Wednesday, July 31, 2013


triple digit desert days

When I told my wife I was going to write today's blog post about "patience, " she just smiled and chuckled. We both know what an impatient man I am. I am hasty and I am impetuous. I find something broken or I see a problem and my immediate tendency is to rush in and fix it - control it, make it all better.

When we came out here, we moved several large houseplants from our Los Angeles home to our new desert home.  Since the climate here is very different from Los Angeles,  I was concerned that the plants we moved might not survive in their new environment. After a few weeks here, I noticed that one plant in particular (which I especially liked) was starting to look a bit wilted and frail,  so I began an intervention campaign to save it.  

Every day I would water it. I did online "Google" searches about plant care in the desert, purchased various insecticides and fertilizers - nothing seemed to be working  - the plant seemed to be dying, it's leaves turning black and falling off.

So I took a picture of my dying plant to a woman who runs a local desert nursery. She immediately diagnosed the problem: "You're giving it too much water. These plants like to be left alone. Water it once in a while, and just see what happens."  The plant is green and thriving nowadays.

The advice I got about caring for my plant is probably good advice about life in general. Some things in life can be fixed, but many times (most of the time) we just have to leave them alone, accept what comes our way and see what happens. We just have to be patient.

Every one of the great religions extol the practice of patience as a necessary virtue on the spiritual path. The Talmud and the Quran exhort believers to practice patience. In the Christian tradition, "patience" is one of the fruits of the Holy Sprit. In Buddhism the disciplined practice of patience (forbearance) is a necessary step on the road to enlightenment. 

I think that "patience" is such a universally important virtue; because when we practice patience we learn something about relinquishing the ego, and every spiritual path teaches that the ego is an obstacle to deeper peace, enlightenment - experiencing Holy Presence.

People with big egos think that they can "fix it all."  They think they are important enough and smart enough and powerful enough to shape their lives in the way they want their life to be. Usually this isn't the case. Most of the time the events of our lives are unable to be controlled. They just happen. Sometimes you can fix what is broken, sometimes not.  When we practice patience, we accept the truth that "it is what it is." 

The longer I live in the desert, the more I realize what a great teacher  the wilderness is. The desert is fierce and the desert is vast. It's a place where the "ego cannot thrive." The desert is big and it teaches me that "I" am small. The desert  cannot be controlled or tamed or harnessed - just like life itself. The desert can only be accepted with patient forbearance.  And the more I accept it, the more beautiful it becomes. 

It's going to be in the triple digits again today - not much I can do about the weather. I'll just be patient.  I'll throw a little water on the plant and see what happens. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Drop by Drop

a flowing fountain in the desert heat

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a young Black woman by the name of Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver's order to give up her bus seat to a White passenger. It was a small act of disobedience -  a "drop in the bucket" in the cause of standing against the tyranny of White supremacy. Yet this one little act sewed a seed that would sprout into a movement which would change the face of the earth. That "drop in the bucket" would become a "river of justice." 

Yesterday, Pope Francis held an informal news conference while traveling on the jet carrying him back to Rome after his visit to Brazil. He was asked about Gay priests and about Gay people in general. His response: 

If someone is Gay and he searches for the Lord, and has good will,
who am I to judge?

As I see it, what happened on that plane bound for Rome is quite similar to what happened on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1955. Although it may appear like a "drop in the bucket," I am convinced that this one little sentence spoken by a pope on that airplane has the potential to unleash a river of justice in the cause of promoting human dignity throughout the entire world.

All day long yesterday, I listened to pundits of every stripe offering opinions on the Pope's statement. There were some who downplayed the significance of what he said, decrying the fact that the official church still condemns homosexuality as a sin. Official Vatican sources even weighed in on it by reminding the world that the church's doctrine hadn't changed a bit by what the Pope had to say.

But, as one seasoned Vatican commentator noted in today's New York Times,  "This was a Sea Change."

For one thing, when have you ever heard a pope (any pope) say "Who am I to judge?' Throughout history, judgement had been the "order of the day" for the established church;  and this has been particularly true when it comes to homosexuality.  Recent popes have even gone so far as declaring homosexuality to be "intrinsically evil," decreeing that Gay men should be barred from the priesthood.

When a pope says "who am I to judge?" it's a "Sea Change." 

The New York Times this morning labelled the pope's remarks as "breathtakingly conciliatory." I couldn't agree more.

There are almost a billion Catholics throughout the world; and billions of other people at least pay some attention to what the pope has to say. Imagine the potential impact of this statement in the highly Catholic population of Uganda - a country that has persecuted Gay people in unfathomable ways (even considering the death penalty for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts). Imagine what a statement like this says to the people of Russia - a country in which gangs of Russian priests have armed themselves with clubs and taken to the streets, physically assaulting homosexuals and Gay sympathizers. 

Over the next few days we will probably forget about what Pope Francis had to say on board that airplane bound for Rome, but I am convinced that, whether we remember it or not, that one little phrase may have actually changed the world in ways we can only hope to imagine.

The Buddha taught:

Drop by drop is the water pot filled,
the wise man, gathering it little by little
fills himself with good

I pray that yesterday's "drop in the bucket" will indeed unleash a "river of justice."

Monday, July 29, 2013

30 Minute Monopoly

peace in the desert

When our boys were growing up, one of our favorite family activities was to play the board game, Monopoly, together.  We would sit around for hours and play - negotiating the buying of houses and hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, "going to jail," "getting out of jail free." There were times when the game became quite intense.  I even remember stopping the game when it got too late and then returning to where we left off the next day. It was a great way to spend time with one another.

A few days ago I read that, in order to accommodate modern-day tastes, Hasbro (the company that produces Monopoly) has redesigned the game.  You can now play Monopoly in 30 minutes or less. That's right, start to finish, and you're done in less than half an hour.

Parents and kids said that they wanted a "quick in-and-out frictionless game experience." Get the family time in with no conflict; and get the game over with, then everyone scatters out into the everyday hectic world to attend to the many other things that need to get done. 

