Eradicating Endlessly

The text of this sonnet can be seen at the end of this reflection.

A reader expressed some discomfort with this sonnet for two reasons.  I realize that many if not most readers could have the same discomfort, so I will address it as a way to reflect on what usefulness I see in this poem.  Before I do, though, I suggest you take two minutes to watch the video.

Their discomfort: On the one hand, wine and chocolate are not problems to them.  On the other hand, guilt and shame are serious problems and this poem pushed those buttons.

The sonnet says,

he binged on wine and sinful chocolate cake,
helpless, possessed by fleshly appetite,
his one concern, the shape his flesh would take.

I realize that wine is not harmful for everyone and that chocolate cake may be “sinfully good” without being sinful in any other way.  They happen to be problems for the character in the sonnet, but readers should interpret them merely as symbols of whatever similar substances, activities or thoughts have the same effect for them.

What is it in your life that hooks you and makes you think, say or do something that you know is not good for you?  What makes you feel helplessly possessed by desire to some degree, however small?  What swings your focus onto your ego or surface self?  What makes you overly concerned about your appearance or any other superficial means toward feeling worthy of approval in others’ eyes or your own?

The last line talks about dirt, and that’s one of the jokes in this poem.  You can see in the video that I am treating lightly and humorously this heavy and important spiritual topic.  The poem is about the dirty little secrets we all have, the weaknesses, flaws and foibles we would rather hide.  It is about throwing open the curtains and windows and letting light and fresh air get in to expose the dirt for what it is and then transform it.

The usefulness of the poem is exactly the opposite of making us feel guilt and shame.  A good organic gardener will have weeds that need to be pulled.  That is part of the job—dealing with a natural occurrence that is not bad, not sinful, not anything to feel guilty or ashamed about, but something that is counterproductive to a garden’s beautiful fruitfulness.

Every once in a while the weeds will get ahead of the gardener.  That’s life.  Again, it’s not an occasion for guilt or shame, but for understanding and compassion and, yes, if possible, a sense of humor.

Coleman Barks’ translation of the Rumi poem entitled “The Guest House” captures this delightfully.  It ends:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Click here to read the entire short poem.  If you don’t know it, I highly recommend it.  It’s a treasure!)

So where is the “guide from beyond” in the sonnet, “Eradicating Endlessly,” leading us?

To have humility and accept the dirt and the unhealthy, unwanted plants that naturally keep sprouting in our very human humus.

And then to get down on our knees and pull more root.

It’s just part of the job of being a gardener, tending the growth of our true self, clearing the way for the Spirit so that we can fulfill our calling and use our gifts and our entire life to bear the fruit the universe needs of us.

The Greek word “kenosis” is what we call self-emptying in the Christian spiritual tradition.  The concept is not exclusively or originally Christian—it is at the core of every contemplative path, every form of meditation, every process of seeking the oneness that is the most mature stage and state of human development.

If you want to grow horticulturally, you will need to practice weed-control; if you want to grow spiritually, you will need to practice self-emptying.

It will be a struggle sometimes, but as Swahili wisdom puts it, “celebrate the struggle!”  You might as well greet the weeds laughing as they sprout in your soul.

You will probably reach your goal sooner if you can do it from a place of humor and compassion rather than guilt and shame.  You will probably get more skillful more quickly at eradicating the dirty-secret thought-roots before they become action-fruits if you are not also having to eradicate the more pernicious ego-weeds that stem from taking yourself too seriously or pridefully.

I hope this sonnet will help you remember to do your work cheerfully, or at least to do your work!  And I hope you will find it useful to remember that you are not alone in that garden.  We’re on our knees right alongside you, day in and day out, and will be forever, celebrating the struggle.  Happy eradicating!

Eradicating Endlessly

He meant to write about a sick plant’s death,
and how he pulled its roots up from the pot,
and how the hole it left inhaled fresh breath
and gained new life, refilled with rich, dark rot.
He thought to symbolize his ego’s rout,
how he effected its eradication
and nurtured his true self—aversion, doubt,
attachment, gone! A fertile, new creation!
He would have written that, except last night
he binged on wine and sinful chocolate cake,
helpless, possessed by fleshly appetite,
his one concern, the shape his flesh would take.
His worst self sprouts another fat, pale shoot.
His hand sinks back in dirt to pull more root.

copyright 2021 Thomas Cary Kinder

The End of Advent: Bearing the Light of Love

Everyone can feel joy at Christmas no matter what their spiritual path because we celebrate the birth of a human who attained the highest stage and state of human consciousness, who embodied the oneness with all creation, the universal compassion and love of neighbor that flow from a fully evolved and mature heart and mind.

