Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ashes, Ashes

Holy Trinity/La Santisima Trinidad, 2/22/12, Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Mt 6:1-6, 16-21
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Our readings for Ash Wednesday leave no doubt as to the seriousness of our situation. We have a fatal diagnosis. We are all going to die.

The great dramatic effect of our Old testament reading gives us shivers with it’s assurance of doom:

“…a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.”

I suppose you could see death like that. An army whose like has never been seen, a fact that no amount of fighting or wishing or praying will defeat. How can we live with this fact? We are all going to die.

In the Tebetan Buddhist tradition, it is seen as a very important practice to contemplate your own death. It is thought that it is only by truly realizing that we will indeed die will we realize how precious and short life is. And it is to be hoped that, knowing this, we will do what we can to live life fully- to make it meaningful.

And by understanding the death process and familiarizing ourselves with it, we can potentially remove fear at the time of death. This, in the Tibetan tradition, ensures a good rebirth. For us it might enable us to have a good death and passage into the afterlife. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries, one is actually encouraged to go to a cemetery or burial ground to contemplate death and become familiar with this inevitable event.

Our Old Testament readings mean to thunder at us until we rush to repentance before our own personal day of the Lord will come. We are urged to repent, both in our Psalm and in our reading from Corinthians. We all hope that may do this before the hour of our death, but better late than never.
Jesus words, however seem to speak to the way we should live our lives now. It even warns against over-piety in our prayers and fasts. The advice is put simply and so beautifully:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;

6:20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus leaves it up to us to figure out how we are to “store up for ourselves” treasures in heaven.” From everything else he has said it is a good bet that he too is speaking about repentance, but repentance perhaps without the baggage. The Greek word for it is metanoia- transformation. Transforming from our almost irresistible tendency to store up stuff that rots, to learning habits which transmit love. Or, as the Buddhists would have it, loving-kindness.

There is a beautiful side to all this. We are dust and to dust we will return, but we are also the stuff that stars are made of- the stuff of our great Mother Earth, materials infinite and eternal.

My father was cremated last week, and I had to think about how much he, the geologist and soil scientist would have enjoyed the fact that his body is surely returning to the earth. I listened to a tape my brother recorded 5 weeks before my father died, and much of it was all about the earth, soil science, hiking in nature, his brother’s example going before him into the field of soil science, how much he loved the science of the earth.

I remember when I was in 4th grade my father gave me a whole tray of soil samples in little glass vials to bring to my classroom. Some kid made fun of me, saying, “Esther’s father is a dirt scientist.” Even then, I know that was not an accurate way of looking at things. I loved those little samples: sand, loam, humus, clay. Not bad company for the body to return to. These of course are the elements that make things grow- that make things resurrect, and that is the hope of repentance, of metanoia. We have to let old things, old habits, old shackles die and fall away to live the kind of life we might be proud of on that great day.

I recently heard a song, at a birthday party of all places:

When you were born you cried, and the world rejoiced.
Live your life so that when you die
The world will cry, and you will rejoice.


Saturday, February 25, 2012


Genesis 9:8-17 • Psalm 25:1-10 • 1 Peter 3:18-22 • Mark 1:9-15
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor, 2/26/12

When I hear the words of our Gospel reading, I feel that we are all being included in the life of Christ. First of all, for some reason, which no one really understands, Jesus had to be baptized like any sinner. In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, he insists on it after John tried to get out of baptizing him. Then, at the moment that Jesus emerges from the water, God says to him, as he says to all of us if we just get quiet enough to listen,
“You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased.”

And just at this transcendentally perfect moment, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, which so often seems to happen in real life. And Jesus, just like us, is tempted, as he struggles to survive in that wilderness.

Our reading today is from the Gospel of Mark, but in the Gospel of Matthew many more details are provided about these temptations. And they sound familiar. First of all, Jesus is really hungry, and he is tempted. But he resists temptation with the help of a little scripture. He chooses the word of God instead of eating a stone. Always a better choice.