As I see it, the new Monopoly game provides a very telling "icon" of the way most people live their lives today. Life is a series of tasks that need to be accomplished as quickly and as efficiently as possible, with the least amount of conflict as possible, and just enough interaction to get by.  Check off one task, and then it's on to the next.

Get up in the morning, get breakfast done so you can read the emails and plan the day, maybe say a prayer or spend some time on the yoga mat. Then it's off to work or school or to the store or maybe to an hour of church on Sunday. Get that done so you can get back home, and get supper ready.  Get that over with, so you can watch TV, then maybe get to some more emails and browse the web.  Get that over with and go to bed. Do your best to make it all quick, easy and frictionless.  

Life is like a 30-minute Monopoly game; and I'm exhausted just thinking about it. 

Living in the desert I find myself doing very little task accomplishment or destination planning. The desert is a  place of still silence. It is a place conducive to the practice of mindfulness, encouraging me to place my focus on here and now.  When I just sit in and with the present, when I allow myself to be available to each "moment," great revelations spring up within me: an awareness of myself connected to you and God. 

There is a story about a young desert monk who sought out the advice and wisdom of an older monk. The young monk was eager to learn more, to grow closer to God, to be a better and more productive person. The young monk wondered what tasks he needed to accomplish in order to do this.  Should he pray more, meditate more often, read the scriptures more regularly, fast more severely? What must he do? 

Upon hearing the young monk's urgent request, the older monk simply replied:

Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

Be where you are. Sit in the moment. Be available to the present - and you will find all you need and want and desire all bubbling up within you. 

You can't do this when life is a "30-minute Monopoly" game.

By the way, you can also now play Scrabble Flash. The game can be completed in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. 


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Complete Understanding

a winding trail in the desert

During a recent conversation, someone said to me, "I completely understand what you are saying." I was really struck by this response because I knew it wasn't true. The person may have thought that he "completely" understood me, but he didn't.

None of us ever  "completely" understands what another person is saying. Words are ambiguous and imprecise, and every word we use carries all sorts of personal baggage. So in every conversation (any time we use words) we can only "sort of" understand what the other person means.

Even if I use very "concrete" words (house, car, street, restaurant, market) another person can never completely understand what I mean.  I bring my own experience to these words; these words are packed in my baggage, and the other person does the same. So we can only "sort of" understand one another.

If this is true of concrete words and language, how much more does it apply to our use of more abstract words like religious words and theological language (God-talk). When we use this language we always only "sort of" understand the meaning of the words. 

Yesterday I made a list of some theological statements (God words)  I have heard or used all my life. 

Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the world.
Let's pray really hard and maybe God will cure his cancer.
God has a plan for my life.
It's God's will that it happened this way.
Don't be sad, she's gone up to heaven to live with Jesus.
God is offended by my sins.

At one time I actually thought I completely understood what these words meant, nowadays I actually have no idea as to what they really mean. 

I recently listened to a sermon and after it was over, I said to myself, "I honestly have no idea what the preacher was talking about." It's not that the sermon was hard to follow, it was very clear; however the words being used were essentially meaningless to me. After the sermon, I looked around at the people in the congregation and I wondered, what did they hear? What did those words really mean to them?

"Sin," "salvation," "God's will,"  "heaven," "God's plan,"  I don't have a clue about what all this really means any more.

It's not as if I have become an unbeliever in my later years - in many ways my belief has been strengthened. Rather now, I have become an explorer and an adventurer as I make my way through the intricate maze of religious language so I can "hear the words again for the first time." 

So, I look at the "God-words" I have used all my life and I think of them as some strange foreign language that has to be translated into words I can understand. I look at all the words I used to "completely understand" and ask "what do they really mean? "

I am re-thinking all the "God-talk," and re-imagining all the theological certainties. It is an exciting adventure, and the exploration is fresh and exhilarating.  

I think all religious people nowadays should become explorers. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Saint Francis
-my meditation garden-

There has been a lot of talk about Pope Francis lately.  The other evening, as I sat in my meditation garden, I reflected on another "Francis" - the Saint from Assisi.  

Although he lived in the 13th century, Francis' sense of "relationship with all creation" was very 21st century; and very much like what the new scientists of our own day are saying, that everything and everyone in the universe is dynamically interconnected and woven together in a cosmic web of energy. 

Francis sang about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire and Mother Earth - everything and everyone all teeming with divine life and energy, all connected, all interrelated. 

As I sat in my garden and reflected on Saint Francis, I thought about the many blessings I had pronounced over things and people when I was a parish priest. I blessed young people and old people, healthy people, dying people, and dead people. I blessed water and food, books and bells. I even blessed cars and boats. 

I always thought that my prayers of blessing were somehow bestowing something that wasn't yet present, that my blessings were somehow bequeathing holiness upon people and things. I have come to believe I had it all inside out and upside down. 

Everything and everyone is already holy; everything and everyone glows with energy and life and divine presence. A blessing merely sings the praises of the Holy Presence already existing, dynamically flowing in and through it all. Somehow I think Francis got that.

So I decided to practice some Franciscan blessings of my own. Throughout the day I pronounced a blessing upon anything and anyone that came my way - the good, the bad and the ugly. My blessings were not offered to bestow holiness but to recognize it. Everywhere I went and everything I did was an occasion for pronouncing a blessing.  I am sure some people thought I was just some silly man mumbling to himself, but I was actually blessing it all.

Here are but a few of the blessings I pronounced:  

I bless you brilliant rays of the rising sun.
I bless you tiny hummingbird, fluttering wings, sipping nectar.
I bless you heat that bakes, air that cools, bubbling fountain.
I bless you beautiful dogs, faithful companions, gentle eyes, furry faces, frisky play.
I bless you prickly cacti, wilderness trees, bushes flowering in desert sands.
I bless you towering stone mountain, you caverns and caves filled with angels and beasts.
I bless you my beloved spouse,  friends and family- I am you, you are me.
I bless you stranger whom I have never met - I am you, you are me.
I bless you cashier and waitress, clerk and gardener- so many kindnesses shown.
I bless you Facebook and Google, Twitter and Tumbler -weaving us together in a mystical web.
I bless you dark skies, glowing stars and glistening moon,
covering me through the night under the shadow of your wings. 

