Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Sapping Today of its Joy

"Deep Peace"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As I browse the social media and listen to conversations in the the local Starbucks, it seems to me that there is a lot of angst in the lives of many people nowadays. People are worried about a chaotic political climate, they are worried about finances and health concerns. Some folks are worried about flooding due to the stormy spring weather we have been experiencing.

When I think about my own life I realize that I worry a lot, I worry way too much. Worrying is one of those “demons” in my life that continually stands in the way of my spiritual well-being.

I am reminded of a very wise observation I once came across:

Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy

As I wrestle with my own "worry demons" I realize that they do indeed sap me of my joy. I also realize that, for me, I rarely worry about the big stuff in life - I am rarely overcome by anxieties over possible impending disasters like terrorist attacks or a big earthquake hitting California.  No, the kind of worries that plague me most are those everyday little worries that occupy a prominent place in my regular routine. So, I worry about things like a leaky faucet or a scratch on the face of my iPhone.

In fact, when I am not worried about something, I sometimes wonder what I may have missed that I should be worrying about - how ridiculous is that?

There is a better word for the kind of worrying that troubles me: fretting. The word, fret, is an “Old English” word meaning, to devour, eat away, gnaw at, and that’s exactly what my everyday worries do to me -  they eat away and gnaw at my well being, “sapping today of its joy."

My guess is that I am not alone in this, many of us allow our worries to slowly eat away at our serenity and deeper peace in life.

I don’t at all believe that we should always “smile and be happy” as we make our way through life, burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problems of the world, the nation or the personal problems we all face in our lives. I also see very little use in “worrying” about any of it.

The Dalai Lama said:

If there is no solution to the problem,
then don’t waste your time worrying about it.
If there is a solution to the problem,
then don’t waste your time worrying about it.

I find great wisdom in this teaching.

We squander away our time and expend useless energy by worrying about the big problems or about the everyday little problems in life. The fact is that problems can either be solved or sometimes have no solution - either way worrying about any of it does nothing to make it better.

Mark Twain once quipped:

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles in my life
but most of them have never happened.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Spirituality of Storytelling

"Wilderness Inspiration"

We often spend our Sunday evenings sitting in front of the TV set watching cable programs on HBO and Showtime. Last night as we engaged in this weekly ritual, I was suddenly struck with a fairly vivid childhood memory of a time when I was about 4 or 5 years old and my extended family all lived together in a big old house back in Western New York.

Back then, Sunday evening was always a time when the entire family would gather together at the dinner table - my grandparents, my mom and dad, my uncle and me. We would share a meal together and then sit around and tell stories to one another.

We didn’t even own a TV back then and I don’t actually remember listening to the radio; but I do vividly remember the stories the adults would share around that Sunday evening dinner table.  Often times the stories were about long-dead relatives, how they came to America, what life was like back then. Sometimes my grandmother (who was an excellent storyteller) would recount humorous stories about the the silly things my dad and uncle did when they were boys. It was such a long time ago but my memory of that time has barely faded.

Now all these many years later, the thing I remember most about that storytelling time was that it was such a tender and intimate occasion for us all. In the telling of those stories I experienced a deep sense of love.  In fact, it may well be that in the telling of those stories I first experienced “God.”

Ecologist and author, David Orr, once made this wise observation about out contemporary culture:

The planet does not need more successful people.
The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, lovers
and storytellers of every kind.

Interestingly enough, my own childhood memories of our family’s storytelling time abruptly ended when I was about 6 years old. My parents bought their own house and when we moved into it, one of the very first things my father purchased was a wonderful new invention – a TV set. For the most part, my childhood memories after that are of me and my parents staring at the TV set, sitting in front of it and eating our dinner.

