Saturday, November 30, 2013

Waiting Patiently

The High Desert
-capturing a moment-

Recently I had a conversation with a "photographic" artist displaying her work at a local festival.  Her mostly "desert" images were magical and mystical. Her photos somehow managed to capture a moment when everything just seemed to fit together, creating something beautiful - colors, hues, light, composition, just the right moment. 

Since I find myself taking more and more photographs of desert imagery, I asked her how she did it, what was her secret for capturing such stunning imagery? Her response came immediately, "I wait patiently for the moment to happen and I take a picture of it." 

I've been thinking about that photographer's response.  I imagine her walking out into the desert and waiting patiently.  I'm sure there are many times when she sees nothing, no magic happens, and everything seems very ordinary. So she must be patient in her waiting; but she waits because she knows the desert, and is sure that the "moment" is out there and that eventually she will find it.

My artist friend reminded me of something Henri Nouwen once said:

A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are
and live the situation to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.

In the Christian calendar, the season of Advent now begins. Many people falsely think that these days of December are a "countdown" for the festival of Christmas - a season to get ready for an event that will happen sometime in the future. 

Even if you aren't a Christian or if you aren't particularly religious at all, for many people this is still a season for getting ready -getting ready for a holiday, getting the house ready for parties, buying gifts, and decorating.

In this "holiday season," in these days before Christmas, everybody talks about how busy they are. People everywhere frenetically preparing, rushing here and there, minds pre-occupied with "to do"lists.

The fact is that this Advent season really has little if anything at all to do with "getting ready for Christmas" or preparing for a holiday event.  In fact, all the frenetic "getting ready" does nothing but distract from the beauty of what this Advent season has to offer. 

This is a season for practicing the discipline of mindfulness - patiently waiting in the present, living fully in the moment, sure that something beautiful, hidden in the ordinary world of everyday life, will manifest itself. 

December is a beautiful time for living in the desert. The long cold nights, radiant star-filled skies, a fire in the fireplace, the crisp cool days of brilliant sunlight turning the mountains into gold as the sun goes down, the blooming of brightly-colored, exotic winter flowers on the stark desert floor. It's a magical and mystical time of the year -a time filled with moments of hidden beauty waiting to manifest themselves. 

So, I'm not giving Christmas or a holiday season a second thought. I am just waiting patiently and when the "moment" happens I will take a picture of it.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Desire and Suffering

Buddha Under an Olive Tree
-my meditation garden at dawn- 

As I sat in my garden this morning, I couldn't help thinking about a very disturbing image I saw on a local news report yesterday. An older couple were camped out in front of an electronics store -  in line for today's big "Black Friday Blowout Sale." Their sought-after prize was a flat screen TV which they hoped to purchase at what was advertised as a "ridiculously low price." 

The thing that made this image of that couple waiting in line even more disturbing was that they had literally been "camped out" in front of that store for an entire week. Yes, a week ago last Thursday, they showed up with lawn chairs and sleeping bags. They wanted to be the first people in line when the "Black Friday" doors opened - to get the first  crack at that "ridiculously low-priced" flat screen TV. 

So all week long they waited outside the store - in the heat of day and in the cold of a desert night. They ate there, they slept there (they even ate some Thanksgiving turkey there) -  on a sidewalk outside a store waiting for the big bargain. 

The sight of that couple was for me, a "perfect icon" of the kind of unbridled, uncontrolled, rampant consumerism that has so infected the American spirit in our own times. 

Over the past few years, we have seen this infection become worse and worse. Every year on "Black Friday" there are images of "consumers" trampling one another down as doors open for the so-called "Big Blowout Sales;" but this year, it's not only "Black Friday." Now we have "Brown Thursday," as stores open for business on Thanksgiving Day enticing shoppers to get an edge on all the bargains a day early; and don't forget, "Cyber Monday" is just a few days away.

This morning when I turned on the TV news,  I was greeted by a particularly annoying "holiday" shopping commercial. Set to the tune of "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly," pink-faced elves were urging consumers to get out to the stores singing:  "Go, go, go, go, go, shop, shop, shop, shop!" 

As I sat in my garden today and quietly watched the breaking dawn, it struck me that more than anything else, I was feeling sad about those images of a couple camped out in front of that store and the elves singing their annoying  jingle.  I was sad because I truly believe that the focus on consumers and consuming, so rampantly prevalent at this time of year, is a cause of suffering, the cause of bitter suffering - a suffering that can be avoided.

As I sit in my garden at dawn I thought about that word "consumer." To me, it's an ugly word. When you "consume" something you eat it up and devour it. When I hear the word "consumer," I conjure up an image of a bloated "ego" gorging itself - eating up and devouring everything and everyone for personal satisfaction and gratification.

As I sit in my garden at dawn, I gaze over at the Buddha sitting under a little olive free, and I call to mind one of the Buddha's core fundamental teachings about our human condition:

Desire is the cause of suffering.
When you stop desiring, you stop suffering

I find such great wisdom in this saying. 

In Buddhist teaching (as well as in Christian teaching), the individual, isolated "self"(ego) is nothing but  a "delusion."  There is no such entity as a separated self. We are all relationships intertwined in a complex web of dynamic interdependence. When we "desire," we feed the delusion of the ego.  When we desire, we pull everything "inward;" when, by nature, we are designed to be "outward." As such, desire is indeed the cause of suffering.

Rampant consumerism is an icon of "desire." The so-called holiday season with all the frenzied  holiday shopping is a living example of what "desire" is all about. 