The entire cosmos is teeming with holy energy, beauty, divine life - and I am part of it. I bless it all! 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Taking Yourself Too Seriously

the moon rises over my desert retreat house

Recently I had a conversation with a young man who was going through a "bad patch" in his life. He was feeling somewhat depressed and listless.  His career was going nowhere, his personal life was stagnant. I asked him if he was in touch with "why" he was so "stuck in a rut. He replied, "I know what my problem is: my whole life is all about me - me - me." That young man "hit the nail on the head." He is well on his way to climbing out of that rut.  

The Buddha taught that we suffer when we cling to the ego. Jesus taught that we find the "true self" when we let go of the ego. This teaching is not some abstract ideal, but rather a practical prescription  for leading a meaningful life.

People with big egos always take themselves too seriously. They gaze only at themselves and think that their problems are enormous, far greater than anyone else's. They imagine that everyone else is always thinking about them, talking about them, or evaluating them. They imagine themselves as being very important. They take themselves very seriously.

But of course none of this is true. Every one of us has troubles, and the pain of others is just as great if not greater than our own. We are hardly even thought of or talked about by most people. None of us is an "important" person. 

When the focus of my life is "me-me-me," I will indeed always suffer. I will be stuck in a hole with only "me" to keep me company. 

A few nights ago, I was sitting outdoors when suddenly I looked up to see an incredibly brilliant moon rise up into the desert skies. It was breathtaking and it reminded me of something I had read earlier that day by the British adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, describing his experience of the desert at night under the crystal clear skies.
We were stained by dew,
and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars

Many things thrive in the desert. The ego doesn't grow so well. The desert is too vast, too awesome, too brilliant for any one single individual to honestly believe that he or she is the center of it all. The desert is a place to find the freedom of dying to self so that you can find your "self."

The 4th century desert Mothers and Fathers had learned this lesson of the desert. They moved out of the cities, into the vast wilderness, committed to following the teaching of Jesus, who taught that you find your self when you lose your ego.  Their everyday lives were planted in the vastness of the desert space; and they were lost in the silences of the stars - their egos "shamed into pettiness."

Over time the people in the cities began to think of these desert monks as gurus, exceptionally holy men and women. Spiritual groupies would travel out to the desert caves of the monks to honor them and seek advice of these "important" people.  But the monks knew that they had found their freedom by not taking themselves too seriously, and they refused to let others hold them in such high esteem. In fact they were often playful in showing just how unimportant they were:

Abba Simon, when warned that admirers were coming into the desert to seek his blessing, would invariably sit in front of his cell, stuffing himself with bread and cheese, or climb into a nearby palm tree, polishing its branches for all he was worth. The visitors would then look with disdain on the glutton gorging himself with food, or gaze up at the fool hanging unceremoniously from the tree, and wonder where the great Abba Simon had gone.

 I live in a desert. It is teaching me not to take myself too seriously.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Beautiful People

My Desert Home
-barren and beautiful-

Before moving out to the desert, we lived in Los Angeles. Every morning I could look out my bedroom window and see the Hollywood sign up on the hillside, the great icon of a culture of glamor, fame and fortune.

In LA, we lived quite close to a very popular neighborhood street lined with little boutiques, trendy restaurants and coffee houses, often frequented by Hollywood types- celebrities, producers, writers, all sorts of people connected with the entertainment industry.  

I would often sit in an outdoor cafe and watch the folks stroll by or sit next to them sipping coffee - all the "Beautiful People-" designer jeans, whitened teeth, firm bodies - even the dogs they walked looked beautiful.  

But as I sat and scratched just beneath the surface, I saw a lot of fragility, pain and brokenness in those "beautiful people." As I sat at that cafe I would listen to the conversations at the tables around me and listen to the countless stories of so many talented people who came out West to become famous and now find themselves working as servers in restaurants. I heard so many stories told of failure, disappointment, anger, rejection. 

Truth be told, those tales of fragility and failure were what made the "beautiful people," really beautiful  in my eyes. 

Brokenness is endemic to our humanity. When we recognize and name it, we find deep peace and freedom.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to visit Canterbury Cathedral in England. Like many ancient British cathedrals, the vast space of Canterbury is filled with tombs and effigies of many great historic figures, kings and queens, archbishops and nobility. 

There is one particular tomb that always stands out to me, and every time I go to Canterbury I am sure to find it, ponder and pray before it - the tomb of Bishop Chicele, a 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury. While I honestly know very little about the archbishop, I am fascinated by his final resting place.

At first glance, the tomb looks very regal and elaborate. An effigy of the dead bishop is placed on top of the tomb. He looks very peaceful, lying in state, vested in all the resplendent robes of his office. Unlike the many stone effigies of most of the other tombs, this one is colorfully painted-- from the vibrant red silk of his vestments, to the sparkling jewels on his ring and the glowing gold cross around his neck.

But when you look just beneath this elaborate monument, you see that there is another effigy of the bishop depicting of what he "really" looked like underneath it all when he died-  a frail, naked, grotesquely decomposing body. 

The tomb was erected years before the bishop's death and placed in a spot that the bishop would pass by every time he entered his grand cathedral. It served as a daily reminder to the archbishop that in all his earthly splendor fame and glory, he was simply frail and mortal flesh.

Living out here in the desert often reminds me of Bishop Chicele's tomb. Instead of waking up and seeing the Hollywood sign, I now wake up and look out into the wilderness in front of my house.  The desert is stark and barren and empty. Every day it reminds me of the fragility and brokenness of my own humanity. It reminds me of my own mortality, the frailty of my own flesh. 

When I recognize my own brokenness, I find great strength. There is Holy Presence in the starkness and the absence. 

We live in a culture in which people are compulsively afraid of being weak and vulnerable. Everybody wants to be counted among the "beautiful people," but "the emperor has no clothes;" and there are no beautiful people - just frail human beings.

