Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Hallow Even

Desert Oasis
-a thin place-

It's Halloween - children in costumes "trick or treating" from door to door, carved pumpkins, scary images of skeletons and graveyards, parties and parades. While this is what happens on Halloween in our contemporary times, the origins of this day are considerably different and far more "spiritual."

Way before the dawn of Christianity, the ancient Celtic peoples of the British Isles designated certain places and various times of the year as "thin places." 

These ancient pagan Celts were a particularly spiritual people. They believed that the world available to the senses (what you could see or taste or touch or smell) was nothing more than a veil separating human beings form a richer, deeper,  more mystical world - an awesome world of Divine Holy Presence where everything and everyone is intimately interconnected and intertwined. (The famous "Celtic knot" is a rich symbol of this intertwined inner world on the other side of the veil.) 

The Celts believed that sometimes this separating veil was like a thick wall making it extremely difficult if not impossible to experience the Divine Presence and the mystical world. However, at other times the wall became very thin (a thin space) - a mere veil, with the sense of the mystical just a breath away.

The Celts believed that certain geographical areas were particularly "thin places (the cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea were thin places).  They also believed that certain times of the year were "thin places/thin spaces." 

Just as the seasons were about to change and the hint of winter was in the air, the night before the first day of November was one of those "thin spaces" of time. The ancient Celts called this mystical night:  "All Hallow Even."  

On "All Hallow Even" the veil between heaven and earth, the veil separating the living from the dead was was very, very thin. This was not a night to be frightened by scary images of dead people, but rather it was a holy night, an awesome night of communion with "heaven and earth"-communion with everything and everyone on the other side of the veil. 

I actually very much believe that there are "thin places" in life. If you live in a desert, you almost can't help but believe in thin places because, unlike any other places I have ever lived, the desert, itself, is a thin place. 

There has not been one time when I have walked out onto the desert floor where I haven't felt like some sort of door has been opened - when the thick walls of separation become mere veils and I am invited into that mystical world of a cosmic knot of interconnection - the world of Divine Presence.

And yes, even in the thin place desert landscape, for me, some desert places are "thinner" than others.  

My Meditation Garden is a very thin place as I sit there every morning when the sun rises, the wind howls, and all creation sings in a cosmic harmony.

The night time desert sky is also a very thin place for me. The vast untamed immensity of the cosmos encompasses me; it humbles my ego and exalts my being all at the same time. 

There is also a little palm oasis in the middle of the desert floor not far from my desert retreat house. Almost every day we walk our dogs up to that oasis - a cooling breeze blowing, the vast expanse of space before me, always so amazingly beautiful. It is a very, very thin place.

Tonight may be an occasion for Halloween parties, costumes, candy and "trick or treat." But it is also "All Hallow Even." Tonight is a mystical night, a "thin place" time.

On this holy night I will sit in that thin place under the cosmic skies.  I can only wonder and barely imagine what will be opened up to me.   

A wisdom saying in the Sufi tradition seems to be perfect for this "All Hallow Even:"

Know that all that is, is nothing more than that which God veils Himself.
If it were not for your ego and your alienation, 
you would look upon Him face to face.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lies Told to Children

Sunset in the Desert
-mountains turn into gold-

I learn a great deal about what is going on in the world and how people think by my daily participation in the social media. Yesterday I had a fascinating online conversation with someone who scoffed at the use of metaphorical language as a means of explaining anything that is "real' in the world, "The findings of science and the language of science alone explain reality," he said. Then he went on to tell me that "metaphors are lies told to children."  

My immediate response to the "metaphor as a lie" pronouncement was that I thought perhaps Shakespeare might disagree with that analysis. 

Metaphorical language is simply a different language, neither better nor worse than the language of science. We use metaphors to tap into our imagination. Metaphors help us to apprehend "mystery" in life.

Out here in the desert where I live, the surrounding mountains brightly glow in the reflection of the rays of the setting sun. Of course, this can all be explained scientifically and factually. The angle of the sun in relationship to the earth, the refraction of the rays- these can all be scientifically measured, and it's all very explainable. 

However, scientific facts cannot begin to "explain" how my spirit is set on fire as I stand in awe before the glowing mountains as the sun goes down. I need the language of metaphor and poetry to help me get in touch with it all; so I say "the mountains turn into gold when the sun sets in the desert skies. This is not a lie told to children. While not being "factual," this metaphor is perhaps a closer rendition of the truth. 

As I see it, our entire culture has been so influenced by the thinking of the Age of Science and Reason (18th century) that we have a difficult time understanding what metaphorical language is all about.  We have  a hard time distinguishing between scientific language and metaphorical language, and so when "metaphorical" language is used, people today tend to evaluate this language through scientific lenses.

In essence, all "religious" language is metaphorical. "God" is a profound unknowable mystery, unable to be explained or described. Any language we use abut God is never scientific or factual, it is  always metaphorical. Whenever we say that God is "Father," or God is "Creator," or God is "a small voice in the soul," or God is "blazing fire"- we are always using metaphor -  the language of poetry.

Yesterday, someone else told me that there aren't any "facts" in the Bible- and I think basically that this is probably quite true. But, then again, I never look to the Bible for facts. The Bible (the many books of the Bible) is not a history book. The Bible is not a scientific journal. The Bible is a collection of poetry and songs-stories abounding in rich metaphorical language designed to "tap into" our imagination and to encounter "mystery." 

I think, for example, of the astoundingly beautiful myth, creation poem found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. If you treat this story as a scientific account of how the universe began, of course it is ludicrous. Six days and it's finished, God snapping "his" fingers and "poof" -there are  birds and flowers. 