Then the devil leads Jesus to the very pinnacle of the temple, and temps him to jump off. Jesus does not jump, although, if we are to believe the scripture, he is tempted. Lastly, Jesus’ Messiah complex is challenged.

The devil again brings him to a very high place, where he can look down on all the kingdoms of the world. “All these I will give you, says Satan, if you will fall down and worship me.” Once again, Jesus, although tempted, does not fall.

I have been very familiar with addiction all my life, because even as a child, I was aware of my father’s alcoholism. I never took to alcohol, perhaps because of my father’s negative example, and although I came of age in the sixties, I never took to drugs in a serious way. When my boyfriend would go to Haight Ashbury to get drugs, like any self-respecting hippie, I would sneak down to the corner liquor store to buy- snicker bars!

The year I left home for my gap year in the Tenderloin, I gained 60 pounds. Sugar was my drug of choice, and I really could not stop eating it. This may not sound like a serious problem to you, but early in life I became aware of another negative example that frightened me ALMOST enough to make me stop. My grandmother, an artist, singer, poet and musician, ballooned up to 300 pounds, and, according to my father, was always trying to “reduce.” Obviously she could not. She eventually solved the problem in the most tragic of ways, by committing suicide when she was 42. I have her genes, I did not want to share her fate.

All of us here are familiar with temptation. Some of us have been lucky enough to name and accept and find a program for our temptations. But the more I learn about the 12 steps the more I believe that we all need them. If nothing else, we all seem to have an addiction to toxic modes of thinking that are not only encouraged but almost required by our society. Our culture brilliantly plays the part of Satan all the time. We are made to feel unworthy, made to feel that we must acquire stuff to become worthy, and made to feel that it is proper and right to then feel superior to those who have not acquired the stuff/looks/house/job that we have killed ourselves to obtain. As a culture, have eaten the stone, jumped off the pinnacle AND accepted the wrong kind of worship.

I have been reading a beautiful book called "Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps" by Richard Rohr. If you have an addiction, the 12 step philosophy maintains that it never goes away. Even in recovery, the water is still over your head, but you learn to breathe underwater. This may seem like an impossibility, like a miracle in fact, and that is what it is.

My father died recently, and so I have been pondering my lineage and the good and bad things I have inherited. Several personality types keep appearing again and again in my ancestry: Priests, alcoholics and artists. Appropriately enough, I have one brother who is a filmmaking artist, one who is an alcoholic, and I am the sugar-addicted priest. My father was something of all three, even though he did not believe in God.

But I think my first addiction, like so many is the addiction to negative thinking. This is from "Breathing Under Water"

We keep doing the same thing over and over again, even if it not working for us. That is the self-destructive, even “demonic” nature of all addiction and negative thinking, in particular. We think we are our thinking, and we even take that thinking as utterly true… We really are our worst enemies. It seems that humans would sooner die than change or admit they are mistaken.”

The destination, the end result of surrendering our negative thinking to God, is that we are able to fully live in the grace that is, in fact, all around us. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “The winds of grace are always blowing- we have only to put up our sails.” Richard Roher describes the reality of the addictive mind as being like the child of a very rich family, who, nonetheless, insists on living in rags. And Jesus was always calling himself the bridegroom because it is the bridegroom who invites us to the great wedding banquet. This is our birthright- to live in that kind of abundance.

The first step of AA is “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.” There are so many things to be addicted to that one might just say, “Admitted that we were powerless over __, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” It seems that we have to have some kind of “death”- we call it a bottom in the 12 step programs- that makes us able to be born again. Very much like the dying with Christ and then being reborn in baptism. It is the death of the ego, and it is no easy task. I reached my bottom by weighing about 180 pounds- that is what it took to get me into recovery. For some it takes much more, for some, less. And certainly being religious is not necessarily enough to get you there. An often quoted phrase I have heard is that “Religion is for people who want to go to heaven. Spirituality (here I would say the 12 step program) is for people who have been to hell and back.” Richard Roher gives a good description of the need to reach bottom before you can be saved:

Until you bottom out and come to the limits of your own fuel supply, there is no reason for you to switch to a higher octane of fuel… unless there is a person, situation, event, idea, conflict, or relationship that you cannot “manage” you will never find the true manager.