The vulnerability of our human condition is what makes us truly beautiful.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Conversion or Compassion?

a high mountain and the vast expansive desert valley

Three million young people are gathering in Brazil and the pope is telling them to "go and make disciples of all nations." 

I wonder what "all the nations" might actually think when they hear the words of that "great commission" spoken by a pope to the youth of the world- go and baptize the nations, convert the world, bring the world to Christ? 

I think about the many Muslims I have known in my life, some of them friends and faithful followers of Islam, kneeling on a prayer rug, celebrating the holy month of Ramadan;  and I wonder how they might hear those words? I think about my friends in the Buddhist monastery in Korea, people in touch with such a deep and profound spirituality; and I wonder how they might hear the call to baptize all the nations? I think also about my many Jewish friends, faithful and committed believers, sons and daughters of the Torah; and I wonder what they might think about what the pope is telling the youth of the world? 

I also wonder how the ever-growing number of people who are on a spiritual path but see no value in religion might think about that call for their conversion? 

While it may be true that the church established after Jesus did indeed believe that it was commissioned to convert the world for Christ, I don't think Jesus himself ever tried to covert anyone. In fact, he celebrated and lauded those of different faiths and those who walked divergent spiritual paths. He praised the Samaritan for showing compassion and he celebrated the faith of a "Phoenician" pagan woman. 

I can't imagine Jesus wanting all the nations to be converted and baptized.  I can't imagine Jesus condoning the horrors of history perpetrated in his name for the cause of making disciples of the nations- the bloody crusades, the devastation of the deeply spiritual native cultures of Latin American destroyed by missionaries who imposed the cross at the point of a sword. 

Jesus came among us to teach the way of compassion, not conversion.

Instead of bringing the world to Christ, I think the church should be bringing the spirit of Christ to the world. Jesus embraced the world with open arms and loving acceptance. He healed the leper, ate with sinners, embraced foreigners and taught his disciples to call no one an enemy. 

Disciples of Jesus are indeed commissioned to go out into the world, not to convert the world but to embrace it with the same compassion of the Christ whom they follow.

I am a disciple - a follower of Jesus,  and "because" I am, I cherish the teachings of the Buddha and honor the people of the Koran. I am a spiritual descendant of the people of the Torah,  and I have profound respect for my spiritual ancestors. I also respect the spiritual path followed by many today who have "no religion." There is much to be learned from them.

Gandhi once said:
Though we know God by a thousand names,
God is one and the same to us all.

I think that maybe Jesus taught the same.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


my meditation garden

Royal events are happening. Yesterday a prince was born - the future King of England, sparking almost delirious excitement among people everywhere (especially here in the United States). The social media lit up and news coverage was nonstop.

On one of the TV shows yesterday, a commentator was asked why he thought Americans are so obsessed with what happens with British royalty. The commentator wisely answered, "I think it has something to do with living vicariously." 

Most people live very ordinary, somewhat dull lives, but the royal life of celebrity is glamorous and exciting -- a queen in regal robes, a royal baby born, and the whole world pays attention. That's exciting!  The average person can participate in a life of splendor and acclamation by watching the royal events and somehow imagining themselves as being in that exalted place. It's all about living vicariously, living your own dull life through the more exciting life of someone else. 

The birth of a prince isn't the only royal event on the current world stage. The pope has come to Brazil for World Youth Day 2013, and if this isn't a royal event, I don't know what is.

Now, don't get me wrong, as far as popes go, I think that Francis is probably one of the better ones; but while he has toned down all the papal pomp, he is still treated like a rockstar celebrity. And, to me, this is an icon of an inherent problem endemic in the established church.

Riding through the streets of Rio, the white-clad pope smiles and waves at his adoring fans. He appears before the throngs and people swoon as he passes by; teenage girls weep in excitement as they call out his name and try to touch him. After all, the pope is just one step beneath God and therein lies the problem.

The established institution of the church (organized religion) inherently fosters a sense of vicarious living. It encourages the ordinary everyday people to think of somebody else (at higher levels of authority) to be somehow holier or more spiritually qualified then those in the lower ranks. The structure of the religious institution encourages the "average majority" to let somebody else "drive the bus."

The world is a mess, lots of suffering, so go to church and pray. Ask someone else (God) to fix it and make it all better - let somebody else sit in the driver's seat.

The average person on the bottom of the hierarchical rung thinks: "I  may not be able to lead a holy life but certainly the pope does or the bishop does or the priest does ( or the Rabbi or the Imam). They are far more qualified than me. They can live a holy life in my place. They can take my place in walking a spiritual path. They can drive the bus; I'll just sit in the passenger seat." 

The established institutions of religion encourage living vicariously. 

When I look at the teachings of Jesus (and the very similar teachings of the Buddha) there isn't even a hint of encouragement for vicarious living. They both taught their disciples that each and every human being is a royal child of God. Everyone has a Buddha nature. Everyone is a son or daughter of God. 

Jesus never taught his disciples to pray to him so that he could fix the world and make it all better. No,  he taught disciples to "follow in his footsteps" so that each and every follower (everywhere and in every age) might carry on the work he had begun, continuing in the task of mending a broken world by leading lives of unbounded compassion. 

No one is a passenger on the spiritual path.

The Buddha teaches: You yourselves must walk the path. Buddhas only show the way.
Jesus teaches: Follow me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Other People Think

mountain caves outside my retreat house

Yesterday morning I was listening to an NPR story about attitudes in the workplace. A young man was being interviewed about how he conducted himself in his work environment. I almost fell off my chair when I heard his response: "At work, everything I do is pretty much based on the opinions my colleagues have of me." 

I wonder how many people get up every day and live their lives based upon what other people think of them,  always seeking the approbation and probably the praise of others? 

After hearing that young man's response yesterday, my mind immediately went to those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers, my spiritual ancestors in my own desert life. They moved out into the wilderness and lived together in mountain caves, not to avoid others or because they didn't like other people. Rather, they moved out to the edges of the culture in order to live at the fringes of what other people thought.