Desire is the cause of all suffering
When you stop desiring,  you stop suffering.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Discipline of EatingTogether

A Buddhist Monastery in Seoul
-sharing a meal-

Yesterday I was listening to a local radio broadcast - people were calling-in and expressing their opinions about whether or not stores should be open on Thanksgiving Day. I found one response to be especially disturbing to me.  A young man reported that he knows lots of people who could care less about Thanksgiving. He (and he claimed many others like him) would not be attending some big, phony, stress-filled family feast on Thanksgiving Day. He would prefer to be home browsing the web, playing video games or hanging out at the mall. 

I was disturbed by that young man's response, not because I feared it was symptomatic of a culture that was losing interest in an important family holiday in American society; but rather because I think his response was touching on a deeper problem.  It seems more and more today that we are abandoning the important ritual of "eating together."

Throughout history and in all cultures, gathering together and sharing a meal around a common table has been the "primary" way in which human beings have celebrated and developed "relationships" with one another.  Gathering around food goes hand in hand with forming bonds. I think it's probably also true that nowadays there are less and less people who take the time to gather at a table and share food together. 

I know many families who very rarely have dinner together. The hectic work demands of contemporary life sometimes make eating together on a regular basis practically impossible. Of course, if you live alone, other than the occasional meal in a restaurant with friends, eating together just doesn't happen.

So maybe it's true that many people would rather occupy themselves in front of a computer or tap at their various electronic devices than to gather with others and eat together - even on Thanksgiving Day.

I recall a two-hour lunch I once shared with friends at a Buddhist monastery in Seoul, South Korea. It was a life-lesson about the value of eating together that I will always remember. Obviously Korean was the language spoken at the table and since I do not speak Korean, a friend of mine served as a translator. But the truth is, very few words were actually spoken in that two hour lunch which consisted of incredibly delicious vegetarian fare.

Throughout most of the meal we simply sat in one another's presence and "mindfully" savored the moment. We slowly ate the delicious food, from time to time some of the monks would smile and nod. The monastery's abbot who sat next to me would occasionally reach over and assist me in gripping some of the trickier foods with my "chopsticks." The meal was peppered with conversation, but words were never forced.

Interestingly enough when that lunch ended, I honestly felt that in those two hours, I had made lasting new-found friends at that Buddhist monastery on the other side of the world. We formed a bond by simply taking the time to sit down and "mindfully" eat together. It is a memory that I vividly recall on this Thanksgiving Day.

This morning I read something of what the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said about Thanksgiving Day in America.  He advised people to use the opportunity of eating together on Thanksgiving Day as a practice session for "eating together' every day. At the Thanksgiving feast,  practice the "discipline of eating together." 

Take an extended, non-rushed period of time to sit together with one another at the table.  Be "mindful"- awake and present in every moment of the meal. Savor the moment - no rushing off to football games or shopping at the mall.

As you eat,"honor the food" (I actually love that expression). Honor the way each bite tastes, honor the texture, the color, the smell. Honor the person(s) who prepared the meal. Honor the farmers who grew and harvested the food and picked the crop. Honor the truckers who brought the food to the market and the cashier who sold it.

Today is indeed a great day to shut down the email and turn off the phone. It's a great day to "practice" the discipline of eating together.  

Then go out and "eat together" every day. 

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Subversive and Revolutionary

The Desert Floor
-wide open spaces and level ground-

I would venture to say that many (perhaps most) people today don't pay a whole lot of attention to statements made by religious leaders. Every once in a while the news reports something the pope or bishop or a rabbi may have said, and it all seems pretty tame and usually rather innocuous - "let's all pray for world peace." 

Actually I think that most people expect religion to be rather innocuous and they don't want religious leaders to "stir up the pot." 

Yesterday I read what Pope Francis said in his recent "papal exhortation," and I was literally stunned by his statements. I read what he had to say with a great sense of delight - finally a religious leader (or any leader) who is bold enough to take off the gloves and say what needs to be said to a bloated ego-centered culture.

The pope's bold pronouncements yesterday were anything but sugar-coated and not at all innocuous. They were, in fact, quite subversive and even revolutionary - hardly comforting and not able to be easily dismissed especially if you are an American or live in a capitalist society.

Pope Francis denounced the "tyranny"of capitalism, decrying the "dictatorship" of a capitalistic society in which the rich and prosperous ignore and oppress the poor and the weak. He denounced the "idolatry" of money that perpetuates inequality and "devours" what is fragile, including human beings and the environment. 

He said that we have many commandments telling us what not to do, "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not murder, etc," and he suggested a new "thou shalt not" commandment:

Thou shalt not have an economy of exclusion and inequality

One of my favorite phrases from yesterday's revolutionary manifesto:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person
dies of exposure,
but it is news when the stock market
loses two points?

When I read what Francis had to say to the world yesterday, I thought to myself, "Now these are fighting words;" and I was instantly reminded of Jesus causing a ruckus in the temple - passionately overturning the table of the money changers and lashing out against a culture that includes a handful of the rich and famous and throws everyone else away (Jesus caused so much trouble that they eventually executed him).

Religion in our own day has become so tame that I almost forget that all the great religious heroes of history have been counter-cultural, subversive revolutionaries. 

I think of  the fiery prophets of Israel. I think about the rebel Jesus. I think about people like Martin Luther King Jr. - all of them standing in bold, unequivocal opposition to the kings and princes and empires of their own day. They were voices for the voiceless, lifting up the poor and weak to sit among princes and kings, all on level-ground, everyone given an equal place of dignity at the table of life. 

