Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Spiritual Resilience

"Summertime"
- At the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I was once again reminded of how harsh the desert climate is especially in these summertime months.  An older couple visiting here from Scotland had made the very bad decision to embark on a rather lengthy hike into the wilderness during the heat of a triple-digit day, and to make matters worse they didn’t take enough water along with them. They had been hiking over a rigorous trail for about 3 hours when they were overcome by the heat and unfortunately the wife died on the trail. The desert is a harsh place to be - especially in these summer months.

Ever since moving out here to our “Desert Retreat House,” I have had many friends ask why on earth we would ever choose to live in such a desolate place -  at least why not “get out of town” for the summer?

In fact, many people do go away for the summer months. After all, the summertime is more like our wintertime out here. The tourist season is over, the festivals are finished (you can get a really good deal on a hotel). And yet, many if not most of us year-long residents choose to remain here to enjoy the silence of the summer.  A lot of people, like me, actually think that this is perhaps the very best time of the year.

It’s true that there are no soothing beaches for lounging in the sun or green forests with lush meadows for afternoon strolls. In fact the daytime temperatures make it virtually impossible to even go outside during the afternoon hours when the stark desert terrain seems even drier than ever.

But as I think about it, this silent emptiness and utter starkness is precisely why the desert is such a powerful place to live, such an abundant source of spiritual vitality - and maybe that’s why most of us “desert rats” continue on here over the summer.

When you are able to endure the trials the desert has to offer for everyday living, embracing the silence of the wilderness, the harsh baking sun and the stark emptiness,  you develop a sense of “resilience.” You learn a life-lesson that you can survive whatever comes along and, in fact, you can even thrive in the emptiest of places.

It seems to me that “resilience” is perhaps the great spiritual gift I have received by living in the wilderness. In the midst of the great emptiness I have learned to discover abundance, in the places where it seems that I am most alone I have experienced a powerful truth that I am never abandoned. There is a Holy Presence that never lets me go.

I used to read about “desert spirituality” when we lived back East (or even when we lived in Los Angeles), but I never understood what this meant until we moved out here. A “desert spirituality” is a wisdom that emerges out of living in a hot, often-uncomfortable, empty place – paradoxically a desert spirituality is essentially a “wintery spiritualty:”


The desert reminds people of things they would rather forget,
taking them to the edges.
The desert has nothing to do with comfort.
It is a place of ‘wintery spirituality’ with its shrill cry of absence,
contrasting with a ‘summery spirituality’
of easy exuberance and glib certainty of the divine presence.

The desert experience is a ‘wintery phenomenon’
more given to being emptied than filled – harsh and lean in its imagery.
Yet, no love is greater than desert love.

The more I think about it, living in a desert is probably way more iconic of routine, everyday life than living at a beautiful beach or in a lush green forest. For the most part life is a wilderness, life is difficult, life is a place where there aren’t a lot of glib easy answers, where we often feel more empty than full, where God often seems distant and where there is often way more doubt than certainty.   

Plato once said;

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

I think there is great wisdom in this observation.

Everyone we meet is in the midst of the fray, struggling to make it though the wilderness; and yet the lesson we learn from our struggles is that we are not alone in it all- we have one another, and a Holy Presence abides.  Even when we only feel absence, love abides, and: 

No love is greater than desert love.


Monday, June 29, 2015

A Refreshing Alternative

"A Mountain Cave"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

As an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, I have been watching with some interest as thousands of church leaders from across America have been gathering these past days for a rather elaborate national church convention - stories and pictures of the events of this meeting have been broadcast across the news and in the social media.

Yesterday as I watched some of the “convention coverage,” I was struck with the realization: Perhaps so many people nowadays (especially younger people) have been turning away from “church” because organized religion is essentially no different from the other burdensome bureaucracies in today’s culture that so many people look at with disdain.

Yesterday I watched pictures of elaborately dressed bishops, all regaled in their purple and red robes as they marched into a church service and were seated in places of honor as the thousands of others in the congregation looked on in awe relegated to the  “cheap seats” dressed in their shorts and t-shirts. I watched some footage of the endless hours of tedious day-long meetings as these same bishops, clergy and other elected leaders debated for hours on end about how to best gain new members, raise more money, and how to allocate millions of dollars in the budget - sometimes to advance the mission of the church, perhaps more often than not, how to prolong the life of the institution.

It all felt so laden-down, so burdensome.

As I watched the proceedings of the convention yesterday I asked myself, “ How is the church “really” any different from the top-heavy educational system in this country whose bureaucratic shenanigans keep the institution afloat often at the expense of the students who are supposed to be served by it?  How was what I saw yesterday all that different from the bloated and overburdened medical industry in this country – a system dominated by a privileged hierarchy and pecking order, blinded by budgets, while access to the best care is given to those who have the most resources? How was that institutional church bureaucracy I was witnessing yesterday “really” all that different from the kind of political dead-ending we witness every day in the halls of government where a congress meets in endless debate that often amounts to nothing?

Back in the earliest days of Christianity, the emerging church was a real “alternative” to the popular culture of the day, standing in bold relief to the “status quo” of the empire. Guided by the simple teachings of Jesus, those first century Christian communities had few rules, no orthodox doctrine that members were required to follow and little structure.  Unlike the dominant culture of the day those first Christians were simply guided by the goal of advancing human dignity- no one outside the circle of belonging, no one relegated to the “cheap seats” in life.

