Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas 2017 – Reflections and Celebrations

It's Christmas Day here in Minnesota . . . the coldest Christmas Day since 1996, in fact!

Yet despite the cold I know much warmth in my life . . . in the form of love and friendship. Indeed, although I miss spending this special time of year with my family and friends in Australia, I feel very fortunate to have many wonderful friends, and a special someone, here in the U.S. with whom I'm able to celebrate all that the Christmas season signifies.

I share this evening a few images of some of the celebrations I've been part of, starting with my Winter Solstice Eve party of December 20 and continuing through my Solstice/Christmas gathering of December 22, Christmas Eve, and today, Christmas Day. These images are accompanied by my favorite reflections on the meaning and significance of Christmas.

I also take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy Christmas and all the best for 2018.

The eternal Christ Mystery began with the Big Bang where God decided to materialize as the universe. Henceforth, the material and the spiritual have always co-existed, just as Genesis 1:1-2 seems to be saying. Although this Christ existed long before Jesus, and is coterminous with creation itself, Christians seem to think Christ is Jesus' last name. What Jesus allows us to imagine – because we see it in him – is that the divine and the human are forever one. God did not just take on one human nature, although that is where we could first risk imagining it in the body of Jesus. God took on all human nature and said "yes" to it forever! In varying degrees and with infinite qualities, God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation. To allow such a momentous truth, to fully believe it, to enjoy it in practical ways, to suffer it with and for others – this is what it means to be a Christian! Nothing less will do now. Nothing less will save the world.

Richard Rohr, OFM
Daily Meditation
December 18, 2014.

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.

But because He cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
His place is with those others,
for whom there is no room,
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power
because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated,
with those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.

He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing
but the world at its worst.
. . . It is in these that He hides Himself,
for whom there is no room.

Above: A Winter Solstice Eve gathering – Wednesday, December 20, 2017. From left: Jeffrey, Pete, Omar, my boyfriend Brent, me, and Jim.

Above: Jeffrey and Pete on the eve of Winter Solstice 2017.

Solstice means "sun stands still," as if the warmth and radiance of life itself hangs in the balance at critical points in the course of planetary existence. When the world becomes darker, the inner light of the soul becomes more important. The light we discover in our own depths is a speck of the original star, a spark of life that connects us to each other and to the Soul of the World.

On the evening of Friday, December 22 I hosted a Winter Solstice/Christmas party.

Pictured above is my dear friend Kathleen, sharing her beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish Christmas carol known as The Wexford Carol.

Right: With my boyfriend Brent.

Above: My friend John, helping get the fire going! It was the first time I'd used the fireplace since moving into the house I'm now in (from the house next door!) last summer.

Above: With my friends Omar and Kathleen – December 22, 2017.

Above: Friends Kathy, David, Hugh, and John – December 22, 2017.

Left: Omar, John, and Brent.

Above: Matt, Omar, John, Brent, and George.

Right: Kathleen and Joan. You may recall that my friend Joan accompanied me on a visit back to Australia in 2015.

Above: Omar and Brent – December 22, 2017.

The holidays are a time of spiritual preparation, if we allow them to be. We’re preparing for the birth of our possible selves, the event with which we have been psychologically pregnant all our lives. And the labor doesn’t happen in our fancy places; there is never “room in the inn,” or room in the intellect, for the birth of our authentic selves. That happens in the manger of our most humble places, with lots of angels, i.e. thoughts of God, all around.

Something happens in that quiet place, where we’re simply alone and listening to nothing but our hearts. It’s not loneliness, that aloneness. It’s rather the solitude of the soul, where we are grounded more deeply in our own internal depths. Then, having connected more deeply to God, we’re able to connect more deeply with each other. Our connection to the divine unlocks our connection to the universe.

According to the mystical tradition, Christ is born into the world through each of us. As we open our hearts, he is born into the world. As we choose to forgive, he is born into the world. As we rise to the occasion, he is born into the world. As we make our hearts true conduits for love, and our minds true conduits for higher thoughts, then absolutely a divine birth takes place. Who we’re capable of being emerges into the world, and weaknesses of the former self begin to fade. Thus are the spiritual mysteries of the universe, the constant process of dying to who we used to be as we actualize our divine potential.