Many people today ignore religion, while others want to keep their religion nice and tame, sugar-coated and comforting, confined to an hour on a Sunday morning. Yesterday we all learned something about what religious belief is really supposed to be: 

subversive and revolutionary

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Welcoming Strangers

The Desert Retreat House
-around the hearth-

Yesterday I happened to catch a picture in a newspaper ad for a local supermarket. It's depiction of the "First Thanksgiving," was such a grievous distortion of history that it made me sit up and take notice.

In the picture round-faced, pot-bellied pilgrims were gathered around a festive table laden with the rich abundance of the earth. Men, women, and children with cheery faces, all decked out in their pilgrim attire.

At the table a few somber-faced native people also sat. They looked like they were the invited guests of the jolly pilgrims. Some of the native "Indians" were carrying baskets of bread and corn, giving the appearance that they were waiters and servants at the feast.

How nice of those generous pilgrims to invite the poor Indians to share in their Thanksgiving banquet.

However, looking at the historical record, the "real" first Thanksgiving would have been anything but what was depicted in that supermarket ad.  There would have been no feast were it not for the unheralded generosity of the native people. There would have been no food. In fact, there would have been no pilgrims- they would have all died off.

When those first pilgrim people arrived from the shores of England to make a new life for themselves in the strange new land that they would call "New England," they had no clue as to how difficult, even treacherous, their new life would be. 

Those first pilgrims had never before experienced the harsh winters of a New England coast.  They didn't know how to build proper shelter. The seeds they brought with them wouldn't grow in their new environment, and on top of all that, all sorts of new diseases attacked their bodies for which they had no cures. 

In essence, in that first year on the shores of their new land, The pilgrims were cold, hungry, starving to death, sick and dying from diseases and plagues. Their numbers were dwindling and the prospects for their survival were very dim. 

The native tribe of the Wampanoag peoples observed the plight of the White settlers -those uninvited strangers who had come to live among them, and they took pity on them. 

The native peoples taught the White settlers how to hunt. They shared their food and gave them seeds for the crops that would grow in this land. They showed them how to build safe shelters that would protect them from the elements. They gave them medicines that would cure their sicknesses.  

It is no exaggeration to say that without the kindness of those native American peoples, those pilgrims could not have survived. The picture I saw yesterday of that first Thanksgiving had it all wrong. It was the "Indians" that were doing the inviting, sharing their abundance, welcoming uninvited strangers to their native land.

In a few days, like most Americans in this country, I will gather together with my own clan, and celebrate my thankfulness - grateful for the abundance bestowed upon "me and mine." 

However, I also want to recall the "real" picture of the First Thanksgiving, and remember that Thanksgiving is not only about "me and mine." After all, it was originally a feast of "welcoming strangers," extending kindness to those outside the tribe and showing mercy for those who need more help making their way in the wilderness of life.  

A Gospel passage comes to mind. It seems perfect for this time of year:

I was hungry, and you gave me food.
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

A Discipline of Expectation

A Work of Art

We have been living in the desert for almost a year now and so I have pretty much established a daily routine for my life out here. The once-foreign territory of my desert life has become quite familiar.

Every day my wife and I walk with our dogs. Sometimes we walk into the desert and at other times we walk through the streets of our little neighborhood located in a cove nestled up against the mountains. I have come to know the neighborhood quite well - the quaint "adobe" style homes colored in desert shades of orange, brown and yellow and gold, with gardens of flowers and cacti. 

It is all quite beautiful, but it also has become very familiar to me. I sort of had it all figured out - until yesterday!

When we first moved here I was told that our neighborhood was, in fact, an "artist colony." I was told that various artists from all over the country (and all over the world) had moved into this little cove neighborhood because it is so conducive to creative work. 

After all, the desert is itself a work of art. The hues of brilliant sunlight changing throughout the day, breathtaking sunrises and glorious sunsets, the cosmic night skies - it makes sense that artists would be attracted here.

While I had been told that we were living in an "artist colony," I never actually saw much evidence of the fact. My almost daily walks have revealed the same familiar homes - attractive and quaint. The neighbors seem friendly -  how is this an "artist colony?"  

Yesterday came the big surprise. Several of our neighbors opened up their homes to the community and  it was an incredible experience. Those familiar houses I pass by every day are, in fact, studios -bright sunlit studios adorned with paint brushes and palettes, outdoor courtyards with kilns and potter's wheels, brimming with paintings and photographs, sculptures and brightly colored vessels of clay- beautiful works of art - my friendly neighbors are artists from all over the world who have come out here to live in and be inspired by the desert.

It was such an incredible surprise.  I am indeed living in an "artist colony." 

I have always said that the desert is a great teacher; and once again, my desert life has taught me a great lesson: "Don't ever become so familiar with anyone or anything that you think you have them or it all figured out." 

In fact my desert lesson yesterday taught me something about incorporating a new kind of spiritual disciple into my daily living - a "disciple of expectation." 

More than being awake and present to every moment, this discipline is informed by a firm belief that the world is always brimming with surprises. And so when I am mindful, and when I am present to the moment,  I am also aware that, even when life seems very routine and very familiar, it is filled with much more than you might first see on the surface. 

So, I am resolved to be open to the surprises. In fact, I keep alert because I expect the surprises.