The story is not meant to offer factual explanations. It is an ancient myth using the rich language of metaphor. It poetically celebrates the breathtaking beauty of all beings- everything and everyone flowing together in perfect harmony, all interdependent and interconnected in the energy of a Holy Abiding Presence. I do not read the story to find "facts." I read the story and I bask in its imagery.

No, I do not at all think that metaphors are lies told to children. Metaphors are thresholds into mystery,  and since scientists themselves today admit that they are only able to "explain" about 5% of what is real in the universe (the rest is mystery), perhaps we all need to reclaim the language of metaphor once again.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fearless Conversations

untamed wilderness

This week the NYTimes has been featuring a debate section in which people can offer their insights into the critical decline of membership in churches and synagogues in this country.  Surveys and polls are quite clear in their depiction of a steadily growing "downward trend" in church/synagogue membership especially among younger people (Millennials), offering little hope that the trend will be reversed.

Recently, the NYTimes published a variety of letters from those who have weighed in on this "dying church" phenomena. One letter that I found particularly interesting was offered by some "church growth" authors promoting their new book. They promised they had discovered a formula to definitively fix the problem and reverse the decline, promising that their 4-part formula will "make your church irresistible."

The formula that they present for fixing a dying church is quite simple: First, you invite all those people who have left the church or have never gone to a church to come into your churches, and when they arrive they should be "radically" welcomed with open arms. They should find that your church is a loving community of people who really care about each other at deep, non-superficial levels. The people of the church and the unchurched must then sit down together and engage in "fearless conversations" in which everything is re-imagined and even re-invented - God, prayer, doctrine, customs, liturgy, the Bible--all radically re-imagined in "gloves-off," "no-holds barred," "fearless conversations"  - churchgoers and the unchurched all on a journey of faith together, exploring the questions, not providing the answers. 

Do this,  and your church will be "irresistible."

When I read this letter in the NYTimes, My first response was "How could something that is so right also be so wrong." 

In one sense I agree with those authors in the NYTimes. I believe that the "only" way for the unchurched to be engaged in religion again is by having "fearless conversations" with others in a loving community of people who mutually explore questions.  But I think you live in "fantasy land" if you think this can ever actually happen within church or synagogue congregations.

A few years ago when I lived in Syracuse working as an assistant to the bishop, I used to go around from church to church (mainly dying congregations) and offer some suggestions about how they might revitalize (my suggestions were not unlike the formula offered by the authors).  One day, a long-time member of one of these churches approached me. She thought that what I had to say was "right on, "and then she begged me to wait to implement these new ideas until after she was dead and buried."

I immediately understood what this woman was saying to me and I was totally sympathetic to her plight.  After all, people attend a church because they want some degree of comfort and guidance. They enjoy the assurance of doctrine and the sameness of the ritual. Many if not most church-going people feel that they have found something that others (who are not in the church) do not have. They are willing to share what they have found, but are generally quite unwilling to explore new way of being church and embracing a re-imagined way of being faithful. 

I also know many "liberal"congregations who might say, "Yes, of course we want to engage in "no-holds barred" conversations. We would love to engage in the task of 'asking the questions' with those outside the church." However, in my experience, even among these "liberal" church-going people, when you scratch beneath the surface, "fearless conversations" are often not that fearless after all - you still are expected to color within the lines.

Fearless conversations put everything on the table as a "question" beginning with the question of the very nature of God.  "The Bible-what it means and how authoritative it is," "why and how people pray," "embracing the wisdom of other religious traditions," "how a church is structured" - these are but a few of the many questions to be explored in "fearless conversations." And in my experience, asking these questions are frightening-too frightening for many if not most church-going people to really explore in any significant ways. 

It may be ok to tweak a few things in a Sunday service,  but when you start talking about "God" as universal energy and suggest that maybe we don't need bishops anymore, the conversations pretty much shut down.

No I don't believe that churches/synagogues are equipped for the kind of radical re-imagining, re-inventing conversations that need to take place with those who have left the church or have never had any use for religion.  In fact, I think churches should cut themselves a break and let the people who are members of the churches enjoy what they have.

As I see it, we cannot think that an invitation for a conversation "within" a church is going to make a church "irresistible"  - this is "fantasy-land" thinking. And yet, as a Christian, I truly believe that  radical questioning, re-imaging and even reinventing of the faith  must occur lest the "way"of Jesus be lost and forgotten.

At the very least, we need to move out of the churches and into the neutral space of the public forum. Maybe internet chat rooms and Google+ discussion forums will be where we can engage in these "fearless conversations" in the days ahead.

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Monday, October 28, 2013


Perfect Harmony

People have a whole bag of words from which they draw to talk about God and religion: "prayers," "hymns," "church," "temple," "mosque," "Bible," "Koran," "doctrine," "morality." These are "God-words" in our theological/religious lexicon.

My guess is that one word that is probably not found in most people's bag of "God-words" is the word "resonance." But, for me, "resonance" is in the "Top Ten" of my favorite words that I use when I talk about and think about "God." 

The simple Physics definition of the word "resonance" is: "sound produced by a body vibrating in sympathy with a neighboring source of sound." For example, a musician strikes a tuning fork and her instrument is adjusted to resonate with the sound (to be in tune with it). 

In fact, scientists today tell us that in a very real sense, every aspect of all the elements of the entire universe "resonate" with one another. From the tiniest sub atomic quarks to the vast expanse of cosmic galaxies, everything and everyone is "resonating," vibrating in sympathy with each other, creating one sound of perfect harmony.  

