Live in Light

SmilingLight:yingchou-han-241463.jpg

It begins with light.

No, rather it begins with darkness, but the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. He came to his own people — to us — but we were in darkness and the darkness was complete, for in us there was no light.

And I looked, but I could not see, until he mixed up some clay and pressed it on my eyes.

“What do you see?” he asked, and waited. I could hear the cicadas droning in the trees, felt the blood pounding in my ears, a dog barked somewhere in the village, feet shifted near me and I heard the murmur of voices.

“I can see . . . people,” I said, and cleared my throat. “But they look like trees. Nothing is clear. . . Yet.”

At that, he smiled. I saw him smile! He pressed clay on my eyelids again and I felt the cool touch of his hands on my face.

“And now?”

At that, the light poured in and his face snapped into focus. Behind him I could see other faces, people whose bodies cast hard shadows under their feet, for the sun was almost directly overhead and the cicadas filled the silence under the brassy sky. I closed my eyes, for the light fell like shards of glass and I called out to my friends because I did not know what they looked like, but when I heard their voices, gasping and laughing, I knew where they were and I laughed too. The darkness, again, was familiar, but I wanted to see and to see my friends, and I opened my eyes. They were around me, brushing the mud smears from my face, and by their voices I could see who they were, finally.

It was by hearing that I saw.

He told stories and we listened. To be honest, most of it went right over my head.

“No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lamp stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.”

Everybody knows that a lamp is for light. Without light it’s just a piece of clay. That much I knew.

“I am the light of the world,” he said. So this is what he was doing: he was lighting the world and he would not be hidden. The light is here, right now! Everything will be seen for what it is; the secrets that people have hidden will be revealed; all will be in light. Pay attention! If you can truly listen you already have much and those who can listen with attention will be given much more. But if you cannot listen, if your attention is only on yourself, and if what you want to say stops up your ears, then you will lose even what you have.

That came after the parable of the sower and after we asked him to explain. Those who hear the word and hold it fast with an honest and good heart are good earth, good humus, good humans. Holding it fast with patient endurance, that’s what it takes. It begins with hearing the word and seeing the light.

“So let your light so shine among them, let your light so shine,” he said. “Let your light so shine among them that they may see your good work and may know that it comes from the Father of lights.”

And we who sat in darkness saw a great Light and that Light was the light of the world.

(Photo: Ying Chouhan, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #8

Committed to Memory

 

SunriseMemory:eric-ward-341172 copy.jpg

Our global story is not yet completed,
Crime, daring, commerce, chatter will go on,
But, as narrators find their memory gone,
Homeless, disterred, these know themselves defeated.
— W. H. Auden, XVI from “Sonnets from China”

I recoiled in horror at the scenes coming out of Charlottesville, at the torch-lit faces of the marchers, indistinguishable from the clean cut young men of Nazi era photographs. There was the same glittering intensity, the straining throats and clenched fists, the bodies taut with anger, the adrenaline stiffening their limbs. Then came the images of the car plowing into bodies, bodies that were tossed and flung up into a frozen moment in which we could see every detail suspended in time. Did that man sprinting to the left make it to safety? Where did the body land that was upended and flailing in the air above the car? Did the driver think of his mother in the moments before impact? Was his face contorted with hatred or was he a masque of cold ruthlessness?

In a summer redolent with memories of World War II, it is astonishing to see Nazi flags and salutes in the streets of Charlottesville. These are self-identified “blood-and-soil” foot soldiers whose primary myths reek of violence, hatred, and mayhem. Separately, these people might be merely obnoxious and irritating: together they are more than the sum of their parts. Together they are the dark, atavistic, blunt force which has caused such trauma to the body politic through the centuries.