. . . [T]his is the season when we consider the possibility that we could achieve a higher state of consciousness, not just sometimes but all the time. We consider that there has been one – and the mystical tradition says there have also been others – who so embodied his own divine spark that he is now as an elder brother to us, assigned the task of helping the rest of us do the same. [He] doesn’t have anything we don’t have; he simply doesn’t have anything else. He is in a state that is still potential in the rest of us. The image of Jesus has been so perverted, so twisted by institutions claiming to represent him. As it’s stated in [the book] The Course of Miracles, “Some bitter idols have been made of him who came only to be brother to the world.” But beyond the mythmaking, doctrine and dogma, he is a magnificent spiritual force. And one doesn’t have to be Christian to appreciate that fact, or to fall on our knees with praise and thanks at the realization of its meaning. Jesus gives to Christmas its spiritual intensity, hidden behind the ego’s lure into all the wild and cacophonous sounds of the season. Beyond the nativity scenes, beyond the doctrinal hoopla, lies one important thing: the hope that we might yet become, while still on this earth, who we truly are.

Then we, and the entire world, will know peace.

Marianne Williamson
Excerpted from "Christmas for Mystics"
The Huffington Post
December 14, 2012

On the evening of Saturday, December 23, my good friends John and Noelle invited Brent and I to be part of their family's annual Christmas tree decorating ritual.

Brent (above) and John (below) helping little Amelia decorate the tree.

Above: Noelle and her granddaughter Amelia – December 23, 2017.

Left: Noelle and John's daughter Alicia and her husband Scott (little Amelia's aunt and uncle).

Above: Uncle Scott and Amelia decorating the tree.

Above and below: John and Scott putting the Christmas Angel atop the tree – December 23, 2017.

As a Quaker who believes that “there is that of God in everyone,” I know I’m called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, I’m asked to embody my values and beliefs, my identity and integrity, to allow good words to take flesh in me. Constrained by fear, I often fall short – yet I still aspire to incarnate words of life, however imperfectly.

Christmas is a reminder that I’m invited to be born again and again in the shape of my God-given self, born in all the vulnerability of the Christmas story. It’s a story that’s hard to retrieve in a culture that commercializes this holy day nearly to death, and in churches more drawn to triumphalism and ecclesiastical bling than to the riskiness of the real thing. But the story’s simple meaning is clear to “beginner’s mind,” a mind I long to reclaim at age seventy-five.

An infant in a manger is as vulnerable as we get. What an infant needs is not theological debate but nurturing. The same is true of all the good words seeded in our souls that cry out to become embodied in this broken world. If these vulnerable but powerful parts of ourselves are to find the courage to take on flesh – to suffer yet survive and thrive, transforming our lives along with the life of the world – they need the shelter of unconditional love.

For those of us who celebrate Christmas, the best gift we can others — whatever their faith or philosophy may be – is a simple question asked with heartfelt intent: What good words wait to be born in us, and how can we love one another in ways that midwife their incarnation?

Parker Palmer
Excerpted from "The Risk of Incarnation"
On Being
December 24, 2014

Above: With Brent – Saturday, December 23, 2017.

Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.
Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
Let us be aware of the source of being,
common to us all and to all living things.
Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,
let us fill our hearts with our own compassion –
towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be
the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,
and of the sufferings that are going on around us,
let us practice the establishment of peace
in our hearts and on earth.

Above: Christmas Eve lunch with my dear friends Carol and Ken.

At Christmas, time deepens. The Celtic imagination knew that time is eternity in disguise. They embraced the day as a sacred space. Christmas reminds us to glory in the simplicity and wonder of one day; it unveils the extraordinary that our hurried lives conceal and neglect.

We have been given such immense possibilities. We desperately need to make clearances in our entangled lives to let our souls breathe. We must take care of ourselves and especially of our suffering brothers and sisters.

John O'Donohue
Excerpted from the unpublished collection of John O'Donohue

The Christmas story is about learning how to be human, about kneeling before a newborn infant who is helpless, vulnerable, despised and poor. It is about inverting the world’s values. It is about understanding that the religious life – and this life can be lived with or without a religious creed – calls on us to protect and nurture the least among us, those demonized and rejected.

. . . The story of Christmas – like the story of the crucifixion, in which Jesus is abandoned by his disciples, attacked by the mob, condemned to death by the state, placed on death row and executed – is not written for the oppressors. It is written for the oppressed. And what is quaint and picturesque to those who live in privilege is visceral and empowering to those the world condemns.

Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He lived under Roman occupation. The Romans were white. Jesus was a person of color. And the Romans, who peddled their own version of white supremacy, nailed people of color to crosses almost as often as we finish them off with lethal injections, gun them down in the streets or lock them up in cages. The Romans killed Jesus as an insurrectionist, a revolutionary. They feared the radicalism of the Christian Gospel. And they were right to fear it. The Roman state saw Jesus the way the American state saw Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Then, like now, prophets were killed.

