Monday, December 10, 2012

A Poem for Mom’s Memorial Service

Many of you know my mother died last month. Below I am sharing the poem I wrote for and read at her memorial service. I’m grateful for our community and the love and support we give to one another.

A Poem for Mom’s Memorial Service, 11-16-12

"Now that I have you only in memory..." N. Scott Momaday

Now that I have you only in memory
I see you at the kitchen counter,
stirring up biscuits
or your famous southern potato salad,
which was never the same twice—
except you always said
the secret ingredient,
the sure thing to make it special,
was Durkey's dressing.

    You were like that:
    sharing secrets and advice  
    as you stirred up food and people’s lives
    and dirt in your flower beds.

I see you in your yard,
on your knees,
planting flowers,
sprigging grass, 
moving bushes—
arranging beauty
to bloom in unexpected places.

I see you at the sewing machine
watching the needle pulling thread,
your sure hands pushing penned fabric
through tight spaces,
certain of the result,
certain the garments
would be remarkable.

I see you knitting,
clicking knitting pins,
transforming thin yarn
into something special
to keep others warm.

I see you reading,
curled in a chair,
turning pages
absorbing and exploring
other places,
other people,
ready in an instant
to journey somewhere else.

I see you still and quiet now,
waiting for our steps, our voices,
our presence—
and we have come.
We are here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Proclaiming Salvation One Story at a Time

I’m on my flight back home from the Social Media Conference at Luther Seminary, and as I was reading the Daily Office for today, I was struck by the words of Psalm 96:

Sing to The Lord and bless his Name;
Proclaim the good news of his salvation day to day.

I think all my years of playing with Lincoln Logs and old fashion puzzles trained me to look for ways to fit things together. Every time I read, see, or hear something I’m always looking for ways to connect it to other things. Today’s scripture, some early morning chatter in the Twittersphere, and the talks from this weekend’s missional church conference have me reflecting as my body joins my mind in the clouds somewhere over the heartland of America.

This morning Leonard Sweet (@lensweet) tweeted that one cannot proclaim the gospel without telling a story. Stories are the social Velcro of community. They not only connect us with each other, but they also defy time linking multiple generations with each other. Today’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible was the forbidden love story of the Moabite Ruth and the Israelite Boaz. It’s an interesting story of transgressing boundaries and finding salvation in the loving arms of the other. I’m thankful for the many others in whom I have found myself online. Some have been individuals with whom I’ve had physical relationships, and others have been people I’ve never met in real life, some of these connections have started with strangers and oddly become embodied relationships outside the digital deep. When we connect with the stranger, with the other, whether it be online or in line, we strengthen a link in the great chain of being that holds us together in the universal dance of humanity. When we touch each other’s suffering we are mystically reminded of interdependence that exists between us. Sonmi 451′s revelation from Cloud Atlas contains much wisdom reminding us of the butterfly-effect of human relations: “…by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Let us speak of God’s salvation, one story at a time — day by day — and together build a better tomorrow!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Message to a Beach Walker

This past weekend Rickey took me to St. Pete Beach for a getaway in honor of my birthday. (I am a few days short of turning 60.) We did all our favorite stuff—beach walking, swimming, sleeping, reading, eating fried shrimp, and, of course, visiting a bookstore. It is all special, but if I had to choose, I would say the very best part (except for sharing it all with Rickey) is the beach with its huge expanse of  water and sandy shoreline curving and stretching away for miles and miles, and with the quirky, noisy birds, and with the ever changing clouds and with the amazing light! There sure is a lot to celebrate.

But walking barefoot along St. Pete Beach can be a bumpy experience. In no particular order, I came to expect brief patches of shoreline thick with small bits of broken shells. Somehow, I learned if I walked carefully, I could mostly avoid the pain of the pointy pieces. Although walking past these small mounds was a bit awkward, listening to the swish of waves across them was beautiful.  I felt like the “Shh…” I heard was at once a description of the sound and an admonition of how to proceed. I think I finally got it—walk slowly, listen deeply. What a gift! 

