Friday, June 22, 2018

Courage

"Victory of the Sun"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I recently had a conversation with a mom who told me that she was grateful for summer vacation because, at least for the next few months, she won’t have to be afraid of sending her kids off to school. In light of the many school shootings over the past year, every day this mom was  afraid of what might happen to her children when she put them on a school bus and sent him off for the day.

I’ve been thinking about that mother’s constant, nagging fear, a fear that underlines her everyday life,  and I wonder if a sense of constant fear might might indeed be very emblematic of life in contemporary society nowadays?  We are fearful of the next terrorist attack, the next shooting in a neighborhood school, a backpack that turns out to be a bomb, a quickly deteriorating climate, a country divided by culture wars.  Many people are “constantly on edge,” always on the lookout for the next piece of bad news, afraid to go to a mall or an airport or afraid to send their kids off to school. 

Fear saps our spirits, it drains the “joy” out of living every day.

I think about something Buddhist teacher and monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said about this constant presence of underlying fear that so eats away at us.

We are always running, running, running,
Even in our sleep we are running.
We run because we are trying to escape from our fear.

As reflect on this wisdom it makes me wonder if this may help explain why so many people nowadays always seem so busy - busy at work or school, busy at home, even busy on a summer vacation, always on the run, afraid to be fully present in the moment because who knows what horror the next moment might bring.

There is one single line that is continually repeated throughout the entire Bible, throughout the Hebrew Bible as well as the Christian Scriptures.  In fact, this line appears more often than any other single phrase.

Do not be afraid!

Over the thousands of years of history out of which the various books of the Bible have emerged, this is the one single piece of wisdom has been given to all people of all time. It is an admonition to avoid succumbing to the underlying fear that threatens to poison and destroy the serenity of the human spirit.

Interestingly enough, when I look at the Bible, I find all sorts of things people might  rightly fear - plenty of reasons to be afraid. The Bible is written to people who are experiencing war and famine and threats of terror, it is written to people who have suffered great personal disaster, devastation, floods, earthquakes and exile.

The Bible never says there isn’t anything to be afraid of in life, instead it continuously says “Do not be be afraid” – don’t let fear eat away at you, don’t let fear destroy your spirit.

Sitting in exile on a South African prison, unsure of what would become of his life, Nelson Mandela had plenty of reasons to be afraid. It was during this time that he wrote:  

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear,
but the triumph over it.

When I reflect on my own life and on the times in which we live, I am well aware that there are lots of reasons to be afraid - the things that might make us afraid are constantly knocking at the door of our lives. But instead of always running, running, running and rather than being constantly on edge, I simply try to embrace what comes to me each day and at each moment, and when I do this I find an abiding Love standing there at the threshold - a Love that will never let us go.

Love abides and we have one another as we walk along the Way – so we can live “courageously” and enjoy every moment of what our life has to offer us.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Lean in Toward the Light

"Darkness and Light"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

After church last Sunday I was approached by someone asking if I thought the latest “celebrity” suicides in America were indicative of a possible “suicide plague” inflicting our society? The person went on to lament that she wouldn’t be surprised if the suicide rate was rising because "there is a lot of darkness in the world nowadays and we have an awful of things to be depressed about "– nations that were once friends now at odds with each other, immigration upheaval, families divided over political ideology.  The person also wondered what would become of us in the future and said: “I feel so helpless in it all, the only thing I can do is pray.”  

While “praying” for the suffering of the world is a good thing, I also believe that we can actually “do” something to heal the suffering and bring about a world of deeper compassion and greater justice. In fact, every word we speak and every action we perform in our everyday lives either contributes to the suffering or heals it.

We make choices every day. We choose what we eat and drink, we chose how well we take care of our bodies or we choose to neglect them. We choose to sit quietly and meditate or we choose to be so constantly busy that we have no have no time for reflection. We choose to forgive an injury or we chose to lash out in anger. We choose to reconcile or we choose to hold grudges and we choose if and how we vote in an election. In fact, even when we choose not to make a choice we are making choices - when we decide to ignore that homeless guy asking for help on the sidewalk, we have in fact made a choice.

Since we are an interconnected web of relationship, whatever we say or do not only effects a small circle but it inevitable resonates and reverberates far beyond our own individual selves. An act of kindness is infectious and so is a word of anger.

It is a great paradox to me that we can control very little if anything in our lives but we can influence almost everything. Our choices have the power to enhance our humanity and they have the power to diminish it.