I am reminded of a wisdom saying from the Buddha:

As soon as you think you are safe, something unexpected happens.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

When Religion Disappears

-at the break of day-

Growing up as a boy, every Sunday was marked by a very precise pattern and ritual, all of which  centered around attending church. In my neighborhood everyone identified themselves as belonging to a "religion," and most everyone was Christian.  The main question back then was, "Are you a Catholic or are you a Protestant?" I knew a few Jewish folks, no Muslims, and certainly no atheists. In fact it wasn't until I was ordained a priest in the 1970's that I first met someone who claimed to be a non-believer. 

Many years later, my world (and the world in general) has become radically different than it was back then.  The ever-growing, steady decline in church membership (especially among the young), the popular and burgeoning new age of a secular society of non believers - all makes me wonder whether or not "religion" is disappearing in today's postmodern Western culture.

Every day I browse through the social media, and more and more I find that "religion" today is not only being rejected, but there appears to be a growing antagonism toward anyone or anything that even borders on being religious.

For example, I am  basically forbidden from posting my daily blog in several online communities that identify themselves as being engaged in "philosophical inquiry." When I try to post there, regardless of what I may have to say, I am censored. They are afraid that, being a priest, I will attempt to propagandize people with silly fairy-tale ideas about a superman God in the sky.  Recently someone told me, "there is NO truth in ANY religion."

Religious people today are very concerned that the ever-growing anti-religon climate in today's culture is resulting in churches dying and closing. In truth, I'm not so much worried about churches closing. Actually I think that the ever growing numbers of secular non-believrs may be good for churches-helping them to reconsider their core identity and primary mission. 

However,  I do seriously wonder what happens to a culture (any culture) that has no regard for religion in general, and is even "antagonistic" toward religion? I wonder what will happen to us if religion does indeed disappear in the generations to come? 

Yesterday afternoon I listened to a TED talk on a local NPR station. It was presented by the prominent 21st century atheist philosopher, Alain de Botton. The title of his talk was, "What Atheism can Learn from Religion." Mr. de Botton has become my favorite atheist. 

In essence this well known non-believer raised serious questions about the health of any society that totally dismisses and devalues religion. He concludes that, while he does not believe in a deity and while he finds no place or relevance for church doctrine in his life, there is much about "religion" that is helpful and even vital for leading a meaningful life. And even as an atheist, he respects religion, borrowing from the beauty and the insights that religions have offered throughout human history.  

Over the ages religions of all kinds have produced great beauty through poetry, art, music, and architecture. This great beauty touches something in the human condition, lifting people to experience a sense of something beyond their own self-centered existence. Every human being has a spiritual nature. Human beings yearn to be be inspired -  to be lift beyond themselves. So where will people go to be inspired in such a way if religion disappears? So why shouldn't an atheist appreciate a great cathedral or listen to a Bach Mass? 

Religion has also served as a source for teaching morality, giving guidance in life, and providing consolation in times of trouble. If religion disappears, where will people in the future go to learn and discuss the great moral questions -  how to live with compassion, work for justice, treat others with dignity. If religion disappears, when trouble comes along, where will people go to find that community of other human beings to guide and comfort - government agencies? academia? 

It's a weekend; it's Sunday morning. Lots of people are heading out to church. Lots of people are not. 

We live in an age, where now more than ever, a new dialogue must emerge between religious people and non-believers in a secular society.  The vitality and health of the culture may depend upon it. 

Indeed, what will happen to us if religion disappears?

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Upside Down and Inside out

Golden Majesty

The seasons are changing in the desert, and the sunsets are breathtaking.  Yesterday the sky turned to gold as the sun set. It felt as if somehow I had been transported into a a majestic, royal palace. 

At this time of the year, the Christian calendar also reflects this change of season; and so before the dawning of the Advent and Christmas seasons, the church celebrates the grand festival of "Christ the King" -gold vestments, songs of exaltation: "O worship the King all glorious above."

A few years ago I visited one of the most ancient churches (now a museum) in Christendom: The Church of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - built some 1500 years ago to be the cathedral of the mighty emperors of Constantinople. 

For me, the church actually felt more like an imperial palace than a church. When I walked into the immense structure, I was overwhelmed by an imposing mosaic of Christ the King (The Pantocrator) of the Universe. The enormous mosaic is made of gold and jewels. It hovers over as you enter that palace-like church -  Christ in glory looking down at the world surrounded by the heavenly court ruling over the world.

I recall that, as I stood beneath that "majestic" mosaic of Christ the King, I called to mind what Jesus actually said about himself when he walked the earth; and I remembered what he had taught his disciples:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be servant of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. (Gospel of Matthew)

In his own time, Jesus looked at the world of empire and emperors and he preached a message that literally turned that world upside down and inside out.  His mission on earth was to proclaim a new way of living- a world order that would stand in radical opposition to a society in which the rich and powerful lorded it over and oppressed the poor and the weak. 

Jesus taught that those who had power were to use their gifts to serve the needs of others. The strong and the rulers were to use their authority to lift up those of lower status so that every might have equal footing in a society of justice and compassion.

Four centuries after Jesus' own time, his disciples had ultimately forgotten, ignored and disregarded what Jesus had originally taught. They turned Jesus' teaching upside down and inside out.  The church had become an empire - Christ, the emperor and king, and the church on earth having authority and power to lord it over others.

As seasons come to an end, new seasons begin, and as the church celebrates the Festival of Christ the King, I want to remember that Christ the King is really "Christ the Servant" who called his followers to follow in his way - turning the world inside out and the prevailing culture upside down.