Message to a Beach Walker

by Anna Cotton

Sand and waves wash small

mounds of thin shells--whispering

admonitions "Shh..."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Homily on Hope

I am writing to share with you all a sermon I shared last Sunday. I've been attending a small Episcopal church that sits right beside the largest homeless shelter in the city. Every Sunday afternoon, they host a service that caters to Nashville's homeless community, with a full meal afterward for all comers. My sermon was about hope in the face of hopeless situations. It is a little longer than what is usually posted on this blog, but I'm sharing the link below for anyone who is interested. Peace.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

De-centering the Self

I have been reading Frank Macchia’s 2006 book Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology and find it to be a significant and helpful book, perhaps especially to Pentecostals, but also to all Christians deeply interested in the work of the Holy Spirit in our time. I was fortunate that Frank served on faculty with me at Southeastern University for several years in mid-1990s, and I was able to learn much from him. One observation that he makes is that while Spirit baptism is deeply personal, it is not individualistic. It gives rise to the church (155) and calls us into the church to share and gives witness to Trinitarian love. To live this kind of life in genuineness requires a “de-centered self,” Frank says, drawing on the work of Miraslov Volf. “The Christian proposal of a de-centered self locates the trust for self-realization essential to solitude in a relationship with Christ in the Spirit” (173). The successful practice of this approach frees us from the domination of the individual ego and enables us to awaken to a sense of “self-in-relation-to-God through Jesus Christ” (175).  This new sense of self does not result from the abolishment of its former humanity but rather from its transformation and fulfillment. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). I am grateful to be part of a network of spiritual friends seeking to live these words out in reality.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dear Friends, I'm sharing a poem I recently wrote. Blessings, Anna

Note to Jesus from a Woman in Cana

by Anna Cotton

You would have thought she was the bride the way she glowed.
My mom,the gifted storyteller, was thrilled to have an attentive audience
for her every detailed description of dress, and meal, and future grandchildren.

Me, I was just the bride. My role was to smile and nod.
I wasn't meant to be heard.

Though in that silence I noticed a lot
like the threatening buzz of bees around empty jars
like the stewards discussing the problem
like your mother seeing what my distracted one missed
and calmly directing the servants to do your bidding.

Of course it's gone down in history how you said it wasn't your time,
but you did something anyway.
And what a something--turning water into wine!
My handsome Jacob had no answer to the question,
"Why have you saved the best for last?"

But his words have become Mom's favorite part of the wedding story,
which she recites often.

My favorite part wasn't so much about the wine.
It was watching you respond to a wise woman, your own mother,
as she whispered,  "Now is the time. You can start here."

All of us who were truly thirsty began to drink.

Monday, May 7, 2012

When God Disappears in a Powerful Way


If a theophany is when God appears in a powerful way, then a reverse theophany is when God disappears in a powerful way. If a theophany is when God speaks a word, then a reverse theophany is when God is silent. I think that both are equally important and that the second is more common. But to disappear is not necessarily to actually be gone. To be present but unapparent is to be present in a particular way. Some of the most dramatic instances of both theophanies and reverse theophanies can be found in the Book of Job. When God speaks from the Whirlwind, it is certainly a dramatic appearance. When Job’s life falls apart, it is likewise a dramatic disappearance: “Behold, I go forward but He is not there, And backward, but I cannot perceive Him . . .” (Job 23:8).


Indulge a traditional spiritual story as a way of thinking of the disappearance of God as something equivalent in importance to the appearance of God. One day God tells God’s friend that God would like to play a game of hide and seek with humans. “Where do you think I should hide?” God asks. The friend answers, “Hide in the human heart. They will never think to look for you there.”


God hides in the human heart. Every human we encounter is some sort of a theophany. But this is not obvious by any means. Not many people go around glowing like Moses freshly come down from the mountain. Moreover, some seem downright abandoned by God, the godforsaken, “the least of these.” So what we might say, then, is that God is present in a particular way in those humans from whom God seems most distant. In some humans, God is particularly well hidden. Saying such a thing could amount to nothing more than triteness if we mean it as a cute saying to comfort those in pain. Of course, it is not a comfort. The reality of God’s presence in our pain is more often than not an addition to our discomfort. But the particular well hiddenness of God in certain circumstances may be important to recognize not for the sake of comfort but for some other kind of spiritual insight.


Consider the familiar story of Jesus about taking care of those in need which ends with this saying: “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40). If we may take Jesus literally for a moment, note that what he says is not that by doing good to those in need we have done good on Christ’s behalf but rather that we have done good to Christ. We visit God. We give God water. We sit and grieve with God. Another thing: it seems particularly important that in the story those who did things for God by doing things for the least of these did not recognize God while they were doing so. “When did we feed you, visit you, etc.?” they ask. What we see is not only that God resides in a special way in the downcast but also that that God hides there particularly well. We could not find people more “least” than those from whom God seems most powerfully absent. When God is in the least of these, it is so invisibly. That invisibility of God is what makes those persons least. But, by faith, we are sure to be with God when we are with them. We ought to go and be with these people not in order to assure them that God is there for them but rather to go, for our own sake, to be with God who hides within them.