That higher octane of fuel, of course is God. But the genius of the 12 steps is that they do not exclude anyone, including the atheist or agnostic. And so God is always referred to as “God as you understand him.”

This is the power we surrender to, this is the one who takes control out of our death grip. This is the surrender that is the beginning of salvation. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. St. Paul called it the Mind of Christ. We might just call it serenity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley 2/19/12
Kings 2:1-12 • Psalm 50:1-6 • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 • Mark 9:2-9
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Today is transfiguration Sunday. Every year I see this Sunday as a kind of great galactic burst of light before the dark and germinating forty days of Lent. I felt somewhat challenged this week to preach about the glorious mountaintop experience of the transfiguration, since my father’s death was only three weeks ago, and I have been intermittently visiting the valley of the shadow of death.

But I am glad to say that amidst the mourning I have experienced a new perspective- I only remember the good and luminous things about my father, as is so often the case when you lose someone. I treasure the time I got to spend with him, and I thank God that it was such an amazingly long time- he lived to be 89 and was absolutely lucid right to the very end.

My father was a life-long atheist, but I had no doubt at all that he would be welcomed into the loving arms of God. His name after all, is David, or, in Hebrew, Dovid, meaning, “the beloved.” And I imagined that once he woke up into the next world, in the living presence of God, he would have the surprise of his life! I even imagined that he might be somewhat annoyed to have his atheism proven wrong.

The day that he died I initially felt OK. I felt that I had done my grieving when I heard that he was in hospice care, and anyway there had been all those death bed visits when he revived, again and again. And it was certainly time. But then evening fell and it began to get dark. I was seized by fear and I realized that I had never had to make it through the night without my father. I remembered C.S. Lewis’ striking first sentence in his amazing book, “A Grief Observed.”

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness… I keep on swallowing.

My father was a geologist, who had a great love of the bursting glory of the cosmos above and around us. I remember my father first showing me the milky way out in a field on a snowy night in Ithaca New York, when all the stars were out. He explained that our view was from within the galaxy, and so the milky way was just the thickness of the multitudes of stars as we gazed through the breadth of the great spiral. I remember lying down in that same field in the summer with my father and brothers, just waiting and watching until we saw a shooting star. I remember my father first telling me that the sun was a star and the earth was a planet and the moon was, well, a moon.

Since I had in-house lecturer on Astronomy, Geology and Physical science from the time I can first remember hearing words until I was 18 and fled from home, my interest in science was eventually dulled. But now when I hear people talking about science, about astronomy, when I hear the new concepts in particle physics and string theory (pet loves of my husband’s) I am drawn to the science, because it reminds me of my dad. Perhaps, in spite of myself, like Elisha, I am to inherit a double (or at least a single) share of my father’s spirit.

I sometimes feel that as a religious people we should be uniquely qualified to believe in some of the most far-fetched scientific theories. If we can accept the infinite nature of God, God’s love, God’s power, God’s strength, as described today in our psalm, we should have no problem believing in the infinite nature of the universe. Or many of the more fantastic and glorious notions of modern science.

Last week I heard an explanation of the theory of the Holographic Universe. This has become a particularly favorite of mine, brought to us by Quantum Mechanics. It yields a surprisingly God-like picture of the universe. The theory of the holographic universe was inspired by the discovery that when any object enters a black hole out in space, all of the information about that particular object is somehow recorded on the surface of the black hole (what they call the “event horizon”) after it goes in. And apparently, the magic of string theory allows that ALL of the information for all that is or will be or has ever been is recorded- sort of “painted” on some surface boundary of the universe- the “cosmological horizon.” And even more incredibly, our living reality is quite possibly a projected hologram of that information. All that was is and ever will be. If all the information that ever was or ever will be could be seen as the mind of God, could it be said that we, and all around us are the thoughts of God? Or the luminescent dreams of God, lovingly and eternally projected forth?

