Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Broken Hallelujah

"Death and Life"
-along a wilderness trail-

With only hours remaining in 2013, I call to mind a passage from the Hebrew Scripture in the Book of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season - a time for every purpose under heaven
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to love, and a time to hate
a time for war, and a time for peace

For the past few days the various media have been featuring year-end reviews- summaries of the top stories of 2013. As I have listened to, read about and watched this year-end summary, I have been reflecting on this passage from Ecclesiastes. This past year was indeed a season for every purpose under heaven.  It was a season of hate and killing, breaking down and mourning - a time for war. It was also a season of dancing and healing, building up and loving - a time for peace.

It was a season for a massacre at the Boston Marathon, a brutal civil war in Syria. It was a season where a North Korean dictator threatened to set off a nuclear holocaust, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman became household names, and mean-spirited politics divided the country. 

It was also a season where peace was celebrated as the whole world danced in remembrance of the reconciling life of Nelson Mandela. It was a season where further suffering was avoided as chemical weapons of destruction were removed in Syria. It was a season where for the first time in recent history,  negotiations took place between Tehran and Washington. It was also a season where a pope stepped down from his mighty throne, kissed a leper, embraced atheists, and refused to pass judgement on people because of their sexual orientation. 

And while lots of ordinary people did plenty of selfish things in 2013, it was also a season in which extraordinary acts of kindness were performed and compassion was practiced every day. Acts of abundant generosity and tender healing, acts of selfless reconciliation and merciful forgiveness happened everyday -  acts that certainly never made it to the list of the top 10 news stories of the year.

I have always loved Leonard Cohen's hauntingly beautiful lyrics in his well-known song, "Hallelujah." 

Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

That song is resonating through me in these final hours of this year. 

So many people think of peace and love as something sweet and gentle. They imagine that peace is the absence of war and love the absence of hate. But the truth is that we will never live in a utopian world totally free from hate or war or division -  this is all part and parcel of our broken human condition. 

And yet, at the same time we, fragile and broken  human beings, are also magnificent creatures who are capable of loving abundantly -acting with great kindness and open-hearted compassion. 

As I sit here in my mediation garden on this final morning of 2013, I am filled with a sense of great "hope."  I sing a song of "Hallelujah" because in the midst of all the chaos and darkness, love prevails.

The universe is ablaze with a holy Presence of abiding love. We are never abandoned; and in the end ultimately love will indeed be the victor.

As the old year fades away, I open my heart to a new year about to begin and I sing my song -it's  a cold and it's a broken hallelujah.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Making Resolutions

-another day comes to an end-

When I was a parish priest, the leadership of a parish I was serving was pushing for the development of a long range plan for the church.  They were convinced that we needed to devote a good portion of our time and resources to carefully articulate a 10-year comprehensive strategic plan. I wasn't so convinced that such a plan would be all that helpful.

At the first meeting of the "strategic planning committee,"  I brought a copy of another 10-year strategic plan that had been developed by the people of that same church fifty years earlier. 

That half-century old plan was spelled out in a very professional looking report - lots of bulleted items, clear and comprehensive -plenty of charts and graphs. It laid out 15 strategies for doubling the size of the congregation and significantly increasing the budget - very impressive indeed.

The only problem with the 15 strategies and the 10-year plan was that not a single strategy had actually been implemented, and in essence, none of the goals had ever been achieved. 

Every time people make strategic plans, they operate under the assumption that they have the power and ability to "figure it all out" - the wherewithal to accurately predict and carefully control future outcomes. Personally, I don't think anything in life works like that.

At this time of year,  people everywhere are engaged in making a strategic plan - resolutions for the upcoming New Year. 

Yesterday I heard a report on a radio broadcast in which people were sharing some of their New Year  resolutions. Many resolutions involved plans for losing weight and getting healthy- workout at the gym 4x a week, go on a diet, refrain from alcohol, walk 5 miles a day, get out the bicycle.  Other plans involved personal relationships - a family dinner together every night, no more arguments, be nicer to the people at work.

On the surface, these future strategic plans all sounded great. After all, who could possibly be opposed to getting healthier or improving relationships? 

The problem of course is that, statistically about 6% of the people who make these noble-sounding resolutions actually implement them when the New Year comes around. Most people try, but quickly fail - the workout is too strenuous, the schedule is too busy for that regular family dinner to work out, and that colleague at work is just so annoying that it's hard to be nice. 

People try and fail, and then they feel bad that they didn't  have enough gumption or willpower to make the future turn out the way they wanted it to happen. 

I have never been a big fan of making New Year resolutions.  As I see it, "making resolutions" is pretty much an act of the ego- feeding into our misguided desire to be in control. "I" develop a plan, "I" outline some strategies, "I" determine the outcomes "I" want to see happen - mix it all together and it happens just as "I" planned it. 

However, it doesn't happen like that, and there is actually very little in life that I can control.

As the New Year comes along, instead of making plans and developing strategies for the future, I am more and more determined to focus on living in the present. 

At this time of the year, the night skies in the desert are brighter than ever. Yesterday as I gazed up in wonder at the brilliance of the vast array of shining stars, the thought struck me that we are all made of stardust. The cosmic dust of exploded stars is "physically" present in every atom of every human being. We are all filled with stardust and woven together by starlight. 

It all reminded me of something I had just read a few hours earlier in a book of Buddhist wisdom:

There is no need to reach high for the stars.
They are already within you.

The Buddha taught:

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

So this is the New Year resolution I make. I resolve not to make resolutions - no plans for how I can make the future turn out the way I want it to happen.

I resolve to be mindful - to live awake and aware in the present, connected to those high stars already within me. Indeed, this is the secret to getting healthier and being happier as the New Year rolls in. 


