Saturday, August 31, 2013

When I Least Expect It

Saturday Morning 6 a.m.

Lots of people nowadays say they are on a spiritual journey. I am one of those journeyers on a soul-searching quest, seeking something richer and deeper in life - looking to encounter an abiding Holy Presence in my life. 

Every morning I meditate. By day, I walk the desert trails. At night I gaze up into the star-studded brilliance of a moonlit sky. These are the times and places I "expect" to enter into that deeper experience.  And yes, at these times and in these places, I have often sensed my connection to the universe and felt an abiding power that is bigger than me. The desert is my church. 

But something happened yesterday that taught me an important lesson about the spiritual quest. Sometimes you encounter that Holy Presence in places and at times when you least expect it, when you aren't even looking.  

Yesterday, I found myself in the local Walmart. My wife convinced me to accompany her to help find a picture frame, so I very unenthusiastically went along. I did not want to be there, and when we entered the store, my lack of enthusiasm grew exponentially. The local Walmart is little more than a big warehouse made of concrete blocks. The harsh fluorescent lights, merchandise scattered on the floor and shelves, lots of noise echoing off the concrete walls, and the endless background "musac" put me in a very cranky state of mind. 

We managed to secure the required picture frame and we were waiting in one of the checkout lines. Directly in front of us was a young Latina woman cradling her 3 month old infant. She was feeding the baby a bottle of milk and at the same time juggling to place her purchases on the counter while caring for another child in tow at her side. Her English was limited and our Spanish was even more limited but we did understand when she motioned for us to go ahead of her while she managed all the many tasks she was performing.

I was perfectly happy to pass her by in the line so we could pay for our purchase and get out of that horrible store when my wife went over to her and offered assistance. As my wife was reaching into the mom's shopping cart and placing her items on the counter- some bottles of formula, a few baby toys, diapers- a veil was lifted from my hard heart, and I was suddenly bowled over with a sense of the beauty and tenderness of the moment. 

I'm not sure what it was that "got to me." Was it the tender way that young mother held her infant, gently stroking his hair as he drank from the bottle? Was it my wife carefully placing those little baby items on the counter?  What I do know is that, all of a sudden, the horrid ugly Walmart store became "holy ground," and I was overwhelmed with a sense of something bigger than me - an abiding power of gentleness, tenderness and compassion. 

As I walked to my car, I realized once again that the spiritual journey is not limited by what I do or confined to those special places like the desert trails or moonlit starry nights.  Being on a spiritual journey involves one simple guideline:  "Be available! Be present to every moment wherever you may be." 

In the (Gnostic) Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says:

The Kingdom will not come when you expect it. No one will say, "Look it is here!" or "See, it is over there." Instead the Kingdom of God is spread out over the whole world but people do not see it.
What you are looking for has already come, but you do not recognize it."






Friday, August 30, 2013

What's In It For Me?

 a desert marketplace

I was eating my lunch at a local restaurant yesterday. The food was fine, and the service was excellent.  Our waiter was a pleasant young man who smiled a lot, efficiently took our order, and made sure our iced tea glasses were always filled. We didn't have to wait long at all for the meal to be served and the waiter came to check on us at least twice to be sure everything was going well. 

The only problem with lunch yesterday was that the waiter seemed a little "too nice."  His "niceness" came across as being somewhat artificial and it distracted me. I kept wondering "what would happen if, on one of his visits to our table, I told him, "you are doing a great job and we really appreciate your service, but I am a little short on cash today so, unfortunately, I won't be able to give you a tip?"

My guess is that the smiles would quickly end and the iced tea glasses would most likely remain empty.

When I was in graduate school studying Interpersonal Communication, I remember coming across a theory about human interaction which at the time was very troublesome for me. Social Exchange Theory says that every human interaction is something like a business deal. People enter into a conversation or they form a relationship with the underlying agenda of "what's in it for me?" The theory suggests that in every human interaction, people are always (albeit subtly and sometimes without knowing it) conducting a cost-benefit analysis: "How much should I give and what will I get in return." 

When I first studied "Social Exchange Theory," I was troubled by this analysis of human interaction,  but I have since come to believe there is probably a lot of truth in it.

Many (perhaps most) of our interactions are "ego"- driven. Our interactions with a server at a restaurant, a clerk at a store, a colleague, even a friend or a spouse are often governed by the underlying theme of "what am I getting out of this?" And by the way, Exchange Theory also suggests that in a relationship when the risks outweigh the reward, people will usually terminate or abandon the relationship.

Maybe this is why many people feel so lost, confused and lonely. 

The Buddha taught that the more we live in the "ego," the more we suffer. Buddhists teach that all beings are an interdependent relationship. The idea of an independent isolated self(ego) is nothing more than a delusion, and when people live their lives for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, they are living contrary to nature - living a lie. Hidden behind the false shell of the ego, we will always be alone and we will always suffer. 

I think that from time to time, it's good to reflect on the underlying goals of our interactions and relationships with others.  If it's always "all about me" and "what I can get out of it?" the end result will be a dead end.

Jesus understood this very well. He wanted his disciples to be fully alive.  His teaching was always about changing the direction of one's life away from inward (building a bloated ago) to reaching outward - giving "self" away in order to find your "true self."

Jesus once told a little story about banquet etiquette. It was actually a story about life and how to "fully" live it.  People at a dinner were all vying for places of honor, and this is what Jesus had to say to them:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, so that they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. No, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. 





Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fluttering Wings

a desert butterfly

I was deeply moved yesterday while watching the CNN coverage of the 50th anniversary I Have a Dream Speech in Washington. The presidential tributes to a great hero, the ringing of the freedom bell, the inspiring music were all very beautiful; but the thing that got to me most was a tiny little interaction between one of the news reporters and a woman in the crowd. Most people probably took no notice of it; but, for me, that exchange between those two people was the most significant and inspiring moment of the entire day's events.

The CNN reporter was a handsome young African American man. When the camera focused on him, he was obviously teary and kind of shaky. Something had just happened that deeply affected him.  A light rain was falling and a few moments before he was supposed to go on air, he noticed an older Black lady sitting in the crowd without any rain protection.  So he approached her and offered his umbrella. The older lady turned to him and gently said, "No, honey, I survived the fire hoses that were turned on me back in the day of the Selma March, a little rain's not gonna hurt me."