In the Book of Job, when God disappears from Job, we may believe by faith that God is actually still present even in Job’s suffering body. The realization of this, of course, brings little comfort. If anything, it is all the worse that God is hidden right there while Job suffers. But knowing of God’s hidden presence does give us something worthwhile other than comfort. In his suffering, Job serves as a prophetic embodiment of God’s presence to his three friends. Job’s friends come to visit him with the idea that they are going to offer Job some comfort. This is similar to the people of God in Jesus’ story, offering comfort to the “least of these.” The friends are overcome by the sight of Job’s suffering. It is significant to note that their first response is one of true friendship and compassion.
When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word . . . (Job 2:11-13)
While the text makes clear that the reason for this response is their realization of the great suffering of their friend—“for they saw that his pain was very great”—it may well be worth noting that their actions would also have been entirely appropriate should they have been responding to the presence of God. (Consider, for instance, passages like 2 Chronicles 34:27: “‘Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard His words against this place and against its inhabitants, and because you humbled yourself before Me, tore your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,’ declares the LORD” [emphasis added].) I want to suggest that Job’s friends were performing the proper response to the presence of God while, without their knowing it, actually being in the presence of God. Furthermore, their motivation, even though they thought they were only responding to Job, was the same as it would have been had they meant to be responding to God. They were motivated out of their concern for their friend which, if we apply Jesus’s rubric retroactively, translates to concern for God. It is only later in the book when they cease attending to the person in front of them and go off into their ideas about God that they actually cease attending to the presence of God and end up saying false things about God. But for seven days and seven nights, they attend well to the un-manifest presence of God.


The spiritual practice that these reflections may lead us to is that we ought to seek to be with and honor those who are suffering, those for whom God has disappeared. We ought to do so motivated out of our love for persons. And when we do, we may know that we are witnessing the disappearance of God which means that have found where God is hiding. When we visit one who feels abandoned by God, the meeting is between God in that person and God in us. We may go to be with God in that person as much as to be God for that person. When people suffer, it may not so much be our job to console them with the idea that God has not really abandoned them but rather to respond ourselves to the truth that God is within them. We may give such people the attention and awe due them as manifestations—or un-manifestations—of “God in human form.”


Who is more “least” than the one from whom God seems absent? Who else—by faith not by sight—more embodies God? Indeed, the One from whom God was most absent—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”—is who we believe to be the One in whom God is fully incarnate.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Google+ Anyone?

Do any of you use Google+? I've been playing with the Hangouts feature at work, and I'd love to have a video conference with some (all) of you! If you have a Gmail account, you are ready to go. If you are interested and would like some help setting it up, let me know.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thoughts on Creativity

Note: I wrote this before Easter; sorry for the delay in posting.

I was listening to a couple of podcasts this past week and found an interesting connection between some of the material that was shared and my journey with Centering Prayer and mindfulness. The first podcast, which I can't remember the title of, was by Alan Watts, and he made a comment about the innate contemplative nature of children. And then later in the week, I heard the On Being podcast "Creativity and the Everyday Brain" in which Krista Tippett and Dr. Rex Jung made reference to the current process of the socialization of children in our society. In their dialog, they mentioned the sad fact that children now have schedules which are filled with activities and constant stimuli. One of the commentator noted that there is little "down time" for many kids these days. This trend seems to bemoan a cultural attempt to quickly assimilate children into adulthood. My wife shared a story this past week about a child that was traumatized with a B on his grade card. When she contacted the parent to console the child, she was shocked at the parent's disappointment and lack of concern for the emotional well-being of her child. I don't want to seem as if I am mentioning this observation to be a negative naysayer or a prophet of doom and gloom, but I note it for reflection pertaining to the ministry of the church. Where can we contribute to facilitate practices that will nurture creativity?

Here is an interesting clip of Tippett and Jung's conversation:
Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you about another one of these ideas, and this is, again, as a parent. Now this is one I've never seen industries built on, but it's something that's to me proven true in life, that there's a connection between boredom and creativity, or between not having things given to you to do and then, you know, I think I've felt that with my children. When they actually are bored, it may be a really good thing for them ultimately because they have to come up with something. But then recently, I also interviewed a humorist, a very creative, brilliant person named Kevin Kling, who also just talked about, you know, being a child and how, back then, he did not have a schedule [laugh] and how much time he and his brother had just hanging around with nothing to do and actually how much came out of that.

Dr. Jung: Yeah. I think, yeah, I talk to people about my childhood and how recess was the most important class of the day.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Jung: So there's the knowledge acquisition portion and then there's the place where you have to let the ideas flow. If you're always in knowledge acquisition mode, which is important, you have to put ideas in your head in order to put them together in novel and useful ways. But if you're constantly in knowledge acquisition mode, there's not that quiet time to put it together. This gets to another important creative trick, I guess, if you will, but almost invariably you hear, how do you induce transient hypofrontality? How can you do that? Some people's brains, as we reported in our studies, are more set up that way.