He saw from his advanced consciousness that anyone could attain this maturity, that humanity could someday get there as a whole and society be characterized by oneness, compassion and love.  He called it the realm of God on earth, life in harmony with the spirit of the universe, and he said we were close to getting there.

The reason everyone can feel joy during Advent is that it prepares us to have that same heart and mind.  This is the advent we are seeking and now we are two thousand years closer.

That enlightened human urged us to undertake the journey, and he taught us how.   .

The future of human civilization and all living beings depends on this shift to a new sustainable, just and harmonious life on earth happening as quickly as possible.  We will not survive long without attaining this new consciousness.

That is why Advent and Christmas are such gifts, because if we immerse ourselves in the spiritual journey they map out it will lead to our transformation and the transformation of the world.

Below are three reflections and sonnets for the final days of Advent leading up to Christmas.  I hope they help you on your journey and help you undergo the next transformation the Spirit needs you to make.  I hope they increase the love and light you shine to transform the world around you.

 

 

The Buddhist philosopher Ken Wilber says that one of the things that helps us on the journey toward the most mature level of consciousness is simply knowing that it is there to be attained, and that we are created and called to strive for it. No matter what our age or situation in life, we can move toward it, and it is one of the most important things that we can do for the world.

Madeleine L’Engle, the author of Wrinkle in Time and sixty other books, wrote a profoundly wise one entitled Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. In the passage below she talks about Mary the mother of Jesus as a model for how artists respond to their calling, but I encourage you to broaden the meaning to be about any person with any calling—including the important tasks life is asking of you now.  Understand that when this passage says artist it means you, whatever your gifts may be:

“The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command….

“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary….

“What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel? She was free to do so. But she said, Yes….

“Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding…there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing—knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.” (pp 18 ff)

Believe There Can Be Fulfillment

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:45

“Blessing always comes from trusting that God’s Word will be fulfilled.” Alan Culpepper in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on this verse

We each are born with our own Mary womb.
We all have gifts that come down from above,
or up from deep within—our Golden Room,
our greatest height and depth, our source of love
and life and light within our spirit’s heart
where truth and beauty rise, a hidden spring
that flows with what is our own form of art,
of bearing Christ, of Mary mothering.
The question is, do we believe that Word?
Even to hear it takes some faith, some trust,
but do we trust enough once we have heard
to act upon it, feeling that we must,
believing in this blessing God has willed
of gifts to share, Christ’s love through us fulfilled?

 

Advent calls us to wait and watch and pray, to make a contemplative journey through the darkness in preparation for the coming light.

If we take Advent as a time of inner reflection we are likely to see some unpleasant things about ourselves that are hidden in our darkest shadows.  We need to face them as part of our preparation for spiritual growth to a new level of consciousness.

Thomas Keating writes about this in his classic introduction to Centering Prayer, Open Mind, Open Heart.  “Our so-called good intentions look like a pile of dirty dishrags. We perceive that we are not as generous as we had believed. This happens because the divine light is shining brighter in our hearts. Divine love, by its very nature, accuses us of our innate selfishness.”

Mary serves as a model of how we can be transformed so that love and light can transform the world through us, and it can be discouraging or even downright depressing in Advent when our inner reflections or outer challenges show us how flawed we are compared to her.

The 20th Century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, said that the perception of Mary as an exalted object of reverence can be misleading and unhelpful.  The reason she is highest, he says, is because she is lowest, having the humility and peace “without which we cannot be filled with God.”

Merton says that Mary’s greatest glory is that she “in no way resisted [God’s] love and [God’s] will… She was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God’s light in her being…. [She was] as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp 167-175)

Our calling is to be like Mary as much as we can, but Thomas Keating understood that we do not have to wallow in our flaws, nor do we have to spend years of arduous asceticism, scrubbing our fingers to the bone to purify our panes of glass.  All we have to do is let go and return our focus to a simple consent to God’s loving and transforming presence within us.

If we turn our flawed hearts and minds to the light, the light will prepare us for the transformation we seek.

Preparing the Stable

For you to have your birth in this old stable
I need to free up one sufficient stall
and make it clean, as much as I am able:
freshen the bedding; scrub down every wall.
To make of it a Christly habitat
it must be humble, full of love and true,
a place as welcoming to goat or rat
as Spirit made flesh, pure of heart, born new.
But my old habits fight the change I need,
foul matted dung and straw built up for years,
flawed manger, gnawed where my addictions feed,
failed whitewash painted by my shames and fears.
Lost in despair, I look to your star’s light.
When I look back, my stall is clean and right.