It also seems to me that you don't have to be a Christian to follow the teaching of Jesus the servant.   There is great wisdom in the teaching that human beings everywhere should embrace and treat one another with dignity and respect. It is a wise teaching that those in authority and people with power should use their power to lift people up rather than crush them down.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Seared Into Memory

Sunset at the Desert Retreat House
-November 2013-

Along with virtually everyone who was alive 50 years ago, I can vividly recall exactly where I was on November 22, 1963 -   The day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Somehow that event is seared into our cultural memory.

I was just beginning High School when our tear-filled principal came into our class and told us that the president had been shot and killed. I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday as we were all ushered into the chapel of our Catholic school - the hymns, the sobs, the prayers.  I remember feeling so  sad, but I also remember being so grateful to be with all those other people - my teachers and my friends in the midst of that congregation.

When I returned home that day, the neighbors on our street were outside, gathered together in groups, quietly recalling where they were when they heard the news. Some were gathered in our home and, along with my parents, we were together watching the unfolding, dramatic TV coverage.

As I think about it, the thing that I recall most vividly in my memory of that tragic day was the sense of common humanity I was experiencing. I was sad about the President but I was also enormously comforted by the fact that everyone was in this mess together. Throughout the country and throughout the world, there was a sense of common solidarity on that day -  a solidarity that I had never before experienced. It is a memory that has been forever seared into my mind and into my spirit. 

Many years later I would have a similar experience of solidarity and common humanity.  I also can vividly recall where I was on September 11, 2001 as the Twin Towers were reduced to rubble and the world was forever changed. 

That event is also seared into my memory. To this very day I hear story after story from people everywhere about exactly where they were on the morning of 9/11 when the planes flew into the towers.

But once again, what abides most clearly in my memory is my recollection that, through it all, we were all in it together. 

Once again I was in church on the evening of 9/11 in the midst of and surrounded by other faithful people. Again I remember the hymns, the sobs, the prayers. I remember watching TV throughout the day - the images, the stories of people throughout the world gathering on the streets of New York or Los Angeles or London, or Paris- spontaneous candlelight vigils, quietly sitting together in city parks and town squares. Everyone "together." 

This morning as I reflected on my memories of a president's assassination and my vivid recollections of a crisis in September, I was struck with the thought that my memories of those two events have for me reinforced a profound truth about our human condition - we human beings are relationships.

When crises strike us, our very first instinct is to be together in it all.  It's as if a great crisis peels off all the phoniness and all the pretension. A crisis strips away the false delusion of an isolated, separated self. 

A president is assassinated, twin towers fall, and we are pulled out of our false sense of isolation and thrown into that dynamic complex web of relationships that is at the core of our human condition. We are wired to be together. 

So, on this 22nd day of November as I sit and recall those memories that have been seared into my mind and my spirit, I am conjuring up a vision and imagining a picture; and in my mind I am painting an icon of what it means to be a human being:

All of us everywhere are standing in the midst of death, tragedy, crisis and danger, fires raging, winds howling, and waves rising; and we are all holding hands with one another in the midst of it all-propping each other up. 

My "humanity" icon is, however, not quite complete - it needs something more.  Through all the tears, as we stand together in the mess and muck of life, an abiding Holy Presence is there together with us, abiding among us, flowing through us, and saying:

Do not be afraid for I am with you through it all.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Different Perspectives

An Ocean View

The nice thing about Southern California is that you can live in the desert, drive two hours to the west, and you will be standing on a beach at the Pacific Ocean. We have been at the ocean for a few days, returning today to our desert home; however, my ocean time has taught me some important lessons about seeing the world through different perspectives.

I am a desert person. Every day, I get up out of bed and gaze upon rocky, stone, majestic mountains. I look out at the vast dry desert floor, cacti, sagebrush, and desert flowers. However, in these past few days when I get out of bed, I gaze upon a body of endless water that seems to have no end.  I hear the sound of gulls -lulling ocean waves on a sandy beach. The salty smell of the sea fills the air.

Yesterday my wife and I both remarked that the dramatic change of scenery has actually impacted how we think. We are used to seeing the world through desert eyes and now we are seeing the world through ocean eyes. It's not that the desert is somehow better than ocean; they both present their own form of beauty and both elicit their own sense of awe, but they are different from one another-very different. 

Somehow being able to look at the world through these different perspectives has made me feel more "complete." I have a richer, deeper sense of the world because I am able to see it through different lenses.

My "ocean" experience has made me ever more aware of the value of diversity and the importance of looking at the world through many perspectives in pursuing wisdom and truth in life.

As human beings we are always on a journey - all of us together pursuing paths to find meaning, truth, wisdom and deeper peace in life. None of us has reached the destination. No one has found the "right" way or the "only" way that everybody else must follow.

I am a Christian and, while I direct my path according to Jesus' teachings, I not only value and respect those who have different perspectives, but I try to learn from the wisdom they have found. 

I honor the Hebrew roots of my own tradition and value the wisdom of wise rabbis and teachers. I honor the path of Islam and have been deeply inspired by the profound poetry of the Sufi mystics. I am a Christian and I also follow the way of the Buddha who has helped me to be a more faithful Christ follower. As a Westerner I look to the wisdom of the many Eastern religions that have greatly expanded my vision and made my pursuit of the truth so much richer.

I also pay attention to what the emerging "spiritual but not religious" folks are teaching me. They are helping me not to take my own religion too seriously and showing me that you can clearly pursue the truth apart from religion and without the trappings of religious institutions. 