The reporter could barely tell the story. After all, he was an African American who had achieved significant status as a"well-respected national news journalist. " He was barely able to get out the words: "It is because of her that I am here today."  

At first I thought it was mostly hyperbole. He didn't become a respected reporter "because" of that one woman who suffered the degradation of being sprayed with a fire hose 50 years ago.  But the more I thought about it, I realized it wasn't hyperbole at all.  In fact, the suffering of that one woman who long ago willingly put her life on the line for the cause of justice was "directly" related to that young man's current status in today's society.

Every morning I sit in my office as I write this blog and I look out the window onto my meditation garden. Every day I watch the humming birds at my feeder, and every day I enjoy the butterflies fluttering around the desert flowers in the garden. In fact, as I write this, a butterfly is out there flapping its wings.

Whenever I watch the butterflies, I am reminded of an image that had a deep effect on me when I first started reading and thinking about "chaos theory" many years ago. 

Because everything and everyone in the cosmos is dynamically interdependent and interconnected, the simple flapping of one butterfly's wings in Tibet might ultimately lead to a hurricane swirling over the Atlantic and hitting a specific spot on the New York City coastline.  Conversely, without the flapping wings of that one particular butterfly, the hurricane would not have hit where it did- there may even have been no hurricane at all.  The phenomenon is called the "Butterfly Effect." 

So yes, I think that a woman who endured the brute force of a fire hose for the cause of justice 50 years ago could indeed be the "fluttering wings of a butterfly - having a direct effect on the eventual rise to power of a handsome young African American man in the national news media. That reporter was exactly correct when he teared up and blurted out: "It is because of her that I am here today."

The cause of justice has hardly yet been won in our own times in this land or in any lands anywhere. We still live in a society where the "haves" lord it over the "have-nots," and where respect for the dignity of every human being is not even close to being the ethic of the day. 

Perhaps we think that our tiny little lives can have no effect in making the world a better place - no influence in bringing about a more just society. But we all have butterfly wings and even the tiny little flutterings we produce today can dramatically affect what the world will look like 50 years in the future.

A butterfly is flapping its tiny wings outside my window. I wonder where and when the storm will hit? 








Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Road Not Traveled

-which way to go?-

The road outside my house splits, and so you must make a choice about which road to follow. Obviously whatever choice you make means that you choose to "not" follow the other way. I thought about that choice of roads as I walked in the neighborhood yesterday - a great icon for how I see the basic "life-direction" I choose to follow every day.

I am a follower of the way of Jesus. The choice of the "Jesus path" is a lifestyle choice. Jesus calls his disciples to walk the path he walked- to sacrifice "self" (ego)  for the good of others, to respect the dignity of every human being, to practice compassion, to be a reconciler, to forgive and have mercy, to build up a society of justice and peace.  This is the course of life I choose when I decide to walk the path of Jesus.

The disciples of the Buddha are invited down a similar (perhaps the same) life path- relinquish the ego, be in tune with the fact that everything and everyone is dynamically interdependent, treat all sentient beings with devotion and respect, do not selfishly cling to this life.  

I walk in life along the "Jesus path- the Buddha path." 

I also realize that by choosing this path I have also made a deliberate decision to  NOT walk down other (more well-traveled) roads in this life.

In the Christian tradition, before a person is baptized into the way of Jesus, the candidate is asked to "renounce" before they "affirm." The candidate is asked to reject the road that is a contrary path to the way of Jesus: "Do you renounce sinful (selfish) desires? Do you renounce  the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?" 

You have to know the road you reject before you can choose the road you accept. 

Yesterday I was reading a book about Buddhist Christianity.  Buddhists teach that there are three poisons that corrupt and destroy us as human beings: "greed," "hatred" and "delusion" (we are deluded when we believe in the existence of an individual "ego" separated from others, we are deluded when we do not see that all beings are dynamically interdependent, and we are deluded when we believe that self consumption will bring us happiness in this life).

These poisons are the cause of our suffering. 

In the book I was reading, the author suggests that the three poisons must be renounced before accepting refuge in the Buddha or refuge in the Christ, and he developed a series of "renunciation questions" that  might be asked of anyone who would follow the path of the Buddha or follow in the way of the Christ . I found the questions to be particularly helpful in guiding my decision about what road to NOT travel:

- Do you renounce the web of delusions and ideologies that lure and entangle us in society?
-Do you renounce all grasping and desire to possess people and things for yourself alone?
-Do you renounce the proud belief in yourself as a self-sufficient being? 
-Do you renounce all envy, violence and injustice against others and the earth?

I hear these questions asked of me today and I say, "Yes I do renounce that poisonous path."  That is a road down which I choose to NOT travel,  and in doing so I find my way. 





Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Soul

desert, mountains, swirling clouds

In a recent post I referred to "my soul," and the use of this word set one person into a tailspin as he angrily responded to me, "There's about as much evidence for the existence of a soul as there is for the existence of pink unicorns." 

When he saw me use the word "soul," I am sure the person was thinking of the way the word is popularly understood. "Soul" - a real and impermeable spiritual "substance" housed inside the body that is released when you die. I actually think that understanding the "soul" in this way may be similar to believing in pink unicorns. However, I do not at all define "soul" in this way, and neither did the church in the earliest days of Christianity.

Ancient peoples were tribal - they defined themselves, not as isolated individuals but as a "community of people in relationship to one another."  In the  biblical tradition and in the ancient church, the soul was understood as "the community of believers animated by God's spirit."

It wasn't until the middle ages that the soul got a "makeover" and became understood as a spiritual substance within an individual. Reviving the principles of ancient Greek philosophy, the theologians of the day posited a Platonic body-soul dualism. In essence, the idea of a soul separated from and housed within a body is more an invention of Plato and Aristotle (appropriated by Christian theologians) than a concept found in the biblical tradition.