Nowadays we are all so caught up with watching TV shows and movies or so involved with an increasingly hostile social media that people barely even talk to one another let alone share those important stories of our lives. The idea of sitting around a table and telling stories may sound rather quaint and old-fashioned to many; and yet, I believe that the planet desperately needs more storytellers of every kind. I like watching HBO on Sunday evenings but last evening made me realize that I need to intentionally “carve out” more time to sit at a table in my life and share those important stories that we all desperately need to hear.

Storytelling is a spiritual discipline just like prayer or mediation.  When we share our stories we are opened up to a different kind of deeper truth. The stories we tell renew and inspire us, they bind us together and foster relationships. Our stories are a threshold into the experience of “God.”

No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, our everyday lives are brimming with important stories just waiting to be told.  I walk into a coffee shop and the young “barista” tells me of a tough time she is having at school and there’s a story waiting to be told. I walk outside the market and carry on a conversation with the man collecting money for the homeless shelter, we talk about his important ministry and there is a story just waiting to be told. My little grandson who lives back East asks if he can say goodnight to his grandma and grandpa and so they call us on FaceTime, it brings tears to my eyes and there’s a story just waiting to be told.

As I think about it, maybe that’s why I write articles on this blog - it gives me chance to share some of my stories.

Every single day, each and every one of us comes across important stories just waiting to be told, so let’s take the time to tell them.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Turn the Other Cheek

"Deep Peace"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I had a lengthy conversation with a friend of mine who was having an especially difficult time understanding one of the more challenging teachings of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’
 But I say to you love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

In light of all that has been happening in this country over the past year, my friend was finding it hard to accept this particular teaching. He told me that he has been infuriated over what he sees going in in this nation –a rising tide of hatred, bigotry and prejudice that has been so prevalent in the past few months. He asked, “Does Jesus really expect us to turn the other cheek in light of all this? Shouldn’t we be resisting the haters, fighting against the bigotry? Does Jesus really expect us to be little more than ‘wimpy’ doormats allowing others to step all over us?”

I told my friend that I don’t think the teaching about “turning the other cheek” has anything to do with being a doormat to be stepped on in life.  Actually this teaching is about letting go of the desire for vengeance and retribution, it’s a teaching about “going higher” when others “go lower;” and, in fact, it offers some very practical advice for resisting evil and standing up to prejudice and hatred

I am reminded of the story of Nelson Mandela as he languished in a South African prison, put there because of his resistance to the oppression of “apartheid.”  In his journal, Mandela wrote of how he hated his cruel, “white” guards who had deprived him of his freedom and kept him captive. He dreamed of getting revenge against them, getting hold of a gun and shooting them all to death.

Then one day Mr. Mandela realized that his hatred and his desire for retribution was keeping him captive more than the prison cell to which he was confined. So he released his desire for revenge, he “turned the other cheek,” and his spirit was set free.

While in prison, Mandela wrote:

Resentment is like drinking poison
and hoping it will kill your enemies.

Nelson Mandela began to “pray for those who persecuted him” and discovered that he could “love his enemies” even if he didn’t particularly like them and even if he resisted what they stood for. In the end, “love” was ultimately the victor.

Today we live in a culture and a country where other people are either our “friends” or our “enemies” and those who are perceived as enemies need to be obliterated, crushed and destroyed. As I see it, this is “dead-end” thinking because no one ever wins when everyone is dragged down to wrestle in the mud.

This reminds me of another story:  

Like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. was also vilified, beaten and imprisoned because of his resistance during the struggle for civil rights in this country. But Dr. King was indeed a follower of the Way of Jesus and so he knew what it might mean to pray for his persecutors, love an enemy and turn the other cheek. He knew that revenge was poison for the soul and that when you respond to hatred with more hatred you only make the hatred grow.

From his prison cell Dr. King wrote:

Hate cannot drive our hate, only love can do that.

There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.
When we discover this truth we are less prone to hate our enemies.

As I see it, this is wise and profound advice for all of us who live in our own times when you are either an enemy or a friend. Now more than ever, this may be a good time to lean what it means to “turn the other cheek.”