The ancient Eastern religions clearly understood the idea of "resonance" well before the scientists of today began to use such a term.  The ancient Hindu tradition was well aware of the universal song of the universe. They understood something about cosmic harmony - everything "resonating" to produce the universal tone of "OM." 

To this very day the only real (or necessary) Hindu payer is the intonation of the sound "OM," a sound made during mindful meditation, a "humming along" with the harmonious vibration of the universe.

Likewise, when Buddhist monks chant a mantra over and over, they are not "thinking" about the content of the words of the mantra. The chanting of a mantra is like the humming of the tone "OM." The mantra is a vibrating sound emitted from deep within the spirit of the ones who chant, an intonation in resonance with the vibrating cosmos.

In a similar fashion, when monks in the Western tradition sing Gregorian chant, the focus of the chant is not on the content of the words being chanted. The purpose of a chant is to emit a harmonious tone "resonating" with the song of the cosmos.

I once attended a "chant class" at a Benedictine monastery. The monks were told to ignore the words they were chanting, and instead as they sang, they were to listen for the voices of those surrounding them and attune their voices to one another so that they would create "one" sound - a tone in union with and resonating with the song of the "One" (the OM). 

Many people say lots of prayers (for most of my life I said lots of prayers), thinking that the content of the words being prayed were somehow "boxed up" and sent "up" to God who would then read what was in the boxes and then answer them accordingly. I don't think about prayer this way anymore. In fact I no longer "say my prayers." 

I have come to believe that every prayer is actually a form of "resonance." - The content of what we think we are "boxing up" in the words of a prayer (or a hymn) is basically unimportant . The sounds we make in the prayers we utter are just "tones" that come from deep within us, tones in harmony with others who pray, tones vibrating with and in "resonance" with the "one" song of the universe sung by the ONE abiding Holy Presence.

As the sun rises on this glorious desert morning, the wind is rushing and I can feel the rays of the sun warming the morning chill. The nearby fountain gurgles, birds chant, and in the absolute silence of the desert I can hear the harmonious song of the cosmos, and I hum along with it: "OM."

I pray a lot these days. I almost never use words anymore.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Throw Him Under the Bus

City of the Angels

Yesterday, my wife and I took a trip out of the desert back to L.A. - the "City of the Angels." For me, Los Angeles is probably one of the most iconic cities in the United States. It is a microcosm of the world- a global culture, a tossed salad of all the nations, races, religions, and ideologies of the entire world-- all mixed together in a sprawling whirlwind known as the City of Angels.

As has been my custom for the past many years, yesterday I found myself sitting in my favorite coffee shop near where I used to live in the Hollywood area, watching the everyday lives of everyday people being played out in this iconic city. 

This particular coffee shop is regularly patronized by many people from the entertainment industry, and so this location is even more interesting for sipping coffee and people watching.  Over the years I have, in fact, learned a great deal about contemporary culture just by sitting and observing in that little corner of the world.

Yesterday, as always, I saw many dedicated and earnest people trying to make a niche for themselves in life. People were sitting around in groups of three or four talking about scripts, job possibilities,  strategies for getting your foot in the door. I had heard conversations like this for years in that little coffee shop. Hardly confined to a place like Hollywood, conversations like this are not all that different from conversations in almost any coffee shop anywhere in the world as people struggle to make their way in life.

Yesterday, I heard something that was very striking to me. It was not all that surprising but disturbing nonetheless. A person sitting rather near me was talking on a cellphone, as he rather loudly declared, "I don't think this is going to work out, we are gonna have to throw him under the bus."

Somehow that one little phrase really got to me. Maybe it hit me so hard because L.A. is such an iconic place, maybe it was so striking to me because, in those few little words I heard an expression of an underlying ethic so frighteningly prevalent in today's society: "If it doesn't seem to be working out, throw the person under the bus -cut him loose, wash your hands of her."

Back several generations ago, "loyalty" was celebrated as a highly-valued cultural virtue. Today I don't even hear people talk about being loyal to anything or anyone. "Loyalty" is a word old people use and a virtue old people prize. But maybe our loss of a sense of loyalty to one another is one of our major problems in contemporary culture. 

People often treat their fellow human beings like commodities to be used and manipulated. If they don't perform as desired or expected, they are discardable - throw them under the bus.  So everyone is aways cautious, everyone is guarded about what they say or what they do.  After all, no one wants to wind up "under that bus."

When we left the coffee shop yesterday, we met up with a dear trusted friend. For me, this person has been steadfast and steady. We have known each other for many years. He has seen me at my best and also at my worst, and yet he has stuck with me though it all. He is my friend. 

As my friend and I sat and chatted yesterday, I thought of that earlier phone conversation I heard. What a striking contrast between sitting with my friend and sitting in that coffee shop listening to the plotting and planning of strategic niche-making.  As I sat with my friend, I could feel my spirit perking up. I thought to myself, "He would never throw me under the bus. He has my back." I could feel his "loyalty" - it was soul food, so nourishing and restorative. 

Maybe it's time to reclaim a lost virtue.   

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Many Shades of Judgement

along the wilderness trail

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus tells a little story about two men standing next to one another praying in the temple. The one man is an upright citizen, a devoutly religious man. The other is an outsider, a public sinner who lives at the margins of accepted society. 

The righteous man utters a long and loud prayer thanking God that he is not like the man standing next to him. The upstanding citizen reminds God of exactly how righteous he is - he says his prayers, follows every aspect of the law, gives money to the temple. He is the "poster boy" of what it means to be on the "right" side of God. 

The sinner, the outcast in the story, stands next to this righteous man and he simply lowers his eyes asking for mercy.

As I reflect on it, this tiny little parable is jam-packed with shades of meaning, and it delivers a wallop to "anyone" listening to it - cleverly exposing a darker side of the human condition. 