Continue reading

Advent Joy in a Time of Darkness

Orientation in the Dark

Advent was invented as a spiritual journey through a time of darkness when we watch and wait and pray in preparation for the coming of the light.

This time of year is emotionally challenging for many people under the best of circumstances.  Advent 2020 is excruciating for millions more who are affected by the pandemic and the glaring economic, racial and environmental injustices that it has only made worse.  The usual comforts of the season are largely unavailable to us, making the darkness feel harder.

And yet in the wisdom of our tradition, as we enter the very darkest days, Advent gives us Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of Joy.

The easy and culturally popular approach to Advent is to practice denial of the darkness, focusing all season on the glittering lights and festive pleasures of Christmas.  This is understandable, but it misses the central point of Advent and the transformative wisdom we need right now: joy comes not in spite of the darkness but as a result of our faithful journey through it.

The truth is that we live much of our lives in the dark.  The beauty of the night appears only when our eyes have adjusted.  Then we can see the stars behind the stars, and the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome.

Seeing in the Dark

It was drizzling. The little bit of snow was melting.  It was two weeks before Christmas, a dark, dreary afternoon.  I was worried about people I love who are suffering from severe depression.  I was feeling depressed myself.  It had been the hardest and darkest of Advents.

I drove around the bend in the dirt road and our mailboxes came in view, a collection of different shapes and sizes ranging from a shiny stainless steel replica of a sugarhouse to my own green-paint-over-rust veteran of many winters.

I gasped.  Someone in the neighborhood had hung beautifully arranged evergreen branches with bright red bows on the two weather-beaten posts holding up the boxes.

A smile covered my worried face like fresh snow and the song “Good King Wenceslas” sprang from the darkness within me.  I tacked up a note, “Thank you, wonderful neighbors!”

The intention, I later learned, was “to share some light and hope” in a dark time.  It worked.  I carried that joy all the way home and through the night.

It worked for the neighbors who gave me that gift, too.  Advent leads us to the wisdom that acts of love and compassion toward others give us joy as we give joy to them.

The Wisdom of Joy in the Darkest Places

The wisdom of Viktor Frankl comes to us from his suffering in Auschwitz, one of the densest darknesses of the Nazi holocaust.  He wrote, “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before….

“We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces…. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom.  I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Ex lux in tenebris lucet’—and the light shineth in the darkness…” (Man’s Search for Meaning p59f)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama echo Viktor Frankl in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

Tutu suffered with his people under the brutal violence of apartheid.  His prostate cancer had returned as they were writing the book.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile as the Chinese invaded his beloved Tibet murdering many of his people and crushing their cultural and spiritual heritage.  He has lived with the grief of continuing traumas for decades.

Yet both of these men shine a joyous light around them.

They credit the same wisdom that Viktor Frankl discovered in Auschwitz.  One day the thought of Frankl’s wife came to him in a moment of intense suffering.  He did not know that she had already died in another death camp at age 24.  He knew she could be dead, but she was alive and vividly present in his mind.  He wrote of that moment,

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest good to which [humanity] can aspire…. The salvation of [humanity] is through love and in love.  I understood how a [person] who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss…” (p57)

The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu book on joy has a chapter entitled, “Nothing Beautiful Comes without Some Suffering.”  The book has sections on fear, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, despair, adversity, illness and death.  These themes may seem strange in The Book of Joy, but both men insist that the darkness not only cannot destroy joy, but it provides a path to it.

They see that love is the key, in its many dimensions.  Their “Eight Pillars of Joy” include humility, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity, as well as humor, perspective and acceptance.

The third and fourth Sundays of Advent traditionally are Joy and Love.  The Taoist symbol expresses their relationship to one another, as it does the relationship between darkness and light, and also, perhaps, between a mother and the child in her womb.

Advent Wisdom from the Womb

Lisa Kutolowski of Metanoia of Vermont wrote a beautiful Advent reflection on her journey through the darkness of wanting a baby but being unable to conceive.  She writes, “By fully entering the pain of my unmet longing, I received the ability to more freely love my future child. I am exceedingly grateful for this time of waiting. Its fruits are the greatest gift I can imagine giving to Anna…. I am certain that more months or years of waiting would have revealed more layers of attachment and with those revelations, more gifts.”

Lisa ends with this profound insight: “It is essential we are honest about the pain of waiting. Without this honesty, we will find ways to skirt around the pain – avoiding, distracting, deflecting. This attempt to escape feeling the pain almost always transfers the pain to someone else. We seek security, wealth, or pleasure at the expense of someone else and ultimately, millions of people’s unacknowledged pain leads to entangled systems of injustice. Additionally, if we can’t look our personal pain in the face, how can we take an honest look at the grave injustices and inequities in the world? If we can’t acknowledge the pain of our personal unmet longing, how will we ever be free to hear the cry of the poor and the disinherited?”

