Sunday, June 24, 2007

On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors. Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 6

I have no hermitage in France, nor incense altar in my home or office. I don’t therefore have images of Jesus and Buddha side-by-side as does the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Recently however, a copy of the United Methodist journal for clergy, The Circuit Rider and a copy of Buddhadharma, a Buddhist periodical found themselves side-by-side in my briefcase. Ironically, the New Testament text on the front cover of The Circuit Rider was John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The entire issue is about interpreting that text – and there I have it sitting next to a Buddhist publication! I hope someone else sees this as ironic and funny.

Things Buddhist are found not only in my briefcase, but have been finding their way into my blogs and into my sermons. I had purchased the copy of Buddhadharma to find out a bit more about the death of Maha Ghosananda in March. Ghosananda was sometimes known as “the Cambodian Gandhi” for his work for peace in his country after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge. Ghosananda lost family members to that brutal regime, and was one of only a few Cambodian Buddhist monks to survive its purges. The story is told that early in his work among Cambodian refugees, Ghosananda led a Buddhist gathering by encouraging those gathered to chant a verse from the Dhammapada: “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient truth.” By coincidence, I had recently read in Jack Kornfield’s book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, these words from Ghosananda: “If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice.” Words such as these are powerful when heard in the context of Ghosananda’s life story.

My interest in Buddhism goes a long way back. When I was in junior high school, I had a deep experience of God’s love and care in Jesus. I would have said that I had been born again. But after a few years some of the theology and practice of some of my fellow Christians left me with a sense that I needed to know more and explore more in my spiritual life. In my college years I sought to find out more about the variety of world religions – Buddhism included. I was also interested in literature and found connections between Beat writers whose work I was reading (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg) and Buddhism. I bought a few books on Buddhism, Zen in particular, read some of the work of Alan Watts, and while I found it interesting, it never went much beyond that. Seminary beckoned after college, and my own Christian tradition had rich resources I needed to learn about and learn from. My books on Buddhism traveled with us from place to place, mostly as occasional reference material. Maybe I just couldn’t get into a spiritual tradition in which the first “noble truth” is about pain and suffering. My work and my spiritual life have been immersed in Christian faith.

Every now and again, I would stumble across something that made an intriguing reference to Buddhism. Shortly after the turn of the new century, I read a section of a review Rowan Williams (now Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote about Andrew Shank’s book What is Truth? Williams wrote, “The oppressor needs the Abrahamic religions to be reminded of the imperatives for historical justice; while the heirs of the oppressed need a Buddhist discipline to free them from historical resentment. Two therapies for a truthful memory; these words have immense resonance just now.” Buddhist discipline as a therapy to free persons from resentment – that sounded powerful.

It was last summer, though, when I was teaching at the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission in Minnesota, that I came across references to Buddhism that really grabbed my attention. The topic had to do with war and peace and interfaith dialogue. I was fascinated with discussions I read of Christian perspectives on other faiths – exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, deep pluralism. I particularly enjoyed Marjorie Suchocki’s discussion of her encounters with Buddhism in her book, Divinity and Diversity. I was especially grasped by her discussion of the importance of compassion in The Lotus Sutra. This was not a text with which I was very familiar, and it piqued my curiosity. There were books in my own library on Buddhism I had never read, and I realized that I had never read completely one important text, The Dhammapada. On our vacation, I took along Marcus Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings, a copy of The Dhammapada and E. A. Burt’s Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. Each work spoke deeply to me. I was making connections with parts of my own faith in new ways. I was discovering that Buddhism encourages a kind of letting go that I have heard leadership theorists say is so important for leaders (Edwin Friedman’s idea of being a “nonanxious presence”). So struck was I by some of the connections between a couple of leadership theorists who are Jewish – Edwin Friedman, Ron Heifetz – and some of the material I was encountering in the Buddhist materials I was reading I thought I should write an article entitled “Jewish Buddhism for Christian Leaders.” Who knows, I still may.