The radicalism of the Christian Gospel would be muted, distorted and denied by the institutional church once it came to power in the third century. It would be perverted by court theologians, church leaders and, in the 20th century, fascists. It would be mangled by the heretics in the Christian right to sanctify the worst aspects of American imperialism and capitalism. The Bible unequivocally condemns the powerful. It is not a self-help manual to become rich. It does not bless America or any other nation. It was written for the powerless, for those the theologian James Cone calls the crucified of the earth. It was written to give a voice to, and affirm the dignity of, those being crushed by malignant power and empire.

Chris Hedges
Excerpted from "What Christmas Means"
December 24, 2017

On Christmas Eve my friends Matt and Joan (right) hosted a lovely dinner at their Mendota Heights home.

Pictured above from left: Tykia, John, George, Ian, Matt, Zach, Kimaria, Joan, Ben, Kelly, and Avery.

Above: Tykia beside Matt and Joan's beautiful Christmas tree.

Above: Tykia, Ian, John, and George.

Above: With Joan – Christmas Eve 2017.

Christmas is where Christianity begins, and, as Søren Kierkegaard observes, it is rife with the strange and unexpected. Optimally, then, it should serve Christians as a time to mine tradition and practice not for their most tired applications, but for those that are unexpected and those that lead us in our pursuit of the unexpected.

There is, after all, something revolutionary in Christianity – a tendency to upend, reverse, and radically transform. In Mary’s Magnificat, the song of praise she offers at her meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant [. . .] He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This list of upsets issues from the mouth of a peasant girl who has been promoted to an almost unimaginable status. That the radical reversals of Christmas are enumerated to us by a young woman of no particular social standing is itself an incredible bit of turnabout.

The revolutionary character of Christianity is usually washed out and mostly confined to specific political moments when it’s useful to refer to it. But this selectivity, too, should be upended. Christianity is at all times concerned with the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most oppressed; it is permanently interested in reversing this order, in aiming at and accomplishing the unexpected. Christmas, the moment when time is invaded by eternity, is the moment when the reversal of all oppression becomes not possible but necessary. The unlikeliest upsets of order become, in the moment of Christmas, the beginning of Christianity itself, and remain essential to its character.

There is no Christianity, therefore, that is not revolutionary. It is possible to construe Christmas as another one of those soothingly cozy Christian celebrations, but it is more accurate to construe it as a call to revolution. From this moment on, nothing of the old order can be left intact: Christ has come to uplift the poor and bruised, and his example is Christianity’s command.

– Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig
Excerpted from "An Unexpected Revolution"
Democratic Socialists of America
December 24, 2014

Above: My friend Phil (with Gordie) – Christmas Day 2017.

Right: Noelle and Ben.

Above: A Christmas game of chess!

Christ's birth reminds us of the eternally new beginnings God offers to humanity. The grand irony is that we do not have to travel far to discover the Light that animated the Magi's quest. We have only to embrace our highest Selves, and realize humanity and divinity have never been separated. This is the cosmic truth heralded by Jesus of Nazareth's physical manifestation – we are all divine expressions of humanity; capable of being vessels full of grace, truth, love, joy, and peace.

May we allow the Incarnation to illumine our minds, and awaken to the reality of the marvelous presence of God in all things.

Phillip Clark
via Facebook
December 25, 2016

Christmas can help us readjust, help us see the Divine more transparently in life, in places where we would least expect. A barn, for example, a baby. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is a call, our belief in it a commitment, to seek awareness of the Divine free of the impediments of culture, class or even catechism. That process calls for a degree of openness most of us rarely embrace or even know as possible. Yet I have a feeling the Divine is so imminent, so within the essence of things, that it is only a matter of learned blindness that keeps us from seeing. It is not something natural to us to be so dense. We can do better. We can break through.