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Discard After Use

"New Every Morning"

I was driving along one of the streets in my neighborhood yesterday, and there tossed to the side of the road was a Christmas tree - just a few days after Christmas, not even the New Year, tossed on the trash heap, and now on to something new. 

I have been reflecting on that tree in the trash yesterday. For me, it was so emblematic of today's fast-paced culture of instant gratification.

From time to time I have come across a label on various types of medicine or food that reads, "discard after use." I have often thought that this may well be the motto of the day - the unwritten rule that governs so much of the way people today live everyday life: "discard after use."

In my experience, there is an awful lot of "using" that goes on nowadays.  People use their things, resources and even the other people in their lives to make their way up the ladder of success.

They spend money to make money, consume natural resources with personal pleasure as the only goal in mind. People use other people to fill the gaps, when they are lonely, to feel happy, to get pleasure.  And when all the stuff and all the people no longer produce gratification, it all gets discarded, thrown to the trash heap of life like a plastic fork at a fast food restaurant: "discard after use."

That tree in the roadside trash yesterday also made me think of how difficult it is for people in a fast-paced, results-oriented culture to live in the moment. It seems like everybody is always planning for the next thing to come along (or nostalgically remembering the good old days). 

And so, there is a frantic, almost frenetic planning for the holidays; the holidays arrive, the gifts, the parties, and then you can check it off your "to do" list - throw the tree to the road and move on to the next item on the agenda (some stores are already decked out for their Valentine's Day sales).

Just thinking about it all wears me out -planning, preparing to meet the deadline, getting results, checking it off, on to the next thing. It all feels so draining - like running on a treadmill or walking around in a circle and getting nowhere. 

Is it any wonder that so many people have such a hard time today finding a deeper peace when you live under the banner of "discard after use," and when your eye is always on what comes next, determined to get there as fast as possible, making it impossible to be at peace.

A bloated ego and an inability to live mindfully in the moment are sure ingredients for anxious, dead-end living.

As I sit in my garden for my meditation this morning, I think about that little tree I saw yesterday thrown away at the side of the road, "discard after use." 

Every morning I sit in this garden and I focus on simply being present.  I don't make plans for the upcoming day. I don't think about my schedule or my agenda of what I want to happen or hope might happen.  Nor do I sit and think about what has happened -not one thought about checking Christmas off my "to do"list.  In fact, I don't "think" about anything at all. I simply sit, mindful of what "is" here, now. 

And when I do this, I find that every moment is new - every moment a revelation. Every morning, sitting in the moment, I experience a new sense of "connection" - connection to the beautiful desert in which I live, connection to the people I know and the people I don't know, connection to an abiding, holy Presence in whom we live and move and have our being.

I don't ever want to "discard" or "use" any of this, and I am wonderfully content just to be here as I am.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Intimate and Infinite

-a reflecting pool in a desert canyon"

I had often heard that a desert is a very "spiritual" place  - a place for soul-searching, for meeting God.
I had often thought that a desert was particularly "spiritual" because it was so big and quiet. You could go into a desert, be alone, and find God in the stillness.

Now that I have moved out into the desert and have lived here for a while, I have indeed discovered it to be a very "spiritual"place, but not because I can be quiet and alone here looking for "God." My life in the desert has taught me that the spiritual life isn't so much about searching for God. The spiritual journey is really all about allowing "God" to find me. 

The desert is a place of complementary contrasts. It is a "Yin-Yang" sort of place.

The desert is a place of wildly uncontrollable nothingness - barren, vast, rocky emptiness, and at the same time it is a place of tender intimacy - flowers bloom in the most barren terrain, springs of water bubble up from sandy soil, hummingbirds and morning doves inhabit the land.  

The desert is a place that mercilessly bakes me in the triple digit summer noonday sun and chills me to the bone in the cold winter nights. I watch the rising or the setting of the sun, in awe of its majesty over the towering mountains, and at the same time I am comforted by the tender beauty of it all.  Desert nights are frighteningly dark and yet so illumined by cosmic starlight that it takes my breath away.

Every day I sit in my meditation garden or walk along the wilderness trails and I experience a total sense of absence along with an abiding sense of Presence, both at the same time - uncontrolled, wild vastness and tender intimate connection. 

And this is precisely why the desert is such a spiritual place.

Saint Augustine once said that the experience of "God" is

beyond my utmost heights and more intimate to me than my inmost depths

This is precisely how I  experience "God" in the desert. "God" - not a person out there or up there, someone to meet up with in a time of quiet meditation or while saying my prayers. "God" - an ever-abiding holy Presence, so infinite, so far beyond my ideas, thoughts or words as to appear absent and beyond me, and yet at the same time "God" -  an ever-abiding Presence more intimate to me than I am to myself. 

Many people today talk about being on a spiritual journey, looking for God, seeking transcendence. The desert teaches me that whether or not you seek out God or believe in God or don't believe in God,  God still abides, because "God" is that force, that energy at the heart of everything that "is." If you exist, "God" exists with you and in you - vastly beyond human thinking and at the same time more intimate to us than our inmost thoughts. 

The desert has taught  me that spiritual journey is not a quest for something that is absent but an acceptance of that which is already present.  On my spiritual journey, I allow this ever-abiding Presence to emerge into awareness. The spiritual journey is all about allowing "God" to find me.

I very much identify with the way the author and poet Christian Wiman, describes his spiritual journey:

What I crave - and what I have known, in fugitive instants- 
is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it,
some ultimate insight that is still sight.

So I sit quietly in my meditation garden. I gaze out at the vastly infinite and totally intimate desert glowing in the light of the rising sun. I am awake to it all - mindful, alert, in the moment. I am in awe at the mighty Presence, even fearful of the wild mystery of it all, and at the same time I am embraced by tenderness and warmed by intimacy. 