It was a spiral of violence that inevitably hit its crescendo in Trump’s first remarks. If ever there was a time when the better angels of our nature should have been hovering over the president, this was it. In a moment of genuine grief and justified anger he could have opened his heart to the nation and called out the evil so evident before him. He could have played the man and unequivocally denounced by name the self-designated forces of hatred and racism. He could have exercised leadership and called us to remember our higher values. But he didn’t. When he finally made a fuller statement some days later it was delivered with all the empathy and expression of a child forced to apologize. And then, in a press conference which stunned even the commentators at Fox News, he raised the moral equivalency stakes even higher. Asserting that there were good people among the Nazi marchers he charged that the counter protestors, many of whom were clergy leading in nonviolence, were just as violent as the white supremacists, the KKK, and the Nazis, who poured into the city from all parts of the country for the protest. It was a bridge too far, even for some of his allies who had gritted their teeth through the interminable months since he took office, and by mid-week after the protests enough CEOs had resigned from the president’s economic advisory councils that he abolished them.

It is clear that this president cannot be the moral leader that the position calls for. He has chosen that which benefits him personally over that which the country needs in order to rise above this present shame. The President’s unwillingness to call evil by its right name is a trigger warning for all of us. It means we need to face up to the racism that pervades our system and to recognize that no one—none of us—is free and clear of this poison.

* * * *

Racism is endemic to human nature because it feeds our fear; if we understand the fear we may have a chance to rise above this—but only if we are both constantly self-aware and consciously focused on a love for others that can endure the fire. To rid ourselves of this poison we need to reflect, renounce, and announce.

We reflect on our past—not just our own individual past, but that of our country and our world. We remember through history, scripture, drama, poetry, film, music, and art the painful stories of our long love affair with violence. We recognize—re-cognize—that any of us could be the face of violence and evil for another person.

We renounce our fear and our inability to see others as people like ourselves. We have to set aside our gut reaction to dehumanize others when provoked. And we have to put away childish thoughts about stamping out evil by killing the millions of us who are tainted by it. Evil is a cord that runs through all of us, tying us and our enemies together in a chain of mutual destruction. The way we cut the cord is to recognize it in ourselves and give ourselves over to God, Allah, a Higher Power, whatever we call that Being which is being itself and which gives us life.

We announce to ourselves the commitment to the effort and struggle to love each other. It is a struggle, mostly because the easiest thing is to ignore the humanity of those we fear and hate. Making that claim each day to ourselves makes it real. In a strange reversal this is one case in which “saying makes it so.”

* * * *

We do not live in the present only, but always with a glance over the shoulder to our past. When we are not simply preoccupied with ourselves we also look up ahead to where we think we ought to be. This is how we make and remember history, not just “one damn thing after another,” as Henry Ford is reputed to have said, but a perspective on human action that involves making order out of our myriad choices. We live at once in these three worlds of past, present, and future, although we scrutinize them separately.

The present moment is indefinable: is it truly a “moment” or does it stretch like putty to touch both the past and the future? The question matters because our always-on social media shrinks the present to hours, sometimes minutes. “Here is the latest on the stories we are following right now,” says the news host, genially taking us by the hand before shoving us off the curb into heavy traffic. Thus we are ceaselessly borne downriver, to change up the metaphor, desperately clutching at anything we think will define and preserve the moment we just saw.

It is memory that keeps us alive and alert. Memory that functions to string together the millions of droplets of time that make up our sense of continuity and that define the boundaries of our experience. Memories of our personal history and our collective histories. Augustine likened memory to a long hallway with rooms off to each side, each one containing moments that defined us in time. Those moments are who we are today, but not what we may yet become.

Let’s not forget who we are, who we wanted to be as a nation of people. We remember when we write it down. Writing it down becomes a commitment to remember and to be accountable to ourselves and others and God. “I want to enact the truth,” said Augustine, “—before you, by my testimony; and, by my writing, before those who bear witness to this testimony.”

So . . . listen, reflect, write, and speak out. Start a blog, keep a journal, write a paragraph of encouragement to your friends on Facebook every day. Share what you write with the rest of us; in the writing we will keep the memories of these times alive for ourselves, those around us, and the people we are still to be in the future.