The Darkness Is Our Teacher

Lisa’s pain became her teacher.  The Dalai Lama has said that the Chinese were his greatest teachers. This can be true of all our struggles. The darkness we pass through teaches us much about light that we could not learn to see otherwise.

The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

In that spirit, here are two Advent sonnets written from within my own darkness.  I hope they lead you to compassion and lovingkindness for others and yourself, and to the joy of keeping faith with the Advent journey.

 

Advent’s Darkest Depths of Silence

The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah… Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…. Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Luke 1:13-20

Old Zechariah, tongue clamped dumb from doubt—
at least he got to watch her belly swell.
He saw just how his crisis would come out,
how he would have a greater hope to tell
than ever he had dared to think or dream.
He saw the advent that his love was bearing.
He never wondered, are things as they seem?
The angel’s word, proved, kept him from despairing.
In my tongue’s drought, when words wilt, lifeless dust,
when nothing sprouts, no swelling of gestation,
I do my temple tasks, enacting trust.
I pray, write, preach, tend souls, my called vocation,
but get no sign of dawn or worth or child,
just darkness—doubt and faith unreconciled.

 

Advent of the Christ Self

What was in Mary just before the light,
the voice of Gabriel, the power of God,
came filling all of her—heart, womb and sight?
This morning I am hoping she was flawed,
and not the perfect vessel others claim.
I need to think of her as sad and yearning
for something she perhaps could not yet name,
an aching emptiness where she kept turning,
searching within the lightless void inside
and feeling devastation in the loss
of what she did not find. She prayed and cried
and felt forsaken on her longing’s cross—
sometimes self-loathing, sometimes mere self-doubt
until the Christ self filled her lost self out.

copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder

Advent Calling, Second Sunday of Advent & Mindful Birthing

Advent is designed to be a path of inner and cultural transformation through darkness into light.  Other spiritual traditions have parallel paths.

Finding and taking a path like Advent to inner transformation is urgent for us each because cultural transformation is now urgent for us all.

I quote Gus Speth over and over because our one hope for survival as a nation and species is that we place his wisdom at the top of our individual life goals and daily priorities:

“Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness.” (from his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability)

Gus says, “We need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”  Pope Francis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Dalai Lama all agree in recent books.

This post is a continuation of my poems and reflections on Advent.  Advent’s path progresses along a series of themes.  The first Sunday is hope, and the second peace.  They are followed by joy and love and finally the light of transformed spiritual consciousness represented by Christ: humanity fully evolved and matured.

Jesus looked at a society that was in many ways like ours and said, “If only you had recognized the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42)

The Hebrew word shalom means peace in the fullest sense of harmony, wholeness and wellbeing—both peace and the conditions that make for peace.  True shalom requires a mature, transformed heart and mind capable of recognizing the oneness of all people and all the earth and therefore acting with compassion and justice for all.

Advent calls us to shalom and adds to it the wisdom of Taoism:

No peace in the world without peace in the nation;
No peace in the nation without peace in the town;
No peace in the town without peace in the home;
No peace in the home without peace in the heart.

The Eastern Orthodox saint, Seraphim of Sarov, put the same principle this way: “Have peace in yourself and thousands will find salvation around you.”

How can we find the peace and things that make for peace that we urgently need?  Below are three sonnets that reflect on this question.

Continue reading

Advent: A Slow Approach

[The words of this Advent sonnet are printed below.]

The season of Advent represents the most urgently important wisdom the Christian tradition has to teach us right now.  It holds the key to the spiritual transformation that we need in order to heal our divided and damaged world.

The word “advent” means the approach or arrival of something.  The season of Advent gives us metaphors to understand our current limited vision and way of being as a kind of darkness, and the more developed, mature heart and mind of Christ as a kind of light that can be born within us.

The season of Advent is about preparing to receive this transformation by opening our hearts and minds to the light as widely and purely as we can so that it will fill us and shine through us into the world.

We can seek and find the light in nature, or in art, or in the vulnerable, hurting or oppressed people and earth that we turn to with compassion and a helping hand, but in order to find light outside of ourselves we need to prepare to find it within ourselves. Continue reading

They Shall Run and Not be Weary, They Shall Walk and Not Faint

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

 

This is the second poem I am posting in honor of Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian who both died in Atlanta on July 17, 2020. The other was “In the Shadow of Absence” and by clicking there you can read an introduction relating to this poem as well.  I talk there about Lewis, Vivian and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement .  I talk especially about Grace Paley whose death moved me to write that poem.