The later philosophies of the Enlightenment (like those given to us by Descartes) along with the development of modern-day psychology (given to us by Dr. Freud) pretty much ensured that when we would talk about the "soul" in our own day, we would be thinking about it tangibly as something an individual possesses -something thought of as real (like a personality) inside a body or a brain, with the individual being responsible for feeding his soul, caring for her soul, and saving his soul so that when she died the soul would be released into heaven.

I far prefer to rely upon the ancient biblical tradition for understanding my "soul" -  I am a community-in- relationship.

I also rely upon the wisdom of the Buddhist path to help me gain insight into the nature of the "soul."  The Buddhists teach that all beings ARE a dynamic, interdependent relationship. The idea of an isolated and separated self is an "illusion," and when we focus on feeding that "ego" illusion, we cause ourselves suffering.

I also look to the dynamic new discoveries of today's "new scientists" to help me understand my "soul." 
Looking into the world of swirling masses of atoms, quantum physicists, molecular biologists, neuroscientists,  and string theorists are all uncovering a complex web of dynamic interdependence- everything and everyone, the vast galaxies of the cosmos and the tiniest of quarks all interconnected, all interdependent, a common energy running through it all.  The scientists today are unveiling the "soul."

This is my soul:  the vast interdependent connection of all that is and was and ever will be. 

And when I understand my soul in this way,  everything changes. There is no separate or separated  "me" and so there can be no separate "other." Otherness does not exist -  everything is a community of relationship- no foreigners, no strangers, no one better or another less, all the creatures of the earth, the oceans and the sky-all part of who I am:  a community-in-relationship. 

This is my soul.















Monday, August 26, 2013

Light-Hearted

storm clouds brooding over the desert skies

I was got caught in a flash-flood yesterday. Yes as odd as it may seem, there was a flood in the desert yesterday afternoon.

When the emergency warning system sounded the alert that a flood was imminent, I basically ignored it.  It was a typical triple-digit day, the sun was baking the dry desert sand; how could a flood be possible? But within moments dark ominous storm clouds gathered around the mountains, the heavens opened up and the waters were unleashed, flowing over the dry desert sands. The highways were instantly turned into knee-deep rivers, stranding motorists and flooding homes and stores.  

I was on the road at the time and I just made it to the supermarket before the bulk of the storm hit.  We all stood looking out at the rivers of water as cars scurried to get to higher ground. It was then that I suddenly noticed how calm everyone seemed. There was even a sense of "light-heartedness," not happiness, but light-heartedess - low to no anxiety in that supermarket with those folks in the midst of the flood. 

We stood around chatting with one another. Some folks continued shopping. I heard one mom tell her young daughter, "There's nothing we can do about it  honey, at least we made it to the supermarket." A dad and his three kids had come out to pick up a pizza. He obviously wasn't going to take that pizza home, so he and the boys sat at a table in front of the store, cracked open the soda and had a picnic.

As I stood in the midst of it all, I wondered if maybe "desert living" was the cause of such "light-heartednes" as those waters raged by.  I laughingly imagined what the scenario might have looked like if I were back in Los Angeles in one of the big city supermarkets and a flash flood hit. I pictured cries of panic, everyone on their cellphones, sending frantic texts, people running to their cars trying to strategize ways to beat the flood.  

In that desert market, there wasn't a cellphone in sight - only a dad and his kids having a picnic.

I think that people who live in the desert develop a sense of resiliency. The desert is a wild and fierce place. It teaches people that most of what comes along in life cannot be controlled -storms happen, even floods happen in the desert. There's not much you can do about it, so sit and wait, and make the best of it.  

Living in the desert has taught me many life-lessons. The desert provides me with an "icon" of the kind of life I am now trying to live as I walk my spiritual path in my "second half" of life. I try to live mindfully in the moment, without obsessing on the future or the past. I try not to take myself too seriously, and I try not to "cling." I am learning a lesson about being "light-hearted" in the midst of the flooding waters, and the desert is a great teacher.

I finally got to my car and eventually made it home. As I drove along I recited one of my favorite prayers:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.

As I drove down my street, a young couple was walking hand-in-hand, barefoot and laughing as they sloshed through the puddles.






  










Sunday, August 25, 2013

Clinging to Life

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Yesterday, as I watched the march in Washington and listened to the speakers commemorating the 50th anniversary of Marin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech,  I thought to myself, "It's been 50 years, and he still lives." 

As I observed the events in Washington yesterday, I noted that many were  reciting the "I have a Dream" speech as if they were quoting scripture. I observed the hordes of people displaying Dr. King's picture on placards and signs; some were chanting his name. The politicians and preachers were stirring up the crowds, prodding them to keep the dream alive and continue Dr. King's work for justice and peace. It's been 50 years since that speech. Martin Luther King was assassinated decades ago, and yet he still lives.

As I watched the unfolding events in the nation's capitol yesterday, I had two thoughts.  First of all, I was overwhelmed by the life-changing effect one simple, single life can have upon the entire world and upon history in general.  My second thought was: "how did he do it?'  What did he do or say that lit a fire that would literally change the world? I concluded that Dr. King discovered his "Christ-nature" -his "Buddha nature"  - a nature inherent in every human being.  Martin King became "the Christ," He became "the Buddha," and he changed the world.

There is a wisdom saying attributed to the Buddha:

You only lose what you cling to

As I see it, the secret to finding the Christ/Buddha potential in the human spirit lies in an acceptance of this great wisdom. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to give his life away because he wasn't afraid to lose it. He wasn't afraid to lose it because he didn't cling to it. 

And so, they could burn down his house and he still went on preaching. They locked him in a prison cell; and when he was released he went on to the streets of Selma and Montgomery, putting himself in peril marching for the human rights of the marginalized and oppressed. As he became more and more popular he became a lighting-rod, and he knew full-well that every single time he stood before a crowd he faced the risk of being gunned-down.  Yet he continued to stand before those crowds and continued to boldly proclaim the cause of justice.