In his comments about those 4th century desert monastics, Lane Belden put it this way:

The desert monks were hardly naive despisers of culture. What they fled was not the external world but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior,  frantic in its effort to attend to a self image that always required mending.

The world renounced by the desert monks was the tendency they found within themselves to seek the  praise of others, being dependent for their wellbeing on the favorable responses of their milieu.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers would often talk about the indifference of the desert. They lived in a  vast expanse of space, under the brilliant enormity of starlit skies, within towering mountains of stone and they realized that, in reality, this fiercely beautiful landscape paid little attention to them. It basically had no opinion about them. 

This milieu in which these monks lived gave them a deep insight about the opinion of others - a person with a big ego thinks that other people are always forming opinions about her or him, but most of the time, most people aren't paying that much attention to you. 

Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello says:

After I turned 20 I worried endlessly about the impressions I made and how people were evaluating me. Only sometime after turning 50 did I realize that they hardly even thought of me at all. So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else's attention, performing for an audience that isn't there.

I wake up every morning amid the awesome enormity of a vast magnificence and I know that I am very small and the world is very big. I do not need and no longer desire the praise of others to bloat up my ego. I know, in fact, that most people hardly think of me at all.  As my ego shrinks, I find my "self." 

I am so grateful for the lessons that the desert teaches me and for my spiritual ancestors who continually show me the way.

 It's all very freeing.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wasting Time

nighttime skies in the desert

My youngest son turned 30 last week, and I posted his picture on Facebook to wish  him a Happy Birthday.  The photo had been posted less than five minutes when I began to get all these responses from a host of friends, family and acquaintances that we have known over these many years: "How is it possible that Joel is 30 years old?" "He can't be 30 already."

I have been thinking a lot about the passage of time this week. I have not only been thinking about how quickly time passes by; but I have primarily been reflecting on how much time I have "wasted" in my life. 

There is a wisdom saying of the Desert Mothers and Fathers:

An old monk once said, "If you lose gold or silver, you can find something as good as you lost. But the person who loses time can never make up what he has lost." 

Regretfully, I have lost a lot of time.  I have wasted my "time." 

When people talk about wasting their time, they often mean that they haven't been as productive as they might have been - you waste time by sitting around watching TV all day long when you could be reading a good book or cleaning out the garage.  

When I say I have wasted a lot of time,  I don't mean that I have sat idly by when work could have been done. I have wasted time by not paying attention to what counts, and spending so much time on what is essentially unimportant in life. 

In the past I have spent far too much time strategically planning and plotting out the future - developing my career, figuring out the next best move, developing personal and organizational  financial strategies, as well as church growth strategies. 

And what has become of all that career planning and strategic planning? I spent so much time building castles in the sand - now lost, gone, faded away.  

So much time and attention was paid to planning for the future that I often ignored and missed what  really matters - the people in my life - my relationships. I was spending so much time wanting something new to happen that I often failed to see what was already happening in the here and now. 

I realize now that instead of wasting all my time building "sand castles," I should have been spending my time building "relationships." 

I wonder how many times I failed to hear the voice of God in the greeting of a child calling out to me in the school yard of the church,  or how many times I failed to see the face of God in the tears or the smiles of my own children or in the touch of my spouse because my mind was so preoccupied in thinking about what was going to happen next?

I wasted a lot of time in my life, and I know I can't make up what I have lost; but I also don't want to wallow in regret. I still have "time" to use my remaining time more wisely and mindfully.  

This is the gift of growing older. I now realize how quickly time passes by. I realize that the time given to me  is limited and precious and I want to enjoy every second of that precious time in the "here and now" focusing on what really matters in life.  

The Buddha teaches:

There is no past, there is no future,
there is only now.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


a hibiscus flower blooms in the mid-day desert heat

A raging, out-of-control fire has been blazing throughout the mountains above Palm Springs. We live many miles away from that fire and yet every day we can see billows of smoke cloud the desert skies. 

Yesterday, I watched a news report about the fire on the local TV station; and a reporter was  interviewing someone whose residence had been consumed by the blaze.  Standing before the charred rubble of his once-beautiful mountain home, a teary-eyed man sobbed, "I built the place myself. Now it's all gone and I have no insurance. I have nothing left."  

As I sat (myself in tears) watching that man who had "nothing left," I thought about the story of the "exile" in the Hebrew Scriptures. Like all biblical stories, the exile story, is far more than a historical account of something that happened to the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. The exile story is an icon -  a metaphor about "having nothing left." 

As the story goes, the Jewish people have been conquered by their enemies. The citizens of Jerusalem have been rounded up and sent out into the desert to live in exile away from their native land, in the godless, foreign territory of Babylon. They have been taken away from their homes and businesses and robbed of their livelihoods. They have even been forced away from their temple. It seems like God has truly abandoned them. 

In the dried-up desert wilderness of "exile," the Hebrew people have nothing left. 

And in the midst of this total emptiness, in this most God-forsaken place, they hear the voice of God speaking softy and tenderly through the prophets:

Comfort, Oh comfort my people. I am making a path through the wilderness, so you can go back home again. Your exile is over. 

In what appeared to be a God-forsaken place, they come to realize that God has come into exile with them. 

The exile story is a story about the spiritual path of every human being. There are times when we are all in exile - feeling abandoned, perhaps feeling like we have lost everything; and in the driest most God- forsaken places of life, God always abides, God comes into exile with us. In fact, we often come to the deepest awareness of God in what appear to be the most God-forsaken places. 

Many years ago, while driving through the desert on my first visit to the Palm Springs area, I remember thinking how desolate and stark it all seemed - stifling triple-digit summer heat, an endless dry, sandy valley terrain, surrounded by mountains of stone. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, "why on earth would anyone ever want to live here?" Now that I do live here. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. 

The desert has been my teacher. Every day it tells me the "exile" story.

What appears to be a stifling, dried-up wilderness is actually a place teeming with abundant life and beauty once you scratch beneath the surface. 

You can often find a palm oasis on a desert trail, springs of water can gush from the rocks, cacti bloom, and flowers grow in the sun-baked, dry sand. 