Way back in 1930, before string theory was a twinkle (or a loop) in anyone’s eye, James Hopwood Jeans wrote: “The stream of [scientific] knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”

Jeans felt that consciousness came first, then the matter it created. Consciousness like the infinite scroll of information “painted” on the cosmological horizon- the “tent” of the universe.

The last time I saw my father I asked if I could give him a blessing. He always said yes and always seemed grateful and touched. Since I felt I could not mention God at the death bed of this devout Atheist, I prayed that the earth, that he loved so much, would give him its balance and beauty and peace, and that the cosmos that so delighted him would support him and love him and give him energy and light.

If grief is like one of those great black holes in the universe, then what is the information left on the outside? What remains from that which vanishes? We live on the surface, where all the precious information still abides- the face of our loved one- their smile, their stories, their loves, their passions. They are with us still, maybe not in the same bodily way, maybe more like a transfigured dream of them, glowing in our memory, keeping the their very shape and colors in our hearts and minds .

I have just been looking through my albums for pictures of my father. I found a great one taken when he was in the best of heath, at 31 years old, when my whole family had just climbed a mountain in New Hampshire. His hands are on his knees as he sits on the top of the mountain, beaming this enormous smile. I was, like Peter, basically thunderstruck at his radiance, and, like Peter, I tried to quantify and house the experience of him by some futile gesture. My father immediately turned his ever-present camera on me and said, what are you doing?
“Counting your feet.” I said. And sure enough, another picture shows me, at five years old, with my counting finger out, pointing to one of his boots. My mouth is open, saying either “one,” or “two,” measuring the dimensions of my infinite universe.


Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley 1/22/12
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

It seems that soon after Jesus emerged from the wilderness, having been tempted by Satan, and surrounded by wild beasts, he decided he did not want to go it alone.

He began to assemble his tribe soon after he emerged from the wilderness, perhaps becoming aware of how easily he could be approached by temptation when all on his own. Particularly after the death of John the Baptist, he must have felt the need to begin to create his own community.

He wasn’t very choosey about these first members of his tribe. Or maybe he was. Fishermen, like shepherds, were the uneducated, low-status and unpretentious equivalents of our truck drivers or street-sweepers. He was not looking for erudition, brilliance or ego. He was, perhaps, looking for faith, and for people willing to leave everything- if only because they had so little to leave. But still- their livelihood, their fathers.

I think as Christians, as people of compassion, we are constantly called away from that which we do not want to leave. We are called into community- called away from our material obsessions, called out of our technological worm holes.

I was musing about the meaning of my dependence on my Mac Book Pro, which sometimes seems like my little instant community, when I began to meditate on the apple symbol on the cover. It is not just a symbol of a apple, but of an apple with a bite taken out of it. This, of course, brings to mind a certain biblical story, whether or not that was the conscious aim of the designers. Not just the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but specifically, the bite that was taken from the apple that hung on the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the fall from grace that it engendered. It made me think that we may have bitten off more than we can chew.

In the early church it was traditional to pray five times a day, as is still required by Islam. If you had a burning question, you might take it to God. You had five times a day to do that. I am sure I consult Google or Wikipedia five times a day. My dependence was unveiled last week in London. I had seen the initials IHS on the chalices in the Tower of London, and although I had learned this long before, and I knew they were Greek initials, I just couldn’t remember exactly what they stood for. Since my Iphone wouldn’t work in England, I had to ask several people in the tower itself. Although none of them knew the answer (except that it meant Jesus Christ, which should have been a big hint for me) I had several lovely conversations. When I got back to the states, and first sat down at my computer to look it up, I found that Wikipedia was on strike to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act. So I had to look it up in my Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. I was forced to speak to 2 humans and open a book because of my enforced fast from Wikipedia. It is a corruption of the first three Greek letters in the Greek name for Jesus- Iota, eta, sigma. Finally!

