Friday, January 31, 2014

A New Religion

"The Winds of Change"
-January comes to an end-

In some form or another, I have been connected to "religion" my entire life - as a child, a seminary student, a priest. So, talking about a "religious" topic comes second nature to me. Lately, however, I have discovered that even using the word "religion" places me in some dangerous territory. 

I often post my daily blog in various online venues within the social media. While I never espouse doctrine or propagandize in any way, many times the blog will tout on topics of a religious nature.  I have found that, oftentimes regardless of what my topic is, I will set off a storm of protests simply because I am a priest and have a religious connection. If I dare even speak the "R" word (religion), I can expect to set off all sorts of hidden minefields. 

Yesterday I asked someone online why he had such a vehemently negative reaction to any sort of "religious" discourse. He responded: "because religious people are nothing but a bunch of superstitious bigots living in fear of a fairy tale god and spewing their moralistic judgments out upon the rest of us" (This is actually an exact quote).   

"Yikes!" I thought, "Harsh!" 

But the more I reflected on what this self-identified "atheist-type" young man said to me, the more I realized that this is indeed the way religion is likely perceived by many people today-especially younger people in their 20's and 30's. And if this young man's perception of "religion" is indeed a reflection of views widely held by others like him, it's no wonder I get such a violent reaction when I use the "R" word in the social media.

Yesterday (online) I came across a very telling article on the hot-button topic of religion. 

A college professor in a "Comparative Religions" class had invited her students (mostly 18-24 year- olds) to start from scratch and design a "new religion" that they might find appealing.  They could borrow from existing religions or they could come up with something brand new- nothing was off limits. 

I spent most of the day yesterday thinking about the "new religion" they designed.

It was a religion without hell or punishment, no priests or formalized dogma. The religion would emphasize "meditation" and "pilgrimage." Meditation to get in touch with something bigger than themselves - a sense of transcendence. Pilgrimage because getting in touch with "transcendence"  always involves searching and seeking. It is a journey.

In addition, there would be no requirement for joining this new religion and people could leave whenever they wished and always be welcomed back whenever they wished to return. 

I gleefully read about this "new religion" as I said out loud, "this new religion already exists." 

In one sense their new religion design could be the text for a flyer to promote and describe Buddhism- everyone is a Buddha on non-judgmental pilgrimage to enlightenment. But this new religion also "captures" the teaching of Jesus and the life of those first Christian believers in the first few centuries of Christianity.

Jesus came to invite and not to condemn. Everyone was always welcome to sit at a place of dignity at the table of life he set. He never established a religious hierarchy of priests and bishops who were somehow more favored than others - he had no favorites. He never set up a club with entry rules - no dogma necessary to be confessed in order to be accepted. He taught  the way to "God" was through love, compassion and connection with one another, and this "way" was always a pilgrimage and a journey.  

That new religion designed by those college students could have been written by Jesus, himself. 

As I sit in my garden this morning, the winds of change are howling through the desert canyon. Winter is coming to an end and the winds are cleansing the valley floor, preparing it all for the spring about to come.  

I know many religious people who are fearful that the church (perhaps religion in general) is coming to en end in this ever-growing secular society. I don't believe that for a minute. It's just that we are living in a time when the winds of change are howling - it's a time of cleansing change.

The walls of the old institutions of religion - controlled by hierarchy, trapped by rigid adherence to dogma, gripped by moralism -  those walls are all tumbling down; and in its place, a new religion-that is actually an ancient religion - is rising up in the hearts of a new generation of souls who long for the living God.

The ever ancient, ever new religion has no priests at the center of it all - everyone a Buddha and a Christ, no hell, no judgement, everyone welcome, everyone of us on a pilgrimage as we swirl around together in this complex web of being we call life- ever connected to the ONE who is greater than it all.

The winds of change are blowing- the new religion is already here. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Living Abundantly

"The First Blush of Spring"

I have been taking a digital photography class, and I have been learning some wise and insightful life-lessons because of it.

A few weeks ago we all went out into a garden and took some photographs - yesterday we displayed our pictures on computer screens and showed them to our fellow students. 

There is one man in the class who is very soft-spoken and shy. He puts himself in the background during class time and never asks questions or contributes to any discussions. You would hardly know he was in the class. I also noticed that, unlike the rest of us, he was using his iPhone camera to take his pictures ("not much of a digital camera," I thought).

Yesterday when our photographs were displayed, the instructor called us all over to pay special attention to the work displayed by this shy, quiet man with the iPhone. 

Our instructor was actually quite dumbfounded as he "bubbled-over" about the artistry of this man's photos. They were a study in shadows - "worthy of an exhibit in a museum," said our instructor. Indeed the pictures were quite stunning - shadows that all pointed in one direction or another and brought your attention to the social point of the picture - a flower, a desert shrub. One of the photos features shadows  that were literally dancing and swirling around a picture of a rock in the sand. It was all actually quite amazing.

In response to all the sudden attention and adulation, that quiet, shy man said, "I'm glad you all like these but I didn't do any of this on purpose. These pictures came out this way by accident." 

The instructor stopped in his tracks and roared back, "No, they were not an accident. We are always seeing the intricacies and beauty of the world at all times. But we are rarely aware of it. You could never have taken pictures like these unless, at some level, you were able to see the beauty and the intricacy of it all. These photographs make you aware of how you see the world." 

As soon as the instructor said this, I saw the face on that quiet, shy man literally light up, and I saw him smile for the first time as he became aware of hidden potential in himself- never before acknowledged or recognized. He immediately "opened up" to the class, telling us that he had been an accountant all his life and then with an even bigger grin, acknowledging, "I guess I may also be a photographer." (and all this with an iPhone camera)

For the rest of the class, all of us students, had lit up-faces and big smiles as we looked at one another's photographs.  We were all artists and we were all poets. We were people who could see beauty in the world. Our photographs showed us that. 

This morning as I sit quietly and meditate in my garden, I am thinking about that man yesterday and about all of us in that class with the lit-up faces and the big smiles. 

