we want at everyone else’s expense. We have to learn to live together in the service of the common good. But, isn’t that a pickle, though?

Whose good is served by what is good, is the question. Good for whom, is the question. At what point does your good become my bad, and what do we do about that then, is the question. Good and evil are not that far apart. What is good for one is evil for another. How can we live together in ways that take the best interest of everyone into account?

The church is the place these questions can be asked and answered. The church is uniquely positioned within civilization to become an international, intentional community serving the true good of all, for the transformation of civilization. Community formation, community development, community organization—always with an eye on the relationship between the good of the parts and the good of the whole—these are the tasks of the church for the salvation of the world. Nothing is more difficult or more necessary. The way, of course, is the way of death and life.

It is the way of Jesus of Nazareth. Oh, and here it comes, don’t you know. He’s about to throw Jesus at us. Duck and run while you have a chance. Don’t let ’em lock the doors on you. Get out while you can. No, wait! Give me a shot at defending, explaining, justifying and excusing bringing Jesus into the conversation. Here’s the deal about Jesus: Jesus is an ink blot. Jesus is whoever you want him to be. If you want Jesus to be the savior of the world, he’s yours. If you want Jesus to send everyone to hell who isn’t like you, you’ve got it. And, if you, as I do, want Jesus to be the image of the invisible God and the prototype ideal human being, bingo—that’s him.

We read into Jesus who we want him to be, and then use that to shape who we are. It’s really psychologically sound. Jesus is the consummate projective image. We project onto Jesus all the qualities and characteristics we admire most, and worship in him what we desire for ourselves. It works in reverse as well.

If you have rejected Jesus because he was introduced to you draped with the pathology and toxins of your surroundings—if the Jesus you think of when you think of Jesus is the worst of the wrong kind of people, with whom you have spent too much time and by whom you have been wounded, abused, warped, and fragmented, Jesus is going to represent for you all the qualities and characteristics you most despise and denounce, and you will see in him what you hate most in others, and fear most in yourself.

Two things follow from this. We can only get to Jesus through ourselves. And, what we see in Jesus shows us more about us than about Jesus. What is true about Jesus is true about us, in that it reflects and exposes where we have been and how it is with us. When you talk about Jesus, you are talking about where you have been and how it is with you. When I talk about Jesus, I am talking about where I have been and how it is with me.

And, if you cannot appreciate the significance of the last couple of paragraphs, you have been away from the church much too long. You should spend some time in one up the street, or across town, in order to be able to perceive the astounding nature of what we are up to here. This is remarkably unique and astonishing in the field of institutional religion, and when you get it, you will be dizzy and perhaps sick to your stomach because your head will be spinning from being yanked so suddenly without warning from where you have been and what you have come to expect to hear from the church to where you are. It is as new a thing as you are ever likely to encounter. It’s certainly the newest thing since “God is dead.” Jesus is an ink blot. If that doesn’t blow you away, you can’t be blown away. And, you may be dead. Someone should check your pulse.

All right. That’s my aside about Jesus. Now, I’m going to take you back to the point. The point is this. Today is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday before Easter. It is the day recognized by the church as the day of Jesus’ not so triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey. It was carefully orchestrated to be a slam at both religion and politics. Jesus deliberately assumes the role of the long expected Messiah foretold by the prophet Zachariah, who would come to Jerusalem (Zion) “humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9.9). The coming one “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9.10). Of course, that would be after the fight.

The King of Peace would establish peace only after he destroyed his enemies. This expectation is defiantly proclaimed by the writer of the Book of Revelation, only the discussion there is about Jesus’ Second Coming, at which time he will get it right. “First victory, then peace” (Crossan). And, in saying “He’ll get it right next time,” the writer of Revelation is revealing himself, not the future. Jesus is an ink blot, remember.

Jesus’ entry was also a slam at politics because Pontius Pilate would have been entering the city at about the same time from the opposite direction, in a chariot with legionnaires and war horses and a resounding display of power and dominion (in order to bolster the local militia during Passover). Jesus meanders in on a donkey—a completely intentional and symbolic act declaring that his way is not the way of religion or of politics. He is not going to do it the way it has ever been done before. The model that Jesus sets before us—and he is indeed the model par excellence of faith and practice—is the model of No Model. It is the model of not knowing what on earth you are doing. It is the model of feeling your way along, and following hunches to see where they lead, and wondering what you are going to do, and trusting yourself to think of something, and being surprised at how things turn out.