I wrote this sonnet after the death of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It is a cliché to call a prophet a lion.  The late Donald Hall would probably have called it a Dead Metaphor, but the metaphor was alive and well as long as Bill was, and from what I have read and seen on film it lived in John Lewis and C. T. Vivian.  If you want to see a living lion, watch this short video of the Rev. Vivian confronting Sheriff Bull Clark in Selma, Alabama:

Or you can see a living lion here in the Rev. William Sloane Coffin even after he had a stroke:

This poem, “They Shall Run and Not be Weary, They Shall Walk and Not Faint,” connects Coffin (and Lewis and Vivian and all lions) to the Hebrew prophets.  The title is a quote from the prophet Isaiah.  The poem uses a Hebrew word, ruach, which has three meanings, the same as the Greek word pneuma.  It means breath, wind and spirit.  Here are two passages that show how it is used in the Hebrew scriptures:

“The Ruach of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
(Genesis 1:2)

“Behold, my Servant whom I uphold…I have put my Ruach upon him.”
(Isaiah 42:1)

There is no question that Lewis and Vivian, and Paley and Coffin, were extraordinary people, but what made them extraordinary was the ruach that filled them and flowed through them, and they would insist that it can fill us each.

The hope of the world that Bill talks about in the video above is that the same spirit will fill Jews and Muslims and Christians and people of all faiths and no faith—the hope of the world rests in humans who are filled with the spirit of love and compassion, justice and peace, the spirit of nonviolence that forms beloved community out of conflict and chaos.

The power that formed the earth and informed the prophets wants to work through us to save the earth and save democracy, equity and freedom, values and ideals based on the Golden Rule that ruach has been causing to evolve in humanity for millennia because they are necessary for life to flourish on earth.

Please rise to this moment.  Please be as much of a lion as you can in the place and with the life given you.  Trust in the spirit to carry you in your weariness.  Trust that if you let it flow through you, you will not faint or fall, you will fly.  Trust that we can do far more than we can even imagine with this power in us.  So say all the lions before us, and they prove it so.

They Shall Run and Not be Weary, They Shall Walk and Not Faint
(after hearing that the Rev. William Sloane Coffin had died)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Adonai is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….giving power to the faint, and strength to the powerless…. those who wait for Adonai shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

What happens to old lions when they die?
This morning I looked up above the hill
behind my house and learned.  The lions fly.
I saw a golden eagle spread and fill
his wings with ruach—spirit, wind and breath.
I watched him circling up and up to soar
above the shadowed valley of his death,
echoing still with his last ringing roar.
Nothing is lost in God.  Have you not known?
Have you not heard?  God gives the weak great power
when strong ones fall exhausted to the bone.
Our old guard lion dies.  Let us not cower.
Those trusting God mount up on eagle wings.
Old spirit fills new prophets.  On it rings.

copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder

In the Shadow of Absence

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

 

I am posting this poem in honor of Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C. T. Vivian who both died in Atlanta on July 17, 2020.  This is a sonnet in free verse form that I wrote when I heard that my neighbor, the author and activist, Grace Paley, had died.  I know people in Atlanta are feeling this kind of loss of someone near and dear to them, and throughout America and the world.

I was only thirteen when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  I participated in the march of protest, grief and rage through my small town in Ohio, but at the time my impression of the Civil Rights Movement came through my friends and through snippets on national television news.  I could name only three or four Civil Rights Movement leaders.

I learned more in high school and college but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that John Lewis, C. T. Vivian and so many other inspiring heroes came alive to me when I watched Eyes on the Prize.  (You can stream all fourteen episodes and download a study guide for free by clicking here. I highly recommend it as important historical background to the movement for social, economic and environmental justice today, and as a deeply moving experience.)

The women of the movement whom I had not known particularly moved me, including Diane Nash, Myrlie Evers and Fanny Lou Hamer, among others.  Many more men stood out for me, as well besides Lewis and Vivian, like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.  The intensity and intimacy of Eyes on the Prize made these all feel near and dear to me, the way I felt about Grace.

We have lost two at once now and feel that grief, but Lewis and Vivian died with hope in their hearts because at this very moment people as heroic and inspiring as they were are rising in a movement that is fighting not only for individual issues like defunding police or climate legislation but for what King called “a revolution of values,” a “restructuring of society” built on social, economic and environmental justice.  It is fighting for the survival of our democracy and democratic ideals, and for the survival of humanity and all living species.

This is the greatest social movement the world has ever seen and the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement and all the liberation movements of the mid-Twentieth Century are the reason it exists.  We owe them much, so it is important to take the time now to honor them and grieve their loss and let their memory inspire us to carry on the struggle, giving our all as they gave theirs.