Through my reading and exploration, I rediscovered an older text of John Cobb’s. In his book, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Cobb writes: “The fact that Buddhists and Christians can each recognize attractive features in the other’s positions does not guarantee that their achievements are compatible. But it does suggest that each, in interaction with the other, may go through a further transformation” (p. 209). Cobb wonders if something like a “Christianized Buddhism” or a “Buddhized Christianity” is possible and what it might look like. Is that what was beginning to happen in me – a Buddhized Christianity? I am not ready to say that. What I know is that since last summer I find myself moved and inspired by Buddhist teachers like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. This spring I read Kornfield’s The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, and discovered there wells of spiritual depth on which to draw – but I filter it through my Christian faith which is being deepened in this intrapersonal interfaith dialogue. There are a number of places in Christian Scripture where “gentleness” is held up as a work of God’s Spirit (Jesus in the Beatitudes, Paul in his list of the fruits of the Spirit). Jack Kornfield teaches me something more about the meaning of being gentle.

I find myself moved and inspired by Buddhist Scriptures, too. Two texts from my reading of The Dhammapada, among a few others continue to stand out. The refraining from all that is harmful, the undertaking of what is skillful, the cleansing of one’s mind – this is the teaching of the awakened (#183). The person who is harmonious amid the hostile, peaceful amid the violent, free from grasping amid the greedy, that one I call superior (#406). The entire Metta Sutta of the Sutta Nipata touches a remarkably responsive chord. I found after reading it that church consultant Speed Leas had sent me a copy of this in a bundle of stories he sent me after I attended one of his workshops on church conflict. Here are just a couple of lines from this beautiful work. May all beings be happy. May they live in safety and joy…. As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness. Reading these Scriptures is helping me read my Scriptures with new eyes and a deeper appreciation. I am in the beginning weeks of reading through the New Testament in a year, and I will be doing so with the echoes of some of these writings ringing in my heart and mind.

So have I lost my Christian way? I don’t think so. I am reminded of the words of John Calvin. Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2, section 15). I would chose language different from Calvin’s, but I want to be open to truth wherever it may appear, trusting that God’s Spirit is indeed its only fountain.

It is Jesus I continue to call “Lord and Savior.” Jesus is my primary spiritual ancestor, but maybe it is not so bad having the Buddha as a spiritual first cousin once removed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Today is Father’s Day here in the United States. It is also the anniversary of John Wesley’s birthday - two pretty big days for a father who is also a United Methodist clergyperson. I am not going to comment on John’s birthday. I appreciate what Garrison Keillor did with it on his Writer’s Almanac web site (see links).

I have heard from all three of my children today – Sarah who still lives with us, Beth who is in Wisconsin where she attends college, and David who lives in Fargo, North Dakota. It is always nice to hear from them, even if there is really not much new to say. We (my wife Julie, daughter Sarah and I) spent part of the weekend with Beth in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. We left Friday afternoon and returned home last night. We helped her with some things around her apartment, but most of all were just there to enjoy time together. Beth had just found out she was named to first team of the 2007 ESPN the Magazine Women’s At-Large Academic All-American Team. She has been a swimmer at UW-Stevens Point for four years. She has done very well academically and athletically. We celebrated that. We also celebrated Sarah’s strong academic year, and our trip also gave her her first freeway driving experience (she recently received her instructional permit).

Friday night we sat in our daughter’s apartment and watched the movie Erin Brockovich. Watching movies together is a long-standing family tradition. Years ago, Julie and I would reserve Saturday night for a movie night just for the two of us. Friday nights were family fun nights, either a game or a movie. As our children got older, we found them suddenly wanting to watch our movies with us, and that was o.k. Sure, it cut into our couple time, some, but how quickly the time has passed since we all watched a movie together.

Being rather theologically inclined, I couldn’t help but think that there are some Christ-like characteristics in Erin Brockovich, at least as Julia Roberts portrays her in the movie. Well, o.k., some of her vocabulary is a little raw, but she cares passionately about people, is willing to give of herself to help them, and she cares deeply about justice and pursues it against the odds. My guess is more people think of Jesus in Andy Griffith terms – kind and fair and even tempered, possessing an easy smile. The Jesus I know has some of both Andy and Erin. By the way, I enjoyed the movie!

If you have not figured it out by reading some of my blog postings, I enjoy writing thoughtful essays about deep issues of life and the spirit ( a little humor is also a good thing). One can also be touched in the deepest places of life by enjoying the simple pleasures life affords – time spent with family, phone calls from your children on Father’s Day, a good movie. Take time for such things – and for those of you who are fathers I hope you had a great Father’s Day.

P.S. Our trip also gave me some time to read more of Krista Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith. For more about the author and her radio program, check out the Speaking of Faith link on this blog. I have been inviting my congregation, and any others who wish, to join me in reading through the New Testament this year (beginning June 1). For more information about that see my other blog – Bard’s Brushstrokes. Here are some quotes from Krista Tippett that express my own orientation to the Scriptures of my faith.