And yes, I also pay very close attention to what atheists and agnostics are saying. Their different perspectives about what they believe God is not, have really helped me to more clearly focus on who I believe God is. Because of my interaction with the non-believer crowd, I have been able to articulate that I also do not believe in a distant, superman God. Instead, I see God as an abiding Holy Presence walking alongside me in this pursuit of truth in all the circumstances of life. 

So, I return to the desert today, grateful for the different perspective the ocean has offered me. I am a desert person but the smell of the ocean will always be with me.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Feet Kissing the Earth

Ocean Sunset

Now that Thanksgiving is just around the corner, I see more and more online postings about the things for which people are thankful in life. 

I must say that my own list of thanksgivings is actually quite long.  The Pacific Ocean is only a few hours away from our desert home, and we are spending a few days here. From the wild and beautiful desert to the magnificent vista of the ocean at sunset, people I love, a beautiful home -  I almost can't begin to list all the things for which I am thankful. 

Yesterday as I sat and watched the sun set over the ocean, feeling very grateful for my life, I heard the TV set in the background. The evening news was on and they were interviewing some people from the Philippines who had literally lost everything in the recent killer typhoon. Their home was gone, friends and relatives had been killed, and there was no access to medical care.

I went in to watch the report and suddenly began to feel somewhat guilty for my good fortune. That family on the TV would not be appreciatively sitting back and looking at an ocean sunset. 

And then the reporter asked a very telling question to one of the women being interviewed: "You must feel so devastated..are you angry? To which she simply responded, "Saint Paul once said, be thankful in all circumstances." 

That one simple response put it all in perspective for me. That very wise lady may have been quoting Saint Paul, but her answer was also very Buddhist.

Very little (if anything) in this life can be controlled.  Only persons with very bloated egos believe that they can make life happen according to their own agenda. 

The ocean flows, sometimes it is beautiful, while at other times the waves rage and there is very little you can do about it. There are good times and there are bad times. We get sick and we are healthy. We experience good fortune and problems come our way.  "It is what it is." 

As I sat and watched the ocean and heard the story of that now homeless family on the other side of the world, I thought abut that response of that one woman. I think it's quite true. Instead of railing against the circumstances of life, in all things we can indeed be "thankful."

We can be thankful because, come what may, we are never alone. We human beings are all in this beautiful wilderness of life together - all intertwined and interconnected and interdependent in our human condition. And an ever abiding Holy Presence is with us in it all -  a universal force of love intimately abiding with us in all the circumstances of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, once said:

Walk as if, in every step you take, you are kissing the Earth with your feet

This is such a powerful image for me. Every step we take is a kiss. When we walk in the good times and in the bad times, when we seem to have it all and when we have lost everything, when the ocean is calm and when the waves wildly rage, we kiss the earth with "every" step we take. Maybe another way of putting it is, "Be thankful in all circumstances."

So I, for one, won't be making a list of the things for which I am thankful this year. I am thankful for whatever comes my way.

As I walk along on this life journey in this Thanksgiving season, I will be watching my feet and remembering that in every step I take that I am kissing the earth.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Life Flows On

A River in the Wilderness

There was a recent NPR program featuring interviews with various people about what they believed would happen to them after they died. 

Some people said that when they die they would simply no longer "be." - nothing after death. Others believed that after they died they would be swooped up into a blissful heaven of rolling green meadows where they would reunite with dead relatives. 

Personally, I couldn't relate to any of the responses- they were either far to bleak or way too syrupy.

I am celebrating a birthday, and so I guess it's not all that surprising that I might have a few thoughts about what death might mean (the older you get the more real are the prospects of dying). In fact, last night, I even had a rather vivid dream about dying.  My dream was so vivid that when I awoke this morning,  I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it.  My dream was not macabre nor was it bleak, but neither did I dream about going up among angels in billowy clouds.

In my dream I was standing in a flowing river and I was dying. Like an ice sculpture in the blazing sun, I was melting into the flowing river in which I stood. It wasn't frightening. There was no sense of loss. I was becoming part of the flow, and there was a great peace in it all. 

A passage comes to mind from  Hermann Hesse's celebrated book, "Siddhartha," sitting at the bank of a river,  Siddhartha listens to the water as it flows toward the sea. As he listens, he hears hundreds of voices- the whole of humanity, the whole of creation is flowing in the river as it rushes by:

Siddhartha listened…He could not tell the many voices apart from one another, not the happy ones from the weeping ones, the ones of children not distinct from those of men, they all belonged together…everything was one, intertwined and connected, entangled a thousand times. And everything together, all voices, all goals, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all that was good and evil, all of this together was the music of the world.  The great song of a thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was,
OM: the perfection.

When I reflected on my "birthday" dream about dying, I realized that this is what my dream was telling me about death; that when I do die, I would melt into the flow of life - life that is so intertwined and so entangled and interconnected as to be OM, the perfection - GOD.

So another year begins for me and my life flows on until I melt back into that perfect flow of the "River of One."  

There is an old Quaker hymn that I am very fond of singing - a fitting response to my vivid dream of last night. It will be my theme song for this day:

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth's lamentations...
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear it's music ringing
It sounds and echoes in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?….
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

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Monday, November 18, 2013

A Single Flower

My Garden

At various times I have come across an often-quoted wisdom saying of the Buddha:

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly,
our whole life would change.