I have heard this story hundreds of times, and it always has the same effect on me. I listen to the arrogant rantings of the righteously religious man and it infuriates me. I think about how many times I have seen this scenario played out over and over again in my own life experiences.

I think of how many times in my life I have heard those long and loud prayers uttered by righteous  religious people directed against the "sinners"standing next to them in life: Gays and Lesbians, divorced people, women who have had abortions, foreigners, liars, thieves, atheists, and those who have rejected the church: "Thank God I am not like those people- I say my prayers, I follow the law, and I'm on the 'right' side."

The thing is that a parable like this is cleverly told to have many shades of meaning. The story invites the listener to insert themselves into the plot. So, of course whenever I have heard this story I have always played the role of the humble sinner with eyes downcast while the righteous "do-gooder" rails on next to me.

But this morning, as I read the story over again, the little parable worked its magic on me, and I  suddenly realized that I could just as easily be in the role of the righteous man - the one who is on the right side of things looking down my nose in judgement at the bums standing next to me. In fact, I know lots of people who think like me, and believing they have the moral high ground, sit in judgement against those on the wrong side. 

I can almost hear myself lifting to full stature, chest puffed up, saying "Thank God I am not like those redneck simpletons who refuse to welcome immigrants or embrace same sex marriage. Thank God I am not like those war mongers who see tanks and guns as the solution to the world's problems. Thank God I am an honest man, I don't cheat, I'm not a thief. Thank God I am not like those others standing next to me." 

The magic this little story has worked on me today was to remind me that, while I can be very clear about how I see the world, while I can also be unabashed about what I think is right and wrong, I cannot nor should I ever sit in proud judgement against those who I perceive to be standing next to me on the "other" side.  

This little story reminded me that we all have our failures and our flaws and no one has the right to look down on anyone else:

The Buddha taught: 
The faults of others are easier to see than one's own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one's own faults are hard to see.

Jesus taught:
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own. Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye?..You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Either-Or, Both-And

a stream flows in the desert

Ten years ago I was going around giving lectures about the dawn of the "Postmodern Era," talking about the cultural "sea-change" that was taking place. While I still very much believe that we are in a major transition period, and that there is a major cultural shift in the way we look at the world (e.g., how we understand government, medicine, education, religion, how we use technology).  I have also concluded that a lot of things that were predicted about the "sea change" of the "postmodern era" have not yet come to fruition.

Back ten years ago sociologists and social commentators suggested that in the dawning "postmodern age, "either-or" thinking would be supplanted  by "both-and" thinking. An "either-or" mindset is narrow and myopic, the world is viewed in black and white -something is either true or it is false; it is either right or it is wrong.

A "both-and" vision sees the world from many different points of view. This kind of vision sees gray more than black and white.  

Ten years ago, the supposition was that as we became a culture of greater and greater diversity, people would be more likely so see the world through a "both-and" lens.  But I haven't actually seen this to be the case in today's society. 

It's now 2013, and from the way I see it,  more and more people are becoming increasingly rigid and myopic in their worldview. More and more people see the world as right and wrong, true and false, black and white, my way or the wrong way, "either-or."

We live in a world of FOX news and MSNBC, Tea Party Republicans and Liberal Democrats, pro-life, pro-choice, atheists and theists; everyone taking up a guarded position in their own defended "either-or" camps - each viewing the different others with suspicion and disdain.

As I see it, a perfect illustration of this prevailing "either -or" worldview can be found in the conversation about God and religion in today's culture.

I think about the numerous "either-or" positions about religion I have encountered over the past years, for example:

Either you believe in God, or you are an atheist. Either you are a religious person and value your relationship with a church and the religious institution, or you are not religious and have no use for the church or what the church teaches. Either you accept the teachings of the Bible, or you reject the Bible and turn instead to science as a means for understanding how the world works. 

When I think about how I see things, I confess that I do not accept any single one of these iron-clad, "either-or" propositions. In fact, I see something of the truth on both sides of the "either-or" scale. I see them as being "both-and."

I believe in God but I don't believe in a "deity;" some superhuman entity who snaps "his" fingers and creates and controls the world.  For me God is an unknowable mystery, an abiding Holy Presence, the energy of untamed love connecting every atom of the cosmos. I also know many atheists who, while not believing in God, believe in their own spiritual nature and engage in efforts to feed themselves spiritually.

I see myself as religious and I have been part of the church all my life. My dearest friends and closest relationships are with fellow believers, connected to the church.  I also find much of the religious institution to be tepid, lifeless and without passion, sometimes even harmful in helping people to grow spiritually. I find deep and faithful insight about my own spiritual path when I dialogue with people outside the Christian tradition, and some of the most deeply spiritual people I know wouldn't be caught dead inside a church. 

I hold the Bible in one hand and the claims of science in the other, and see them as complements to each other - merit in both. Science explains much of how the word works and has profoundly advanced the welfare of the human condition. However, science also recognizes (especially today) that much of the world is a vast mystery, and so I turn to the wise stories and beautiful poetry of the Bible to help me engage and encounter this awesome mystery of our human condition.

As we advance along in this cultural transition period and as we move forward in this time of great change and profound cultural diversity, I do not see how we can possibly even talk with one another if we continue to cling to those "either-or" lenses we so comfortably wear for seeing our world. The "either-or" lenses have become myopic and distorted. They prevent us from seeing the world with a clear and expansive vision.

We live in a time of "sea change," - a "both-and" era.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Coarser and Cruder

My Meditation Garden
-glorious blooms of autumn in the desert-

As I was coming out of a local restaurant the other day, I held open the door for the person behind me. She stopped dead in her tracks and just looked at me as her face lit up with a big smile: "Oh, thank you so very much," she said. "I can't remember the last time anyone did that for me." 