I was lucky enough to serve for many years as the pastor in the Vermont village where Grace Paley lived.  We worked on peace and justice campaigns together and we shared poetry (although she was disgusted by my choice of the sonnet form, which is why I disguised “In the Shadow of Absence” as free verse—for my excuse for writing sonnets click here).

I loved most our regular casual encounters at the Post Office or concerts or Town Meeting because even when she was struggling she was full of warmth and love and light.

One of my favorite stories about her was told at her memorial service in the Thetford Hill church.  Someone found her late in her life bending over and backing out of a public restroom.  It was a comic position, and knowing her sense of humor the person laughed and asked her what she was doing.  She said her feet had been all muddy and she was cleaning the floor as she came out so that an underpaid custodian would not have to do it.  It was a matter to her of both courtesy and justice.  She was generous-hearted, truly great hearted,  and I am among the masses that miss her. Continue reading

Adoring You

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

This poem follows “Perfect in Her Eyes,” and the introduction to that poem would be helpful to read in this context.  The two sonnets were written many years apart, but themes tend to recur.  In this case the connection between them is imagining how much joy the spirit of life must get out of all its very different manifestations.

It is important to let our share of that great joy rise to consciousness now when the survival of life on earth depends on our collective will to love and save it.

I wrote “Adoring You” almost twenty years ago when I was first trying the sonnet form.  The poem came out of two close encounters in nature—watching an otter play from fifty feet away and then watching a beaver that crossed my path twenty feet in front of me.  I was close enough to hear its teeth gnawing the wood and the chips falling on the ground.  I stood still as it took down a tree and struggled to haul it back to the river.  I saw the tree get hung up and the beaver do what the poem describes.

The older I get the more I marvel at the variety in nature and the vast differences in strategies for survival or for satisfaction of the basic drives that we all share.  The milkweed with its amazing flower, pod and seed, contrasted with the little milkweed beetles or monarch butterflies that depend on it for their own survival and satisfaction.

I love Northern Woodlands magazine—for years it has been the only publication I read cover to cover.  Some of my favorite articles are about the tiny lives of the woods and waters, like this one about caddisflies, or this one about the golden tortoise beetle larvae fecal shield.

The most fascinating creatures of all, of course, are humans.  My father fondly observed people’s foibles and follies, saying dryly, “There’s a little human nature in all of us.”  I know people who frolic through life like otters and others who plod like beavers, and many more who are sometimes one and sometimes the other.  Whoever you are and whatever your approach to life may be in any given hour, please take this poem to heart.  The spirit of life is…

Adoring You

An otter swims the beaver pond at night,
not going anywhere, not fishing, just
splashing and somersaulting, feeling light
and fast, fulfilling muscles’ joyous lust.
Meanwhile the beaver plods across the dam.
His tusks gnaw hard heartwood to carve their V.
He lugs out cut-down trees.  They snag and jam.
He pauses, turns.  He stands.  He jerks them free.
Can you imagine a god that loves both these—
the otter celebrating pond and power,
the beaver struggling to catch streams with trees?
I think God loves the good use of an hour,
adoring spirit’s flow through every child
who tames the world with work or swims it wild.

copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder

Perfect in Her Eyes

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

I wrote in my introduction to the poem “Practical Theology,”

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale when he became famous for his courageous words and actions as a leader of the Civil Rights and Peace Movements.  Bill welcomed conversations with students who were turning away from the church.  He would ask them to tell him about the God they didn’t believe in anymore—usually an old white man on the throne who was hateful, wrathful and vengeful toward any who displeased him or failed to believe in him.  Then Bill would surprise them by telling them he didn’t believe in that God either.

The God that Bill believed in, and that I believe in, is a God whose love is like the most generous-hearted, charitable, unselfish human love, only even more universal and unconditional.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  (I John 4:16b)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

It is a huge diminishment to limit that love to an ideal father’s.  The scriptures compare it to a mother hen’s love and in this poem, “Perfect in Her Eyes,” it is a young girl’s love.

“God” does not need to mean a personal being, it can be understood as the force that created the universe and sparked into existence the first living cells and that flows through all life as a sacred way of love and life and light.  God is a stream of living water that is the source of all life, all inspired creativity and growth, all justice, equality and peace, all beloved, inclusive community, all compassion and mercy and forgiveness.

The Twelve Step tradition wisely recognizes that we can think of this higher power in any way that works for us.  The important thing is to come to believe that it exists, and to place our will and our life in its care.  We release the canoe of our being into the flow of its stream and find that it will not only carry us through life but also comfort our bumps and free us from our snags.