So many of us lock ourselves up into little boxes and live within the limits we place on ourselves rather than freeing ourselves up to live according to our unlimited potential.  

I am reminded of a college football coach I knew who insisted that his rugged "jock" players take a dance class if they were to be on his team. At first he would get enormous resistance to this demand -after all, dancing is not very "manly." His players would often ask for an exemption to his rule - an exemption he never granted. 

Eventually these "manly jock" players would discover that, beside the fact that dancing helped them hone motor skills valuable for playing the game of football, many were actually pretty good, maybe even exceptional dancers.  They made good use of their toned muscles and flexible dexterity and were often amazed at how much they actually enjoyed their dance class even if they never admitted this to the other "jocks" on the team. 

Accountants are photographers and football players are dancers. We can either live our lives within the little boxes of our own limitations or, 

 we can live abundantly.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Discipline of Spiritual Magnetism

"Call of the Evening Skies"

As the sun set last evening, I sat inside my house, and suddenly I felt a powerful urge to go outside. 

So, I went out to the front of my Desert Retreat House which faces west, and there over the mountains was a stunning, breathtakingly beautiful vision of the desert skies at sunset. As I stood gazing into those skies, I could almost feel some sort of physical, magnetic tug inside me pulling me to come out.  It was  a moment of sacred connection.  

This morning I keep thinking about that magnetic moment last evening. It gave me a whole new flash of insight about what happens whenever I encounter "beauty" in my desert home.

Gazing into picture-perfect desert skies at sunset, awakening to the pristine morning sun, looking up into the night skies glowing with indescribable cosmic brightness - these are all moments of spiritual magnetism. In all these cases, the beauty I encounter is not something "out there" to be appreciated at a distance. Rather these are all sacred magnetic moments in which something "in me" is being pulled out of me by a force and a power that is greater than me. 

It also strikes me that encounters with other people can be magnetic moments. 

At various times I have heard people refer to someone as having a "magnetic" personality. People talk about how they feel "drawn" to charismatic figures and dynamic speakers. 

I actually think that there are two types of magnetic encounters with other people.

In one case a "charismatic" person with a "magnetic personality" draws others to him/her "self."  This is an ego-based kind of magnetism and may often be a symptom of narcissism. 

Cult heroes, Hollywood personalities, a glib preacher, that good-looking fellow worker or fellow student whom everyone adulates because he or she has such nice teeth and has such a way with words - all magnetic personalities; however, the force of their magnetic personality is inward. Other  people are sucked into feeding the ego of this kind of magnetic personality. 

The other type of magnetic personality and magnetic encounter is non-egoic. This type of "charismatic," magnetic person uses his or her  gifts to pull the "best" out of others.

Yesterday as I thought about the death of the legendary "folk hero," Pete Seeger, it struck me that he was a perfect example of one of these kinds of magnetic personalities that pulled the best out of others.

Pete Seeger was hardly a charismatic Hollywood type of pop singer. He wasn't beautiful. His voice was not all that great -  kind of gravelly and sort of harsh, especially in his old age. And yet people were drawn to him like a magnet. Yesterday the Twitter feed hummed all day in his tribute, so did the news reports and the papers.  

Mr. Seeger once said, "I do not sing to put a song into people's ears, I sing to put a song in their mouths." This one little statement says it all for me.  He didn't sing so that people would listen to his golden tones or marvel at his sleek choreography. Instead, banjo in hand, he sang simple songs that everyone could sing.  He sang in order to get people to sing along with him.

I once went to one of his concerts. During the middle of a song, he just stopped playing and stopped singing, grinning from ear to ear as the audience enthusiastically continued in singing the tune he had taught them. He was such a magnetic personality.

This morning I think about yesterday's magnetic moment at eventide when I was called outside - where the power of a beauty beyond me pulled out the beauty that was in me. This morning I also think about people like Pete Seeger and his magnetic personality, calling out the best in others. 

I realize that the practice of spiritual magnetism is in fact a spiritual discipline that I am also called to practice on my own journey.

When I intentionally use the gifts I have, not to draw others to "me," but to call the best out of others, I am practicing that discipline of spiritual magnetism. 

And when I pull out the best in others, I am an instrument of that cosmic, greater power, that Holy Presence who is always calling us out of our ego-self, out of the darkness into the light. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Wild and Untamed

Fierce Desert Skies

Every morning as I sit in my garden for my morning meditation, I look upon an image of Saint Francis of Assisi in my garden. It is a rather typical depiction of this well-known saint, the kind of image that can be found in many gardens. He is dressed in a flowing robe, has a serene face, and a bird is gently perching on his shoulder. 

This morning as I gaze upon this image, I reflect on how our pictures of great religious heroes tend to get very tame and domesticated over time. The fact is that Saint Francis was kind of a wild and crazy guy. In fact, had he lived in our own day, he may well have found himself committed to some sort of institution or asylum to receive treatment for his mental breakdown. 

Francis was a descendant of a prominent merchant family - an heir to a great fortune. One day he realized that money, fame and fortune was not bringing him peace and happiness. He was hungry for a deeper peace. His dried up spirit yearned for something more. Then he encountered the living spirit of a wild and untamed God, and he was "set on fire." - enflamed with love and compassion. 

So he marched himself into the public square, and in front of all the good people of Assisi he  stripped off all his clothes. Standing there naked, he publicly renounced all his worldly possessions and denounced his former life of opulence. Then he went off to devote the remainder of his life to caring for the poor - embracing those on the margins. 

The good people of the town, the bishops and clergy of the church, all thought he was crazy, that he had lost his mind. 

But now Francis has been tamed -  turned into a convenient "plastic saint," a "pretty" piece of art in flowing robes with a bird on his shoulder, adorning a garden. 

As I think about it, most of the great men and women who are celebrated as great religious heroes were pretty much considered to be "crazy" by the good people of their towns and by the established institutional hierarchy of their day.