In that one brief momentary encounter I had a flash of insight. The simple act of holding the door for another person was so unexpected and so unusual as to make someone stop and take notice. My insight was perhaps we have lost sight of the importance of the simple practice of "good manners" in our everyday interactions.

When I talk about good manners, I'm not referring to an Emily Post handbook on the proper way to set a table or what fork to use. By good manners I mean the everyday ways in which we treat one another with decency and respect in a civilized society. And I do indeed wonder if we have lost a sense of the importance of treating one another this way; because if we have, we are on a slippery slope.

Yesterday, The New York Times published a letter to the editor titled "Bring Back Civility." The author of the letter opined, "We as a culture have grown coarser and cruder in tone. In many respects, our nation has ruptured with civility."

The author goes on to cite some examples of the "coarser and cruder" tone of our common life today:

The advent of digital communication has allowed us to engage in consequence-free hostility - hostile messaging, abrupt emails, caustic online posts and reviews have normalized an uglier and less empathic side of human behavior and colored our politics and entertainment as well.  Witness the humiliations routinely showcased on reality TV, the snarls of call-in shows and the acidic tone of popular blogs.

I think there is a great deal of truth in the claim that we have become a "coarser and cruder" culture.

I am sometimes shocked and amazed at some of the nasty, caustic tweets sent out everyday on Twitter. I read some of the comments on the various Google+ blogs and shake my head in amazement at the virulent disrespect people show one another. The nasty hate-filled commentary of people like Rush Limbaugh fills up the airwaves and fuels the fire of crudeness and coarseness.  "Road rage" and  "slamming a door in a person's face" are now the order of the day.

I say this is a slippery slope because a culture that does not practice everyday good manners, treating one anther civilly-with respect, is sliding down a slope that dead ends in barbarism. 

I am old enough to remember Stanley Kubrick's dystopian movie of the 1970's "A Clockwork Orange." It depicts a not-so distant future society overrun by thugs and barbarians who go around cruelly terrorizing fellow citizens. When I first saw the movie, it was chilling to imagine a culture in which people would treat their fellows so caustically and with such viciousness. At the time the movie seemed like far-fetched science fiction. Today I have this gnawing fear that Kubrick's movie may have been more predictive than I might have ever imagined at the time.

In the Baptismal Covenant, Christians take a vow to "respect the dignity of every human being." This "vow"is not only a model for a Christian way of life but for all humanity.  It is necessary for everyone living in any civilized nation to take this life-vow lest civilized people turn into barbarians. 

As I see it, we can all begin to honor that vow of "respecting the dignity of every human being"  by committing to the simple practice of everyday "good manners" - how we treat each other in the routine events of everyday life.  

So, guard against that nasty tweet, take a moment before sending out that caustic email, hold open a door for the person behind you, and maybe even say "please" and "thank you" from time to time. 

 Not courser and cruder, but kinder and gentler.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Narcissus and the Buddha

-evening in my meditation garden- 

In my reading yesterday I came across a fascinating article in which the mythical Narcissus was portrayed sitting next to the Buddha. I loved this depiction because it provided a "snapshot" of the fundamental basic choices we all make in this life. In essence we fundamentally choose to walk  the way of Narcissus or follow the path of the Buddha.

Both Narcissus and the Buddha begin at the same starting point by asking the question "who am I?" However, the two of them arrive at answers to that question which are diametrically opposed to one another, taking their lives in opposite directions. 

Narcissus sees his reflection in the pond and believes that the reflection is "real," and he falls in love with the delusion. His love with himself sets the course for his life.

The Buddha sits under a Bodhi tree and vows to stay there until he finds enlightenment. The Buddha begins at the same starting point as Narcissus by asking the question "who am I?" But unlike Narcissus, he doesn't fall prey to a delusion.  He "wakes up" and realizes that there really is no separated, isolated individual ego.  He realizes that his "self" is a unity of interdependent relationship with all beings. 

I love the depiction of Buddha enlightenment in Herman Hesse's well-read novel, "Siddhartha."  The character of Siddhartha is on a mission of self discovery: "who am I ?"  Like Narcissus, Siddhartha also gazes into the waters of a stream, only instead of seeing the reflection of his own image,  and believing the delusion,  Siddhartha gazes into the waters and sees an image of all created beings flowing in a unity of perfection in the steam of life. At that moment he "wakes up" and understands who he is: he "is" the flow.

From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life,  full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

As I think about the snapshot of those two icons of Narcissus and the Buddha set against one another, I am struck by how many people today choose to cling to that delusional image of "self" discovered by Narcissus.  In fact, many social commentators today argue that narcissism is a growing epidemic in our culture.

In some sense we all have a bit of the narcissist in us and, to some extent, a dose of narcissism can be a good thing.  A clear and balanced understanding of ourselves is a necessary ingredient for healthy interaction.

But I know plenty of people who have crossed over from having a healthy dose of narcissism to following the path of Narcissus. They have fallen in love with themselves. They believe that their own individual ego exists - cut off from and isolated from others, and they live their lives to perpetually feed that bloated ego even though it is nothing more than a delusion- a reflection in the pond. The path of Narcissus is always heartbreakingly lonely and inevitably leads to a dead end. 

As I see Narcissus and the Buddha sitting side by side, I set my life-gaze on the path of the Buddha- the Jesus' Way -the spiritual path. When I see Narcissus next to the Buddha, I can see ever more clearly that the Buddha path is a way that leads to deep peace. It is a path that does not follow a delusion. It is a path that provides an awakened, enlightened and truthful answer to the question: "who am I?"

