Contemplify NonRequired Reading List for September 30, 2019
The September NonRequired Reading List
On a walk back from the park my oldest picked up a stick and dragged it along a neighbor’s fence. The clickety clack of a stick against a fence is a favorite sound of mine. What prompted her to pick up a stick and slide it along a fence line? I imagine that the first fence built by human hands was celebrated shortly after its completion by a neighborhood kid running alongside and scraping it with a stick. Just before my daughter joined in this timeless activity, we had stopped in front of a house with a big picture window facing the street. I saw two empty-nesters eating supper. I had never seen them before, and yet it was my wife and I. The silence of the house was palpable in their movements. I felt the searing void of a house that was once bouncing with the electricity of children laughing and building Lego castles. And I also saw that it contained the intimacy of hands held across the dinner table. Both were true. Suddenly my baby boy squawks in his stroller, my attention returns. I am back in this present moment with a 4 year old and 11-month old. Where had I gone?
The intersection of memory and imagination is a street I play on. My contemplative practice grounds me in the present and encourages this playfulness when I roll off the cushion. It is the exploration of the eternality of the now. It is my version of running a stick along fence. As you’ll read below Thomas Merton walked this theme via a pilgrimage in the American West, my Zen brothers and sisters have helped me own this perspective whether I’m brushing my teeth or laughing at a strange stink in the kitchen sink, and you'll also hear about one young prophet who revealed injustice cloaked in white Christian culture.
This month’s NonRequired Reading List centers around a couple Zen texts and two magazine articles: The Gospel According to Zen, Zen and the Comic Spirit, Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group, and On the Road with Thomas Merton.
September's NonRequired Reading List...
On the Road with Thomas Merton by Fred Bahnson / Film by Jeremy Seifer (Read and Watch at Emergence Magazine)
This article spans deep time; capturing the pilgrimages of Thomas Merton’s across the American West in 1968 and author Fred Bahnson’s identical journey fifty years later. A braided story line of pilgrimage, longing, monastic history, mysticism, and the fruits of lives devoted to silence and solitude. Bahnson states early on,
"What am I seeking? Here at the beginning of my journey following Merton’s steps, I wonder why, even in the midst of a flourishing family life, I still feel pulled toward silence and solitude, or why I can’t seem to shake this spiritual restlessness that has driven me most of my life, a propulsive desire to seek out the horizon. I feel those same yearnings in Merton’s writings. But my connection to him goes deeper still."
You will feel this article more than read it. Many times while reading this, I could taste the Belgian beer, rub my hands against the granddad redwoods towering overhead, or hear the cadence of a monk’s animated story. They are all beats of a contemplative heart striving for the poetic eye to describe it accurately.
“Perhaps this is our place of resurrection, not a fixed point but a longing, a portable question endlessly posed and endlessly answered whenever we go in search of God. A tectonic convergence of our desire for God and God’s desire for us, all of it mediated through that fickle, insatiable organ of perception that will travel to the ends of the earth to find what it craves, though it needn’t travel further than the next breath: the human heart.”
We are in climate crisis here on Earth. We have billionaires racing to Mars. In the U.S. we have healing work to do in relationship to the colonization of the land and the enslavement of people. We are a distracted populace being entertained to death, disconnected from our bodies, our stories, and our hearts.
"This is the work: to take these feelings of loneliness and exile and bring them into the furnace of the heart, where emotional abandonment becomes mystical abandonment."
Read this article. Bookmark it for another read down the line. This piece is for all those who agree with Karl Rahner who once said, ‘The Christian of the future will either be a mystic or cease to exist.’
The Gospel According to Zen: Beyond the Death of God edited by Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr (Get it at the Public Library or Better World Books)
This curious little book holds a mighty collection of thinkers, practitioners, and teachers from the Zen tradition (and a few non-Zen ones too). The directness of communication hidden within the smoke of Zen stories always keeps me at the edge of my meditation cushion. The commanding playfulness of Zen for a theologically spent Christian is this - practice makes practice, and practice reveals you. And that practice is preferred over any prescribed system,
“If I follow a particular method of knowing myself, then I shall have the result which that system necessitates; but the result will obviously not be the understanding of myself...we would rather pursue a system which assures us of a result." (p.101-2)
The middle way keeps you from being a pompous ass. I’m not saying you are one, but that egoic temptation for speaking in certitudes is how it begins (I fell into that pool of pomposity this morning!). Zen buys that nonsense a drink and reminds us that “spirituality needs a beer and a loud burp, just as sensuality needs a bed on the hard ground, a rough blanket, and a long look at the utterly improbable stars.” (p.114)
The Gospel According to Zen is for those who want a smattering of Zen appetizers without committing to one style, one author, or even to Zen itself.
Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group by Andre Henry (Read it at Medium)
I’ll be the first to admit that I never thought I’d be recommending a piece about Relevant Media Group here. I know of Relevant magazine because I’ve stumbled across a few articles that focused on musicians I admire who openly shake hands with spirituality.
When this landed in my inbox (hat tip to Brandon), I read to the end with intrigue, recognition, and a whole lot of head-shaking. Former Managing Editor Andre Henry had the experience of being quietly sidelined by the ‘Publisher-Founder-CEO Cameron Strang’ because he was bringing articles about race to the forefront for ‘Black History Month’. Publisher-Founder-CEO Strang wanted to ‘stay above the fray’. Henry writes,
"In my experience, white evangelical organizations (including megachurches) suffer from the same unity fetish as the rest of America. They often employ centrist rhetoric about the alleged virtues of playing the middle. Those in historically persecuted groups have no middle to speak of. There are people fighting for black freedom, and those who are fighting against it. Those who are staying “above the fray” are like someone patting themselves on the back for doing nothing to stop a lynching. Only one side of the fray appreciates this lack of moral courage, which raises the question, which side is RELEVANT playing to?"
This is what happens when the Gospel is not eaten properly and digested fully. It becomes relevant (bad pun sorta intended) to systems that seek power, fame, and fortune. In systems of dominion, the poetic and the prophetic are exchanged for weak cultural cache that will disappear right alongside avocado-flavored vape pens. I’m not intending to rag on Relevant, they are swimming in the white waters of supremacy in Christianity...just like me. Getting my head out of the white water to gasp for the oxygen of reality takes work. And once started, my awareness only blossoms with the aid of Zen-like attention and reflection on how my experiences as a straight white man compare to those on the margins. My hope is that Relevant kindles the examined life and charts a different course that challenges their current readers and seeks out a readership that is typically marginalized by amplifying their voices. A deep bow to Andre Henry for having the courage to write this article and to do so with prophetic precision.
This article is for all white Christians.
Zen and the Comic Spirit by M. Conrad Hyers (Get it at the Public Library or IndieBound)
Now this is a book that lives up to its name. In Zen, humor is a teacher that can cut to the funny bone of enlightenment. There are the holy fools like the Zen poet Hanshan (more on him in a future NonRequired Reading) or stories of Zen teachers laughing at their student's questions as signal of a false start,
"Getting the point of a joke, or seeing things in a comic perspective, like getting the ‘point’ of Zen, is something that cannot be reached either in strictly rationalist or empiricist terms, while smiling or laughing is a sign that one has moved beyond a mere discursive comprehension to a genuine understanding." (p. 157)
Zen and the Comic Spirit sounds lightweight but it surprises and delights with its scholarly tone. The study of humor as an authentic spiritual pathway is favorable in times like these when the religious are not known for their wit. The book ends with stunning epigraph which in my opinion is the only appropriate way for a retreat to end,
“A contemporary Ch'an master, Hsüan-hua, thus concluded his talk at the end of a sesshin, or week of intensive meditation: “Now we have finished. Everyone stand and we will bow to the Buddha three times to thank him. We thank him because, even if we did not have a great enlightenment, we had a small enlightenment. And if we did not have a small enlightenment, at least we didn't get sick. Well, if we got sick, at least we didn't die. So let's thank the Buddha.”
Zen and the Comic Spirit is for the spiritually humorous who are serious about a playful path. My conversations with Zen tend to have a lightness and merry-making that Christianity could benefit from.
Arts and Articles
The Weight | Featuring Robbie Robertson | Playing For Change | Song Around The World (YouTube): In my humble opinion this is the greatest rock and roll song being played by musicians around the world at the exact same time.
‘18 Transgender Killings This Year Raise Fears of an ‘Epidemic’’ by Rick Rojas and Vanessa Swales (NYT): Lord have mercy. How the most marginalized people are being treated is a telling indication of the state of our culture’s collective soul.
‘The New Spiritual Consumerism’ by Amanda Hess (NYT): A thoughtful addition to the conversation about the growing skin-deep commodification of spirituality.
(many more recorded are coming down the pike soon!)
The 5 episodes of the series titled ‘Of the Invisible’, conversations with poets on their craft and contemplation.
Words to ponder before you go...
“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” Merton asked. “This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.” To update Merton’s question: What can we gain by fixing climate change or ending poverty or terraforming Mars if we remain alienated from ourselves? How to cross that abyss?” (from ‘On the Road with Thomas Merton’)
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