I am allowing "God" to find me.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Intimacy Among Strangers

"Barren Tenderness"
-winter flowers bloom in the sand and rocks-

Author and poet, Richard Rodriguez, once said:

There are things so deeply personal that they can only be revealed to strangers

Living out here in the desert, and writing this daily blog from the Desert Retreat House, I find great wisdom in this saying.

When I first took on the task of blog writing, I had no idea what to expect. My original intent was to provide an opportunity for me to share a daily spiritual reflection in the context of a wilderness setting. 

While I have indeed offered daily reflections here,  I have also discovered that the blog has taken on a life of it's own- very different than what I expected.  In fact this "virtual" Desert Retreat House has become more like a "real-life" retreat house - far more than I could have ever imagined

Every day, after I post an entry, I get all sorts of responses. Some of the responses are cranky and argumentative; but for the most part, the responses are genuinely open-hearted. Often, they are so poignantly tender and deeply personal that they bring me to tears. 

Every day, various people from all across the world (literally) meet online here in the Desert Retreat House. Believers, agnostics, atheists and humanists meet here. Religious people from all sorts of traditions meet here. The spiritual but not religious meet here. 

Very often people will comment on a post by sharing their own stories - often deeply personal stories of faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, pain and healing, death and life. 

There are things so deeply personal that they can only be revealed to strangers

Today I have been reflecting on those stories shared with strangers here in the "virtual" Desert Retreat House.

In one sense, I guess people are willing to share their personal stories here because, in doing so a certain degree of anonymity can be maintained. You don't have to worry about what others think of you or how they will judge you if you don't know who the others are and you are unlikely to ever meet them.

However, I actually have another understanding about what is going on in the deeply personal stories that are told in this "virtual" setting. 

I believe that when we scrape beneath the surface, we, human beings, discover our common humanity.  When we can break down the barriers of our ego defenses and make ourselves vulnerable to one another, we discover that we are one another- all of us wounded, weak and broken and yet strong and healed, all of us filled with a sense of potential and yet aware of our failures, all of us full of faith and plagued with doubts, all of us anxious and also peaceful, joyful and sad. 

When we make ourselves vulnerable to one another, we discover that we are all soul-searchers -all on a soul searching journey, hungry for a deeper peace in this wilderness journey of life.

I think that when strangers meet together in this "virtual" Desert Retreat House to hear my own soul-dearchng searching stories and share their own soul-searching stories, we all discover that none of us are strangers after all. 

We are separated from one another by a thin veil -  by the "delusion" of the ego. We are only separated  from one another by the illusion of a separate, individual self that actually doesn't even exist; because, in truth, we are one another. All of us are a dynamically interconnected, interdependent web of relationship. 

When you scrape beneath the surface, none of us are strangers to one another. 

As I write this refection, I look out at the wilderness in which I live. The stark desert terrain always takes me to my edges. The vast, wild and uncontrollable wilderness makes me vulnerable.  It is not a place where the ego thrives very well. It is a place where I scrape away the surface and look at what is really beneath it all -who I really am; and when I do that, flowers spring up -even in the wintertime.

The desert is a perfect place for a retreat house (even a "virtual" retreat house). The desert is a wonderful place for soul-searchers to meet and discover that none of us are strangers after all. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Universal Wisdom


At this time of the year, when "religion" becomes more visible in the public forum, it's no wonder that people would reflect upon what it is that they believe in, or perhaps what they don't believe in.

Yesterday I had a very interesting online conversation with someone responding to my post.  He said, "I don't believe in God, but I am looking for transcendence in my life."

I wondered just exactly what he meant by that phrase? I have been reflecting upon what he didn't believe and what he did believe; and I wondered if maybe he and I actually believed the same things.

I think people are born with and into a "universal wisdom" - an innate sense that there is something bigger than the individual, something "transcendent" about life that gives meaning to life, and somehow makes sense of it all. 

As I see it, at some deep level, every human being is "looking for transcendence in their life." Everyone has a spiritual hunger -it's just part of who we are as people.

As we grow up, everyone engages in some form of a spiritual quest, but oftentimes the spiritual answers we come up with further cloud and confuse us, taking us away from the transcendent rather than drawing us closer.

The problem is that whatever "answers"we come up with about who "God" is will always make God smaller. Our human attempts to name or define or categorize the transcendent always diminishes it. 

And so God is reduced to a set of beliefs and ideas. God is anthropomorphized, made into a magical, distant person sitting on high, creating and controlling. 

Some people are content with this diminishment of the transcendent - the "old-time religion is good enough for them." Others want more. So they reject all the conventional "God" answers but, like all human beings, they never give up their search for the transcendent. 

As I see it, many times the people who say they do not believe in God are actually saying that they do not believe in the "concept" of God -  words about God that no longer make sense. 

In some ways, many people who claim to be atheists may actually be rejecting the "diminishment of God."

Yesterday I came across one of the most cogent and articulate statements about "God" that I have ever read. In his new book, "The Experience of God," David Bentley Hart suggests that if you scrape beneath the surface of all the teaching, all the scriptures, all the accumulated doctrines of all religious traditions of all times and all places -Christianity, Judaism,  Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, various pagan traditions, you basically will find a "wide area of vast accord" about "God"- a universal wisdom about divine transcendence. 

God is Spirit, incorporeal not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, not simply some craftsman who creates by manipulating materials external to himself, not composed of parts, but rather residing in all things while remaining perfectly one, present to every one of us in the depth of our own being.

I wonder if my "atheist" friend and I might actually be able to agree on this universal wisdom about "God." 

"God" - Abiding Energy, Holy Presence. 

"God" -  the source and the goal of an innate, universal human wisdom.

"God" - diminished by being named, defined and categorized. 

We are all looking for transcendence. "God" is transcendence.

I wonder if my "atheist" friend and I might actually both believe in the same thing?

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In the Flesh

Christmas Morning 2013

The church I served in Los Angeles was quite close to Hollywood, and so on any given Sunday it would be no surprise to see a well-known celebrity in the congregation - especially at Christmastime. 