I remember coming across an op-ed column a while back in the New York Times:

Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances in life
that, if explored, provide great meaning
–everyday chances to be generous and kind.
Spiritual and emotional growth happens
in microscopic increments.

The big decisions we make
turn out to have much less impact on life as a whole
than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.

I find great wisdom in this observation –our little, everyday, seemingly insignificant choices change the world.

I am reminded of something Jesus once said about how “love" grows.  He talked about little tiny mustard seeds that, when planted, become large trees:

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed 
that someone sowed in the field;
it is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown
 it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.

Every act of kindness, compassion, mercy and forgiveness is a little mustard seed we can plant every day of our lives – tiny, little seeds of love that grow into great trees.

Carrie Newcomer writes beautiful contemporary songs about walking a spiritual journey in the everyday events of our ordinary routine. Jesus’ teaching about the mustard seeds makes me think of a line from one of Carrie’s recent songs, “Lean in Toward the Light:

Every kindness, large or slight
shifts the balance toward the light.

Yes, indeed, there is a great deal of darkness in the world and sometimes we may feel helpless in the dark times; but we can do more than pray for the victory of the light. The manner in which we lead our lives can actually change the world by bringing light into the darkness. Every single act kindness or compassion (large or slight) does indeed shift the balance toward the light.

The philosopher and psychologist, William James, once said:

Act as if what you do makes a difference – it does.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Accumulating Clutter

"Clear Skies"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Most homes out here in the desert where we live have very little storage space. They rarely have basements or attics and so, for the most part, the garage is about the only place for keeping all your extra “stuff.”

When we first moved here a few years ago, we would walk through the neighborhood and I would notice how horribly cluttered most garages were. In some cases, people couldn’t even park a car in their garage because it was so filled up with so much of their accumulated possessions.  At the time I vowed that I would never allow this to happen to me. Unfortunately, this did happen to me.

The other day I realized that, over a relatively short period of time, we had accumulated so much “junk” that I could barely get my car into a space in the garage – piles of newspapers, jars and jugs and cans of paint, many garden tools, an old TV set stored out there after we bought the new one, boxes of clothing and all sorts of other unmarked boxes containing “who knows what.” I couldn’t believe that we had accumulated so much clutter in just a few short years.

It all reminded of a humorous little quip by the ecologist, Wendell Berry:

Don’t own so much clutter
that you would be relieved to see your house catch on fire.

Yesterday as I stood in my garage full of so much stuff, I also realized that all that clutter was creating a sense of chaos in me, making it hard for me to focus, too many distractions.

As I reflected on it, all that “stuff” that had gradually crept into my garage was teaching me a helpful spiritual lesson, reminding me that the baggage accumulated in my life over the years creates chaos and distracts me from focusing on being aware in the present moment, blocking me from being awake to all life has to offer me every day.

I have read a number of Buddhist books, articles and essays about the practice of mindful meditation – sitting quietly, awake and alert in the present moment. They all say that in order to do this you have to unclutter your mind. This doesn’t mean that when you meditate you should not allow any thoughts or feeling to come into your mind; instead you are able to be mindful and alert when you recognize and acknowledge the thoughts and then let them go rather then allowing them to accumulate and become clutter that distracts you from focusing.

I actually think this advice about how to meditate mindfully is good advice about how to live  mindfully in your life every day.

I came across what Buddhist scholar, Paul Knitter, has to say about this:

Mindfulness is the ongoing effort
not to let our thoughts and feelings get the best of us.
Our problem is not that we have thoughts and feelings
but that we take them too seriously.
We think they are giving us the full and final word
about who we and others really are.
When this happens we don’t have thoughts and feelings,
they have us.

And so we can all observe what is going on – our thinking and judging and feeling
We let them be and then we let them go.
By not holding on to them they can’t hold on to us.

I find great wisdom in this observation.

The older I get, the more I come to believe that we often take ourselves way too seriously. We believe that our thoughts and ideas about ourselves, about others, about the world, even our ideas about ‘God” are true and real and accurate, and so we cling to them because they give us a false sense of security and stability. But the truth is that the thoughts any of us may have accumulated over the years are often little more than piles of clutter in the garage of our minds and if we really hope to grow spiritually we probably need to clear away all the baggage so that new life can spring up.

Jesus’ wisdom about how to walk a spiritual path is no surprise to me:

Take nothing for the journey
no staff, no bag, no money, no extra shirt.

I’m planning on cleaning out the “stuff” in my garage today. I’m not going to throw it all away, just keep what I may need to use, and even then I’ll to be aware that I own my things and they don’t own me.