– Angie O'Gorman
Excerpted from "The Divine is Greater Than Our Dogmas"
National Catholic Reporter
December 23, 2011

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Christmas 2016: Reflections and Celebrations
Christmas 2015: Reflections and Celebrations
Christmas 2014: Reflections and Celebrations
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
Christmastide Approaches
No Room for Them
The Christmas Tree as Icon, Inviting Us to Contemplate the "One Holy Circle" of Both Dark and Light
Quote of the Day – December 1, 2014
Something to Cherish (2012)
A Christmas Message of Hope . . . from Uganda (2011)
Quote of the Day – December 26, 2010
Christmas in Australia (2010)
John Dear on Celebrating the Birth of the Nonviolent Jesus
A Bush Christmas (2009)
A Story of Searching and Discovery
The Christmas Truce of 1914
Clarity and Hope: A Christmas Reflection (2007)
An Australian Christmas (2006)
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll

Images: Michael J. Bayly and friends.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

No Room for Them

Writes Pastor Bror Erickson of Zion Lutheran Church, Farmington, New Mexico about the above illustration:

In 2014, the graphic novelist, Everett Patterson, of Portland Oregon decided to do a Christmas card in the vein of the graphic novel pioneer Will Eisner, "who so often depicted, with religious reverence, noble individuals enduring the many minor discomforts and petty indignities of urban America."

The result was a very untraditional nativity scene, perhaps on first blush, looking almost blasphemous, but more accurately depicting the true nature of the story than the typical nativity scene nowadays. The true story just wasn't as nice as we make it out to be in children's Christmas pageants.

In his Gospel, Luke hints at the indignities suffered by the Holy Family when he writes that there was "no room for them in the inn." Despite the twisting and hoop jumping of modern scholars who want to say that the inn was the last place Mary and Joseph would like to be, and that the grotto with the barn animals was preferred, the text itself indicates otherwise. Luke would not have mentioned the inn, if that weren't the preferred place to be. But the text doesn't say there was no room. The text says there was no room for them. And this is the cause for a little head scratching. How is it that Joseph can't find hospitable lodging for him and his pregnant wife in his home town? No uncles, or brothers? Why should he have to knock on the door of the inn in the first place? And do we really think the whole country side was so anxious to pay their taxes that the small inconsequential town a half an hour walk away from Jerusalem had absolutely no vacancies? Why would not one of these Middle Easterners so famed for their hospitality allow the young family to share quarters?

The answer is consequences. A whole village intent on making sure there were consequences for the improprieties of this young woman. Joseph taking her in rather than divorcing her or having her stoned was not doing "the right thing" according to these people. His response was corrosive to the moral fabric of the whole nation by sparing this young woman the consequences of her (apparent) actions. So there would be no room for them in the inn, lest their own daughters should be given wild ideas.

It would be just the beginning of the indignities Jesus would suffer, [. . .] indignities that would culminate in crucifixion. And that is what Everette depicts for us with this wildly popular scene full of hidden innuendos. (Look all over the picture to find details from the Nativity story in Luke's Gospel. How many can you find?) A modern-day Joseph and Mary, using the last pay phone in town, trying to find shelter across the street from the sort of motel that conjures images of Jesse Pinkman getting a root beer for Wendy from jailed vending machines. It's a dark world and the only hope is the shoot from Jesse's stem breaking through the concrete. A shoot that thirty some years later would be a tree bearing the fruit of life so that all of us would escape the consequences of our own indignities shared in failing to see Christ himself in the least of these.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something to Think About – December 25, 2016
Something to Think About – December 25, 2012
Christmastide Approaches

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Out and About – Autumn 2017

Well, the winter solstice has been and gone. . . . Time, then, to take a look back on the autumn that has ever-so-recently ended.

But first, regular readers will be familiar with my "Out and About" series, one that I began in April 2007 as a way of documenting my life as an “out” gay man, seeking to be all “about” the Spirit-inspired work of embodying God’s justice and compassion in the world. I've continued the series in one form or another for the last 10 years – in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 . . . and now well into 2017.

So let's get started with this latest installment . . .

The big change or, perhaps better still, development that I initiated and continue to participate in is one that began at the end of August when I commenced a year-long chaplain residency at Abbott Northwestern Hospital (ANW) in Minneapolis. In the photo above I'm pictured with my fellow resident chaplains Katie, Hae and Chandler, and our supervisor Mark (center).

Four months into it, my chaplaincy work at ANW continues to be both a challenging and rewarding experience, and one through which I continue to learn what it means to embody the presence of the Sacred, and thus be a listening and healing presence for others.

What exactly is meant by this term "healing presence"? James Miller and Susan Cutshall describe it well in their book, The Art of Being a Healing Presence.

Healing presence is the condition of being consciously and compassionately in the present moment with another or with others, believing in and affirming their potential for wholeness, wherever they are in life.

Since starting my chaplain residency I've been getting some very positive and helpful feedback from my peers. Chandler, for instance shared the following in our CPE Level 1 evaluation.