On a Christmas morning I would look out and there right in front of me would be some famous person sitting right there - "in the flesh."

At first, it all seemed so exotic and even distracting to me. I had never really met any well-known "celebrities" before. But gradually I came to a point where it was just kind of nice to have those folks there with us. They blended in so well that no one actually paid much attention to them. They sang the hymns, said the prayers, came up to receive communion, and stood in line to greet me after the service -just like everyone else.  

Famous people who once seemed so distant, bigger than life on the silver screen, characters in my favorite TV shows, well-known musicians and recording artists, all came "down to earth" for me - so accessible, so human.

On this Christmas morning I think about those "in the flesh" celebrities with whom I "rubbed shoulders" on Christmas mornings in the past. They remind me of the one whose birth we celebrate this day. He made a far-away distant God so totally accessible - so down to earth, so human.

A"patriarch" of the ancient Christian church once said:

The glory of God is 'man' fully alive

When I look at the life of Jesus, I see the glory of God in a human being who was fully alive. 

Jesus modeled what being fully alive looks like. He lived a life of total compassion, always welcoming, always forgiving and reconciling - no one ever pushed away. He was filled with an abiding joy and in touch with a deep sense of inner peace. He was fully alive. 

Jesus showed the world that "God" is not some distant judge or vindictive king. "God" - not some well known out-of-sight celebrity, only accessible to the rich and famous.  Jesus brought "God" down to earth, "God" in the flesh; "God" accessible to everyone.  

However Jesus will have failed in his mission if, on this day of his birth, we only look to "him" to who he was and what he did.  Jesus came among us to point the way for us all to follow.  His life was a model of the fully alive life that every human being has the potential for living. 

Like the Buddha, Jesus is not the only "enlightened one," a celebrity to be worshipped from afar on a Christmas day.  Jesus was born in order to point the way for all of us to become "buddhas."  He was the son of God who showed us how we all might become sons and daughters of God - fully alive human beings who shine with the glory of the energy of love. 

The Jewish mystics say that every human being has a "spark of God" in their spirit. Every one of us enlivened, enlightened, and connected in that eternal light of abiding love flowing in us and through us. 

We are all "God" in the flesh. 

On this Christmas Day, I look to the life of the one whose birth we celebrate and I fan the flame of the spark of God, incarnate within me. 

On this Christmas morning, I look to the life of the one whose birth we celebrate this day and I pledge once again to follow in his "way," living a life that is fully alive. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Long Live the Revolution

"Christmas in the Desert"
-in my meditation garden-

It is very peaceful and absolutely quiet in my garden this morning as the sun rises on this Christmas Eve. I suppose that, in some sense, peace and silence are quite appropriate for what is celebrated across the world on this December 24 when people will gather in darkened churches, light candles at midnight and listen to the stories and sing the all-familiar carols of the birth of the Christ in Bethlehem. 

Christmas Eve is a mystical time filled with the poetry of peace and calm - a star glows brightly as angels in the heavens tenderly sing a birthday song. They point shepherds to a stable where a sweet baby lies fast asleep wrapped in a little blanket nestled in a manger. Mary and Joseph are aglow with delight. Even the animals seem to respond to the holy moment - sheep and cows snug in the hay look lovingly at the newborn babe. 

While I love the beautiful poetry of Christmas, I am also "cautious"about it. I  think there is a fine line between poetry and piety. The Christmas story is beautiful but it can border on being too sweet, a little too saccharine for my taste. People can hide from the world in the imagery of that sweet Christmas story instead of going out and facing it and changing it.  

In fact, in some sense that tender Christmas tale about the babe born in a manger elicits feelings in me that are anything but tender and gentle, calm and peaceful.

The story of the birth of the Christ is a subversive story - a story about the birth of a revolution. 

That sweet little babe in a manger would grow up to proclaim a message that would boldly stand in diametric opposition to the culture of his day- a culture of empire and temple in which only the healthy and the wealthy were given value or afforded respect.  

That sweet little babe in a manger would grow up to passionately proclaim a message of a new world order in which everyone would be treated with equal dignity. That little baby would become an enemy of the state and an opponent of the institutional religion of his day by daring to embrace outcasts and sinners, foreigners and pagans, the lepers and the lame into his circle of belonging - no one ever on the outside looking in. 

In fact that little babe born in a manger would become such a revolutionary figure that he would ultimately be executed for his subversion -nailed to a cross.

However, his message and his revolution in the cause of justice and compassion would not die on a cross because Jesus entrusted any who would follow in his footsteps, in all places and in all times,  to continue his revolution of compassion and reconciliation. 

In the earliest days of Christianity, those first followers of Jesus would meet in darkened caves and catacombs - hidden in the shadows of night.  They were enemies of the state, considered to be subversive revolutionaries because of the message of love and compassion that they lived and preached - so opposed to the accepted cultural norms of dominance and oppression. 

However, over time, it all got tamed and declawed. Those revolutionaries in the cause of love became "members of a church," replete with a hierarchy of importance and a system of laws and regulations about who belonged and who didn't. Over time the revolutionary disciples would become the very thing Jesus opposed.

Tonight as people from all over the world gather in darkened churches in the middle of the night to sing about peace and calm and hear the sweet poetry of a baby's birth, I pray that they may remember again  that revolutionary mission entrusted to those who would be his followers.

As the songs are sung in the hush of the night, I pray that those who gather together might also remember their ancestors who likewise gathered in the middle of the night in those darkened caves for fear of being arrested by the forces of the empire, and that songs of calm might also be loud protests in the cause of compassion. 

Long Live the Revolution!