When I walk in silence on the desert floor, my initial feelings of being alone always turn into a sense of an abiding presence so great that it reduces my ego to nothingness. 

Yes, the desert tells the story of exile. 

The places of life which seem most God-forsaken are the places where God can most deeply be encountered. God goes into exile with us and in the driest places, we often encounter the most abundant, wild, and unexpected grace. 

The desert is not a comfortable place to live, but it is a place of profound comfort. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cosmic Consciousness

a new day dawns

It would be pretty hard to argue with the observation that we are living in an age of great change and social upheaval.  Most of our societal institutions have either been abandoned or undergone enormous change. The established institutions of education, medicine, law and government are highly suspect and no longer provide a rock-solid foundation for everyday living. Established churches and organized religions are being abandoned. Governments around the world are being toppled. Our understanding and definition of marriage and our traditional judgements about sexual orientation are being turned upside down.

The striking "change" sweeping through our culture all seems so chaotic. It makes some people feel that we are at some sort of precipice of destruction.

Yesterday I had an online conversation with someone,  and we were talking about the chaos in today's world. "I welcome the return to chaos," he said, "it is a symptom that we are entering a new era." That phrase- a return to chaos - elicited such a visceral response in me that I physically felt a burst of energy in my body, and I was struck with a new sense of hope.

I immediately thought of the creation myth/poem in the Book of Genesis-- in the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the chaos and creation sprung up from it. 

I also thought about some of the things Jesus said when he taught that you can't put new wine into old wine skins and that the kingdom of God can't happen unless something old dies. 

In my heart of hearts, I believe that all the change and upheaval of our current times is indeed a symptom of a new era. From the chaos something new is springing up. We are throwing away the old wineskins. 

Back in the early 20th century, Jesuit priest and anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, developed a theology that focused on the next phase of human evolution. He suggested that this next evolutionary phase would go beyond biology. It would be an evolution into a new emerging universal cosmic consciousness. 

 In Teilhard's vision, God is the pure source of energy and love from which all creation has sprung up. Each and every human being has a "spark of God" in us. This "spark of God" connects us all. 

He goes on to say that God is "The Omega Point."  God is like a cosmic magnet pulling us all back to the source. We are all moving to that Omega Point - the end point of evolution - a state of cosmic consciousness when all human beings become aware that we "are" one another. 

I was always very attracted to Teilhard,  but the church sure wasn't.  His work was labelled as heresy and his books were banned. Many people didn't understand him and thought his theology sounded more like science fiction. For me, his claim that we are evolving to the "Omega Point" of cosmic consciousness powerfully expresses a deep truth about the human condition.

I think about the discoveries of the the new scientists of our own day- neuroscientists, quantum physicists, and string theorists. They sound more like poets than traditional scientists as they unveil  the fact that we are indeed all connected in a dynamic flow of cosmic energy; and that the human brain is not inside the head. Rather, the brian "is" better understood as the complex series of relationships we have outside our individual selves. 

I think about the new cultural popularity of eastern religions like Buddhism - religions based upon the premise that we are all one another- dynamically interconnected.

I think about the vast new changes being brought about through the internet and the use of social media. We "are" already at some new point of evolutionary emergence when people from all over the planet can talk to one another in real time on Facebook and Google+, tweet one another in real time in an ongoing planetary interaction, and be linked-in to one another in a complex world-wide connection.

I think about all these things, and I conclude that Teilhard was indeed a prophet of our own age. We are evolving toward the "Omega Point." - toward a point of cosmic consciousness.

So let the old world die that a new one may emerge. Let the old institutions fade away and the old wineskins be abandoned. Let the chaos return so that a new creation may emerge.

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity,
we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then,
for the second time in the history of the world,
humankind will have discovered fire.
(Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

Thursday, July 18, 2013


mountain, desert, earth sky
-interdependent harmony-

The other day a friend of mine sent me an article about a veteran Jesuit priest who has made a decision to resign his priestly ministry as a protest against the structure of the institutional church. Bert Thelen was a highly-placed superior in the Jesuit order who had been a priest for 45 years. In a very public letter, Thelen writes: 

All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. We need conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as interdependent partners, sharing in one Earth-Human community.

In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, "Don't lord it over anyone..serve one another in love." As an institution, the church is not even close to that idea.

In these few brief sentences, Bert Thelen wonderfully captures what is perhaps the greatest flaw of not only the the established church,  but the inherent weakness of any institution that is intrinsically hierarchical.

We human beings are indeed "interdependent partners." The entire creation "is" an "Earth-Human community."  Any social system "designed" to place a chosen few in positions of power over others on lower rungs of the ladder is inherently flawed because that system is inconsistent with the flow and design of all creation. 

When Jesus came among us, his life and teaching offered an alternative way of living in contrast to the prevailing culture of his day;  a culture that exalted the mighty, and oppressed the lowly.  Jesus leveled the playing field of life by exalting the humble and casting the mighty from their thrones - "Do not lord it over anyone...serve one another in love." And he invited his disciples of every age to follow in his footsteps.

But that's not what happened over time. The teaching and example of Jesus has been essentially ignored.

The very "system" of the institutional church is designed to separate and divide people. The  hierarchically-ordered institution inherently gives power to the mighty to lord it over the lowly, and this flies in the face of what Jesus taught.

The church is supposed to be a light to the world. The church is supposed to be a model of an alternative to a world of the mighty having dominance over the lowly; and instead the church has become the very world Jesus opposed.

We live in an age in which all institutional religions are experiencing severe decline and viewed with great suspicion.  This is especially true in established churches with hierarchical systems. Perhaps it's time to actually do what Jesus did, and pay attention to what he taught:

Do not lord it over anyone..serve one another in love.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Myth of Race

morning skies

As I sat in my meditation garden this morning, watching the sun rise, I reflected on the series of events that have unfolded over the last few days in this country. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has engaged the national consciousness and re-opened the debate about race in America.

News reports, talk shows, articles, tweets and Facebook posts, along with millions of "water-cooler" conversations - all about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  The story has indeed morphed into  a national conversation about race - how racial prejudice and racial injustice continue to exist in this country, even in our own day and age. 