(Photo: Eric Ward, Unsplash.com)

An Attitude of Gratitude

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment.” — Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

GratitudeWoman:cristian-newman-277738.jpgGratitude doesn’t appear on Aristotle’s list of virtues nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. You won’t hear it mentioned much, if at all, in politics, except during victory or concession speeches, and almost never in the entertainment industry except for Oscar night.

I’ve wondered why we find it difficult to utter the words, “I’m grateful for. . .” or “I have gratitude for . . .” Perhaps it’s just awkward to speak the words or we find ourselves slightly embarrassed to be uttering them because one never knows where emotions such as these will go.

But it’s more likely, I think, that gratitude is seen as weakness or even a craven kissing-up to those who wield power over us. Who wants to be seen as being in debt to another, especially if that person is someone for whom we also feel resentment? Having to call on someone else for help is embarrassing; it taps into our fears of becoming redundant and it might allow others to see our incompetence.

There are days when I walk out of the classroom absolutely convinced that every student there sees me for what I am—an imposter. What gives me the right, I rage to myself, to imagine that my pitiful scraps of shared knowledge will be of use to anyone? Where do I get off thinking that my explanations and descriptions are clear, that my logic convinces and my credibility isn’t fragmented by a well-lobbed question? The dark magic of pride, hypocrisy, and self-doubt combine to become a catalytic converter for resentment. What begins as an opportunity for reflection sours into excuses: If I had better students . . . . If I had more time . . . . If they’d pay more attention and actually study the readings. . . .

It’s all a dodge, a pitiful attempt to salvage some self-respect on the barest of pretenses. Other professors make it look so easy. Their discussions flow like cream, their questions are simple and yet profound, their students cannot help but be enlightened. In Kurt Vonnegut’s vivid phrase, “They glow like bass drums with lights inside.” Do I forget those who have helped me over the years? No! But in moments like these I remember them with shame and embarrassment and shame finds it difficult to be grateful.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and author of some forty books. In his commentary, The Return of the Prodigal Son, both a meditation on the parable of Jesus and the painting of the same name by Rembrandt, Nouwen says, “Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

There is in ungratefulness a rough shouldering aside of others, a terseness of speech and a looming sense of denial. In his multi-layered biography, John Lennon: The Life, Philip Norman comments on Lennon’s frequent callousness toward those who had served him without complaint, in some cases for decades. Employees were dropped without warning, the prodigious artistry of the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, was dismissed by John as “production shit,” and lifelong friendships jeopardized by his impatience and insecurity. Yet those who knew him best and loved him most could cite many more instances of his kindness and thoughtfulness than of the cutting remarks and cruel comments.  As his self-confidence waxed and waned his gratitude did so also. At times his vulnerability was achingly apparent such as in the lyrics to Help!:

But every now and then I feel so insecure/I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.

In the last years of his life, before he was murdered outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980, he reached out to people he had hurt over the years and thanked them for what they had done for him. Spending so much time with his infant son Sean taught him patience and brought out in him a paternal instinct that he was not at all sure he had. As he took less and gave more his need to impose his will on others diminished and his generous nature became more evident.

So perhaps that provides a clue to gratitude, that it is there to be drawn upon when we relax our grip and learn to open up to others. Nouwen says that gratitude is a spontaneous response to our awareness of gifts received, but also that gratitude can be lived as a discipline. “The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

I’d like to think of gratitude as both a virtue to be practiced and a gift to be received. In receiving there is re-cognition, a rethinking of who we are and how much we have been given. In the practicing of gratitude there is constancy and commitment. How much we could transform our world through such simple acts!

(Photo: Cristian Newman on Unsplash.com)

In Blindness Then We See

BlindYoungMan:joao-santos-219449.jpg

“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.

When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)

And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.

“They’ve come for you, you know!”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders . . . but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and the awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.

William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”

Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by troops in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.

“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”

We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick and excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision googles, all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.

Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! . . We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”

So let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees, as a matter of course, that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, that he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t? How does he even do that?