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Everyone Welcome to the Feast

"No Gates, No Borders"

I was fascinated by a story I read in yesterday's NewYork Times.  It told of a new and growing phenomenon among agnostics, atheists and humanists in the city (and throughout the country) who come together at this time of the year to celebrate "the spirit of what Christmas is all about." 

The folks who gather together for these Christmas celebrations don't believe in God (at least not in the traditional sense). They are not Christians, and so their Christmas celebrations are not festivals for commemorating the birth of Christ.  But rather, these folks come together for these "Christmas" celebrations because they somehow want to participate in the season, and they want it to be more than some sort of anemic "holiday" time marked by frenzied shopping and endless partying.

Yesterday's NewYork Times article described one particular "atheist-humanist" Christmas gathering last week. It was attended by around 150 people in an auditorium -mostly young folks. They gathered together to listen to uplifting music, have conversations, hear a "sermon," sing some songs, and experience a sense of community with one another. In his sermon, the leader of the gathering talked about the importance of encountering "transcendence" at this Christmastime of year. He went on to talk about Christmas as a a time to express charity toward others.    

At the gathering they all sang some Christmas carols. One carol was:  "Do you Hear what I Hear" (no mention of Jesus' birth but still a Christmas carol). Then they had a potluck dinner together. 

In the interview, the leader of the assembly told the Times' reporter. "We may be atheists but we aren't a bunch of Scrooges -alienated, creepy folks." 

As I reflected on the story in yesterday's paper, I thought to myself, "That gathering (and gatherings just like it all across the country) may have been Christmas without Christ, but it certainly was Christmas celebrated in the spirit of Christ."

When I look at the life and ministry of Jesus, I see no signs that he ever attempted to convert anyone to become his disciples. He ate dinner and had parties with those who had been cast away by the "established" temple religion of his own day. He embraced and healed foreigners and pagans. He was a rabbi who healed the servant of a Roman centurion -a hated enemy of the Jewish people. 

Jesus' life and teaching was constantly marked by compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation and whole-hearted hospitality - everyone always welcome to the table, without restriction.  

Jesus invited any who would wish to follow him to be his disciples, but there were no conditions ever placed on his love.  And if you did follow him, you were expected to treat others the way he treated others, always welcoming everyone with unconditional acceptance - an open-ended invitation for everyone sitting at a place of dignity at the feast of life.

As I reflect upon that atheist-humanist "Christmas" gathering I read about yesterday, I think it has a lot to teach Christians about what Christmas is really all about.  

Lots of people will go to church over the next few days and celebrate the birthday of Jesus. They will hear the stories and sing the carols announcing the birth of the Christ child, and then they will go home and live everyday lives of exclusion and self-centered gratification- lives totally opposed to the teaching of the Christ they profess to follow.

The atheists who celebrated a Christmas without Christ last week came together to find community, to seek transcendence and to go out to live a life of charity and kindness. It seems to me that this is really what Christmas is all about. 

Christmas is not just for Christians. 

Christmas is a feast of love, a time to welcome everyone to the table of life. Christmas is a time for being at peace with others. Christmas is a time for encountering something bigger in life- tapping into transcendence. Christmas is a time for reaching out in charity.

Everyone, everywhere, come and sit at the Christmas feast!

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hard Choices

-a desert trail-

Every day I walk one of the many desert trails around our home, which means that every day I have to choose which trail I wish to walk along. Some of the trails are simple and easy, others far more strenuous. 

Interestingly enough, the simple trails do not lead to the most beautiful places in the wilderness. If you want to find a lake in the mountains or discover a desert oasis you have to choose a path that is more difficult and more arduous. 

This morning as I sit in my garden and look out at a nativity scene assembled under my olive tree, I think about that Christmas story about to be told once again in just a few days, and I realize that the story of Jesus' birth teaches an important lesson about following arduous paths and making hard choices in life.

The familiar story of Jesus' birth appears so sweet and tender on the surface - a newborn child, angels singing in the heavens, and of course Joseph and Mary meekly looking on the infant in the manger. 

However, when you scratch beneath the surface of the story, you realize that the birth would never have happened were it not for Mary and the choices she made. She had to agree to accept the invitation to be the mother. Her acceptance meant that she would  be socially ostracized, rejected by her community as an unwed mother. Her acceptance would mean that her life from now on would be radically different because she was bearing Jesus into the world.

The Christmas story is as much about Mary as about Jesus. It is a story of a strong, young woman, willing to make difficult, passionate, risky choices in order for love to break into the world. Without Mary's hard choices to follow an arduous path, there would have been no Christmas story.

Like all biblical stories, the Christmas story isn't so much an historical account of real-life events as it is a "larger than life" story told to teach deeper truths.  The Christmas story is not only a story told to Christians or to believers, but also it is a story that touches a deeper truth about our human condition. It teaches the universal wisdom that "love doesn't just happen."  

We bring love and beauty into the world when we are willing to make the hard sacrificial choices in life.

As I sit in my garden and look at the manger scene under the olive tree, I think about people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. They changed the world. They gave birth to love and beauty because of their willingness to make hard choices - prison, abuse, rejection gave birth to justice, compassion and reconciliation.

Every day people make choices to get married, to have children, to send their kids to college, to reach out in service to others- all choices in life that demand sacrifice. 

Love is born out of hard choices.

In these few days before Christmas, I sit in my garden and I reflect on the choices I make every day. What trail will I choose to follow - the easy path or the more arduous trail leading to greater beauty?

These are the questions I ask on these days before Christmas.

The choice is always up to me.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kissed By Light

"Here Comes the Sun"
-Morning Skies of the Winter Solstice-

Today a cosmic event occurs - the earth shifts. The longest night of the year gives way to the conquering sun. This is the day of the Winter Solstice.

As I watched the dawn of today's magnificent desert sunrise, I reflected on the universally prominent role the Winter Solstice has played throughout human history - across all cultures. From prehistoric times until the present day, from the East to the West, on this Winter Solstice Day people have always gathered to celebrate festivals of light. 