Siddhartha Gautama (later known as the Buddha) was a noble prince. He gave it all up and went out to live on the streets among the poor. He dressed in rags and begged for his next meal- many people thought he had lost his mind.

Jesus of Nazareth (later known as the Christ) boldly and foolishly stood against the mighty establishments of his day. He opposed the culture of the Roman empire and stood in the face of the powerful religious authorities by defying their laws that would exclude people -wildly and without reservation, honoring and embracing everyone with respect and dignity. Many good people thought he was crazy.

The stories of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers are filled with depictions of wild, unrestrained, untamed people. After all, these desert monastics had abandoned "cultured" society.  They had moved away from their tame, comfortable and well-defined status in society and church, and went out to the fringes of the world to live in caves, simply, committed to radical hospitality and unbounded compassion for one another according to the teaching of Jesus.  The Church officials and the good, established people of the towns thought these desert monastics were crazy. 

Maybe we tame and domesticate our images of these wild and untamed heroes of the past because we want "God" to be tamed, convenient and domesticated. We want "God" to be under our control, comfortable and pastel, and so we make "God's" heroes into plaster colorless saints that we can carve  into a statue or hang on a wall as a pretty decoration to be gazed upon from time to time.

One of my favorite stories from the Desert Mothers and Fathers is a story told about the monk who came to "Abba Joseph" for some advice:

Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts: now what more should I do? 

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to the heavens, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. Then he said:


When I first moved out to the desert, a parishioner told me she thought I was crazy to move out here. I think maybe that was a compliment. 

I want to become "fire".

my book on amazon

Monday, January 27, 2014

Spiritual and Religious

"A Mystic Moment"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I had an opportunity to engage in a fascinating conversation with a professional photographer who was exhibiting his works at a local art festival. I was very moved by the "spirituality" of his photographs. We talked about how his pictures serve as "thin places,"- thresholds into the "mystical" realm of cosmic connection that lies just beneath the surface of observable reality. 

However, the thing that made my conversation with this photographic artist most significant yesterday wasn't necessarily our conversation about the "spirituality" of his work, but what happened toward the end of our conversation when he discovered that I was a priest.

We were involved in this fairly deep and rather significant conversation about art, but the moment he discovered that I was a priest (and therefore, "religious"), he instantly "shut down" on me. It was as if an iron curtain suddenly came down between us. The sudden silence at the revelation of my status was physically palpable. 

I have been reflecting on what happened yesterday between me and that artist. I think that when I was identified as a member of the clergy, I was basically "lumped" into the category of the "religious;" and as such, I was one of those people who go to church and mindlessly mouth prayers that don't mean anything. Like all religious people, I was someone who prays to a distant God who is little more than a fairy tale. As a member of the clergy, I may even have been perceived to be one of those loud-mouthed preachers who condemn gay people and denounce sinners. 

My sense is that our conversation yesterday stopped "dead in the water" because people who are religious are obviously people who are not spiritual-  so why should we be having a conversation about the "spirituality" of art.

Interestingly enough, my interaction with that artist yesterday has been repeated in one form or another many times and in many different settings with many different people. 

There is an ever growing number of people who today identify themselves as being "spiritual but not religious. I actually think this is perfectly fine and I totally respect people on a spiritual path who do not identify with a religious tradition. 

I am also keenly aware that an unspoken corollary often accompanies the designation "spiritual but not religious," and "if you are religious, you aren't spiritual"- you can't be both.

I strongly disagree. I think that the word "religion" is very narrowly defined nowadays - so narrow as to be myopic. 

Everyone who is connected to a religious tradition does not mindlessly believe in a fairy tale God up in heaven controlling the world.  All religious people do not go to a church and mindlessly mouth prayers that mean nothing (some barely go to any church at all); and all religious people are not consumed with moral judgements and do not condemn those who are different. I am one of those people. 

Although "religion," especially Christian "religion," is popularly identified with doctrine, prayers, rules, and rituals, Christian theology is also firmly rooted and historically grounded in a "mystical" theology which is best described as "no theology."  Often referred to a the "Via Negativa" or the aphophatic way," this traditional Christian understanding of God is perhaps best described by the assertion: "anything you say about God, God is NOT." In other words, God is unnameable  and unable to be categorized.   "God" far transcends human thought. In order to find God, one must simply be open to the mystery of the moment and be present to the Presence. 

This mystical way of understanding God lies at the very core of ancient Christianity. It is very similar to the Buddhist path to enlightenment through mindful awareness; and it has been the core practice of notable Christian mystics like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill and the great Thomas Merton whom walked the "Via Negativa" as a pathway to God. 

I live out in the midst of one of the most mystical places on earth - in the heart of a desert. I am a very religious person and at the same time, I am not very religious at all. 

"Church" is not the center of my life as it once used to be, (in fact I rarely go to church nowadays).  I don't say all sorts of prayers every day."  I hold onto few if any doctrines or dogmas about God. And yet I am unashamed to say that that I am deeply rooted in the Christian tradition as I walk with my ancestors along the path of the "Via Negativa." 

My theology is "no theology." My only belief is a belief in a Holy, Abiding, Cosmic, Uncontrolled and Uncontrollable Presence- in it all, flowing through it all and connecting it all. My only prayer is presence- mindfully aware, awake and present to the Presence 

I am spiritual and I am religious.

my book on amazon


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Truth? What is Truth?

"Sunday Dawning"

One of the joys of writing this blog is the response I often receive from readers after the blog is posted. Yesterday, I had a very stimulating online conversation with someone who, after reading my post, engaged me in a question about the meaning of the word, "truth?" In essence, we explored together that age-old question, "Truth? What is truth?" 

In our highly intellectualized society, the word "truth" often refers to statements and propositions about reality. True statements conform to what is "really" out there. Scientific principles and mathematical formulae are thought to be "true" descriptions of a real world. 

Others use the word "truth" more abstractly. Psychological assertions about human beings- personality traits, internal dispositions, social trends, are all proposed as "truths" about what makes "people tick." In  similar manner, theological statements about the nature and qualities of "God" are considered to be truths about what makes "God tick" - who God really is.  