This has certainly not been the model of the church of our experience, with it’s corporate executive structure, and it’s five-year plans, and it’s strategic growth strategies. The church of our experience has known exactly what it was doing, which was exactly what every other church was doing. The newest things that church did was to have Bible School at night and build Family Life Centers. Every church was a clone of every other church. If you, and every other person in Greensboro, made a list of what you expect a church to offer, the lists would be practically identical. We know what, and how, a church is supposed to be, and we expect a church to be those things. Just as the religious authorities in Jerusalem knew who the Messiah was supposed to be.

When Jesus ambles by on the donkey, he trashes our expectations, and leaves us to start anew. From scratch. With nothing to guide us. No blueprint. No map. No structure to call “church.” Call them together and tell them to take care of their own, and all sentient beings, and the environment which holds it all together, and see what they come up with. They will come up with different things. Radically different things.

What holds it together is their sense of community, their being community, their being with one another for the good of the other in all times and circumstances. And, their sense of mission. Their mission is to carry community to others. To extend community to all sentient beings. To practice loving-kindness for the true good of all. To offer the kind of help that help is all about. To not know what they are doing beyond letting compassion and justice guide them in their relationships with each other and all others. And to develop whatever structure they need to carry on the business of community whose specific business is the true good of all.

The service of the true good of all sets the church apart from practically every other group you can imagine. And, it requires us to think through what is good and how we know. The two ways open before us in any moment. The way of life, and the way of death; the way of light and the way of darkness. In any moment the challenge is to die to that which is not worth our life, and to live to that which is life itself. It takes a community to know these things, and do them. The work of the church is creating community, being community. It all flows from there.

Monday, April 03, 2006

04/02/06, Sermon

Jesus is the swingman of history, but that isn’t Jesus’ fault. Jesus never meant to be the swingman of history. My perception of him is that he only meant to be the swingman of religion and politics as they were being practiced in rural Galilee during his lifetime. He came onto the scene proclaiming, “Not like this! Like that!” The “that” that he pointed to was what he called “the kingdom of God.” It was an imaginary, yet potentially, tangibly, immanently, present and real kingdom of radical equality around the table, across the board. It was the first level playing field in history. No leg up. No advantage. No hierarchy. No patriarchy. No in-group. No steering committee. No controlling mechanism. No power plays. No one, really, in charge, possessing the vision that everyone else has to share. If you think that’s easy, give it a spin.

How would that work—complete equality around the table, across the board? One person’s opinion being as good as another’s? How would you ever make a decision? How would you ever get anything done? Jesus doesn’t answer the questions. He spends his time telling the people, “Not this! That!” Easy for him to say! Jesus could outline a scheme for life together without actually putting it in practice. He couldn’t even achieve harmonious equality and cooperation among his disciples. Peter was always blocking him, and Judas betrayed him. You can talk radical equality, but when thirteen people have different ideas about what to think, where to go, what to do, how to do it, you don’t have a community of equals. You have a sack full of cats. Just try getting them to purr on cue. Or even to come when you call.

Jesus wasn’t the mayor of Jerusalem. He did not institute his ideas for life together in any formal way. The disciples tried, after his death, but their model of the church, a community that cared for its own and the place where they were, was able to be sustained only in hope (with the threat, really) of Jesus’ imminent return. The strain of communal life together was too much. Some people felt that they were doing more than their fair share, and that others weren’t doing nearly enough. Some people felt as though they were making all of the sacrifices and others weren’t making any. You can talk about the grass roots, and organic community development, and organizing from the bottom up, and power to the people all you want, but, in the end, somebody has to cut on the lights and make the coffee and show up every week. Jesus better return in a hurry, because that gets old fast.

It is easy enough to talk about radical equality, but the practice of radical equality comes to grief upon the reality of the way we are. Those who serve the most think they should have more of a voice in the way things are done, and think that those who don’t serve at all shouldn’t benefit from the work that is done. “Those who don’t work won’t eat,” is the way the New Testament puts it. The practice of radical equality depends upon everyone doing his, doing her, part. Where have you ever known that to be the case for long?

When Jesus doesn’t return in a hurry, we have to come up with something else. So, we invent paid clergy. We institute the church. It’s the same process that got Israel a king in the Old Testament. We need to be delivered from the grime, and the grit, and the unfairness of being taken advantage of by those who aren’t doing their part in holding the community together. And, even here, the church moves forward, toward who, and what, and how it ought to be, without a director, or a king, or a boss. There is no plan for being the church, no check sheet, no blueprint. No one is in charge. We are a sack full of cats trying to become a community.

Jesus wasn’t the mayor of Jerusalem. He wasn’t even “the carpenter.” He was “the carpenter’s son.” Which means he may very well have been kicked out of the house for being a slacker and a lay-about. For wanting to spend his time talking with the rabbis and debating the fine points of the law. It most certainly means he didn’t have a “real job.” Jesus got by “with a little help from his friends.” He was carried along on the shoulders of those who liked him, or loved him, whether they understood him and agreed with him, or not. He was supported by an assortment of those who were becoming the church as it ought to be, whether they knew it or not.