The truth is that, as often as I had seen this quote, I only sort of understood what it meant. But then again, that's the beauty of wisdom sayings like this. You only sort of understand them, and they seem to have a way of gradually unfolding their meaning as you live your life's experiences. 

Yesterday, I witnessed a living example of the "miracle of a single flower" and I think I finally got a bit closer to understanding what it might mean. 

On Sunday my wife and I ritualisticaly go into the little village near our home, where we walk through the "Farmer's Market" in the town square, and do some "people watching" as we sit at the outdoor tables of the popular little coffee house in the center of town. 

Yesterday, at the table next to us, a grandpa sat with his little grand baby on his lap.  The baby was all dressed in pink and a tiny little flower was placed in a ribbon on her head. She was perhaps the most jovial baby I had ever seen. She had such an incredibly expressive face - laughing, smiling, gurgling. When you saw her, you couldn't help but smile also. 

But it wasn't just the baby that caught my attention. Her grandpa looked like he had just won the lottery. As he held his beautiful baby girl, rocking her to and fro on his lap, his face was literally beaming with delight. 

That baby and her grandpa were lighting up that one little corner of the space in which they were sitting, and they were like magnets drawing people to them. 

As the many stern-faced passersby on the street would notice that flower-adorned baby and her beaming grandfather, they would stop in their tracks and their stone faces would instantly melt into expressions of unrestrained delight. That baby and her grandpa actually created something of a mini-traffc jam because it was virtually impossible for people walking by not to stop and offer a little greeting or a wave.  

It was a perfect illustration of the "miracle of one single flower" changing the lives of anyone who took it all in.

As I sat and delighted in that scene on the coffee house sidewalk, I pictured a pebble thrown into a pond -rippling out over the surface, touching not just where the pebble landed but brushing across the entire pool of water. 

I thought to myself, this "miracle of the single flower" isn't just confined to this little space in time - a sidewalk cafe in a tiny little corner of the world. 

I could feel the energy, the love, the light of that beaming baby and her grandpa rippling out - out into the the lives of everyone who stopped and stepped into the light they were giving off. I thought of how those who stopped would then take that light out into the lives of others who they would meet, and the ripple of light would go on and on.  

Ultimately, the light of a tiny, happy baby with a flower in her hair and her beaming grandpa was rippling out onto the whole world, making it a more beautiful place, forever changing lives. It was indeed a miracle. 

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly,
our whole life would change.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Do Nothing

Rest in the Wilderness

I was always the kind of person who had a plan of action - a plan for developing my career, a plan for my family, a plan for growing the church. I even had an action-plan for my spiritual life - church, prayer, study, all on a regular basis at designated times.  And then I moved out to the desert and now I no longer have many plans. In fact I find myself relishing my new-found ability to simply "do nothing." 

I find myself spending a lot of my "doing nothing" time in my meditation garden. I just sit there in silence and bask in the moments of rising sun, swirling breezes, the bubbling fountain, the flowering bushes, the olive, fig and citrus trees, and the ever-present desert birds. 

I have never been much of a "bird person" in my life. In fact, I thought it rather odd that people would devote themselves to "bird watching." To me, it seemed like a waste of time. But ever since we moved out into the desert wideness, I have started to take notice of the birds- the many different varieties, with such unusual sounds in such an amazing array of bright desert colors. 

Yesterday as I sat in my garden "doing nothing," a family of exotic, bright red desert finches made an appearance.  I hadn't realized it but these little creatures had actually been living in the bushes right above the chair in which I usually sit. I hadn't noticed them before because they were always too shy and afraid to fly out of their nest when I was around (the fact that I often sit outside with my dogs certainly contributed to their unwillingness to show themselves). 

But yesterday they finally trusted me enough to come out of their hiding-place. As I sat perfectly still, (even my dogs sitting next to me were perfectly still),  one tiny bright-red creature perched on the nearby chair and sang for me, another sipped a drink of water at the fountain, still another swooped down and picked up some twigs for her nest.  It was a magical moment.

As I sat and watched these glorious little creatures who had come out to play, the thought came to me that they would never have mustered up enough courage to make an appearance were it not for the fact that I was just sitting there "doing nothing." 

On any given weekend, people all over the world engage in "doing something" to help get in touch with their deeper spiritual nature. Some go to a church or a temple or a mosque. They listen to sermons, say their prayers and chant their mantras. Weekends are a time for soul-searching.  

And all this is good - it's important. In fact, I'm one of those people who regularly "does something" as I engage in my soul-searching on my own spiritual journey. 

But I have also learned that, more often than not, soul-searching involves "doing nothing" - sitting quietly, watching, waiting, being attentive, being awake in the moment.

I am reminded of something Parker Palmer once said about the spiritual journey:

The soul is something like a wild animal. It will flee from the noisy crowd and seek safety in the deep  underbrush. If we want to see a wild animal we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out! But if we walk into the woods quietly and sit at the base of a tree, breathing with the earth and fading into our surroundings, the wild creature may eventually show up.

So today, as usual, I will sit in my garden and engage in the spiritual discipline of "doing nothing" - maybe the beautiful tiny red birds will come out to play once again.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Discipline of Playfulness

Meditation Garden

Yesterday, while reading one of my favorite books of Buddhists essays, I was particularly struck by this insight:

People who work from Monday to Friday often think they have to wait until the weekend to be happy. After five days of suffering through work, they try to make up for it with two days of being happy - what kind of life is that?