You hear lots of stories of, you know, in history from Archimedes' bath, where he discovered density by immersing himself in a bath and looking at displacement, he figured out he could measure how much gold is in a crown or something like that and cried, "Eureka!" But this warm bath or the long walk of Beethoven or Kekulé awakening from a dream and imagining a snake swallowing its own tail and thinking of a benzene ring. All of these have in common this hypofrontal state, whether it's induced by a warm bath, walk, meditation, exercise, yoga.

Ms. Tippett: There's free space in there. There's what we might call down time.

Dr. Jung: There is down time where your brain is not engaged in ongoing cognitive activity. Even exercise is a way to do that where, you know, you're just working your body, but you're not working your cognitive resources, and it induces this work space for you to meander around and put ideas together. And everyone knows the trick that works for them, the shower in the place or the yoga class or some people drink [laugh]. It's a lot of ways to get there, but a lot of people know — creative people, in particular, know what trick works for them to get away. And for your children, to get back to your question, that's an important space to cultivate, that recess from knowledge acquisition. You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.

Jung says that you have to have raw materials (data, information) but you also have to have time to put them together (space). It seems like common sense, yet this logic seems to elude many preachers, teachers and other leaders. In my opinion, too much of church life is concerned with the raw materials. I was taken by these thoughts as I read the current Hebrew Bible portion of the lectionary lessons: Jeremiah 31:34 which states, "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more." So now it is time for me to abandon the keyboard and create some space to connect some of my inner thoughts on this matter!

Peace (space) be with you!

P.S. Last night's showing of "Testing Toddlers" on ABC's Nightline was a sad affirmation of the theme of this post.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Photography and Deep Listening

I went to Rollins College last week to hear poet Billy Collins lead a discussion about poetry and photography. I expected to enjoy the evening while gaining some fresh, helpful insights about writing. What I didn't expect was to have panel member Anthony Brannon, a famed photography historian, make spiritual connections that resonate strongly in my spirit. In fact, they are still stirring around inside me.

The spiritual connection started for me when Billy Collins remarked at one point how pictures are about the past. Consequently, they have a nostalgic quality about them. Brannon responded by telling how Thomas Merton used photography as a contemplative practice. "Merton," he said, "took pictures to help him himself be alive to the present moment." Brannon also said that "photographs propose the future precisely because we don't understand everything in them." In effect, some photographs require us to sit with them, hold them, and ponder them. He also pointed out how the "truth of a photograph can change us."

At that point I was reminded of last week's reading for our centering prayer group. Thomas Keating in his book Mystery of Christ was reflecting on the three apostles witnessing of Christ's transfiguration. He wrote, "The practice of interior silence produces gradually what the voice in the vision produced instantly: the capacity to listen."

In the context of Brannon's remarks, it seems a photograph could work like a vision in helping us hear from God. This deep listening is what I want—to be alive to the present moment, to sit without understanding everything, and to be changed by the truth in the depths of my being. I'm in this for the long haul, and I'm grateful for my regular practice of centering. Yet it's encouraging to think how God works in unexpected ways, even in a conversation about poetry and photography.
--Anna Cotton

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cultivating Mindfulness

In spite of my best intentions and efforts to live in a way that is grateful, centered, and mindful, I tend to get distracted. I assume we all do to varying degrees, and this is OK. But I’ve recently found a practice that helps me some in this regard: memorizing and/or composing short mindfulness prayers for various daily activities. Thich Nhat Hanh has translated a bunch of short prayers (called gathas) in Present Moment Wonderful Moment. He encourages us to memorize these short prayers, to change them and make them our own, to write new prayers that are appropriate for our situation. The wonderful thing about them is that they are tied to daily activities--drinking tea, using the phone, washing dishes. As we incorporate these prayers into daily life, the activities themselves become reminders of our need to be awake. When we get distracted, turning on the faucet or making a phone call or myriad other activities can remind us to live in the present, to be aware of God's presence with us. Here is one of my favorite gathas from Nhat Hanh’s book; it is for drinking tea:

This cup of tea in my two hands,
mindfulness held perfectly.
My mind and body dwell,
in the very here and now.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Limited Love

I'd like to pass along a short reading from the inescapable, delightful Henri Nouwen. It belongs to a wonderful book titled Spiritual Direction* and more specifically the chapter "Community Requires Forgiveness." I recommend a couple of slow, meditative readings of the passage:

"As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!"