Of course the problem with assuming that scientific truths are really true lies in the fact that the world is a process- everything is a constant state of flux and change, much about the physical world is unsolved mystery, and so no formulae can ever actually capture what is really "true" about what is out there.

When it comes to human beings, psychological or sociological research is little more than an approximation about what may possibly be happening inside people. 

And when it comes to truth about "God," how can anyone even dare to assert that their ideas about the nature of God actually describe who God is. "God" is the unnameable One, uncontrolled, wild and untamable mystery. It is pure arrogance to assert that doctrine and dogma are "truths" that describe or capture that which cannot even be named. 

In this post-modern era, many people today say that there is no such thing as "Truth" - everything we hold as true is actually nothing more than the product of human thought and human explanation. Truth is the sum of the words we use to describe our experiences. Everything is interpreted - filtered through human perception and interpretation. The idea of an objective, stand-alone "Truth," applicable to all peoples in all times and in all cultures simply does not exist.

Yesterday I asked my online friend if he thought there was such a thing as "Truth," and if he did, could he articulate what "Truth" meant to him. His one-sentence response bowled me over, and will probably stick with me for the rest of my life. He said: 

The other day I woke up from a dream, and I was one with the morning dawn.
Being one with the morning dawn -that is Truth. 

There would have been a time in my life where I would have either failed to comprehend what he meant by this response, or more likely scoffed at it, thinking it was kind of "flakey."  Yesterday, when I heard this definition of the "Truth," I instantly understood what he meant, and it deeply resonated with me. 

"Being one with the morning dawn" - what a perfectly beautiful description of the "Truth."

"Truth" is never the product of an intellectual process -and is never a set of propositions or assertions.    We can only experience "Truth," and only at a deep and even mystical level of awareness.  And the "experience"of "Truth" is indeed universal to all people in all places and all times. 

The experience of "Truth" is an experience of "at-one-ness" where the "ego" is exposed as a lie and an illusion, where we are deeply and profoundly aware of what really IS- everything and everyone is "flow" - all is relationship.

When I woke up this morning, I immediately thought about my conversation with my online friend. The dawn of day on this Sunday morning is hauntingly beautiful. There "truly" are no words or ideas to describe or analyze or contain this breathtaking beauty. 

I am at one with the morning dawn. I know the Truth, and the Truth sets me free. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Meditation on Many Paths

An Oasis in the Wilderness

I woke up this morning thinking about the Palm Tree Oasis not far from my house. As I sit in my garden this morning, I continue to think about and reflect on that oasis- it has much wisdom to teach me.

I walk up to the oasis quite regularly, and so I am very familiar with the fact that there are many different trails that lead to it. The trails come to the oasis from all directions, from many different points in the wilderness. Some of the trails are similar, others very different from one another, some more rigorous and strenuous, others smoother and easier.

Obviously, when I walk up to the oasis, I have to choose which trail to take to get me there. And, although it has taken me a while to figure it out, I have determined which particular pathway suits me best, and that's the one I walk on most of the time. 

Today as I meditate on the wisdom I have learned from my journey up to the oasis, I call to mind a piece of ancient Sufi wisdom that I have treasured for quite some time now:

There are many paths to the truth,
you have to choose which one you want to walk on

As a young man I was taught there was only one way to the truth - following the path of Christianity. I was taught and I believed that Jesus was the "only" way and the "only" truth (actually as a boy I was taught that the Catholic Church was the "only" way to the truth).  

I no longer believe that at all. 

I believe there are indeed many trails leading to the oasis as we walk through the wideness of life -  there are indeed many paths to the truth. 

In my life (especially in my later years) I not only honor those other paths, but I have come to cherish the wisdom they have offered to me on my own journey. My own faith is grounded and informed by the Hebrew scriptures. I honor Islam as a fellow child of Abraham in the journey of faith. I often meditate on the mystical insights of Kabbalah and the Sufis. Every day I read from and meditate on the wisdom of the Buddha. I have stayed in Buddhist monasteries and engaged in lively dialogue with Buddhists monks.  I am also informed by the wisdom of the great Hindu traditions and other eastern religions.   

I honor and respect and I am informed by the wisdom of all the many paths; however, I am equally convinced of the wisdom of that Sufi saying: "you have to choose "one" path and walk on it."

I have chosen to follow the way of Jesus as a path to the truth- a trail up to the oasis.

Today there is a great deal of emphasis upon recognizing and honoring diversity in all aspects of life- especially when it comes to other religions and different spiritual traditions- and I am thrilled we have arrived at this point. I also fear that this emphasis upon accepting and honoring differences might also divert any of us from embracing the richness of whatever path to the truth any one of us might choose. 

While many paths do indeed lead to the truth, every path is not the same. While there are similarities, there are also many differences among the paths of Christianity and Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. 

It seems to me that the only way I can really embrace the richness of my own chosen path is by living into it and walking it wholeheartedly.  

Allan Bloom once observed: "People today learn to doubt beliefs before they ever believe in anything."  I think there is probably some truth in this. I can't really wrestle with my own Christian path, doubt it, struggle with it, unless I embrace it -the truth emerges from the struggle.  

I sit in my garden this morning and meditate on the many paths to that oasis. As I do so I close my eyes and envision the many pilgrims walking the many chosen paths leading up to truth. I greet them along the wilderness trail. I honor them. I learn from them. 

Then, I place my eyes on Jesus and I follow in his way of truth. 

my book on amazon

Friday, January 24, 2014

Spirituality as a Hobby

"Morning Meditation"

Yesterday I read a passage from the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Scriptures. It was one of many Gospel stories that depict Jesus' invitation to would-be disciples to come and follow his spiritual path (many Christians will be hearing this story if they go to church this Sunday). 

When I was reading this particular passage yesterday, one word really leapt out at me. In the story, Peter and Andrew are fishermen casting their nets into the sea. Jesus comes up to them and says, "leave your nets behind" and follow me. The two fishermen then"immediately" leave their old way of life to follow along the Jesus' path.