One of my favorite speeches of Dr.King was the one he gave on the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. It was as if he knew his life was soon to end as he told the assembled crowd that he had "been to the mountaintop and seen the other side." He told the crowds that he wasn't going to go with them to the Promised Land -  his work was done, but they would surely get there.  He was boldly fearless that night before he was killed.  He had nothing to lose because he wasn't clinging to anything. This is what happens when you find your "Christ nature," your "Buddha nature"

A few months ago I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. I remember thinking how awesome it all was. I also remember thinking that the memorial made Martin Luther King Jr. seem "larger than life." I remember looking at all the people at that memorial -gazing at Dr. King's towering statue, reading excerpts from his speeches engraved on granite plaques, and thinking to myself. "He was an ordinary person, just like me and just like all those people "worshiping" at that memorial shrine. He had his faults and made his share of mistakes; but he also took the risk of allowing himself to become "fully human." He became the Christ; he became the Buddha. He wasn't afraid of losing anything because he didn't cling to anything.

As we celebrate this 50th anniversary of Dr. King's famous speech, I want to do more than remember Martin Luther King Jr.  - I want to be like him.






Saturday, August 24, 2013

Learning the Language of Nothingness

an empty fullness
-The High Desert -

I was a pretty dangerous character when I was first ordained a priest (many years ago). I had just completed years of advanced study in theology, and I was convinced that I was the "answer man." Come to me, and from my vast storehouse of theological education, I could dispense a "quick and easy" answer to everything and anything you'd ever want to know about God and religion.

"Theology" is, by definition, a study of "words about God."  Over the years,  I gradually came to realize that my quick and easy answers had lost their power to explain (actually I came to realize that they really had little or no explanatory power to begin with). The older I got, all the millions of "God-words" in my vocabulary began to lose their luster- becoming weak and tepid tools for accessing that wild, fierce, untamable fire of cosmic loving energy we call GOD.  

I gradually came to understand what so many of the great theologians of the past had come to say about their study of God. Their ultimate conclusion was: "Anything you can ever say about God- God is not." Words can only point you to the path on which you meet and encounter the mystery.

Last Spring I conducted a "men's retreat" in the HIgh Desert, located in the region above the area where I live.  I had been in this part of the desert before - mostly as a tourist admiring the endless desert terrain, carpeted with cacti and Joshua Trees and framed by stunningly beautiful snow-capped mountains.  When I went there last Spring, I was no longer a tourist passing through.  I was there to reside for a few days and, along with my fellow "retreatants," I was on a spiritual quest.

I can vividly recall the very first time I walked alone out into that wide-open desert terrain. It was a crsytal-clear morning and I was standing in a space that was "absolutely empty" -  not a soul in sight, no cars, no houses, not a sound. I can vividly recall that my first response to it all was "panic." My first impulse was to "literally" run back to the safety of the retreat house where I could touch all my comfortable things and have conversations with the people I knew, speaking a language that put me at ease. 

As I walked out into that desert terrain that first day, I did not panic because I felt so alone.  I did not "fear" because there was nothing there. I was fearful and awestruck because the emptiness was so full. A Holy Presence of wild, untamable, fiery, cosmic love was pulsating like a beating heart. The separation between me and GOD was so thin that I could almost see and touch it, and I was afraid. ( I know now why in the biblical stories whenever characters encounter GOD, angels always tell them, "Do not be be afraid.")

That day in the desert set me on a course of learning a new language for encountering Holy Presence - not the language and the words of "theology," but a new language of "nothingness."

Buddhists talk about a spiritual path that leads to "emptiness" or to "nothingness."  I am following that path. 

Every day I sit in mindful silence and I listen with my new language of nothingness-open to the emergence of a power I cannot tame or control. Every day I walk out my front door into my own desert region down here in the valley, and every day I practice my new language of nothingness- always amazed at the fierce power of the stark emptiness and the ear-shattering sound of a deafening silence. And, lest I panic and run back to safety, every day I need to hear the message of that angel, "Do not be afraid."

Lao Tzu (the Father of Taoism) says:

Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness





Friday, August 23, 2013

Guilt

an oasis of palm trees 
-outside my retreat house-

The other day I had an online conversation with a young woman who, as a teenager attended church quite regularly, but has now left the church and is unsure of her belief in God.  "I just couldn't take the guilt," she said.  "There were so many expectations that I always thought somehow I was letting God down."  Interestingly enough, she now continues to feels guilty because she has left the church.

In many ways I can totally identify with someone overwhelmed with what God supposedly expects - feeling guilty when those expectations aren't met.  I grew up Catholic, and while Catholics certainly  have no corner on the "guilt market," they own a pretty fair chunk of it.

As a boy I was told that I made God cry whenever I committed a sin. The problem was that I was always making God cry because it was almost impossible not to sin.

Throughout my formative years I had before me a whole long laundry list of ways I could sin. The list gave a pretty detailed explanation of the many "ways to commit sins."  In thought, word and deed, I could let God down by my actions- by what I said, what I did, and even by what I was thinking.  I remember trying very hard not to let God down, but usually failing and feeling guilty. 

I remember sometimes feeling guilty for having too much fun (a very Protestant-Puritanical idea by the way). And  I even  felt guilt when I didn't do anything at all, because after all I was born into a world of  "original sin"  - the sin committed by Adam and Eve. I was taught that every human being is born into a condition in which, regardless of what we do or don't do, we are letting God down. 

So I get it when someone tells me that her experience of religion was so ridden with feelings of guilt that she just couldn't take it any more.

Of all the human emotions, guilt is one that is "totally useless." I say guilt is useless because it leads no where -  it's just a bad feeling you have about yourself, a way to beat up on yourself. We talk about "wallowing in guilt" -stuck in the cesspool of personal failure and debilitating self-doubt.

In my later years I have very much come to appreciate the Buddhist "take" on guilt.  I just read a Buddhist commentary yesterday in which "guilt" was insightfully described as "a disturbing attitude - a subtle act of the ego." As I think about it, guilt is very egocentric. The ego wallows in guilt. The ego gets ever more bloated as it marinates and stews in a sense of personal failure - look at "me" woe is "me".

I learned that in Tibetan Buddhism, they don't even have a word for "guilt." The closest approximation to a description of "guilt" comes from a Tibetan Sutra and is translated as "intelligent regret that decides to do things differently."  