Elaborate festivals of light, dancing, eating and drinking, singing and merriment, bonfires and candles, have been hallmarks of all cultures and religions at this time of year, from the prehistoric days at Stonehenge, to ancient Persian and Asian cultures, to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, to our own day of Hanukkah celebrations, Kwanza and yes, Christmas. There seems to be something inherent in our human condition that calls us to gather together to celebrate this cosmic planetary shift of the "Solstice" on our planet earth.

Some anthropologists and social commentators have suggested that people celebrate the Solstice in order to "ward off" and fight against the gloomy darkness of the longest night of the year. So they light fires and candles and decorate and sing and dance to insulate and protect themselves from the power of the darkness. 

I have a totally different interpretation about why the Winter Solstice has always been so prominent among human beings. 

This may indeed be the shortest day and the longest night of the year, but this is the day when the light returns. The festivals of light are celebrated not to insulate or protect from the night. Solstice celebrations are festivals to welcome the victory of the sun.

On the day of the Winter Solstice, the universe makes a cosmic proclamation that touches something deep and inherent in the human spirit. On this day, the universe announces: Light is more powerful than the darkness of the night, and in the end,

love always wins!

I very much believe in this cosmic proclamation.

There has and always will be evil in our world - wars and hostility among the nations, the rich and powerful crushing the poor and the weak. Unchecked and bloated egos, broken relationships, rampant consumerism are all part of the darkness in which we live. 

And yet, when I sit back and look at the glorious rising sun of a Winter Solstice, I firmly believe that in the long run, the light of love does win over the darkness - and so apartheid comes to an end, peace negotiations happen with long time enemies in places like Iran, America elects an African American president, and people are allowed to marry whomever they love regardless of gender. 

Acts of kindness happen every day, people are reconciled, friends and family gather around festive tables and decorated trees to give and receive tender tokens of love.     

Even in the chaos, we are never alone. There is a Power that is beyond us all, an Abiding Holy Presence of Universal love that fills us and connects us and unites us - a Power that will never abandon and never let us go.

On this Winter Solstice, the human race celebrates a universal truth - even for those who love the darkness, you can never stop the return of the light.  

So light the fires, sing, dance, feast and make merry: "love always wins" 

There is a beautiful celtic "Winter Solstice "blessing. I pray it upon the world this day:

May all your winter places be kissed by light!

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Friday, December 20, 2013

A Spiritual Jacuzzi

Night Clouds in the Desert Skies

Last evening as dark clouds gathered in the desert skies on one of the longest nights of the year, I reflected on how different those dark desert skies looked compared to when they beam brightly in the morning or glow in the rays of the afternoon sun. 

It all made me realize that while I relish the daytime, the night has also much to teach about the spiritual journey.

The dark night clouds made me think about a celebrated saint of recent memory -  Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 

To be very honest, while she was alive, I didn't really pay all that much attention to Mother Teresa or to her work among the very poor in India. People would often remark about how radiant she looked, how  "beatific" she always appeared. She was hailed as a living saint in her time, obviously basking in the assurance of the Divine Presence. 

I actually began to pay much closer attention to the life of Mother Teresa after she died. Her memoirs were posthumously published in which she disclosed that for most of her adult life she had little or no experience nor assurance of a Divine Presence in her life. Most of the time "God" was absent and she often wondered whether there even was a "God" at all.

Mother Teresa, the living saint who appeared so radiantly "beatific" had experienced a "dark night of the soul" for the majority of her adult life, and yet she faithfully persevered through it all. 

She said her prayers, quietly sat in silent meditation, and she did the work she felt called to do - feeding and clothing the poorest of the poor, rescuing the outcasts thrown onto the trash heaps of society on the streets of Calcutta, building schools and hospitals. 

She did all this while living under dark clouds of doubt and unknowing, and yet faithfully persevering through it all.

In her last few years the light broke through - morning came, Holy Presence, Blessed Assurance.

I think the life of Mother Teresa is a wonderful icon of what the spiritual journey is really all about. 

I once heard someone say that, for many people "spirituality" and the spiritual journey is like a warm and  comforting "jacuzzi.  You occasionally take a dip into various forms of spiritual "practices" in order to soothe your troubles and relax your soul -  a few prayers in church, a quiet meditation on a yoga mat, sitting by the ocean at sunset on a sandy beach, then it's time to dry off and get back into real life again.

From my point of view, the spiritual journey is about as far from being a spiritual jacuzzi as you can get. 

The desert where I live teaches me more about Holy Absence than Holy Presence. The towering stone mountains and the endlessly dry wilderness terrain are daily reminders that the "God" I seek can never really be found, or captured, tamed or named, and all my comfortable jacuzzi-answers have turned into questions that are often very uncomfortable to me.  I always walk under a cloud of unknowing. 

But the unknowing is what makes my desert spirituality exciting - never comfortable but always exciting.  The dark clouds make the brightness of the sun always brighter when the morning dawns. 

In my later years I have come to believe that the spiritual journey is essentially all about "showing up"  - getting up every morning and faithfully persevering come what may.  So that's what I do every day -  I show up for the journey in the wilderness. I show up and wait to see what happens along the way.

Sometimes the light breaks through, sometimes the clouds prevail.  Sometimes my "unknowing" brings me into deeper darkness, sometimes the veil is lifted and I stand at the threshold of greater faith. 

Tonight will be the longest night of the year. I guess I'll wait and see what tomorrow brings.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Too Much is Too Much

"Elegant Simplicity"

Many years ago when our first son (now an adult) was a toddler, we decided to go "all out" in celebrating Christmas. It was the first time that he understood something about Santa, whose visit he was eagerly anticipating.

So that year we all went wild in buying huge amounts of extravagant Christmas gifts for this child's first Christmas with Santa. 