Michael brings many strengths to his work. He has done a really admirable job of integrating his impressive intellectual gifts with his emotional sensitivity and charismatic charm. One is truly pressed to find the seams in his embodied theology of the sensual. It's been a delight to spend time getting to know such a mature and deeply thoughtful man.

While Katie shared the following.

Michael has a quiet and grounded confidence in his sense of self and his spirituality. This confidence lends to a calm centeredness in his interaction with others – a beautiful gift for ministry. Michael can be both delightfully irreverent and also keenly attuned to the sacred spaces all around us. Both of these modes are authentic and true.

Above: The wonderful group of chaplain interns we had at ANW from the beginning of September until mid December. From left: Simeon, Verna, Yvette, Angela, and Parker. They're going to be missed for sure. A new group of interns start at the end of January.

Above: Members of the Spiritual Care Department at ANW, including staff chaplains, residents, and interns – December 11, 2017.

For more about my interfaith chaplaincy work, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
Interfaith Chaplaincy: Meeting People Where They're At
Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Welcome
Spirituality and the Healthcare Setting
Getting Into the Holiday Spirit

Above: With my dear friend Mary Beckfeld on the evening of the autumnal equinox, Friday, September 22, when I was honored to be one of five recipients of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform's 2017 Adsum Award.

"Adsum" is a Latin word which means "I am present and listening." Whenever the participants in Vatican II were gathered at St. Peter's Basilica their traditional prayer was the exclamation: Adsumus – "we are present and listening." CCCR's Adsum Award recognizes individuals who have made an "extraordinary commitment to be present and attentive to the Spirit, to be partners in re-creating the face of the church here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis."

This year's awards were presented at a special dinner hosted by CCCR and the Council of the Baptized at St. Joan of Arc Church. The other 2017 Adsum Award recipients were Bernie and Eileen Rodel, Ed Walsh, and Jim Moudry.

For more about this evening and the history of CCCR, click here.

Celebrating my 52nd birthday with my friends Joan above and Pete (right) – October 23, 2017.

For more birthday celebrations pics and my reflections on turning 52, see the The Wild Reed post, On This Echoing Day of My Birth.

Above: With friends to watch the season three finale of Poldark – Sunday, November 19, 2017. From left: Me, Raul, my boyfriend Brent, Pete, Jeffrey, Kathy, John, Jim, and James.

Left: With my friend LeMonte, who was visiting the Twin Cities from Florida on the weekend of November 18-19.

Throughout season three of Poldark I hosted a "Poldark party" at my home every Sunday night! For more images of these gatherings and to learn about Poldark, click here.

Above and below: My friend Alfredo's October 28 Halloween-themed party. Alfredo's pictured above, second from the left, dressed as Friar Little Bitch.

Right: With my boyfriend Brent at Alfredo's party. Brent's dressed as a Starfleet officer.

Above: Brent and members of his family, celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday – November 23, 2017.

Above and below: The passing of autumn and the return of winter.

Autumn 2017 Wild Reed posts of note:
A Time of Transformation
The Price I Pay
Progressive Perspectives on Colin Kaepernick and the "Take A Knee" Movement
St. Michael, "Wave Maker"
The Catalan Firefighters: Listeners of the "Discerning Voice" Within . . .
A Great Honor
Michael Greyeyes' "Role of a Lifetime"
Catholics Recognize and Celebrate the Truth of Transgender People: “Their Quest for Authenticity Is a Quest for Holiness"
Autumn by the Creek
On This "Echoing Day" of My Birth
Beloved and Antlered
Buffy Sainte-Marie, "One of the Best Performers Out Touring Today"
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Autumn Snow
The Music of Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Uprooting the Sources of Disenfranchisement"
Saying "Yes" to Marriage Equality in Australia
Phillip Clark on the "Karmic Wake Up Call" of a Year Ago
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Things Do Change and Things Do Get Better"
Thomas Moore on the "Ageless Soul"
In Australia, "Love Has Had a Landslide Victory"
What a Man! – Connor Beaton
Four Balanced Perspectives on the Wave of “Sexual Misconduct” Accusations Against Influential Men in the U.S.
Celebrating Poldark
With Republicans at the Helm, It's the United States of Hypocrisy
Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Welcome
A Timely Reminder
Happy Birthday, Mum!
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Getting Into the Holiday Spirit
Quote of the Day – December 19, 2017
One Divine Hammer

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Out and About – Summer 2017
Out and About – Spring 2017
Out and About – Winter 2016-2017
Out and About – Autumn 2016

Images: Michael J. Bayly.