I am the flow.  

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I Wonder What You Think I Think

fields of cacti on the vast desert floor

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to an article titled: "Life's Lessons to Unlearn." The article debunks some commonly held beliefs that often govern how people behave as being harmful and destructive to living fruitful and happy lives.  I was particularly struck by one life-lesson to be unlearned: "It matters what people think of me." 

When I was teaching Interpersonal Communication courses, we would spend a few classes focusing on the many (meta) layers involved in the communication process.  The theory is that when people communicate with one another, they operate out of at least three layers of perception: "What I think," "what I think you think," and "what I think you think I think." 

We strive to be highly esteemed by others. We want people to like us; and so, we are always adapting what we think and tailoring our image on the basis of what we think others think of us. We adapt our communication (what we say and do) in order to fit the model of what we think the other person thinks about us so we can be held in high esteem. 

The thing is, of course, when you live your life constantly building up an image that you "think" will be favorable in the eyes of other persons, you will always be anxious and "on guard." You will never be able to truly be genuine and authentic. This is unhealthy and destructive for everyone.  

Besides all that, the truth is that that most of the time, most people don't have much if any opinion at all about "me;" and "what I think you think I am thinking" is pure fantasy and imagination.  It is only when I have the most bloated of egos that I  really believe that other people are spending their days paying attention to how highly they think of "me." 

So it's true, a life lesson to be unlearned is that false and very egoic belief that "it matters what other people think about me." 

As I sat in the middle of my desert surroundings and read that "recently written" article yesterday,  I chuckled to myself, because this life lesson to be unlearned had indeed been unlearned many centuries ago by those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers - those ancient Christians who moved out into the wilderness, out to the fringes of church and society, in order to live more "authentic" lives as followers of Jesus.

The common life of these ancient monastics was governed by an underlying rule, often referred to as the "disciple of indifference."  In society (and in the church) the opinion of others mattered a great deal. However, out on the fringes of the desert, these ancient monks were literally unfazed by what other people thought about them. They were totally "indifferent" about whether or not others held them in high esteem.

In fact there are numerous (and often humorous) stories about people from the city who, having heard of the holiness of these desert dwelling monks, would venture out into the wilderness to meet them - to seek their counsel and pay them homage.  But when the city-dwellers arrived in the wilderness, the monks would often disguise themselves, sometimes portraying themselves as beggars or even raving lunatics so as not to be recognized and honored.  

The desert, after all, is a vast and uncontrollable place. The seemingly boundless desert floor, the vast towering mountains of stone have been there for ages. The desert pays no attention to, and is indifferent to the people who dwell there.  The desert indeed is not a place where the ego can thrive, and that's why it is such a holy place, such a spiritual place, such a good place to unlearn the lesson that "it matters what people think of me."

At the end of the article I read yesterday, the author asked, "How would it feel and what would you do if you really believed that what people think of you doesn't really matter at all?"

It's a great question.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

All My Joy - All Your Pain

a reflecting pond in a desert canyon

Yesterday I was listening to one of my favorite radio broadcasts on NPR- The Moth Radio Hour. It's a program of storytelling. Ordinary people tell stories about their everyday lives, but the stories told are anything but ordinary. The stories are always so full of passion - joy, tears, pain, sorrow, sickness, health, life and death. They are always such glorious stories about our broken and beautiful human condition.  Yesterday I was particularly struck by one such story, and I have been thinking about it ever since.

A relatively young man told the tragic tale of the great misfortune he had experienced.  His beloved young wife had just died and he was heartbroken. Then days after, he lost his father who was his mentor and his friend. This young man was in unbearable pain and he decided that he would be unable to continue on with his own life - vowing to kill himself with a drug overdose. 

The day before this man was about to commit suicide, he had a chance meeting with a Tibetan Lama while flying on a plane to New York. The Lama was a wise old monk, a refugee from Tibet who had moved to the United States some 30 years ago. 

As he told his story, the man explained that he could barely sit in his seat on the plane - he was so filled with misery. So, he got up and walked toward the lavatory. As he did so, he passed by an old monk - a Tibetan Lama, sitting in an aisle seat at the rear of the plane. They locked eyes and the gentle monk reached out his hands to that poor man so obviously racked with pain. The man stopped and allowed his hands to be held. Then the monk touched his forehand to the man's forehead and whispered:

I give you all my joy. I take on all your pain

It was a life saving, life changing, redemptive moment - a moment of amazing grace. In that instance of perfect compassion, that man found a peace that passes all understanding.

I was so taken by that story that I heard yesterday that all I can do is think about it. I was so deeply moved not only because the story was so beautifully poignant and incredibly tender, but also because it was such a powerful icon and astounding example of what it means to "practice compassion." 

I use the word "compassion" often.  After all, the exercise of compassion is at the core of all the great major world religions. But I think that often the real meaning of what it means to practice "compassion" is sort of lost in translation, and the word becomes somewhat limp and lifeless. We think that we are compassionate when we are nice, or pleasant, or when we engage in some act of kindness toward a fellow human being.

But, in light of yesterday's story, the more I reflect on the word "compassion," I am struck by the fact that the core of the word "compassion" is "passion."  When we are passionate, we are on fire.  "Passion" is wild, unbounded, uncontrolled, untamed energy. When we are compassionate, we share our passion with one another. 

That's why, in yesterday's story, I was so struck by that one simple little phrase uttered by the Lama on that plane. All his life the Lama had been praying and meditating.  Deep in his spirit he had truly come to the understanding that we "are" one another.  There are no strangers, no different others - all of us interconnected. We all share a common joy and we all suffer in common.  