After we put him to bed on Christmas Eve, we spent much of the night assembling the vast array of Santa gifts around the tree. By the time we were finished, the living room was so filled with "stuff" that you almost couldn't move around - a rocking horse, a toy car,  stuffed animals, games, brightly wrapped boxes in every "nook and cranny" of the room.

It was clear that on that Christmas, we were being guided by the principle of "more is better." 

Early on Christmas morning, we all assembled around the tree - my wife and I, the grandparents, all of us waiting in excited anticipation for the moment when our little boy would come downstairs and feast on the splendor of Santa's "over the top" extravagance on a Christmas morning. 

The moment finally arrived and as our boy came downstairs, there it was all spread out in front of him, a room full of toys, wrapped boxes and bright lights - and it was just "too much" for him. He simply couldn't focus on it all. It was just too much for him to take it all in. 

The child didn't rejoice in the abundance of it all.  He didn't experience the moment as an expression of generosity- it was just more stuff than he could handle. 

So instead of the squeals of delight that we had anticipated, all he could do was yell out to us "I have to go and blow my nose." And away he went, back up to the safety of his little bedroom where he remained until we could coax him back out. 

That Christmas morning, all those many years ago, taught me a great lesson in life- a lesson I have never forgotten: "Too much is too much." When too many things, too many ideas, too much stuff clutter our lives, we can't focus, we become bloated - ungrounded. When so much becomes too much, we become disconnected and isolated from others. 

As I reflect on that long-ago Christmas, I once again look out into the desert in which I live, and again the desert becomes a great teacher for me. 

By any standards, the desert is a fairly stark place - no lush green meadows or sandy beaches with ocean views here - just mountains of stone and miles of sandy terrain dotted with bushes and desert trees and cacti. Yet there is such beauty here- more than I have ever experienced in my life. In the desert I find such total elegance in such radical simplicity. In the simplicity of the desert, I find such great abundance and such generous beauty.

In this holiday season, as "Christmastime" comes around once again, many people will probably move toward accumulating and acquiring lots of stuff, perhaps operating under the ego-driven principle that "more is better"  - more and more things, minds filled with busy tasks and lives cluttered with activities.  

I actually think this holiday time is a perfect season for getting rid of some of the clutter- a time to find periods of silence, a time to quiet the mind, a time to give and receive gifts that are beautiful and expressive of a generous spirit, but not so much that too much becomes too much.

I look out at the desert on a December morning with Christmas just around the corner, and I  embrace the lesson the desert teaches me: 

Such a wonderful time to practice a discipline of elegant, generous and abundant simplicity.  

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Discipline of Rhythm and Flow

"Rhythm and Flow"
-along a desert trail-

Yesterday I saw a comment in an online discussion that I considered very iconic of our contemporary times. A young man complained, "I feel so out of balance - like my rhythms are all off."  

When I read this, I thought to myself that probably lots of people may be feeling out of balance nowadays, perhaps especially at this "holiday" time of year - too busy, too many parties, too much work, not enough rest, unfocused, not grounded. 

This morning, like every morning, I sit in my meditation garden and look out at the surrounding desert. The desert is a daily reminder of my spiritual ancestors of centuries ago- those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who migrated out into the desert wilderness of Syria and Egypt in order to escape the restraints of the growing institution of the church and to follow the teachings of Jesus more intentionally. 

These ancient monastics lived a very simple life. They prayed and worked together, caring for one another's needs, extending hospitality to strangers, and in doing so they found a deep peace, a balanced life in tune with the rhythm and flow of a universal energy- a higher power. 

In subsequent years, familiar with the life of those first monastics of the fourth century, Saint Benedict wrote a rule of life for monks (a rule that is followed in most monasteries throughout the Western Church to this very day).  The purpose of Benedict's rule was to teach a discipline for achieving some sort of balance. 

The Rule of Benedict was designed to guide the community of monks in practicing a rhythm and flow in everyday life. "Prayer," "Study," "Work" and "Rest."- the daily pattern  for everyday living.

To this very day, Benedict's Rule of Life is practiced in every monastery throughout the Western world. 

Every day, monks devote dedicated periods of time for prayer and quiet meditation, dedicated time for studying and reading, dedicated time for working (usually physical labor in most monasteries).  And yes, every day the monks are required to practice a discipline of rest and recreation - care for the body, having fun together, getting enough sleep.  

Over the years I have visited and stayed with monks in many monasteries in many different places throughout the world -  Western  as well as Eastern, Christian as well as Buddhist; and I  have discovered that this pattern of daily monastic living is hardly restricted to the Western Christian church. 

In fact, at times, it was difficult for me to determine if I was in a Christian or a Buddhist monastery because, when you scraped beneath the surface, the pattern of life was so similar: daily community prayer (chanting together, quiet meditation), a daily period of study and reading, a devoted time for hard work embraced with passion and enthusiasm, along with a daily and intentional time devoted to rest, recreation and fun.

My monastic experiences have taught me that there is something universal about discovering "balance" in life and that you don't have to be a monk or live in a monastery to engage in a daily discipline of rhythm and flow in tune with the rhythm and flow of a greater, universal energy.

As I sit in my garden on another December morning, I sense the movement and the flow of the desert- it moves along according to a pattern and I place myself within its daily flow. I pray and meditate, I study, I work, I rest. I do this every day not out of duty or obligation, but rather I embrace this discipline with a committed passion and with a gentle heart. 

It is a way of peace that anyone can follow. 

The Buddha taught:

Meditate. Live purely. Quiet the mind.
Do your work with mastery.
Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds!

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

No Regrets

"Capturing a Desert Moment"

Last Saturday, my wife and I were in the car driving back from the store, listening to a TED talk on our local NPR station. The speaker was so captivating that, even after we arrived home, we just sat in the driveway and listened until the end of the presentation.