As I sat and reflected on the Trayvon Martin phenomenon this morning I realized that there was something nagging me about the many "race" conversations of the past days. I have been feeling like there is something NOT being said.

Then, this morning, I opened my iPad and read a letter to the editor in the New York Times,  and I had an "aha" experience - I figured out what I think is missing.

It seems to me that most of the recent expressions of outrage and calls for racial equality operate under the unspoken assumption that all the different races "should" treat one another with respect. In particular, the majority race should not oppress the minority race(s).  

This morning, the New York Times featured a letter to the editor in which the author pointed out that, in reality, there is no such thing as "race" in human beings. Genetically speaking,  "race" doesn't even exist. 

Today's cutting-edge DNA research has established the fact that all human beings are so genetically close that we are all ONE race. Today's molecular anthropologists have also shown that  no "race" or "ethnic group" is pure. In other words, all human beings are mixtures of many past cultures and tribes of people. 

So,  our "racial" classifications and commoly-held beliefs about the different races are mental constructs. The whole notion of "race" is a myth.

The author of this morning's New York Times letter writes: When we look at someone and automatically think about that person's "race,"we must realize that we are not seeing "race" but instead seeing an arbitrary societal classification imposed on a continuum of physical differences.

As I see it (and this was my "aha" experience this morning) the thing that is so blatantly missing in our national discourse about racial injustice and racial equality is a recognition of "the myth of race." Our underlying assumption in the conversation about race should be, "Race doesn't exist." 

We aren't called to treat people of different races with respect, because there are no "others."  We are all one race, we are all one another. 

There is a Zen wisdom saying:

The true person is not anyone in particular;
but like the deep blue color of the limitless sky,
it is everyone-everyone in the world.

Yes, we are all "one" person, and our color is blue. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The True Believer

my front yard

Several years back, the social philosopher Eric Hoffer coined the term "the true believer" to describe someone who rigidly holds onto his or her ideas and is fanatically committed to a cause. Hoffer went on to suggest that true believers are so rabidly committed to their view of the world that they will do anything to defend their position and will not budge an inch to change their rigidly constructed perceptions. 

I think there are a lot of "true believers" around today.

Our own day has witnessed the birth of a widespread "atheist" movement in the United States and Europe. Atheists have written books and articles, posted blogs and appeared on talk shows,  to promote their strong belief in atheism. Atheists have been a loud voice in the public forum, arguing against any mention of God in the marketplace - demanding no religious monuments be displayed or erected in the public square. 

Recently some very interesting discourse has emerged on the internet in which "atheists" debate with "theists" (the so-called theists generally turn out to be  Christian fundamentalists).  The conversation in these debates is highly charged and passionate, and while this conversation may indeed be "discourse,"  it is never "dialogue,"  - both sides talking "at" one one another - no one listening to the other, everyone "absolutely sure" that they have the corner on the truth. 

In the ongoing debate between "theists" and atheists, religious people are "absolutely sure" about their faith and absolutely sure that atheists are going to hell. The atheists are just as "absolutely sure" that all religious people are haters and simpletons who reject science and stand upon unfounded and ludicrous ideas about a "God floating around in the sky."  

A recent letter to the editor in the LA Times featured a very telling remark by a local "anti-religion" college professor of philosophy.  He writes: "I have no doubt that the true problem with religion is that it is so sure of something it knows absolutely nothing about." 

To me, the professor sounds just like a "true believer" who is making a case against "true believers."  There are lots of "true believers" around today.

Every day I look out my window and I see the vast, expansive and mysterious desert in front of my retreat house. I think about those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who moved out to the wilderness - to the margins of church and society in order to follow the teachings of Jesus more faithfully. 

Their common life together in the vast and uncontrollable desert taught these Mothers and Fathers not to hold onto anything too rigidly.  They lived simply, practiced compassion, and trusted that God abides. They never engaged in theological debates or demanded orthodoxy of doctrine.

One of the stories from the Desert Mothers and Fathers goes like this:

Once some brothers came to visit Anthony,  and Joseph was with them. Abba Anthony began to speak about the Holy Scriptures. He asked the younger monks to speak about the meaning of the texts. Each of them gave an answer and to each he said "You have not yet found the right answer." Then he said to Joseph, "What do you think this text means?" Joseph replied, "I don't know." Abba Anthony said, "Indeed, Joseph alone has found the true way, for he said he did not know."

Those Desert Mothers and Fathers were faithful believers but they were never "true believers." In our own time, we would do well to emulate them, no matter what position we hold or what side we take. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Constructing Reality

a desert sunrise
-beyond words-

When I was a small child I learned a little rhyme: "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." I was told to chant the rhyme whenever someone was bullying me or calling me a derogatory name." 

That one little rhyme was the biggest lie I was ever told

We construct our realties by the words we use. Names have great power.

When I was a boy, we used to visit an elderly relative who had been born in Poland. We went to her home for dinner almost every Sunday and she would always serve us this marvelous "Polish" soup with delicious sweet-dried fruit floating in the broth.  One day I remember asking her what the name of the soup was. She first gave me it's Polish name. "What does that mean in English?" I asked; and she answered, "it's called "Duck's Blood Soup." 

Yes, the sweet soup I loved so much was made out of duck's blood. That soup I had delighted in for years now had a new name and that name changed reality for me.

The words we use do far more than refer to reality; our names "construct" our realities.

This all makes me realize how cautious and careful we should be in the way we "name" one another. A racial or ethnic slur, a denigrating word about how another looks or acts or thinks has great power- the "name" constructs the reality.

This also makes me realize how careful we should be about the way in which we "name" God.  I literally cringe when I read prayers that name God as an "almighty and eternal king." I cringe even more when I hear God popularly referred to as"the man upstairs." I cringe because God is NOT a man  upstairs, nor is HE a powerful king. 

These names do not refer to any reality. But these names do "construct reality." Whenever we name God in this way, we make God into this image. So God becomes a king on a throne or a man in the sky. We construct reality by the names we use.