Elaborated Spontaneity #7

(Photo: Joao Santos on Unsplash.com)

For To Give

DesertFloating:pawel-nolbert-315359.jpg

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” This is Jesus, bent over, talking to a young man lying on a stretcher, the stretcher carried by his friends, sweating and shifting their grips from hand to hand as they come up alongside the Son of Man. And they haven’t even said anything yet, but He sees their faith and says to this guy, “Your sins are forgiven.”

This is a one-sided conversation that they’ve entered, but it seems to them like it’s one that’s been going on for some time—maybe all time—and while they don’t want to interrupt there is, nevertheless, the fact that this man is standing right in front of them, the man who can heal at a glance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them and their friend, who, by the way, hasn’t said a word, just looks, his hand curled like a claw, his arms like brown sticks, his fingers splayed like roots, chin covered in stubble, breath coming hard—no words—his eyes burning deep like topaz in the last light of the day.

And we, looking on, shift a bit and smile at nothing in particular. Sins! Not a word we’ve heard or used in quite awhile, and truth be told, not something we can actually relate to, come to think of it.

*****

“Have you ever sought God’s forgiveness?” asks the reporter. The candidate stops, puzzled. “I’m not sure I have ever asked God’s forgiveness,” he says. “I don’t bring God into that picture . . . When I go to church and I have my little wine and my little cracker. I guess that is a form of forgiveness.” He pauses, shrugs his shoulders. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.”

*****

Actually, we’d be more comfortable if the conversation revolved around rights and obligations. We have respect for privacy; we believe everyone has the right to their own opinion and who are we to say who has committed a sin or not. That’s their business and not something which can really — or should really — be talked about, seeing as nobody has the right to tell me or anybody else, what I should or should not be doing. I pay my taxes, I work hard, I try to help others out where I can, but in the end it’s really my life and no one else’s and I really don’t — I mean, you know — you don’t have a right to tell me what to do, you know?

This moment: this paralyzed man, his friends, breathless, waiting, the crowd at our backs, the sun slanting into our eyes, a dry, coppery taste in our mouths. Jesus smiles and straightens. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “Why do you think such evil? What’s easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’

*****

We don’t know what to say, they’re just words, anyone could say them but that doesn’t prove a thing. I mean, I could say that—not that I would—but if I wanted to I could say that, but what good would that do anyway? Nobody talks like that! Who talks like that, anyway?

Jesus turns. “Stand up,” he says to the guy on the stretcher. “Go home.”

And I do. I swing my legs down, set my feet on the ground and stand up, a little shaky at first, but I’m up.

“Thank you,” I croak. I look down. My fingers ball up and I rub my arm. My friends stand paralyzed.

“Thank you,” I say, and the people near me fall back.

“Thank you,” — the words are stronger now — and I walk.

Elaborated Spontaneity #6 (Photo: Pawel Nolbert at Unsplash.com)

Resist and Love

GirlResist:allef-vinicius-305443

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says Frost, and thus rouses the silent kid in her ninth grade English class who finds in the poet a resistance fighter. At the molecular level, within the genetic structure of the body politic, the germ of resistance can be isolated, understood as a trait that our American forebears had in abundance and we would do well to emulate.

We resist when we’re young because we don’t know what we’re capable of; we resist because without something to push against we lose all feeling in our senses. To be someone we have to bump up against something, push something around, if only to find the edges of the universe we find ourselves floating within.

“The simplest idea of power,” says James Hillman, “supposes that for work to be done, there must be something that resists.” If nothing else, resistance makes power possible, even something which can be measured.

But we measure ourselves by what we’re not going to put up with anymore, by what rights we are owed, by the amount of pushback we get when we bend the world to our will.

We resist, therefore we are.

But this is tenuous and we know it. We are living in times when identities are thrown like knives. “I am this!” “You are that!” “They are not this, not like us.” “We would never do that, not like them!” We peer through our family and tribal filters that polarize the light around us by cutting out the interferences. There is precedent.