There is a child-like simplicity to Nouwen's insight, bordering on obvious, that may be easy to gloss-over, but if I'm honest about my relationships with others, I think there are patterns of these misplaced expectations behind almost every sense of rejection and disappointment I experience. While we should strive to reveal God to one another in our words, actions, and silence, we should not be surprised when we offer "only limited expressions of an unlimited love" and in-turn experience the same.

The closer we grow in relationships, the more important it is to remind ourselves of our limited love. And though such a reminder may occasionally prevent us from projecting our needs or wounds on one another, perhaps all we can really hope for is an attitude or posture of forgiveness, welcoming these obstacles as an inevitability and inviting the opportunity for growth and healing.

* In case you're wondering, Spiritual Direction is a posthumous collection of Nouwen's sermons, journals, and other previously unpublished reflections compiled and edited into one cohesive book by Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

I Am Another Yourself

This past week my students discussed the Israel-Palestinian conflict, reading Joe Sacco's Palestine and some handouts from If Americans Knew to gain some nuance on the one-sided perspective they've probably gotten from the news most of their lives. After hearing about so many injustices and atrocities, one student wondered aloud: "How can people come to not see others as human?" What a question, one to sit with for a while. We might also turn that question around and ask: How can we come to see everyone as human?

When Jesus gives the Great Commandment, he quotes God's command to the Jews in Leviticus 19:18: "Love your neighbor as yourself." To clarify exactly what is meant by that, God adds in no uncertain terms: "When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:33). Nothing is more important than loving as oneself. But the question remains, how do we do it?

We are responsible for the material needs of the neighbor/foreigner/other: food, security, legal rights, police protection, health care, wages, affordable housing, transportation, education, employment. But if we do not see others as human, it is no wonder that we do not treat them as humans. If we are going to treat others as humans, we have to see others as humans.

We need practices that will rewire our hearts and minds. For instance, we might adopt the traditional Mayan greeting "In Lak’ech," which means: "I am another yourself." Imagine saying that to everyone you come across in the day, instead of "How are you?" or "Good morning."

The more I read stories (like those in Palestine) of people whose lives are  in various ways very different and very similar to mine, the more convinced I become that the primary way to develop empathy is through hearing others' stories: reading a novel or a poem, watching a documentary, listening to an interview, having a conversation over coffee, etc.

To practice compassion, we must practice empathy. To practice empathy, we must practice imagination. To practice imagination, we must listen to the stories of others. We must imagine what it is like to live as another person, how that is similar to our experience and how it is different. My prayer is that we will grow in this equation: love :: compassion :: empathy :: imagination :: stories.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wisdom from Fr. Richard Rohr

I recently came across this video and thought I'd share. It contains portions of the evening talk with Fr. Richard Rohr that my wife and I were able to attend last fall. Although I haven't read his latest book, I was struck by this insight, which, excusing my youthful ignorance, seems to be a profound diagnosis of our culture...

VALENTE: According to Rohr, our society has plenty of elderly people, but lacks true "elders."

ROHR: Elder is a capacity of soul that allows you to patiently understand things...It is not chronological maturity. It's how you've dealt with the dark side and how successfully you've dealt with disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, failure, and rejection.

Watch Richard Rohr on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Centering Prayer Retreat Experience

Greetings Spiritual Friends! I wanted to share some of my experiences from a Centering Prayer retreat I led this past weekend. This was my first attempt at overseeing a workshop on CP, and I am happy to report that we had an excellent day. We started off with a review of the CP process and some discussion about the dynamics of performing CP in a group setting. We were in consensus that a group experience was much different from an individual one. Most described sensing a more "powerful" experience when praying together. However, we had a hard time explaining why, but I guess that's to be expected!

After lunch, I introduced the group to individual lectio divina journaling. This was a big hit with my group. I gave them two passages and 45 minutes to spend with one or both of the passages. I thought this would be the weakest link in the program, but a very healthy discussion evolved afterwards in which the group commented on their preference for this mode of lectio over the group model with which they were familiar. They enjoyed the process of writing their responses to the first 3 stages of the practice.

I found this article just a few days before the retreat which is entitled "Collaboration as a Quality of Contemplative Leadership"

I used it as a springboard into a deeper discussion about contemplation as a work of the church.

Tilden's remarks on Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity caught my attention. I made a connection between his train of thought and Merton's ideas on contemplation and social action. If our practice of kenosis is not coupled with a process of theosis which leads us toward collaboration with God in the transformation of the world, then is our practice really worth much? (Hearing Rev. Harold Middlebrook speak on Martin Luther King, Jr. this past week was also beneficial!)

I appreciate you all and look forward to hearing your reactions!

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