That word "immediately" speaks volumes to me. Jesus invites would-be disciples into a new way of seeing the world. He invites them to walk along a path of compassion, love, forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation. The path is so attractive and so inviting that they don't even have to think twice about whether or not to follow- no hedging their bets, no "cost-benefit" analysis. They just "throw caution to the wind," as they turn away from their old lives, and "immediately" walk along this new spiritual path.

After reading this story about Jesus' disciples, I also read some of the stories about the disciples of Buddha. 

The disciples of Buddha likewise made a radical turn away from their old way of life in order to follow in the Buddha's path.  Many of those first disciples came from royalty and wealth. They led lives of luxury and even opulence, and they "immediately" gave it all up to follow the path of enlightenment to which the Buddha pointed.  They shaved their heads. Their only garment was a patched-up saffron robe. They went around begging for food and slept under trees because they had no homes.  The Buddha's path they embraced was so attractive, so filled with peace, that they willingly gave up their former comfortable lives without a second thought in order to follow that way of enlightenment. 

In my morning meditation today, I have been thinking about these parallel stories about the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of Buddha.  For me, whenever I read any stories in any scriptures, I never think of them as being historical accounts of past events that happened to people long ago. These scripture stories are always "icons" and "templates" - never confined to a particular time or place, they are universal stories providing wisdom for anyone who walks on any spiritual path. 

As I see it, many people today treat their religion or their spiritual path like a hobby to be toyed with from time to time, but not really taken all that seriously. 

Religious people may attend church on occasion, but for many by the time the service is over, it's back to living "real life" in the everyday world, and the time in church is put on a convenient shelf out of sight and out of mind. 

Today lots of people do not identify as being religious but they do label themselves as "spiritual."  As I see it, far too often non-religious "spirituality" is also treated more like a  convenient hobby to play with from time to time rather than to be taken too seriously. A morning meditation, quiet time on a yoga mat - all laudable practices, but after the quiet time, it's back to the real world-  and the mat gets put way on a shelf for another time.

The parallel stories about walking on the spiritual path found in the Christian as well as Buddhist scriptures teach me that spirituality is not a hobby - it's  a way of life.  

You don't have to shave your head and don saffron robes or join the priesthood to fully embrace a spiritual path.  But as I see it, if you walk a spiritual path, that pathway serves as the very foundation and basic direction for how you live every aspect of your life.  You don't just dip your toe into the spiritual life.  

Throwing all caution to the wind you dive into it.

This morning when I woke up, I put on my contact lenses (I'd be rather blind if I didn't do this). Everything I see this day is seen through the lenses of my glasses.  As I see it, my spiritual path is like these lenses. I see the world through the lens of the path I have embraced -everything I think or do or say is viewed through the lens of the path I have chosen to follow.  

I have chosen to follow the path of the Christ. I leave my old nets on the shore and without a second thought, I "immediately" follow his way. 

my book on amazon

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Lively Exchange of Ideas

-in the center of my nearby town-

Several years ago I had an opportunity to visit Greece, and I spent a few days in the wondrous city of Athens.  There was something very special about being in that city.  I realized just how much I, as a Westerner, had been influenced by the ideas that emerged out of that ancient Greek culture.

In Athens, one place was particularly poignant for me - a large "green space" in the center of the city, the ancient "agora," the "marketplace." 

On any given day, throughout many centuries before Christ, that marketplace served as a public forum for a lively exchange of ideas. Great scholars along with common farmers would gather together in various corners of the agora and engage in dialogue with one another. They would talk about their convictions and share their various philosophies of the meaning of life and love. They would share their beliefs about the gods and talk about the nature of religion. They would discuss politics, science, mathematics. No topic was off limits. 

I remember standing in that ancient agora in Athens. My imagination went wild. After all, Aristotle had once stood right where I was standing, sharing his convictions, discussing his newly emerging philosophy -  so had Plato and so had Socrates. 

In later years, Saint Paul had stood there sharing his new-found beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth with those who gathered around him for a dialogue in that public square.

 It was from these lively exchanges of ideas that democracy emerged - many of the principles of mathematics and science still held today also emerged from those exchanges in that place, and the very system of Western theological thought (based on Aristotelian philosophy) emerged from what went on in that marketplace dialogue.  

As I stood in the ancient agora I could almost hear the excited sounds of the vibrant pursuit of knowledge that must have filled that ancient city marketplace back then. I imagined people sharing their thoughts and perhaps becoming stronger in their own convictions as a result of the dialogue, or perhaps changing their ideas or modifying their thinking because of what they learned form one another. 

At one point in my life I used to think that the internet might be able to serve as today's modern-day "agora." Imagine what might emerge as people from all over the world would gather together in cyberspace and dialogue with one another. People with all sorts of convictions and ideas, scholars, and scientists, theologians and philosophers along with college freshman and factory workers, all meeting in discussion rooms like the kind you find on Google+ and engaging in a lively exchange of ideas. Imagine what might emerge? 

But from my experience (especially since writing this blog and posting it online every day) this is rarely the kind of conversation that happens in cyberspace. Instead I have found that the internet is often a place of dogmatic thinking where like-minded people talk to one another making very little space for the exchange of different ideas -especially when it comes to the hot button topic of "religion."

I sort of expected to find a certain rigidity in fundamentalist types of religious believers who enter the online "marketplace" in order to promote their own particular brand of believing.  However, I actually didn't expect to find some pretty dogmatic Buddhists who insist that their brand of Buddhism is the only way to see the world (the very idea of a dogmatic Buddhist seems odd to me).

Perhaps my most interesting observation is the rigidity, dogmatism and unwillingness to dialogue that  I often find among those who define themselves as scholars, thinkers, philosophers and scientists. Many of these folks label themselves as "atheists" and so the very mention of the word "religion" will send them into a tailspin, immediately closing any doors to conversation.