And so this monk could stop a stranger in pain passing by on an airplane and wildly, passionately, unreservedly dive into the waters of their shared humanity, and practice "compassion:" 

I give you all my joy. I take on all your pain.

Every human being is called to practice "compassion." It leads to perfect peace.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Giving Permission

exploring wilderness trails

One of my goals in writing a daily blog is to explore anew the meaning of some "tried and true" religious teachings ("tried and true" often translates into "tired and old.") 

From time to time I have explored the meaning of some very traditional religious language -  sin, faith, hope, church, morality. I have even attempted to explore the very meaning of the word "God," always asking the question:  "What do these words and teachings really mean?"

Yesterday I had a very poignant response to my post. A young woman wrote to me. She told me that she had grown up in a traditional church, every week, attending church and Sunday school. However, now she had come to the point where everything about church and religion no longer made any sense to her and so she left church and religion behind. It was a period of her childhood, no longer applicable to her life as an adult.  

She went on to thank me for what I had been writing in my blog posts, saying that they have helped her to re-imagine some of the "tried and true" (old and tired) teachings of her religious past. In particular she thanked me for giving her permission to ask questions about faith and religion.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time someone has expressed their gratitude for "permission" to ask the questions. In fact, I get that kind of response often.  People are grateful for "permission" to ask questions, and I think this speaks volumes about the way people think about religion. 

Many people who have grown up in an established religious institution are convinced that the church, simply put, is not a place for asking questions.  Religion is supposed to provide answers about life- answers about who God is, answers about how to believe, answers about how to act, answers about what happens when you die.   So,  if and when you get to a point where these answers no longer hold any sway over you, the only possible solution is to walk away from the establishment and explore other options for pursuing a spiritual course.

In my conversation with this young woman yesterday, I told her that I not only hoped she would continue  to "ask" the questions, but I hope she would learn how to "love" the questions. I hope her journey of faith would be a continual, life-long exploration -  a constant journey of imaging, re-imaging and re-appropriating "ever ancient concepts" so that they can become "ever new."

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a young man who had many questions about life:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is,  to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Institutional establishments of every ilk today are undergoing extreme transformation - medicine, government, education. But perhaps the institution undergoing the most earth-shatterng transformation of all is the church - especially in Western cultures.  There has been and there will continue to be a steady decline in church membership (especially among younger people), a decline that will have profound implications for the life of the church over the next decade. As I see it, anyone who sits back and says all is "alive and well" is like "Nero fiddling while Rome is burning."

Institutions in general, and established religions in particular, can no longer remain a place where you go to get the "tried and true," (old and tired) "answers." The church must become the place where you go to ask the questions. 

Now is the time to give one another permission to embrace the questions, to love the questions, and to live into the questions. 

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Persistent Love

The "Invasion" of the Morning Light

Mornings in the desert are pristine. Every day I sit in my garden watching the rays of the rising sun swoop onto the mountains, and it feels like I am present once again at the very moment of creation as the forces of light invade the void and fill up the emptiness. 

Day after day the same scene is repeated, persistently repeated, relentlessly repeated - whether I want it or not, light always dawns upon me and every day I am invited into new possibilities as a persistently abiding Holy Presence dawns, and like some great cosmic magnet, tugs at my spirit and pulls me out of my self into deeper union.   

Of course every day I also have a choice- I can go into my house, pull the drapes shut and hide from the light, or I can sit and bask in its pristine beauty, grateful for the invitations to begin anew again. 

This morning as I sat in the persistent light of the dawning day, I thought about my images of "God" and how profoundly different I imagine "God" in the second half of my life as compared to when I was younger. 

In my earlier years, for me God was indeed a person up above. The "man upstairs" who could grant favors or deny favors according to His will - a good job, a good grade on a test, a nice house, a cure from a sickness.  I can recall the many sermons I heard about being "persistent" in prayer - keep praying even if you don't, at first, get what you want. If you pray long enough and hard enough maybe you will wear "God" down and He will ultimately relent and give you what you want.

My earlier images of "God" have, in my later years, been literally turned upside down. When it comes to being "persistent, "I actually think that "God" is the persistent one -relentlessly seeking us out, always wanting the best for us. God is the untamed energy of holy love, never giving up, every day dawning on our lives as an abiding Holy Presence wanting more for us than we could possibly even ask for or imagine.   

The great mystics and poets have always understood something of "God's" persistent desire for us. I think of the mystic- poet, John Donne, who cries out that God is "battering his heart," or the poet, Francis Thompson, who calls God "The Hound of Heaven." God almost badgering the human condition until we finally relent and give in- pulling us out of our dark hiding places into a deeper union in the light of love.  

Saint Augustine sings of his intimate and even passionate experience of the hounding Holy Presence who relentlessly pursued him, even when he was hiding behind the walls of the solitude of his own selfishness:

You called, You shouted and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath
and now I pant for you

And so, I sit in my garden, bathed in the pristine rays of a dawning sun. It flashes and it shines and it will not let me go. Every morning I am persistently invaded by the light - battering my heart, hounding me into new life and deeper union.

What more can I ask for? The only possible prayer I can utter is, "Thank you!" 

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Friday, October 18, 2013

The Discipline of Authenticity

-the crystal clear desert sky-

Over the past few days I have done some serious introspection about why the events of the past few weeks in Washington have been so troubling to me. At the height of all the "fiscal crisis" I got to a point where I couldn't even listen to the news because it was all so disturbing to me. Upon reflection I decided that I wasn't so upset because I was fearful of an economic crash - not overly concerned abut my pension or bank account. I was so troubled by what was happening in Washington because it all reminded me of my own personal struggles in life. 