Phuc Tran is a teacher of Latin and Greek who came to this country with his family back in the 1970's. He is a very accomplished, fluent speaker of English and Vietnamese, and his talk on NPR was about how language influences (forms and fashions) the way people think.

He made the point that, unlike English, Vietnamese and other Asian languages do not have a "subjunctive" verb structure. At first this may sound kind of boring (and who cares), but actually the way the subjunctive is used (or not used) is very significant to the way people view the world and make sense of reality.

In his talk, Mr. Tran related how he tried to explain the nuances of the English use of the subjunctive verb with his Vietnamese dad who had no comprehension of what the "subjunctive" is:  "Dad, listen - in English you might say "If it had't rained, we would've gone to the beach." That's a subjunctive."

To which his father replied; "That's pretty stupid. Why do you want to talk about something that didn't happen?"

When I was listening to the radio program last Saturday, the father's response really grabbed my attention.

I actually think English speaking people in Western cultures use a lot of subjunctive verbs.  We spend a great deal of time talking about (and thinking about) things in the past that never happened- but might have happened. We also talk about things in the future that never yet happened, but might happen or could happen - a language chuck full of "coulds, woulds, and mights. 

In his fascinating presentation last Saturday, Phuc Tran suggested that our very language structure lends itself to creating a climate for living with regret.  It focuses attention away from the moment and returns us to the past or projects us into the future, filling us with "If onlys" that eat away at the human spirit.

I think of the numerous "If only" statements I have heard throughout my life:

- If only I got those brakes checked, I wouldn't have had the crash.
-If only I had studied Computer Technology instead of History, I could be rich by now. 
-If only I had married my first girlfriend, I might not have gotten divorced.
-If only I had taken better care of myself when I was young, I might not be so frail in old age.
-If only I had remembered to turn off the iron, my house would not have caught on fire.

Upon reflection, I tend to agree wholeheartedly with Phuch Tran's Vietnamese dad. It actually is pretty "stupid" to expend energy on and pay so much attention to something that didn't happen. 

I think we can look at our past and perhaps be sorry for some of the mistakes we have made, vowing to make amends in the future. I also think that we can look to the future and envision new and fresh  possibilities. However, I see absolutely no value in living with regret over what never happened but "might" have been. 

I have decided to watch my language more closely, and be more careful about how I use those nasty little subjunctives.  

There is a popular phrase that reflects a Buddhist way of thinking. I use it all the time.

It is what is

So, as best as I can, I try to live "mindfully" in the moment, awake to the wonderful unfolding of the "here and now." 

No regrets!

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Childhood Memories

"Awe, Mystery, Wonder"
-today at dawn-

Yesterday, as I listened to a radio broadcast of people telling stories of their holiday memories,  I immediately called to mind a time when I was about 6 or 7 years old.  We were living on a farm just outside a little hamlet located in a very rural area of New York State. In the center of town there were two churches, a one-room schoolhouse, a bar, and a store.

Yesterday, my Christmastime childhood memory was about the store in the center of that little town. It was an amazing place to a child of six. It was immense - a place where you could buy all sorts of wonderful things, everything imaginable. The store was chuck full of farm equipment, tools, groceries, school supplies, seeds, clothes - you could even buy gas for your car there. 

At  Christmastime, they pulled out all the stops. Everything inside and outside the store was bedecked with bright colored lights, ropes of garland, towering trees of pine. A nativity set, a Santa statue and Frosty the Snowman completed the grand display. It truly was a wonder to behold and filled my young soul with a sense of awe, mystery and wonder.

Many years later, living in the city, married with my own children, I took my family on a little road trip out into the country to see if we could find the tiny hamlet of my childhood home.  In particular I wanted my children to enjoy the wonders of that amazing store at Christmastime.

Well, we did indeed find the store. After all those years, It was was still open, right next to the school, the bar and the two churches - and to this very day I can still vividly remember the deep disappointment I experienced when I came back there to visit as an adult. 

The amazing store I remembered from my childhood was actually a small little barn-like building that sold lots of stuff-mostly junk. You could still buy a few grocery items there- a quart of milk and some bread. They sold a few tools, some seeds and various "sundry" items - shampoo, paper clips,  maybe a hair brush. It was all pretty tacky.

As for the glorious Christmas display -  a strand or two of twinkly lights, some artificial trees, a plastic Nativity Set and a Santa statue that needed a good cleaning.

I realized that this little store had probably looked exactly like this when I was a boy, but before, I was seeing it all through the wondrous eyes of a child-still able to be surprised by awe and amazed with mystery. 

Now I was seeing it through the eyes of an adult.  I now held advanced degrees, I had travelled the world. I  had become "sophisticated." So now I saw the amazing Christmas store of my childhood memories as nothing more than  a "two-bit" convenience store selling gaudy items in a farming town. 

This morning I reflect on my adult disappointment upon seeing the "little" country store, and I realize that in my life, the more sophisticated I became, the smaller life became for me. 

The older I got in life, the more I achieved.  I had achieved success in my career. I had arrived at the places to which I aspired. My advanced degrees provided me with lots of answers so I could "figure it all out" -so that I could even figure "God" out.  

However, the more I achieved, the more I arrived, the more answers I came up with, the smaller my world got.  

This morning I sit in my meditation garden in the desert and I witness the dawn.  It's breathtaking - a stunning spectacle. Suddenly I realize that I am again filled with a sense of awe and mystery and wonder in my life. 

Now in my later years of life, all those achievements don't actually mean all that much to me anymore.  I no longer rely on my astute theological ideas. In fact I find most of the "God words" I used to use to be somewhat hollow and empty. Most of my answers have turned into questions.

As I sit in my desert garden, I think that maybe my unbelief is leading me to a new threshold of faith. 

This Christmastime,  my world has become a lot bigger. 

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