As I sit in my garden for my morning refection, the thought comes to me that what goes on in cyberspace is a mirror of what goes on in everyday life in the everyday world- a world far more prone to dogmatism than dialogue, where like-minded people bond together and "circle the wagons" to guard against outsiders, foreigners and the convictions of different others.

The ancient Greeks had it right- the pursuit of truth and knowledge is a community affair, demanding a lively exchange of ideas.

Imagine what might emerge if we would all be willing to enter the "agora" once again? 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Shades of "Ego"

"Colors of a Desert Morning"
-in my meditation garden-

"Relinquish the ego," "lose your self" -  a necessary step for any spiritual life regardless of what path you may be walking down. 

Yesterday I had an interesting online conversation with a very thoughtful person about what it really means to "relinquish the ego" when you are searching for your "soul."  He said something that made me realize how glibly we toss around words like "ego," thinking that everyone uses this word in the same way.  It made me realize that, "ego" probably has several shades of meaning. 

In yesterday's conversation, my online friend said to me, "All my life I have been on a spiritual journey. All my life I have been trying to figure out how to lose my self and relinquish my ego."  

He then went on to say, "But I don't want to suppress my emotions or turn off my imagination. I don't want to devalue my self.  I don't want to give up that which is uniquely me,  and I don't understand why I must do this in order to walk a spiritual path." 

This morning I have been reflecting on my online conversation of yesterday. Actually I think that relinquishing the ego, losing self, doesn't involve suppressing personal uniqueness at all. 

In one sense my "ego" is that part of me that is unlike anyone else in the world. My "ego" is the way I see the world through my own eyes, my own unique mind and spirit. 

But "ego" also has another shade of meaning. Buddhists teach that "ego" is actually an illusion. There is no such entity as an individual, separated self, disconnected from other beings. Everything and everyone IS a dynamic set of interrelationships. Every one of us IS a complex web of relationship.  

So, in this sense, relinquishing the ego means giving up the false illusion that "I" am an isolated self.

Jesus, like the Buddha, taught that you have to lose your self to find your self.  In other words, if you want to find your soul, you need to lose your false idea of an isolated, alienated self and live as a "relationship" with others - soul is a relationship with all beings. 

As I reflect on these different shades of meaning when it comes to the "ego,"  I realize that I can indeed lose my self,  I can relinquish my ego and still very much value and hold on to my uniqueness as I travel on a spiritual path. 

I value my uniqueness, my intellect and education, my emotions, my vision and imagination, my poetic spirit.  At the same time, I  realize that these are the gifts that I bring to the relationship that I am. My uniqueness (my ego) is my gift offered for the building of the common good. 

I can value my own uniqueness and at the same time realize that in the larger scope of things, "I" am not all that important.  "I" am simply part of the flow of life and not the center of it all. 

As I sit in my meditation garden, I look out into the breathtaking morning skies rising up out of the desert mountains. The beauty of it all never ceases to amaze me.  I realize that "I" am one of those many different brilliant colors in the array of the one glorious picture lighting up the skies.  

I celebrate my uniqueness. I relinquish my ego.  I find my self.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Going Against the Grain

-a nearby mountain canyon-

Yesterday I was watching a program about the Civil Rights Movement in America back in the 1960's. I sometimes forget about how much pain and sacrifice it took to change the course of American culture especially in the deep south.

Yesterday I was particularly struck with a scene from a "lunch-counter" protest. Sitting in the "Whites-only" section of the lunch counter were a group of young Black college students waiting to be served. The mere fact that these students dared to even sit in that section, let alone expected to be served, set off a firestorm of protest from the White patrons in the restaurant.  

At first, the students were verbally harassed and grossly abused.  Then they were physically attacked - coffee thrown on them, their faces slapped, dragged from their stools and mercilessly kicked - then  dragged into police vans and jailed for 30 days. 

They did not fight back. Ultimately their sacrificial "counter-cultural" resistance changed the world. 

It was painful for me to even watch that program yesterday. However, it certainly raised my level of awareness not only to the sacrifices made to promote the cause of justice in the Civil Rights Movement; but also made me realize that any truly "spiritual" movement will always go against the grain of the dominant culture and will always demand some sort of sacrifice.

A spiritual path is a path of connection - connection with others, connection with "God." On a spiritual path everyone sits at a place of dignity at the table of human existence. 

Dominant cultures are venues in which people are disconnected - the strong dominate the weak, the rich lord it over the poor, the dominant race oppresses the minority. 

This is why Jesus set himself against the dominant culture of empire and temple in his own day as he pointed his disciples to follow his path of compassion.  This is why the Buddha moved out of his princely palace and went out to live among the poor as he pointed the path to enlightenment.

I don't think it is at all an exaggeration to say that any spiritual path must always, to some degree be "counter-cultural- always going against the grain of the dominant culture.  Walking on a spiritual path will always demand some degree of self sacrifice. 

We live in a time where the word "spirituality" has become not only acceptable but even "politically correct." It is somewhat "chic" to be "spiritual nowadays.  People often adopt a spirituality like they might put on designer clothing.  

But as I see it, all the daily mindful meditations, the walks along the beach, the mountaintop views at sunrise,  the prayers and services in churches, temples and mosques are just "glitter and glitz" unless they lead to a counter-cultural path that goes against the grain of a culture of rugged individualism where dominance and oppression are the ethic of the day.

Every morning I sit quietly and alone in my garden for my daily mindfulness meditation. And every morning, as I look out into the desert wilderness surrounding my house, I am reminded of (confronted by) my spiritual ancestors- those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who moved away from the dominant culture of society and church, out into the fringes of the desert.  

They moved out of their plush lives, away from their positions of prestige and respect, and they lived simply in caves and caverns, sharing what they had with one another. The moved away from a culture of  ego that glorified self importance - away from a culture of hierarchy and power where only the rich and famous belong.

They moved out into the desert in order to follow a spiritual pathway, a pathway to which Jesus pointed - a path that went against the grain of the dominant culture. It demanded sacrifice. It offered freedom.