One of the primary requirements of the church as it ought to be is that no one knows exactly what it ought to be. Nobody knows what they are doing. The church as it ought to be evolves, emerges, becomes itself over time, and it is quite different over time, and in different places.

The church as it ought to be in rural Galilee is not the same as the church as it ought to be in urban Rome. And the church has to change with the times. The church cannot sing the same old hymns through the years. There is nothing admirable about “the rock of ages.” Being chained to the rock is a death sentence. God is like the wind, remember, blowing where it will. The timeless and unchanging features of God, God’s constancy in compassion and justice, grace, mercy, and peace, for example, are constantly exhibiting themselves in new and surprising ways, searching for different forms of expression, finding application in shocking and disconcerting, even blasphemous and obscene, places. We grow in our understanding of God’s loving presence, and perceive the implications of living as expressions of loving presence in ever changing and challenging ways. Prophets live to appall even the prophets who have gone before them. Isaiah would have been undone by Jeremiah’s proclamation. The church’s understanding and expression of the way of God changes dramatically over time and circumstance. We cannot say what and how the church will be. We can only lay the groundwork for, and foster the expectation of, unfolding and transformation.

In the meantime, what keeps us together? Why do we care? Why should we do the work, make the sacrifices, pay the price of being together, over time? What’s in it for us that we should peacefully coexist and work together for the common good of all? What brings us to the table? Why do we stay? What is valuable enough about our presence with one another that we will do what it takes to establish and maintain a community of presence? What makes this gathering, this community, special? Sacred? Holy? What makes this a holy place? What is the nature of the sacrifice we are willing to make to be together? What makes that sacrifice worthwhile? We are working toward what? For what?

Here is my list: Honesty, vulnerability, intimacy, integrity, transparency, safety, compassion, grace, acceptance, willingness to listen with understanding, willingness to listen so as to elicit—so as to access—a deeper truth, a respect for personhood—for boundaries, and limits, and the perspective of the other, an innate distrust of doctrine, and dogma, and creed, and slogans, and catch-phrases, and answers, and things that are supposed to be said; a place that respects each person and each person’s ability to find what she, what he, needs and do the work that he, that she, needs to do at this particular time and place in life.

Jesus is not my best invisible friend. As Jesus personified God, so God and Jesus are personified in the people who are for me as Jesus would be, as God would be, if Jesus, if God were here, now. Is this to say that Jesus and God are NOT here, now? Only to say that Jesus, and God, are ALWAYS here, now, in the people who exhibit the qualities of Jesus and God in the here and now of daily existence. God is personal in and through those who personify the attributes of God and make them personal in tangible, actual, real-time ways. Jesus is raised from the dead and present in the same way—in and through the people who live so as to evidence “the way of Jesus” in the world.

My experience of God and Jesus is communal, not private and individual. The presence of God and Jesus is mediated to me through the presence of others who are as God is, sometimes intentionally and deliberately, and sometimes unaccountably and mysteriously, but always graciously and compassionately, justly and kindly, and considerately. God has soft eyes, and a gentle, light, touch.

What this says to me is that we stand between two spiritual realities and express one or the other in actual, tangible, physical ways. This is the age-old (I think the oldest) Doctrine of the Two Ways. There is the way of light and the way of darkness; the way of life and the way of death; the way of goodness and the way of evil; the way of the spirit and the way of the flesh. The way of… Well, you could extend the description of the ways into the far distant future, but you get the idea.

There is, in every moment, the possibility of godliness, holiness, rightness, and the like, and there is the possibility of littleness, meanness, spitefulness, vindictiveness, self-centered-ness, my-way-only-ness, and the like. And, those possibilities break into the moment, become actualized in the moment, through us, through our decisions and choices, through our way in the world. We act to make God known or to keep God from being known. We are the arbiters of God. What we bind on earth is bound in heaven. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. We carry with us the keys to the kingdom, and, indeed, ARE the key to the kingdom.

We are as much of God as some people see. We are as close to God as some people get. We are all that God is in the lives of some. In each moment, we bring to life that which is of God or that which is not of God. In each moment, the Two Ways open before us, and we act in the service of one or the other. Some moments, of course, are more significant than others. And some peoples’ choices carry more weight than others. But, there aren’t as many “throw away moments” as we might like to think. The little things add up. The cumulative impact of our life on the lives of others over time is considerable. It matters what we do, and how we do it. It is critical that we take care of our own and the place where we are, and all sentient beings, and the environment that impacts all sentient beings. Always. Forever. Amen.