A fifth century Syrian monk (Pseudo-Dionysius) once wrote:

When we encounter the matchless glory of the divine, we find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing-standing naked before God without the protective interference of language.

So, we must be careful about how we name God. Perhaps refrain from naming God at all.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." Don't believe the lie. Names have great power. Names construct our realities. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Discipline of Indifference

the desert outside my retreat house
-living at the edge-

Living in the desert, every day I think about the 4th-century early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers.  They are my spiritual ancestors. They are my teachers and my guides. 

These early Christian monastics had moved out into the desert in order to live at the margins of society and at the periphery of the institutional church, and their life "at the edge" helped them to practice the "discipline of indifference."  In fact, the practice of "indifference" was a source of great freedom for them, allowing them to be totally committed to living in accordance with the teachings of Jesus. 

Now, at first,  the idea of someone living a life of "indifference" sounds rather contrary to the teachings of Jesus. After all, Jesus cared deeply about others; he loved others without restraint. He took on their burdens, participated in their sufferings, healed them of their infirmities - this doesn't seem very "indifferent." 

But for desert monastics, when they practiced indifference, it didn't mean that they withdrew into themselves and lived at "arms length" from others.  Rather, they practiced indifference by paying attention to what was important and being unfazed by and indifferent to what was unimportant. 

Living "at the edge" of the established institutional church,  they were indifferent to all the trappings of the institution - no lavish buildings, no involved rituals, no levels of hierarchy among them establishing who was more important than the other. None of them were bishops and most were not ordained.  None of that really mattered; they were indifferent to it all.

Living at the edge of the dominant culture of the day, they likewise were indifferent to the dominant social values of wealth, power and prestige. They lived together in mountain caves and their lives were simple.  They worked hard, prayed hard, and devoted themselves to building up the common good. 

They paid attention to the gospel and believed in the dignity and worth of every human being, and so they were indifferent to the glib praise heaped on them by others.  People from the cities and churches  would often come among them for spiritual advice. They were considered to be holy men and women. But when visitors would come among them, they refused to be held in high esteem, and shunned being thought of as better or holier than others because of their committed life to the Gospel of Christ.

There is a humorous story about Abba Moses (a well-known and deeply respected leader of one of the desert communities):

A magistrate from the city came into the desert looking for Abba Moses, asking the first person he met where he could find this deeply devout human being. The man told him, "Don't waste your time, Abba Moses is a heretic and a fraud. He's not any of the things people say that he is." The magistrate marched back into the city eager to despoil the reputation of the alleged holy man.

Someone asked him if by any chance the person he spoke with in the desert happened to be a tall black man. "Well, yes he was," answered the magistrate, who was then told, "that was Abba Moses you were speaking with. You met the saint at his best." 

As I live into my later years, I wish that what I know now could have been known to me in the earlier part of my life. I wish I could have understood something about paying attention to what is important and being indifferent to what really doesn't matter.

In my younger days, had I been able to be "indifferent," I would have suffered much less. 

But that was then, and this is now.  I live in the desert. I'm living "at the edge, and doing my best to practice the "discipline of indifference."   It truly is a freeing experience.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Traveling Together

bumper to bumper traffic

It's mid-July, and millions of Americans are getting into their cars and heading off to vacation destinations along the nation's highways.

The other day, as I drove along on the crowded and congested "Interstate," I was reminded of what Law Professor Stephen Carter had to say about "traveling together" in his book "Civility."

In the mid 19th century there were no cars or Interstate Highways, but there were plenty of travelers; but back then, people traveled by rail and were fascinated with the railroads.  In fact, thousands of Americans arrived at their vacation destinations by taking trains, traveling all across the country by rail. 

However, railroad travel back in those days was quite different from what it has become today. Unless you were extremely rich, most people rode on trains that looked like "cattle cars" - unadorned boxes on rails, each one equipped with nothing more than rows of hardwood benches. 

In his book, Professor Carter observes that traveling together on the railroads worked as well as it did back then because people understood their obligation to treat each other well as they sat side by side, crowded together, shoulder to shoulder. 

In those days railroad passengers also purchased a little guide for proper travel behavior while riding the trains: The guide, "Politeness on Railroads" by Isaac Peebles, gave passengers some very practical directions like: "Whispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger." Conductors were instructed to rebuke anyone who "indulged personal preferences at the expense of other passengers." 

The other day, as I drove along on the Interstate,  I thought about the radically different way we travel today. People travel in the isolation of their own cars, surrounded by and protected by metal and glass, everyone single-minded in the rush to get to their own individual destinations, and often treating fellow travelers rather rudely.

I drive on the six or eight lane freeways of Southern California - thousands of cars and trucks are speeding along at 75 mph. If the driver behind me thinks I am not going fast enough, I almost get run off the road.  He comes within a few feet of my back bumper, rudely forcing me to get into another lane to let him pass by. 

As I drive along, I see other cars weaving from lane to lane, cutting off other cars, so that they can travel faster than their fellow travelers and get to their destination sooner. 

As I drive along, I notice that many of my fellow drivers are wearing headphones - making calls, listening to music,  and although its illegal, "texting" as they drive - oblivious to any other cars traveling along with them on the road.  

As I drive along I think to myself: "This is an icon of life in our own day - chaotic, dangerous, each person out to get what he or she needs and wants, caring little about anyone else." And it all frightens me, because it seems like we are heading downward on a very slippery slope.

As I see it, if we are to survive as a nation or as a species, we all need to learn how to travel together.  The whole world has become a global village in which we are all crowded together,  sitting side by side and shoulder to shoulder - people of different races, different ideologies, different political agendas, different religions, atheists and theists. We are all sitting next to one another in an ever-shrinking world on this little planet earth. 

In order to travel together well,  we need to put aside the rabid individualism that has infected our culture and think again about our fellow travelers; those who ride along next to us as we make our journey through life together. Today, more than ever, we need to reclaim our obligation to treat each other well  and to rebuke those who "indulge personal preferences at the expense of other passengers." 

Maybe Isaac Peebles' travel guide, "Politeness on Railroads" should be required reading for all of us.