This morning as I sit in my garden for my meditation, I am reminded of one of my favorite Desert Mothers' and Fathers' stories:

A monk was living in the wilderness of Egypt.  One day he came across a man who had brought a donkey to his cave and was stealing his possessions. As though he was a passer-by who did not live there, the monk went up to the thief and helped him load the beast, then sent him peaceably on his way.

I look out into the mountains around my house, grateful to be living at the fringes. 

my book on amazon

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Great American Hero

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
-Washington D.C.-

A year or so ago I had the opportunity to pay my first visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.  When I walked onto the memorial site, I was immediately aware of why monuments like this are called "shrines." It was a holy place for me, sacred ground on which the life of a great American hero was being remembered -  but more than that, a "shrine" where Dr. King's spirit still lives on. 

Over the past decades there have been numerous people who have refused to honor the life and contributions of Dr. King - often discrediting him for his human faults and failures.  As I see it, his humanity is what makes Dr. King such a great hero. 

We carve hero figures into stone statues or place their images in stained glass windows and think of them as somehow more than human - long-ago and far-away super humans who led exemplary noble lives, people who changed the world, people to be honored and worshiped for their greatness. 

I never think of heroes in this way. For me, a hero is a role-model, inspiring me and motivating me to be like them. 

I look at a statue of the Christ or the Buddha, I stand before a great stone monument at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial or gaze upon a saint painted into the glass of a church window, and they are like magnets for me - pulling out my better angels, showing me all the possibilities and potential of every human life. 

On this day when the nation pauses to remember the life and work of a great American hero, I am inspired by the humanity of the Revered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was, no doubt, a man with faults and failures, just like me, just like every other human being.  He was also a man who had the courage of his convictions. He let his better angles have sway over his life- boldly suffering imprisonment and insult for the cause of justice, ultimately laying down his life in the cause of  compassion. 

He endured and he persevered in the midst of all the mess and muck of the human condition, and that's what makes him a great hero. In the end he changed the world- so can we all.

When I visited his memorial, I was particularly moved by walls surrounding the great stone statue of Martin Luther King Jr.  On the imposing granite walls encircling the memorial are carved excerpts from the powerful words of Dr. King's many speeches and writings. I remember going from wall to wall and simply letting those words seep into me - thinking to myself, he continues to speak. Those words are just as powerful in our own day as they were back when they were first spoken. 

As I sit in my desert garden at dawn on the morning of this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I recall some of his words. I let them seep into my soul and bathe my spirit:

Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate causes a person to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful.

Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

In this generation we will have to repent not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it.

I have the audacity to believe that what self centered persons have torn down, other-centered persons can build up. Yes, I still believe that,


Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Few Basic "Rules of Thumb"

"Walking in the Wilderness"
-in the nearby mountains-

Yesterday my wife and I joined up with a community hike into the mountains above where we live.  The hike was led by a guide who knew the way.  It was quite strenuous but exceptionally exhilarating.

As we made our way up into the mountains yesterday,  I couldn't  help but think of an article I had just read in the morning paper about why birds fly in a "V" formation when migrating from place to place."

A group of scientists studied a flock of 14 northern bald ibises as they made their 600 mile migratory journey from Austria to Tuscany. They discovered that the flight behavior of these birds made use of some very precise principles of aerodynamics. 

The wing flapping of the leader at the head of the "V" generates a flow of air for the birds flying just  behind. Subsequently the wing flapping of those birds also provide a flow for the birds behind them-- and so it goes, everyone flapping their wings in order to provide a "wake" supporting the flight of one another.

The scientists observed that the younger and stronger birds took turns in the leadership role at the tip of the "V," helping the older and weaker to make the long journey. 

The scientists also observed that it would be impossible for these birds to go that great of a distance by flying alone.

When asked how the birds know how to fly so precisely, one of the scientists observed that birds seemed to have evolved into a few basic "rules of thumb" which they apply every time they make those long strenuous migratory flights.

As I walked on my long and strenuous hike yesterday, along with my fellow travelers, led by a guide who knew the way, I thought about those birds in that "V" formation. The basic "rules of thumb" for making their journey make a lot of sense to me - not just for arduous mountain hikes but for making that migratory journey we call "life."

As I walked up into those wilderness mountains yesterday, I reflected on the "rules of thumb," life lessons we, human beings, might be able to learn from those birds flying in a "V" formation. 

Here are the "rules of thumb" I came up with. 

In the journey of life:

Never walk alone
This is perhaps the most important of the rules, especially in a culture such as ours marked by such rampant and rugged individualism. Lone rangers who think they can find happiness and lead a meaningful life by excluding others or stepping on one another along the way are on a dead-end path. The life-journey is a journey with others. It's all about relationships.

Rely upon guides and mentors to help find the way
This rule is probably a corollary to rule number one. Rugged individuals think they have all the answers. In my own life journey I have come to learn that there are lots of people wiser and smarter than me. I always need guides and mentors to whom I can turn when I need help along the way.

Share the leadership
This rule is especially important for those who are in leadership roles. It took me a real long time to evolve into this rule for my journey. Everyone has different gifts in life. Recognize and celebrate the gifts of others by sharing leadership along the way. It's much less exhausting when you share the burden. 

The stronger need to help the weaker along the way
This is another one of those extremely counter-cultural rules in a "me-first" society where the "haves" lord it over the "have nots." We cannot journey well in life unless we are all concerned for the needs of one another and have the common good in mind.  Those who have greater strength, more health, more resources have a special obligation (a duty) to assist those who are having a more difficult time along the way. 

A few basic "rules of thumb" for our strenuous, exhilarating, long journey of life - it's amazing what you can learn from evolved migratory birds. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Interns and Apprentices

"A Path"
-one of many nearby wilderness trails-

Every time a weekend comes around, my mind goes to the topic of "religion." After all, weekends are the times when religious people will all gather together in mosques and temples, synagogues and churches. 