A man named Saul, a bona fide terrorist, riding to Damascus with a license to apprehend and arrest Christians for their torture and death, is thrown from his horse, blinded, and pinned to the ground by a bolt of light and a voice from the heavens.  The King James Version puts it best:

“And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

Saul had been kicking against the pricks all his life and the pricks had returned the favor to the extent that Saul could easily have passed for one himself. Modern translations of the Bible have lost the latter phrase, but we can know that Saul was resisting with everything he had, kicking away all the faces of those he carried in his conscience day after day. “You have lost yourself,” they whispered. “You must change your life.”

And change he does. Resisting the dead weight of primitive prejudice, this Saul becomes a Paul, rebounds from his blindness to persuade his former victims that while he once was blind, now he sees. Now he’s fighting—not against flesh and blood—but against principalities and powers, unholy powers in high places who build their walls.

Years later this Paul is still resisting. He knows plenty about fighting the good fight, but he also knows a lot about love. Look, he says, now I only know part of the story, but someday I will know as fully as I am known. Faith, hope, and love, he says, these are the essentials, but the best part is love. You must change your life. We don’t even know how to pray for change, but the Spirit prays within us, and in all things there is something working out for good to those who believe that goodness still lives in the world.

We may call this Truth or God or Love; in the end they are quite the same.

Elaborated Spontaneity #5 (Photo: Allef Vinicius on Unsplash.com)

God Incognito


“I think, therefore I am,” says Descartes, and thereby overturns centuries of philosophy past. He imagines a dark spirit with infinite powers to deceive, who could turn lightness into dark and cause one to doubt the very ground upon which one stands.

Suppose, suggests Descartes, that I am mistaken about the ‘hereness’ of my body, about the realness of the world ‘out there’, about the existence of God? Suppose that every shard of reality I cling to is an illusion: how would I know? How do we claw through the fog? If it’s all wisps and shadows, how will we know when our little bark has run up on the beach?

He edges out on the high wire, squinting hard at the far post, determined to reject everything except that which he could not doubt. And what he could not doubt is that he is the one doing the doubting, and that those who doubt their existence must exist in order to do the doubting. ‘Cogito ergo, sum’ — I think, therefore I am.

It’s a grand and audacious mind game that Descartes is playing. It’s an axiom dressed as a revelation, a discovery of the self. He invites us to doubt, but he never really doubted anyway. What sets Descartes apart, though, is that he’s given personal experience and his own thought as much authority as conventional wisdom. Find the truth, he says. Think for yourself; argue it out in your own head. Be the master of your interior world. You think, therefore you are. And therefore, is God.

What do we mean when we say we “know” God? Do we “know” the wind? Do we “know” the darkness within the cloud? Do we “know” the cry of our own voice caught up and away in the wind and the cloud? This will not suffice; there must be more.

* * * *

The mild-mannered parishioner two pews over, his attention wandering during the homily, moistens a finger and doubles the pages of his Bible under his thumb. He has an idea to look for God in the Old Testament, but not in the bloody chronicles of genocide and terror. Ecclesiastes appears, but he remembers something about everything as vanity. He frowns: he needs a handhold, not a slippery slope. The Psalms are familiar — he’ll pitch his tent there for awhile in hopes of a well-known verse or two.

“Answer me when I call, O God of my right!,” shouts the ragged singer of the Psalms. He rages, he twists, he cries out; he will stitch up one star to another if he has to and create a zip line to Yahweh. Our parishioner stiffens in the pew; no one should talk to God like that. He reads it again, his finger tracing the words. He whispers it to himself, bending over the page, eyebrows lifted. He imagines ravens wheeling against the desert sun, a cave behind him, the whorl of a desert dust devil swirling closer. He raises an arm against the sun and the shriek of the wind, the ground rocks beneath him, and he hears it, a whisper: “I am.”

“Yes,” he says out loud. “Yes, you are.”