There is a kind of safety we find in true community which we do not actually find in the fraudulent communion of zinging electrons that sometimes pose as company, or even as “friends.” Sometimes I think that humans are not so very different from any herd featured in a National Geographic’s special. We are like that lovely flock of Wildebeests, hewing together, roaming over the hills and valleys in one great mass. It is the strays, the loners, who get picked off by the jackals, just as we are much more likely to get felled by depression or addiction when we stray too far from community. So we feel the call to stay with our herd, we sense the danger of an isolated life. This is one good reason we are called to come to church!

Bishop Gene Robinson, was asked why he went to Zocotti Park to participate in the Occupy Movement. He first of all said that, as a Bishop, he was always looking for God. And he saw something of God in this movement. He said that the Occupiers were trying to move away from the “every man woman and child for themselves” model, and back into community. He said it was the most peaceable kingdom he had ever participated in, with food and clothing being freely handed out, a library and think tank, a profusion of art in every imaginable form. He said the movement is being called to a time when my wellbeing depends on your well-being. A time of community.

Very recently, I experienced an unexpected call in the middle of my all-too short vacation in England. This journey did not end up being the vacation of my dreams. The first thing I was confronted with was that my daughter had chosen to follow a call of her own. Right in the middle of that beautiful face of hers, right under her perfectly shaped lower lip, there was now a big silver stud. It looked to me like the Mona Lisa had been slashed in half with a razor blade. But she had felt a call- perhaps a call to freedom from the good graces of her mother. I realized that if I had liked it would have ruined her required rite of individuation. So I was already off balance when the next strange thing happened which was a call for me to leave my family. My brother called to say that my father was dying in the ICU in Baltimore and that I should come home. This was a horrible choice. Do I leave my father, as it were, in the boat with the hired men, or do I stay with my family who I had reunited with only 3 days before? I have rushed to my father’s bedside (not a simple matter when you live 3,000 miles away) at least twice before, and he always perks up. The first time this happened was 15 years ago.

I remembered Jesus’ words to the disciple who wants to follow him, but had to bury his father. “Let the dead bury the dead.” Said Jesus, in one of his more severe moments.

But I followed the call. I left my family in York and sped down by train to Heathrow where I just missed the flight. I booked the next flight which was to leave in 6 hours. While at the airport I got on line and my niece had left me a message saying that my father had stabilized, and that I should go back to my family and come to Baltimore after the end of the vacation, which we did. Predictably, my father had revived, was very weak but absolutely lucid. But perhaps lucid in a different way. He saw me and said, unfortunately in the presence of my two brothers “You have an aura of love around you.” I found this very touching, and both my brothers found it hysterically funny. After I left, my brother sent me an e-mail saying: “Thank you so much for coming to Baltimore. And of course, thank you for your aura.

I was glad to be back in my community, in California

Maybe we should all be looking for God, like Bishop Robinson. And maybe we will find it in Community. We are all imperfect- more like Jonah than Jesus. Jonah refused the word of God, got swallowed by a whale, and it took him three days to figure out that he better start praying. Jonah was a different kind of fisherman- actually, I guess maybe he might be more in the category of bate! But he was called by God, as the fishermen were called by Jesus.

Jonah’s experiences with community were not great. He was thrown off a ship by his on-board community, and then, even as he succeeded in changing the hearts of the people of Nineveh, he boiled with anger when God chose not to punish them, as he had said he would do. In the end Jonah said he was angry enough to die.

But God continued to reason with Jonah, continued to provide him shelter and then remove it, as Jonah still had lessons to learn.

We are a community of imperfect disciples, sometimes making the right choice, often fishing in all the wrong places. But Jesus brings us the good news that our imperfections are not indelible. That he loves us precisely because of them. And that we can always experience metanoia, repentance, and that is what Jesus comes to bring us. He brings us not judgment, not even comfort, but the experience of transformation and the journey from isolation to communion, because the Kingdom of God has come near.