On this weekend people of every stripe will come together to "praise and worship" God, Jesus, Allah, even Buddha.  Heads covered in a synagogue, shoes off at a mosque, kneeling in a church, bowing before various Buddha statues, they will petition the "God" they worship asking that "He" might help them out, fix their problems and grant them favors- good fortune, wealth, health. 

As I sit quietly in my meditation garden at the beginning of this weekend, I think to myself that "across the board" the way in which most religions are "practiced" seriously deviate from what religions are supposed to really be all about.

As I see it, the various religions don't exist to provide believers with a convenient God out there who fixes and favors. Instead religions provide "pathways" for each and every believer to walk along-pathways that lead to deeper peace and greater beauty in the living of everyday life.

Yesterday I was reading from a Gospel passage in the Christian scriptures. In the passage, Jesus' fame is beginning to spread- as a healer, a prophet, even a messiah.  Some people come to him and ask what he is all about. They think they may want to be his disciples. 

Jesus' response wasn't "I am the Son of God," kneel down and do me homage." Instead he said, "Why don't you come and spend some time with me. Observe what I do, listen to what I teach, so that you can learn my "path," and then follow it yourselves."  In essence, he invited them to come and spend some time being his interns and apprentices. 

Since moving out to the desert, I have learned a great deal about how a "master-apprentice" relationship works. Over the past year, we have had quite a bit of work done to our home, and in every singe case, the work was done by masters accompanied by their apprentices. 

The master electrician would arrive, or the master carpenter, the master tile worker, the master landscape artist - and they would inevitably bring along their apprentices. I loved watching how those apprentices would carefully observe, assist, ask questions, and learn from the master's experience. 

I think this is exactly what Jesus did when he invited potential disciples to come and spend some time with him. He was the "master" and they, the "apprentices and the interns." They observed him embracing strangers, forgiving enemies, welcoming outcasts, and by observing his path, they learned his "way," so that they might also follow it.  

The invitation to "apprenticeship" is the call of every Christian (and essentially the purpose of every religion).

I think Jesus would be appalled at the notion that people in subsequent generations, who would call themselves "Christians," would gather together once a week  to "worship" him instead of following him.

I think the Buddha would be just as appalled to think that those who would call themselves "Buddhists" over the years would "worship" Buddha. 

I remember going to a Buddhist temple in South Korea a few years ago, and I was stunned by the number of people who were placing little gifts before various Buddha statues, praying that he might grant them various favors -health or wealth, or in some cases, fertility. 

The Buddha specifically taught "Buddhas only point the way, everyone must walk the path." 

Like Jesus, Buddha also gathered disciples to be his interns and apprentices. They observed his path and he pointed the way for them and then sent them out to walk along the path of enlightenment . He couldn't walk the path for them- all he could do was point the way.

The idea that he would ultimately be turned into a divine figure to be worshiped, to fix problems and  grant favors, would indeed be appalling to Siddhartha Gautama- the Buddha. 

I suppose it's a lot easier to have "gods" out there who do all the work, and who you can blame if it doesn't all go well in life. 

As for me, I am a Jesus "follower"- his intern and his apprentice. I do not worship him. I follow his path.  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Condemned to Freedom

"Friday Morning"
-at the break of day-

This morning's New York Times featured an article about a new type of "drill" employed nowadays in all of our nation's schools - not a fire drill or earthquake drill, but a "lockdown" drill as a protection against a possible school shooting. 

The story went on to describe little first-graders being ushered into dark classroom closets as a simulated shooter walks through the school halls. They are taught to be still and remain quiet in case something like that ever happens in real life.  They go home and have nightmares. 

I actually find it hard to comprehend how we can live in a country where names like "Columbine" and "Sandy Hook" are etched into the national psyche, where a 7th grader in Roswell, New Mexico can take a shotgun to school and shoot his fellow 12-year old classmates in the gym, where 1st graders are herded into classroom closets as part of a "lockdown" drill - and yet we still refuse to place little if any restrictions on gun sales and use, just waiting for the next shoe to fall. 

In my meditation garden at the break of dawn, I think about that "lockdown" story in today's "Times." For me, it speaks volumes about the nature of our human condition.

When I was younger, I used to believe that human beings are basically "good."  But as I mature I have sort of modified my "human beings are basically good" philosophy. I still believe that there is a "spark of God" in each of us, uniting us together, pulling us toward the light. However, I also believe there are other very powerful human instincts urging us to darkness and destruction.

We are prone to anger, violence and self-centered gratification as much as we are prone to live lives of compassion, kindness and generosity.

Every day, in one form or another, we are called upon to "choose" which of those directions we wish to follow.

So now, instead of saying that I believe human beings are all basically good,  I now say that I believe that the mark of our common humanity is that we all have the freedom to make choices. 

Back in my college days, when I was studying philosophy, I remember reading some of the works of  the existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, who is famously quoted for having said, "we are condemned to be free." 

Back in those days, I honestly didn't understand what this meant, nowadays I think maybe I "get it,"  and actually agree with it.

Our freedom to choose is our joy and also our burden.  In some sense it would be much easier if we had no control over how we think or behave in life - but we do have a choice, we always do. 

We can choose to forgive the person who insulted or did us violence, or we can choose to hold a grudge and seek revenge (think of the recent example of Nelson Mandela). We can choose to ignore the needs of others and focus solely on our own comfort or we can extend our lives for the welfare of the common good. We can choose to ignore oil spills and ridicule the devastating effects of global warming or we can focus our efforts on cleaning up and caring for this planet earth for generations to come. 

We can choose to take weapons off the streets or lobby for the right to bear arms while our babies are locked down in closets as a precaution for the day when the bad man with the gun will come around and shoot them.

We are indeed "condemned to be free." The only choice we do not have is to "not to make choices."

Our freedom to choose is indeed a burden of responsibility shared by every human being on this earth. Our choices make all the difference. Our choices create a world of ugliness. Our choices build a world of beauty. 

As I sit in my garden at the dawn of the day on this Friday morning, I welcome the burden of freedom. 

I want to walk as a child of the light.