Elaborated Spontaneity #4 (Photo: Clarisse Meyers, Unsplash.com)

The First Church of Common Mysteries Now Open

 

CHurchLavender:cassie-boca-290902.jpg

(Photo: Cassie Boca, Unsplash.com)

Religion gets its knocks these days as the perpetrator of all things evil, the invention of adults who never outgrew their childish fears, the condemner of all that’s spontaneous and upgrowing. A lot of that is true, and when we who can still remember our conscription into religion somehow find ourselves passing as adults and still floundering gracelessly around in the warm waters of the faith we first were baptized in we may be forgiven for our slack-jawed lack of defense. Some of religion, like manners and clothes, is a matter of habit, and habits can free us up to think about important things, so we may be reluctant to pass off a habit that so far has not resulted in serious injury or loss of footing.

But perhaps, like a man whose waist has outgrown his trousers, our boundaries to religion are too small, too much the skinny jeans rather than the comfort waist regular cut with a smoosh more room in the seat. “Were we to limit our view to it,” says William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “we should have to define religion as an external art, the art of winning the favor of the gods.”

It’s so much more than that. While there is the institution of religion, the churches, the ecclesiastical hierarchies, vestments, holy books, and, of course, the systematic theologies, commentaries, councils, and connections, all of that is external, says James, yet in no way less significant for all its wear and tear through the centuries.

But the internal, the deep inwardness that comes when we fall into a reverie waiting for the light to change—that is not to be trifled with nor ignored. “The relation goes direct from heart to heart,” says James, “from soul to soul, between man and his maker.”

We have these holy moments; they drift up like dandelion seeds before us and we might not even see them, focused as we are on the flotsam of our days. Some people just don’t have the knack for religion, says Karen Armstrong. Others can’t live without it. The ones who can’t seem to hit the keys may not get to jam with the others at first, but they can find a riff if they’re willing to practice.

“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” says Rilke. “Every angel is terrifying.” A star is waiting to be noticed, a wave rolls toward us from the past, a violin yields to our hearing as we pass under an open window—all these are intimations of God if we are awake. Will we practice noticing?

“All this was mission,” declares Rilke. “But could you accomplish it?”

This is what grace is about: the courage to notice the common mysteries.

“Truly, we live with mysteries/too marvelous to be understood,” says Mary Oliver.

“. . . Let me keep my distance, always, from those

who think they have the answers.

“Let me keep company, always, with those

who say, “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,

and bow their heads.” (Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes”)

(Elaborated Spontaneity #3)

The Tree Lives On

JoshTree

(Photo: Joy Daquila-Casey)

“I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
How long, how long must we sing this song?
How long, how long?
‘Cos tonight
We can be as one, tonight.” (Sunday Bloody Sunday)

From the first stutter beats of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” from Larry Mullen, Jr., the crowd at FedEx Field rose as one with a roar. He was joined by Adam Clayton, The Edge, and Bono, who tore into the lyrics from a song about the IRA bombing of Armagh that has only deepened in meaning in the decades since.

The first four songs, done on a stage in the shape of a Joshua Tree that extended into the audience, are standards on their concert set list: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).” They were done with gusto, the crowd shouting out each lyric, but with no onstage pyrotechnics except the spotlights. But when the band pulled back to the enormous main stage they turned to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and The Joshua Tree.

Every tour that U2 performs is a spectacular staging of music, media, and art. Along the way, over all these years, their designers have even invented new technologies to create what Bono called “an epic experience” each night.

The set for Joshua Tree is deceptively simple, an enormous backboard of desert tan with the outline of the iconic Joshua Tree from the original photo shoot splayed out and rising above the backdrop. But as the band gets into full swing the whole thing lights up, serving as a photo montage, a video screen, and a live action feed of the band, usually all at once.

It’s breathtaking, especially as we see the band at first silhouetted as black figures against a luminous crimson background, and later as we are at the wheel of a car driving down the yellow stripe of a road through the desert. The backdrop dwarfs the band itself, but we see them in individual closeups throughout the concert.