I was so stuck by this comment, not only because the weekend has begun, but also because it rings so true to me.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young professional couple. They both like their jobs but they also work incessantly - from early morning until 8 o'clock at night (or sometimes even later than that). Their jobs are demanding and often quite stressful - deadlines, endless meetings, power-point presentations and "Excel" reports. They yearn for the breather the weekend gives them, and even then,  they are often compelled to answer emails and take work-related phone calls. 

There are lots of busy people like that couple I spoke with yesterday. They wake up on a Saturday morning and, at  least at some level, they breath a sigh of relief and say to themselves:  "Ahh, now we can finally be happy - at least for a little while." 

As I sit in my garden on a Saturday morning and look at the Buddha figure under my olive tree, I am reminded that there is so much more to life than "putting up with the bad stuff while always looking forward to the good stuff."  I think we (especially in a Western culture) can learn much from Buddhist teaching about developing a "discipline of playfulness." 

There is  an ancient Zen story about a Buddhist monk who took a long walk in the mountains. Back at the monastery a large group of students had assembled,  and were anxiously waiting for their teacher who was scheduled to be with them for spiritual training. They waited and waited for hours before their teacher eventually arrived for their class,  and many of the students were angry and perturbed that they had been kept waiting while the teacher was wandering around up in the mountains.
The teacher simply responded:

First, I went following the fragrant grasses
Now I return chasing falling leaves

The fact is that, like many Zen teachers, the old monk walking in the mountains was hardly wandering around aimlessly while frustrated students waited for him. His mountain walk was in fact a lesson for his students impatiently waiting for his class. He was teaching them something about embracing the "moment." He was teaching them something about the importance of "playfulness" as a spiritual discipline.

We may think of "playfulness" as a frivolous act - perhaps even a waste of precious time. However, when we are playful, we are spontaneously living within every moment in life. When we can learn how to respond to life "playfully," we ultimately discover that we can be happy and serene even Monday through Friday, and not just on a longed-for weekend. As my book of Buddhist essays explains, we are "playful" when, 

We keep our sight on each footstep and live fully and thoroughly in each second. When each and every moment is true, then in each and every moment we will find deep wonder and amazement, and the value of life will be clear.

In a future-oriented, goal-directed, results-demanding culture such as ours, it's hard to be playful. Maybe  that's why it's called a "discipline" - you have to work at it. 

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Poets, Priests and Scientists

Wilderness Poetry

It's Friday, and so this evening I will be sitting in front of my TV set watching the HBO program, "Real Time with Bill Maher." I find the program to be very witty and quite funny with one major exception. I get a little crazy when Mr. Maher goes off on one of his famous "anti-religion" tirades - an argument that represents the ever -growing and very popular wave of world-wide "atheism."  

It's not that I think religion should remain above criticism - far from it. I criticize religion all the time. My problem with the standard anti-religon argument as presented by Bill and many of his other "atheist" compatriots is that the argument is simply old and tired, based on outdated and faulty propositions. 

The "du jour" anti-religon, "atheist" argument has a rather standard format: 

Science is the only way to find truth. Scientists apply logic and academic rigor in viewing the world and they offer "critical" explanations for how things happen. Religion, on the other hand, is little more than an adolescent fairy tale. Religious people are often referred to as "deists "- people who foolishly accept a ridiculous dogma about a superhero God living somewhere up in the sky creating and controlling the world and all that is in it.

Maybe (just maybe) if it was 1950, this argument might have some teeth. But it's the 21st century and the argument is actually quite ludicrous.

Yesterday I was in a conversation with a 21st century quantum physicist who, in one simple sentence, summarized it all, "The scientists of today are not the scientists of previous generations." 

The new scientists of our own day are just as rigorous in pursuit of the "truth" as their forbearers, but today's string theorists, quantum physicists, neuroscientists and the like, have all made enormous advances in the scientific venture and they have uncovered a brave new world. Today's scientists have looked at a world of sub atomic ever-changing complexity and have uncovered a world of astonishing mystery - black holes, dark energy, with about 5% of it that can actually be explained. 

 I sometimes wonder if today's scientists have not, in fact, become the new theologians of our own new age - the new priests and poets of a post-modern era. 

The priests and theologians in the religious institutions of our day are prone to presenting doctrine and offering answers to the questions of life.  They develop surveys about trends and then come up with the 10 keys or 5 strategies for growing a dying church. But when I talk to a quantum physicist, he tells me of his wonder at the "magic" of looking into an atomic microscope - encountering an ever-evolving world of incomprehensible complexity, a complexity that is filled with far more questions than answers. So I wonder who the real priests and poets are today?

The other day I listened to an NPR program about "Contemplating Mortality," in which a well-respected man of science, a renowned Hospice physician, related his experiences of treating people on the verge of death.

The physician affirmed his belief in science and the scientific method. He was, after all a celebrated doctor, who regularly relied upon all the treatments known to medicine used for  healing and prolonging life.  But we all die, and medicine has its limits.

In that NPR program, the Hospice physician (who was probably not a religious man) talked about the "sacred"moment  he inevitably experiences when, medicine no longer is an option as he stands at the bedside of someone near death with the family all gathered around for those final hours and moments.

It's a sacred moment
an experience of being infinitesimal and yet being infinite
vulnerable and yet unshakably confident.

As I see it today's scientists may indeed have become the priests, the poets and the theologians of a new era -inspiring us to explore the infinite and to venture into mystery. 

I have this kind of wild fantasy that Bill Maher will read my post today, call me, and we will enter into a new-era dialogue about religion and science. Probably not, but who knows?

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