This makes a great deal of sense to me. Sure there are times that I regret what I have done (this happens almost every day); but instead of wallowing in guilt over my failures, I can "intelligently  decide" to learn from my mistakes and do things differently in the future. I'll take "intelligent regret" over "guilt" any day. 

I don't at all think that we let God down by our failures, faults and sins. In fact, I don't think it's possible to offend God.

I don't even come close to imagining God as a super parent in the sky who gets hurt (and cries) every time people act against His will.  God is an abiding Holy Presence, with us in the ebb and flow of life,  especially with us when we fail or doubt or run into rough patches in our life.  

God is the oasis in the desert heat desiring only the best for us, wanting nothing more than our abundant life.

There is a tender little saying that comes out of the literature of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers. They moved into the fierce wild dessert terrain so that they could devote their lives to following the way of Jesus without the distractions of church and society. They had only one law, and the law was the law of love:

When Abba Poeman was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer,
he replied
I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.


  






Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Second Half of Life

A "Blue Moon" in the Desert Skies

Last night, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a bright light coming through my bedroom window. At first I was a bit disoriented by this celestial vision, until I realized that moonlight was shining through my window- a rare occurrence of a "Blue Moon" was shining in the desert skies with intense luminosity.

I got up and sat outside to take it all in. The triple digit oppressive heat of the sun-baked desert day had now subsided and a cooling gentle breeze now filled the air. The myriad of stars in the sky and the gleaming "blue moon" made the night glow bright in a gentle splendor.

As I sat and basked in the magical mystery of that nighttime moment,  I thought to myself,  "what a perfect icon for getting older and moving into the second half of life: the day is done and now comes the night with all it has to offer." 

Now that I am in my later years of life, I have been doing a lot of thinking about (and reading about) getting older.  Many psychologists and spiritual directors refer to the later years in life as "the second half of life." The first half involves climbing the ladder of success and building up the ego, while the second half of life focuses upon giving it all away. 

Up until a few years ago I had been essentially living in the "first half" of my life. Much of my  energy was directed toward climbing the ladder of success, developing my career, carving out a comfortable place for myself and for my family. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this- this is what one does in the first half of life. 

I had moved up from one job to other better jobs. I was doing all I could do to be noticed by people who could advance my career.  I had accumulated several college degrees, got to sit in nice offices, wore beautiful vestments, and had garnered more titles than I could even fit on one business card ( The Very Reverend, Dr. Canon- quite a mouthful).

One day (I can almost remember the exact moment) all of a sudden none of it was important to me any more. The upward mobility, the need to be noticed,  the places of honor, the earned titles of respect- one day I came to realize just how all unimportant it all was to me. On that day I entered into the second half of life.  The direction of my life had moved from the period of building up to the time of giving myself away.

Richard Rohr, in his book "Falling Upward" describes the "second half of life" in this way:

In the second half of life one has less and less need or interest in eliminating the negative or fearful, making again those old rash judgements, holding on to old hurts, or feeling any need to punish people. Your superiority complexes have gradually departed in all directions. You do not fight these things anymore; they have just shown themselves too many times to be useless, ego based, counterproductive, and often entirely wrong.

At this phase in my life I no longer have to prove that I or my group is the best, that my ethnicity is superior that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role or place in society deserve superior treatment. I am not preoccupied with collecting more goods; quite simply, my desire is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received.

Of course, a person's chronological age is not necessarily an indicator of entering into the "second half" of life. I know lots of 70 and 80 year-old narcissists. I also know many 40 year-olds who are in a "second half" of life - They don't take themselves too seriously and think more about others than themselves.

In my own case, chronology helped  - getting older helped to get me to that "second half" (I guess I am a slow learner).  

When I was a young man, I often wondered what people meant when they talked about the "wisdom you acquire with age." I think I now know something of what that wisdom entails: "You have to lose your self to find your self."

T.S Elliot once said:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there it does not matter
We must still be moving and moving
Into another intensity
For another union, a deeper communion

The night  of the "second half" is magical, glowing and luminous, mysterious and unchartable.  The exploration - so exciting.  






    


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The "Straw Man"

sunset in the desert skies
-wonder-filled natural beauty-

Yesterday I was browsing through the "CNN Belief Blog" when I came upon an article titled, "Debating Why Millennials are Leaving the Church." I did a fair amount of "debating" in my day and so the word "debate" especially jumped out at me.

There is a technique in debating circles whereby you invent a "straw man" and then argue against your invention. When using this technique, you essentially fabricate what your opponent thinks (this fabrication may have little or no relationship whatsoever to your opponent's actual position). You then attack and ague against the straw man you have created. 

When I was reading yesterday's online belief blog, I was pretty much bowled over by the "straw man" which one of the participants in the debate had invented.  Speaking on behalf of his (Millennial) generation, he articulates the reasons why he does not believe in God and has no use for religion:

The real issue is, my generation does NOT believe in the supernatural, nor do we need a magical deity giving us a punishment or a gift to actually do the right thing. I do the right thing because it makes me feel good to help other people, not because I think my soul will magically live forever after I die.

A perfect example of a "straw man." 

The problem is that I (and many people I know) do not at all believe in the kind of God he has invented and argued against. In fact, I generally agree with most of what he is saying and I am a Christian believer and and a long-time ordained priest. So here is what I actually believe (and don't believe):

I do not believe in the supernatural

At first this may sound odd, coming from someone like me, but I don't believe in nor do I desire God as an intervening supernatural power. 

Every day I intimately experience an ever abiding Holy Presence (a transcendent power) in the natural circumstances of everyday life.

I wake up in the morning and bask in the beaming rays of a newly rising sun.  I walk in the desert and stand in awe at the vast spaces and towering mountains.  At evening I sit in reverent silence in the fading glow of the Western skies. At night I am awe-struck by he raging cosmos exploding in the nighttime skies. 

I experience a transcendent Holy Presence in the everyday routine of ordinary life- at a supermarket, at lunch, at dinner with my spouse, watching the news, browsing the internet. 

Everything and everyone - all that is "natural" is sacred, and I don't even want God to be supernatural because then God would be too distant and removed from me.