“All our names for God are metaphor – necessary license, approximation, and analogy. Our sacred texts burn with that knowledge and dare us to us all of our faculties of intelligence and experience and creativity. But we forget this; and our fact- and argument-obsessed culture is deaf to it, blind to it.” (p. 49)

“Dietrich Bonhoeffer described biblical stories as ancient, magical pictures that we need alongside modern technical, conceptual pictures if we are to become wise. (p. 56)

“If I stick with these texts – if I wrestle with them and insist on a blessing – a blessing will come. The only limitation is my time, my powers of imaginative concentration, and my capacity to listen to the interpretations of others.” (p. 60, all of pages 60-74 are worth reading for listening to Ms. Tippett’s interpretations of Scripture)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, June 8, 2007

In 1838, when he was thirty-five years old, Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to give a lecture to the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College. He began his lecture by telling his audience what a thrill it was to be there. “I have reached the middle age of man; yet I believe I am not less glad or sanguine at the meeting of scholars, than when a boy, I first saw the graduates of my own college assembled at their anniversary.” I know the emotion of which Emerson speaks. Recently I had a wonderful opportunity to meet and share time with a person who has become well-known in the area of thought, meaning, ideas, religion. Krista Tippett hosts the National Public Radio program, Speaking of Faith (and has recently published a book by the same title). She gave a speech at the College of St. Scholastica on Sunday May 20, reading from her book and reflecting on it. The next morning I had the unique privilege of being in a small group of about fifteen people who met with Ms. Tippett at Temple Israel here in Duluth. We had conversation together for two hours! What a delight to be able to share such time with someone who has interviewed Martin Marty, Miroslav Volf, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter Elizabeth Sifton, Joan Chittister, Karen Armstrong, Elie Wiesel, and many others.

I picked up a copy of Ms. Tippett’s book, and even got her to sign it. I look forward to reading it sometime soon. However, in her lecture and our conversation, I was drawn to a few wonderful passages that are worth sharing. In one section of her book she contrasts “thin religion” and “thick religion.” “Thin religion lends itself to crisis and violence that make the news…. The complexity, paradox, and gentleness of thick, lived religion can elude the calculus of politics and journalism. But I’m out to investigate thick religion. I’m out to expose virtue.”

In “exposing virtue,” she confronts the problem of language. “Words that connote religious virtue and morality in our culture are freighted by partisan overuse and popular cliché. Love is so watered down as to be practically unusable. Peace smacks of unreality and justice of vengeance and humility of ineffectuality. Compassion sounds noble but obscure and possibly naïve…. Virtue and morality are intriguing and thrilling when seen at work in all their complexity. Kindness – an everyday by-product of all great virtues – is at once the simplest and most weighty discipline human beings can practice. But it is the stuff of moments. It cannot be captured in declarative sentences or conveyed by factual account. It can only be found by looking attentively at ordinary, unsung, endlessly redemptive experience.” It seems to me that living out the rich complexity inadequately connoted by such words as compassion, love, justice, humility and kindness, and also paying attention to ordinary, “endlessly redemptive” experiences is what spiritual disciplines in religious traditions are all about at their best. I think it is what is at the heart of living the Christian faith.

Humility is a word that we struggle with in our culture, and Krista Tippett does an exceptional job of helping to redeem the concept. “From the beginning of my life of listening, I have observed fierce humility as a quality in the lives of people I admire. But deep spiritual humility defies the connotations of self-debasement, of ineffective meekness, that our culture assigns to the word humility and that I too imagined until I dug into the sacred text, lived with my children, and embarked on this odyssey of conversation…. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything new, is closely linked with delight. This original spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder.” That reminds me of words I read a few years ago in Patrick Henry’s The Ironic Christian’s Companion. “Once upon a time the term Christian meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.” As I look in the “thank you section of Henry’s book, I find he thanks one “Krista Weedman Tippett”!

What has happened to Krista Tippett since she began engaging in these lively conversations with others? Here are the final words of her book. “Now my head is full of many voices, elegant, wise, strange, full of dignity and grief and hope and grace. Together we find illuminating and edifying words and send them out to embolden work of clarifying, of healing. We speak because we have questions, not just answers, and our questions cleanse our answers and enliven our world.”