 

01-u2-joshua-tree-tour.jpg

The Joshua Tree 2017 Tour is a return to the album that gave U2 their first international acclaim back in 1987, sold 20 million units world-wide, garnered them numerous awards, and gave them superstar standing.

Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher was at 10 Downing Street. The world they had made looked pretty grim and U2’s impassioned lyrics and music reflected the dichotomy between America as myth and America as an idea, something that Bono riffed on in this concert. This album was a direct result of U2’s fascination with America as a place of dreams and of bitter reality. All these years later the songs have taken on new meaning in this partisan minefield, this moment in American history that is more conflicted than when the album was born.

For me The Joshua Tree was a spiritual lifesaver. It came out in 1987, just months before my son was born. I was running a small graphics business out of the top floor of the Sligo SDA Church office, working 14 hours a day, and adjunct teaching World Religions at Columbia Union College. After working all day designing and laying out newsletters, magazines, brochures, and flyers, I’d transition to professor mode in the evening. When I’d finish teaching at 9 pm I’d go up to my office and work all night finishing up designs and meeting deadlines. I had a cassette of Unforgettable Fire, U2’s fourth album but the first one I’d bought. When Joshua Tree came out in March 1987 I played it over and over until the tracks were imbedded in my unconscious. The whole album reflected my spiritual restlessness and hope. If I felt like I was “Running to Stand Still” I also knew that “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

On this night U2 served up the whole album, working through each song with alacrity and vigor, each one invested with the sweetness of nostalgia as well as the urgency of the present moment. Finishing with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared,” they waved goodbye to the crowd. But we knew they’d be back.

The encore set of six songs began with “Miss Sarajevo” with the video realigned to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and complete with the soaring verses by Luciano Pavarotti. That was followed by “Beautiful Day,” with Bono exclaiming, “When women of the world unite to rewrite history as her story, that is a beautiful day!”

One of the most poignant moments was during “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” in which a photo montage of women leaders from Rosa Parks to Michelle Obama to Dorothy Haight, Gloria Steinem, Malala, Connie Mudenda, and many others filled the screens.

SriramGopal.jpg

(Photo: Sriram Gopal)

During the intro to “One” Bono called out politicians like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Kay Grainger (R-TX), personal friends of his, and celebrated the fact that 18 million people around the world are surviving AIDS by taking one pill a day paid for by US taxpayers dollars.

The encore and the show finished with “Vertigo,” amidst a spectacular visual display that could have given the faint of heart cardiac arrest.

In 1991 U2 released Achtung Baby, an album that was a decided departure from their previous albums. The band felt they were stagnating and that they “had to go away and dream it all up again.” Bono described their new direction as “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”

All these years later the tree has miraculously survived and we are the better for it.

Elaborated Spontaneity

RoseWhite:sebastian-molina-fotografia-101308

This is the first post in an ongoing experiment in quick writing, usually 500 words or less, on a spiritual theme, in which I play with metaphors, images, and concepts from the Bible. The second one follows, called ‘The Light.’

Imagine an elaborated spontaneity in which we juggle up a new idea, toss it around, look at it in the light, and set it down for a minute. In that short minute we ask ourselves what other ideas could connect here, what memories, what experiences, what chips of light and dark could be struck off in the shaping of it. Then back to the tossing from hand to hand–another way to see how the idea plays in this context and that–does it play or does it work? Does it lead us into paths of imagination for its own sake or does it drag us through the valley of the shadow of the death of hopes?

This is “elaborated spontaneity,” the ability to elongate and stretch and pull and twist a modest idea, almost like we are roping up pasta from scratch into long, fine strands by looping it, flipping it, folding it, twirling it into something delicious, savory, and gifted to others and ourselves, in the moment of creation, more than we thought and less than we touched; a faith that begins as a mustard seed and by chance (maybe by God’s nudge) skitters into good ground, puts up a shoot, shoots up into a shrub, and gathers to it the birds of the air. All this from a simple act of not looking away when our attention is caught like wool on a rose bush.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

(Photo: Sebastian Molina, Unsplash.com)

Elaborated Spontaneity #1