I do not believe in a magical God who rewards and punishes

God abides as Holy Presence- that's all - not some man in the sky making a list and checking it twice. That image of God - along with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny-went out the door for me when I left my childhood behind and began to embrace an adult understanding of God.

I do not believe in helping others in order to get something out of it - to win an eternal reward

Jesus never even talked about going to heaven. Like the Buddha, Jesus taught his disciples how to live here and now - live a life of compassion, treating all beings with equal dignity and as worthy of respect. I don't "practice compassion" to build up my own ego or to win divine "brownie points" to be redeemed for a place in heaven when I die.   I practice compassion because doing so makes me more fully human and brings me deep peace in this life here and now. 

The more I think about it when it comes to conversation about God and religion, there are a lot of invented "straw men" out there. If we would take the time to enter into dialogue and really listen to what another person "actually" believes, we may be surprised how often we might  find ourselves standing on common ground.  





  








Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Big Bully

every valley exalted, every mountain and hill made low
-the desert outside my retreat house-

As I drove along in my car yesterday, I listened to an NPR radio broadcast about the growing phenomenon of "Bullying in Our Schools." Upon hearing this I was immediately reminded of a radio story that I had heard earlier of a young 12 year-old boy. His classmates labelled him, "Gay," and because of that he was subjected to a continuous barrage of endless, nasty bullying - most of which took place on the internet.

The boy's mother had approached school officials who, while sympathetic, essentially said that there was nothing they could really do to stop bullying on the internet. 

One day, while cooking dinner. the boy's mom noticed that the door to her son's room was closed and there was an unusual silence within. When she finally opened the door, she found her beautiful child, an electrical chord wrapped around his neck, hanging dead from a rafter. The story brought me to tears.

Whenever someone has power and uses that power to humiliate, crush and oppress someone else who has less power and is weaker, bullying occurs. Bullying isn't confined to our nation's schools, it happens everyday, everywhere. In the world, our nation, at work, home, school - bullying seems to be ingrained in the character of our humanity.

The dominant race bullies the minority; the rich crush the poor and the weak; citizens bully immigrants and foreigners; the educated bully the unschooled; the dominant religion bullies minority religions...and on and on it goes. Those who have power use it to crush those who have less power or no power.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that God, the supreme source of power, would be imagined and portrayed as a big bully- the all powerful almighty one sitting on a throne, judging and condemning  poor lowly sinners- God, the "Bully of All Bullies."

The fact is that, when it comes to using power over others, we have it all wrong, all upside down. It may well be that the stronger use their power to crush the weak, but that is a flaw in our human condition.  It is not how we are designed. 

The wisdom of all the major world religions and the discoveries of contemporary sciences  all present a   picture of the creation as being dynamically inter-related and woven into one cosmic web. In the natural order, every tiny quark, atom, rock, tree, river, person, nation and culture in this web is significant and intrinsically valuable. 

So when anyone uses power to crush or bully anyone else - it's an unnatural act - an act that violates the principles of creation.

And, contrary to popular opinion, in the biblical tradition, God is hardly a big bully. In fact, the opposite is true. In the biblical picture, God is a great leveling force - bringing down those on high mountains and exalting those in the valleys of life- the high and the mighty and the meek and lowly all on a level plane, all sitting together in a place of equal dignity at the table of life.

There are two beautiful (and illustrative canticles), one from the Hebrew Scriptures, the other from the Gospels:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap and gives them a seat next to kings and princes as everyone inherits a throne. (Hebrew-"Song of Hannah")

God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly. (Gospels:"Magnificat")

In the Buddhist tradition we see the young Guatama Buddha born into royalty, leaving behind his throne to live among the poor and lowly, teaching his disciples that every sentient being is to be equally valued and equally respected, all inter-related in one dynamic flow of interconnection.

God is no bully, and we human beings are called to rise above our bullying tendencies. By doing so, we become more fully human. We have it all upside down: The strong are called to lift up the weak, the ones who have a voice called to be a voice for the voiceless. 

A mother came to school officials about the bullying of her "Gay" son. She was told "there is nothing we can do about it." I wish it had been turned upside down:  "we will do everything we can to stop it." 



  










  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Buddha Christ

A Buddha and a Celtic Cross
-my meditation garden-

As I sat in my meditation garden looking at my statue of the Buddha sitting next to a Celtic Cross, an image of the Catholic nuns who taught me in my childhood came to mind. They warned us that if we even so much as enter a "Protestant Church, " we would commit a serious sin. Now, many years later, when asked about my faith,  I tell people that I am a Christian Buddhist ("you've come a long way, baby!")

There are some who, no doubt, would label me a heretic and others who would pray for me because I have lost my faith. As I see it, when I embraced Buddhism, I found my faith again in a new and fresh way.  

My move toward Buddhism happened a few years back. I was reading about Siddhartha Gautama (later to be acclaimed as the Buddha):

He saw, not only with his mind but with his whole being, just how the world and human existence in it worked, how everything was in a constant process of interconnected movement, how suffering is caused when humans greedily try to break the interconnections and hold to things just for themselves, how suffering can be stopped through letting go not just of selfishness but of the very self in compassion for all beings.

When I read this for the first time, I thought to myself, "This may be about the Buddha, but it is the most clear and articulate statement I have ever seen describing the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth- later to be known as the Christ." My eyes were opened and I came to realize that the way to the "Truth" is not the exclusive property of Christians. There are many paths on the road to truth.  In fact, the Buddha helped to point me on the way to the Christ.

Although they are separated in history by 500 years and by vast differences in culture and geography,  the life and teachings of Buddha when compared to Jesus are dramatically similar.  

The Buddha and Jesus are both counter-cultural figures standing against the status quo of oppression and domination. Jesus and the Buddha never present themselves as figures to be worshipped, rather they both point to a "way" of life to be embraced by disciples who come after them.  They both teach that everyone has a Buddha nature- everyone has a Christ nature (everyone, an anointed child of God). The disciple is to walk on a path leading to the discovery of one's own "Buddha nature," one's own "Christ nature."

And what does this "way" look like?