Hearing these words, and reading them again made me appreciate the time I had to listen, with others, to Krista Tippett. These encounters taught me again the inestimable value of intelligent, humane conversation about deep matters of human existence – faith, love, suffering, kindness, hope, thick religion; thoughtful conversation deeply felt. How tragic that in our day of multitudes of media, of words flying through the air in every direction to be picked up by ear, eye, i pod, computer, satellite, television, radio, such conversation is all too rare. What a joy and privilege to be present with one of its skillful practitioners.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, June 4, 2007

I woke up this past Saturday morning with a leg cramp – a Charlie horse in my right calf. I know the pain will be with me for a few days. All this after spending a week at Annual Conference, the yearly meeting that United Methodist ministers and some lay members gather for. We worship together, make policy, pass resolutions and approve a budget for our work together.

My favorite parts of Annual Conference are seeing friends, some of who I only see at this annual event, and worship – especially the ordination service. For the past few years my son (who turns 24 this month) has also attended and I really enjoy having time with him. I serve as the parliamentarian for our conference and like that role, though it means I don’t get the opportunity to speak during debate (though that may not be the worst thing as I will note shortly). This year we elected delegates to the international gathering of United Methodists called General Conference, to be held in Fort Worth in 2008, and I was privileged to be elected. Thank you to those clergy colleagues who made that possible.

As the chair of one conference committee, I did have a chance to make a report, and I tried to begin with a little bit of humor. I read from an old United Methodist document about mission work to Swedes, Norwegians and other foreigners (and in Minnesota we have many of Swedish and Norwegian descent). I wanted to make a point about our need to reach out to whoever is in our neighborhood. Anyway, I said I better not say much about Swedes or Norwegians as then I might have to make a public apology for my remarks. I went too far. There had been an apology for a presentation made earlier in the conference, and at least one person thought I was treating that apology too lightly. I spoke with those who had made the previous apology, and they had not been offended. I also spoke with another clergy colleague who had expressed disappointment in my attempt at humor, and he let me have it – anger – both barrels. I had put myself in that place by my imprudent attempt at humor and had no one to blame by myself. I had created a leg cramp in the body of Christ and needed to hear from my hurting brother.

The Bible is full of wise words about words. “Fools are like leaky faucets, dripping nonsense” (Proverbs 15:2b, The Message). I was learning the truth of this again. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6). The writer of James, who is so articulate about the power of the tongue, in that same chapter also speaks a truth I don’t much like to hear, but know only too well. “For all of us make many mistakes” (3:2). I had made one yet again.

But as my colleague's anger spilled out, its focus moved from my lame attempt at humor to something else. Earlier I had been the point person in explaining a policy of our Board of Ordained Ministry dealing with clergy who had given up their ministerial credentials when accused of sexual misconduct. That was not an easy place to be, but I had been the primary writer of the policy, though by no means the sole source the ideas it contained. In our statement we wrote that we felt it inappropriate for a clergy person who had left ministry under accusations of sexual misconduct to come before the clergy and make a public confession or public statement of apology. Those of us who worked on this policy came to that place with some difficulty, but I think it is where we needed to be. Would it be fair to a person who had been the other party in an incident of sexual misconduct to have the clergy person share their side of the story and ask forgiveness without hearing from the other person involved? Is there too great a risk in victimizing someone who has already been involved in an abuse of power by a clergy person were we to allow that clergy person to make a public apology? Those kind of questions loom large, and so we formulated the policy we formulated.

I realize that disagreement, too, causes pain in the body of Christ. These hard learned lessons are important right now as I prepare to be a part of the United Methodist General Conference in 2008. There will be disagreement, and therefore pain. We, as a part of the body of Christ, will experience leg cramps and headaches and muscle spasms because we will disagree about important issues. Some of this pain is unavoidable, until we are able to reach consensus on difficult issues – and I don’t see that happening within the next year. And while I hate to be the cause of pain for anyone, there will be times when I need to stand on principle and disagree with a sister and brother in Christ. And they will do the same.

How we disagree matters. We can minimize some of the inevitable pain by disagreeing in love rather than rancor. I will continue to work on that. It will also serve me well if I can watch how I try to be funny. Sometimes I need to let the laugh go by so as not to create more pain in the body of Christ. I am working on that as well.

Trying to be more like Jesus than Don Rickles,

With Faith and With Feathers,