I talked about kenosis, metanoia and agape in my introduction to “Practical Theology.”

Continue reading

Practical Theology

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

It’s bad enough that the majority of people I know have given up on the church, but it feels much worse when they think that I am a defender of the church that they disdain.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale when he became famous for his courageous words and actions as a leader of the Civil Rights and Peace Movements.  Bill welcomed conversations with students who were turning away from the church.  He would ask them to tell him about the God they didn’t believe in anymore—usually an old white man on the throne who was hateful, wrathful and vengeful toward any who displeased him or failed to believe in him.  Then Bill would surprise them by telling them he didn’t believe in that God either.

And neither do I.  Nor do I see the purpose of the church or the Christian spiritual path as being about believing in Christ.  The purpose is to be Christ, not believe in him.  The purpose is to cultivate in us the same Spirit-filled heart and mind that moved him to love and serve and sacrifice to create the realm of God on earth, meaning a society founded on the principles of universal oneness, of unconditional compassion, mercy and love, of the Golden Rule, applied to governments and the marketplace as much as to individuals.

The spiritual path or Way of Christ that I teach is about personal transformation and world transformation, in both cases evolving toward the ideal that Christ taught and represented.  This ideal is the same that every major positive religion and philosophy teaches.  You can see the social ideal laid out beautifully in the Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions that representatives of dozens of spiritual traditions have endorsed.

What we need to believe is that transformation comes through the higher power and sacred Way that an authentic spiritual path guides us to follow.  The path’s first principle is that we need to surrender the will of our ego and allow the Spirit to lead it.  This is the hardest part of the path.  It requires a daily, moment by moment life-long practice.

I teach in the contemplative Christian tradition. I use three ancient Greek words to describe the path of personal transformation that leads to having the heart and mind of Christ and being one with God and all creation. Continue reading

Even Here God May Be Found and Served

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

People in my congregation are trying to discern how they can best serve in this crucial moment in history—how to choose among all the ways and places they could invest their gifts and time.  This post is one of a series reflecting on that question from different angles.   In an earlier related sonnet post, “To the Land.” I wrote:

This poem talks literally about part of my own path to new vision, but it is speaking metaphorically about all our different paths.  We do not all find our place of vision in nature, but we all have a land, a place deep within us, a sacred glade, a secret room—a place we reach through some inner journey, some form of quieting that enables us to hear the still, small voice, the silent stirring that is the spirit of life speaking to us the words we need.  The world urgently needs us to listen now, and to live by what we hear, and to share what we learn.  So whatever form this takes for you, I urge you to go [to that land.]

The poem “Even Here God May Be Found and Served” is a difficult one for me.  It feels confessional and defensive because someone I respected attacked me for choosing to live and serve in a rural, natural setting.

I know that I am not alone in this choice, that I am part of a long and, at times, honored tradition of writers and spiritual teachers—from the ancient Chinese wilderness poets like Han Shan to my fellow Ohio-Vermonter, David Budbill (1940-2016), or, in the Christian line, from St. Anthony to St. Francis to Thomas Merton.

Yet I felt like a failure when I finally gave up my years-long attempt to live and serve in urban settings and retreated to these wooded hills and pastoral village churches.  I feel uncomfortable with my comfort here when I look at areas that are more on the front line of the racial, economic and environmental injustice I am trying to reform.

A wise 90 year old parishioner heard me wrestling with this once and spoke sternly saying that I needed to live where I lived in order to be able to serve as I served.  I think she was right, but I am not sure I will ever be completely free of a nagging counter-argument.

It is hard to spend an hour in meditation or prayer when there is work I could be doing to help people directly.  Some days I cut out that contemplative time.  The result is always that I am not my best self, and the longer I spend away from my place of inner connecting and centering, the more compulsive and out of balance my work and life become.

I have found the same to be true of where I live: some plants need shade—transplant them to full sun and they wilt.

Others need sun and can’t tolerate shade: a Catholic priest was assigned to a rural parish.  He considered it a waste of his life.  He felt strongly called to engage in an urban, social justice, direct-service ministry.  He complained bitterly to God and to his colleagues.  People tried to comfort him saying, “Even here God may be found and served.”  They were right, but not for him.  His anger subsided into depression, and his parish suffered from his suffering. 

He had the same problem I did in reverse, but I doubt that he felt like a failure when he finally was placed in the setting where he was at home.  I doubt he felt he had to defend his heart’s clear calling and need.  Our culture has a bias of action over contemplation and urban over rural.