Do unto others as you would have them do to you.  (Jesus)
Consider others as yourself.  (Buddha)

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. (Jesus)
If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words. (Buddha)

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. (Jesus)
Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love. (Buddha)

Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. (Jesus)
Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick. (Buddha)

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own. (Jesus)
The faults of others are easier to see than your own. (Buddha)

I sit in my garden this morning surrounded by the Buddha and the cross. Embracing the Buddha has enriched, broadened and deepened my understanding of  Jesus in whose "way" I gladly and willingly walk. 

I haven't lost my faith. I have found it.  




Sunday, August 18, 2013

Instant Gratification

my olive tree

Yesterday I sat in my meditation garden gazing at my olive tree when it suddenly struck me: "It has grown..my olive tree has grown." While this recognition may not seem like that much of a stunning  revelation, it was actually quite significant to me. I have been watching that tree for over a year now and it has seemed to have been stagnant and stunted - always the same size, not even an inch of growth.  It gets watered every day, from time to time we put fertilizer on it and obviously it gets plenty of sun, but it just never seems to get any bigger.

I asked our gardner about my apparently stagnant olive tree.  He looked at me with a slight smile (after all, I am relatively new to life in the desert) and said: "Just give it time, it takes a little longer out here for things to grow."  

That's why yesterday was such a revelation to me. Without even realizing it, my olive tree had grown (and actually grown a lot). I just had to be patient and give it time.

Yesterday's "olive tree revelation" afforded me an opportunity to reflect upon my own impatience - my unwillingness to endure and to persevere. 

After all we live in a society of "instant gratification." Perseverance and patience are very much at a premium nowadays. You can press an "app" on your iPhone and a taxicab appears at your door in minutes.  You can walk into a car dealership and immediately drive off with a new vehicle at 0% interest. Want to watch a movie? How about a new book? Go to amazon.com, press a button, and it's instantly there on your TV or your kindle.  

The other day I received an advertisement for "lighting speed"internet access. I actually thought my internet access was already at "lighting speed." I couldn't imagine how much faster it could be,  and why I would I even want it to be faster than it already is? But apparently some people are troubled if they have to wait a second or two for a "download," so sales of "lightning speed' internet are doing quite well.

I honestly believe that the culture of "instant gratification" has pretty much permeated the way we view the world nowadays. We want immediate results with "no muss, no fuss;" and if we don't get the results we want as fast as we want them, we often move on to something else.

The problem of course is that when it comes to the things that really count in life, you usually need lots of patience and plenty of endurance and perseverance: planting, maintaining and growing "relationships" always take time and effort.  

As I grow older, I have more and more come to see that it literally takes a "lifetime" to grow in love - to practice compassion, to be a reconciler. It takes a lifetime of patient endurance to learn how to be more and more awake in the present moment, mindful of the abiding Holy Presence. 

You can't press a relationship "app" and it all magically happens. There is no "lighting speed" for growing spiritually. In fact, usually the motto is: "Two steps forward, one step back." So stick with it. 

There is a little wisdom story that comes from the "Sayings" of the Desert Mothers and Fathers:

Abba Theodore once told a younger monk, "You've not yet found a ship to sail in, nor put your luggage aboard, nor put out to sea, and you are already acting as if you were in the city you mean to reach."

The spiritual journey takes a lifetime of patient endurance. 

The Buddha taught:

Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines,
but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.

I'm sitting in my meditation garden looking with amazement at my olive tree, "My, how it has grown."











  




Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Narrow Door

one of the many mountain caves around my retreat house
-a narrow door-

I walk along the desert trails and everywhere I look I can see them - those hundreds of little caves dotting the mountains overlooking the desert where I live. The opening to those caves is just a tiny little gap carved into the face of the mountain - barely enough space to squeeze through.

Day by day as I pass by the mountain caves with their narrow little entranceways, I am reminded of one of the most important (yet often obscure and ignored) wisdom teachings of Jesus:

Strive to enter through the narrow door (Luke 13:24)

Back in Jesus' day, cities were all enclosed by protective walls. There were two types of entranceways into the city. The majority of the people would enter through a big wide open gate - hordes of people walking into the city with their camels and beasts of burdens at their sides, weighed down with their things and possessions, everyone sort of mindlessly drifting through. 

But there was also another entranceway into the city through a much smaller passageway - just a narrow little gap in the wall that a person could barely squeeze through. If you wanted to pass through the narrow door you would have to remove all your stuff from your camels, and leave it behind because the entranceway was too tiny for everything to fit through. When you entered through the narrow door, you came in unencumbered, not clinging to anything.

What a marvelous  icon to illustrate Jesus' most fundamental teaching that, "If you want to find your true self, you have to die to your self-centered, bloated ego." You are able to find true peace by surrendering your self-centerdness and not clinging to anything.  The entranceway to true peace (the entranceway to the "Kingdom of God") is a narrow door.

The teaching of the Buddha is remarkably parallel to Jesus. Although the Buddha doesn't  talk about a "narrow door." He does show a pathway out of suffering into "enlightenment, " and the Buddha path is exactly the Jesus path. 

The Buddha says:

With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism,
the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging.


You cannot be liberated and enlightened if your ego dominates and you are weighed down by all your baggage in life. In order to be liberated, awakened and enlightened,  you must surrender self importance and give up the constant cravings to accumulate possessions and ideas- then pass through the narrow door.

 But it's  a hard path to follow and a road less traveled. Most of my life I have been building up my ego- establishing my careers, gathering and storing all my possessions, collecting and filing all my ideas- my ideas about God, my ideas about myself and others, all those tried and true dogmas and rituals. 

After all these years,  it's hard to leave my ego and my cartons of stuff at the entranceway of the narrow door. I want to bring it all in with me, but it just doesn't fit through. 

Jesus also taught that while everyone is called to enter though this narrow door, "many will not be able to do so." 

It's far easier to drift along while traveling on the main passageway of life, big ego intact, all my stuff firmly secure on my camel- a lot harder to surrender it all. 

Today I stand before the entranceway to one of those many mountain caves outside my retreat house. The entrance is wide open but indeed it is narrow, and what lies on the other side is also somewhat scary.  

But I seek a greater liberation, a deeper peace, a more profound joy - I think I'll take the chance and strive to enter through. 