I realize that politics is a "game" -everyone "playing the angles" to get what they want. But the last few weeks seemed especially ugly to me. I came to the point where I didn't  believe or trust in anything that  anyone was saying. The events of the past weeks were an icon for me- a perfect picture of people manipulating other people in order to win the game and get their own way. And this was so troublesome for me because it was an "in your face" reminder of my own personal struggle with playing the political game and working all the angles - a struggle that is basically spiritual in nature.

When I first entered seminary many years ago, a wise older man who served as our "spiritual director" was very fond of reminding us of the importance of "authenticity." He told us that if we were to find deeper peace and greater serenity in life we would need to be authentic, genuine, true to ourselves and honest in our dealings with others. 

 He told us that if we were to be "good priests" we would have to practice what he called "the discipline of authenticity" - make a deliberate effort to refrain from manipulating people to get what you want - be a "what you see is what you get" kind of person. 

I must confess that I didn't pay a lot of attention to my wise, older spiritual director back then. But now his words have come back to haunt me. The wisdom he offered us then, now rings so clear and true to me. You really can't find deeper peace unless you are authentic, and playing all the angles is probably "the" greatest impediment on the spiritual path.

A good friend of mine, who is a bishop, once told me of something a fellow bishop once told him on the day of his ordination to the episcopacy. After the ceremony was over, this bishop stopped my friend in the hallway and warned: "enjoy today because this is the last day anyone is likely to speak the truth to you." I was never a bishop but I do think I understand what my friend was being told that day.

In the many years of my career in the church, "playing the angles" was always part of the way church business was done. The higher up I climbed on the career ladder, the more intense was the political game.  I got to the point where I was never really sure how much I could believe or trust in what I was being told (even from people I considered to be my allies).  Many times people were "nice" because they wanted to get something. And of course, I was often just as guilty of playing all the angles because I also wanted to get my own way and I thought that "my way" as the only way.   

Gradually I came to realize how much of a spiritual problem all this political game playing turned out to be for me (my spiritual director from those many years ago was right). When you manipulate others for your own end, you are always acting out of the ego - feeding a bloated ego. When you act "inauthentically" you cannot be truly "in relationship" with others,  and the only way you can tap into your spiritual side is by being "in relationship."

I have moved out to the desert - the game is over.  I don't have to play the angles any longer and it's all so very liberating. 

Every day I try to practice a spiritual discipline. I meditate mindfully, I pray, but most of all I am making a concerted effort at practicing the "discipline of authenticity." I am trying to be one of those "what you see is what you get" kind of persons.  

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Thursday, October 17, 2013


my front yard

Yesterday I had one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had in my life. Off and on, for a good part of the day I had an online conversation with a person who was a self-avowed atheist. We were talking about what it meant to be an atheist.  The thing that was so interesting to me was that he constantly referred to himself as an "orthodox" atheist ( yes, he actually used the word "orthodox"). 

In our conversation I was told that there is a right way to "not" believe and there is a wrong way to "not" believe. Responding to a post I wrote on my blog (in which I talked about the spiritual side of every human being-even atheists), this person explained that a real and true atheist only believes in science and reason. A true atheist does not seek out ways to feed his/her spiritual nature. In fact a real atheist does not even admit to having a spiritual nature. He essentially went on to tell me that anyone that does not think this way is not an "orthodox" atheist.

By the end of this day-long, back and forth conversation, we couldn't even agree to disagree (I felt like I was a member of congress).  He was so firm in his position, so adamantly sure he was right that he wouldn't even entertain other ways of thinking.  He was, after all an "orthodox" atheist.

The word "orthodoxy" is a Greek word originating from the fourth century church.  It means "right thinking" or "true beliefs." After the creeds of the church were articulated, "orthodoxy" was demanded and expected from believers. Everyone was expected to hold the carefully spelled out "right beliefs" contained in the creeds. In fact people were labeled as heretics if they didn't hold orthodox beliefs, and some were persecuted, tortured, burned at the stake for their lack of orthodoxy (that's why I find the use of the word "orthodoxy" so odd when the word is applied to atheism).

As I see it "orthodoxy" of any kind is dangerous and lifeless. If there is only one way to be a Christian-an atheist-an American- a Republican, a Democrat (fill the blanks), then there is no possibility of dialogue with people who hold different views. And it is only in the "dialogue of diversity" that truth emerges and new life is breathed into old and tired ideas. 

I also doubt that human beings even have the capacity to be truly "orthodox"- everyone holding onto the same beliefs- the right beliefs.  We all carry around our own personal and cultural baggage and so no two people are ever "exactly" on the same page" with regard to anything. This is especially true when it comes to articulating and thinking about "abstract" ideas like "God" or "sin" or "prayer" or "everlasting life." People might recite a creed and say the same words but it hardly means they are all holding onto the same "orthodox" beliefs.  

After my conversation yesterday with my atheist friend, I ran across this wonderful reflection by Richard Rodriquez ("A Spiritual Autobiography"). He wrote it one Sunday in church after the recitation of the "Nicene Creed."

The congregation does not believe one thing; we believe a multitude of hazy, crazy things. Some among us are smart; some serene; some feeble, poor, practical, guilt-ridden; some are lazy, some arrogant, rich, pious, prurient, bitter, injured, sad. We gather in belief of one big thing: that we matter somehow. We all matter.

I am totally unconcerned about orthodoxy. In fact I think orthodoxy is dangerous and I don't even think orthodoxy is possible for any of us - even for an atheist.

I love the messiness of it all. The only "true belief" I hold is that "we all matter."

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