As I said in my introduction to “To the Land,” the world urgently needs us to listen right now.  It needs us to find the place where we are called to serve and pour ourselves into it.  The right place is different for us each.  We need to find our own because that is where our positive energy will be nourished and sustained.

Wherever that is for you, you will find it absolutely true that… Continue reading

To the Land

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

We may live in a polarized society but one thing that unites most of us is the perception that many of our social systems have failed to provide the life of our ideals and dreams.  They have proven unsustainable and left the vast majority of people economically and environmentally insecure and caused many groups of people to suffer chronic injustice.  We need a new vision that can unite us and lead us forward.

The new vision we need is not a campaign slogan, it is not an -ism, it is a way of seeing humanity and our place on earth anew.  We need the vision of oneness and sustainable social goodness that the great saints, prophets and philosophers of all traditions have tried to help us attain.  We need the transformation of human consciousness that they underwent and showed is possible for us all.

Who is the “we” that needs this?  It is not just humanity, not just all living species who are endangered by human activity, it is life itself, the whole project of life on earth beginning with the first living cells billions of years ago and flowing on into the potential lives of billions of years to come.  If you believe in a creator God, or a universal force of love and life and light that sparks evolution, that spirit would be part of the “we,” too.

The good news is that this collective “we” of life wants to live, and all successful life-forms have programmed into themselves the ability to adapt and evolve.  Human consciousness has proven its ability to do so many times, for instance in the Axial Age when Greek philosophers, artists and writers, Hebrew prophets and the founders of the great Asian religions reflected a major world-wide advance, or in the 17th Century dawning of the Age of Enlightenment.

We have within us the potential to grow rapidly in order to survive and thrive, and we need to fulfill that potential now.  How can we do it?

This poem talks literally about part of my own path to new vision, but it is speaking metaphorically about all our different paths.  We do not all find our place of vision in nature, but we all have a land, a place deep within us, a sacred glade, a secret room—a place we reach through some inner journey, some form of quieting that enables us to hear the still, small voice, the silent stirring that is the spirit of life speaking to us the words we need.

The world urgently needs us to listen now, and to live by what we hear, and to share what we learn.  So whatever form this takes for you, I urge you to go Continue reading

Stop the Seeds from Getting Sown

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

Partisan media are inciting hatred and violence, polarizing a democratic, peaceful nation, and helping autocratic, fascist leaders rise to power who use their positions to inflame the situation to the point where citizens take up arms against people they no longer consider fully human, people of another race or culture or people who disagree politically.  The media and leaders and their backers create a crisis situation that gives them the excuse to unleash a civil war and slaughter millions.

That was Rwanda.  If you live in America in 2020 and don’t feel alarmed reading that description, I recommend you watch the film Sometimes in April.  It is worth doing anything to prevent it from happening here or anywhere else ever again.

We need not only to change the structures and systems, such as the ability of partisan media to take over a market without regulation providing restrictions and balance, but we also need to be aware of the seeds of fear, hatred and violence in our culture, our government, our homes, and stop them from growing, or from getting sown.

One of the moments in Sometimes in April that made my blood run cold was when the hero finds out that his family is on the list to be killed even though he is in the military and of the approved race. It could happen to anyone. I could imagine it happening to me.  It reminded me of a saying attributed on the internet to many different sources:

Solon (the Lawgiver) c640 – c556 BC Statesman of Athens, writer of its compassionate legal code:
“Wrongdoing can only be avoided if those who are not wronged feel the same indignation at it as those who are.” from Greek Wit (F. Paley) found on http://sqapo.com/aphorism.htm

The film helped me feel as if I were among those being wronged.  It helped me love my neighbor as my self, in true oneness.  I wrote this poem several years ago in response to the film and the genocide and the dangerous situation I saw building in America that today is starting to explode.

All of us who believe in the global ethic shared by all religions need to act now and transform society to live by the laws of compassion for the vulnerable and oppressed, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule in all its formulations.  We need to speak out, we need to organize, we need to vote and we need to watch the seeds and… Continue reading

Reflections On War and the Military: “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways”

I share two sonnets below, “Training Flights” and “Hanging Between Two Dying Ways: A Lament,” both from my collection “Sonnets for the Struggle for Peace, Justice and the Care of the Creation.”  I am publishing them here to follow up a facebook exchange that you can see below about the recent use of F-35 war jets to honor medical workers treating coronavirus patients.  This is a long introduction, so if you are more interested in the sonnets, skip to the end of this page.

Many reasonable people disagree with my feelings about war planes overhead and about militarism and modern warfare.  Some of those people are in my family and among my friends, and I respect them.  Their reasonableness and wonderfulness as people does not change my position, but it makes me want to explain myself. Continue reading