Friday, August 16, 2013

Burning Churches

mosque and minaret
-Istanbul-

Yesterday, Christian churches across Egypt were stormed and torched by what the media referred to as "angry mobs of Islamists." 

First of all, I think it's deplorable that anyone would burn down churches - especially if the violence is perpetrated by one religious group against another. The truth is, however, I don't actually think "religion" had an awful lot to do with yesterday's "church-burning."  

I fear that these incidents may provide those so inclined with yet another opportunity to paint "Islam" with broad brush strokes, as a  religion of violence and hatred, depicting Muslims in general as a bunch of violent thugs.

Yesterday, I was reading an article about the church burning on the CNN homepage. At the end of the story, readers were invited to make comments. As I expected, there was a lot of sabre-rattlng going on, especially by conservative evangelical "Christians, " claiming that the church burnings were standard Muslim attacks against Christ. The responses to that CNN page were literally "crusade calls" for retaliation against all Muslims everywhere - punishment for what they have done- not just in Egypt but here in America. 

To me, the responses of those so-called Christians were just as bad if not worse than the church-burnings themselves.

Interestingly enough, had anyone taken the time to get to the end of the article, they may have discovered a different (and more accurate) portrayal of what had actually happened in Egypt yesterday.

The Virgin Mary Church, located in a village outside Cairo, had been set on fire that day; and Father Boktor Saad, priest of that church, was interviewed about the attacks. He said that he knew that only a small group of extremists were responsible for inciting groups to attack his church. He went on to say that many non-Christians (Muslims) prevented the situation from getting worse, and he credited the Muslims in his village with "putting out the fire at the church of the Virgin Mary and halting further attacks on Coptic Christian homes and shops."  

Religion (of every stripe) has often been used by extremists to fuel political agendas. In spite of how horrible it is that churches were burnt, I think it's just as heinous to respond to the church burnings by labeling Islam as a religion of violence and to depict "Muslims" as a gang of thugs.

I think about the historic contributions that "Islam" has made to world culture and to Western culture in particular - contributions to the fields of mathematics, physics, medicine, music, architecture, agriculture, and literature. Much of what Westerners take for granted as an everyday part of society is Islamic in origin. When Medieval European physicians were bleeding patients as a medical treatment, Islamic physicians were developing medicines to treat infectious diseases. 

When I travelled to Istanbul a few years back, I was literally"bowled over" by the beauty of the art and architecture of a city of mosques and minarets- one more beautiful than the next.

When I think of Islam, I think about the many Muslim people I have known and worked with and with whom I have prayed in my life - enormously cultured people of deep compassion and profound spirituality. 

So yes, it was horrible that churches were burnt.  However it's even worse to dismiss and denigrate the rich heritage of an entire culture of deeply spiritual people because of what happened; and people of goodwill everywhere need to stand against any backlash toward Muslims that may occur because of it.

The Buddha taught:

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death. All love life.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?

A very wise and extremely important teaching for us in these days.







Thursday, August 15, 2013

Miracles

flowers along a desert trail

When most people think about "miracles," they imagine some extraordinary, supernatural event - something that occurs through divine intervention. The Christian Scriptures are filled with miracle stories- a leper is touched by Jesus and is cured, a small child's hearing is restored, a blind man sees. Jesus can perform miracles, great saints can perform miracles, and while miracles might have happened "back then;" they certainly don't occur among ordinary people in everyday life nowadays, and almost no one thinks of themselves as being a "miracle worker." 

Actually, I have a different "take" on miracles. I think miracles happen every day, performed by ordinary people in the ordinary routine of everyday life. Anyone can be a miracle worker.   

Yesterday I was reading the New York Times; and the news was filled with horrible stories of the devastating violence in Egypt. So much suffering and so much death that it was hard to even look at those photos and read those stories.

But then I came across another article. It was a story about Sergio Castro from Chiapas Mexico. Up until the time I read that article, I had never heard of Mr. Castro and I certainly didn't know that such a place as Chiapas Mexico even existed.  The title of the article was: "In Mexico, a Healer Who Asks for Nothing in Return."

The reason why most people have never heard of Chiapas, Mexico is because it is mostly populated by native Mayans- Mexico's most marginalized citizens, outcasts who have suffered from centuries of discrimination and neglect.  When the people of Chiapas get sick or have an accident, there are no emergency rooms for them to visit, no doctors on-call at the neighborhood clinic- but they do have Sergio Castro.

Mr. Castro is not a physician. He isn't a nurse. He isn't an ordained priest or a local Shaman. He is just an ordinary citizen with a heart filled with compassion. 

Every day Sergio goes out among the people up in the highlands of Mexico with his little bag of gauze, disinfectant and balms, and he cleans and bandages wounds suffered from cuts and burns. He bandages the sores caused by a growing diabetes epidemic among the people. He treats small children. He treats bedridden amputees and dying old people. He binds up their wounds, holds their hands, and assures them they are not alone or forgotten.

Mr. Castro accepts no money from his patients because he says, "If they aren't worried about paying me, then they can be calm and they are motivated to heal quickly." Every day, lots of healing happens in the hills of Chiapas Mexico. Everyday miracles performed by an ordinary everyday miracle worker- the Holy Presence brilliantly shining through compassionate hands and a caring heart.

The story of Sergio Castro in the forgotten wilderness of Chiapas poured healing balm upon my spirit yesterday as I watched and read about the destruction in Egypt. It was a story that made me realize that, even in the driest and darkest of times, we are never abandoned. Flowers do bloom in the desert.

I believe that there are thousands of everyday, ordinary, unsung miracle workers like Sergio Castro out there in the world.  In fact, probably most every one of us has been a miracle worker at some time- a mother consoles her confused son, a volunteer serves a meal at a homeless shelter, a neighbor takes a meal to a grieving widow- countless incidences of "divine intervention" -  Holy Presence breaking through into the everyday, ordinary happenings of our life.

The Buddha taught:


As from a large heap of flowers many garlands and wreaths are made,
so by a mortal in this life there is much good work to be done.

So many miracle workers and so many miracles in this world- all beautiful flowers weaving fragrant garlands to ward off the stench of death and stand in the face of the ugliness of violence.