The newly emerging Christian community was so refreshingly different from the oppressive status quo that it attracted hundreds, eventually thousands of people who joined the ranks of the fledgling church.

But as the church grew, so did the bureaucracy, the hierarchical structure with its accompanying power struggles, the demand for an orthodox theology, so that eventually the church looked pretty much like the culture- it had ceased to be a refreshing alternative.

As I see it, not a real lot has changed to this very day

As I sit I my garden this morning I can look out and see a little mountain cave in the horizon.  Every time I see this little cave I am reminded of my spiritual ancestors- those early Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers who, in the 4th century got so fed up with how bureaucratic and bloated the official church had become that they packed up and moved away from it all. They moved out into the surrounding deserts where they lived in simple caves and had few possessions. Most of them were not ordained (none were bishops),  they had no church buildings, there were few rules except to follow the rule of Jesus: to love one another, to care for the poor and needy, to extend hospitality to anyone who ever came into their circle of belonging, and to be ever available to the abiding presence of a mysterious and uncontrollable God.

I sit out here in the desert, far away from that big church convention going on with all its trappings and all it represents, and I wonder if it may not be time for the “church” to move out to the desert.

Obviously I’m not suggesting that, for institutional religion to survive everybody has to pack up and move out into little desert caves;  but I do think that if there is to be any future for organized religion it must once again become an “alternative” to the culture of power and privilege and not just a mirror of it.

Maybe it’s time to take Jesus’ advice, to sell all we have and give it the poor, to live together in simplicity, caring for each other’s needs, to extend hospitality to all who come our way, and with uncluttered minds and open heartto make ourselves available to the abiding mystery of an uncontrollable God?

The ancient Taoist philosopher offered some potent wisdom to his followers – not bad advice for the followers of Jesus:

Manifest Plainness.
Embrace simplicity.
Reduce selfishness.
Have few desires.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Amazing Grace

"Coolness in the Heat"
- on a triple-digit day -

I have been quite surprised at the almost-universal response to President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy of the slain minister at the church in South Carolina last Friday. Virtually every newspaper in the country along with national and local TV and radio stations, endless tweets and Facebook posts flooding the social media over one single verse of a hymn sung by a president speaking at a funeral.  

I suppose that it was somewhat unusual for the President of the United States to be singing a song during a speech but that hardly accounts for the explosion of response to what President Obama did and said during that eulogy.   

In fact, I even heard the well-known comedian/atheist Bill Maher talk about this with his guests on his Friday evening program - Maher even showed a video clip of the President singing “Amazing Grace.” What surprised me was that, he didn’t show this to mock what the president did, but in some strange way Mr. Maher and his guests seemed respectful almost reverential as they discussed what had occurred in that pulpit at the funeral in that church in South Carolina

Personally, I think there is something about the very idea of “grace’ that strikes us at our core, and lies at the heart and soul of what it means to be a human being. You don’t have to be a traditional believer, you don’t have to attend a church or a temple or a mosque, nor do you need to think of yourself as being particularly spiritual, you can even define yourself as being an atheist or an agnostic, and you can still know about and experience the nature and power of “grace” at some deep level in your life.

I suppose there are all sorts of definitions about what “grace” really is. Personally I’m not all that concerned about the definitions - I think that we just know “grace” when we encounter it.

Grace:  a “Holy Presence,” a “higher power,” a surprising gift that somehow seems to come out of nowhere, a power that goes beyond our own capacities, helping us to “make it through” the pain and find our way out of the wilderness of life.   

The alcoholic who turns to a “higher power” and is lifted from the pits of despair, the mother who has lost a child and then experiences a moment of “grace’ which allows her to somehow carry on in spite of it, believing that “all will be well,” a wife whose husband has been brutally murdered by a racist gunman during a bible study class at church who “amazingly” finds a power within herself to forgive the murderer (and by doing so is freed from the bondage of hatred) - these are all moments of “amazing grace,” experiences at the core of the deepest depths of our human condition.

Living in a desert, I learn a lesson about “grace” every day of my life. You probably won’t find a place anywhere else in the world that is more bone-dry than a desert, especially in these hot summer months of triple-digit afternoon temperatures.

Yet if you scrape about a foot or two beneath the surface of the bone-dry desolate sand, you will likely encounter a stream of water flowing beneath the surface, giving life to the palm trees and sustaining the cacti, allowing them to blossom with the most beautiful flowers imaginable. The desert is a place of “grace” - a dry empty place that is filled with abundance.

Life often feels like a bone-dry wilderness and yet “grace” abides. Underneath the surface of our everyday living, a power abides that is beyond us and yet a power more intimate to us than we are to our own selves - an energy of universal Love that will never let us go:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
we have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far,
and grace will lead us home.


A Sufi poet, an Islamic mystic, by the name of Rumi puts it this way:

You are so weak.
Give up to grace
The ocean takes care of each wave ‘till it gets to shore.
You need more help than you know.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Freed from Loneliness

"A Web of Relationship"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

After yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling made same-sex marriage the law of the land, many conservative religious people condemned the new legislation as being anti-biblical, contrary to the biblical teaching that marriage is solely reserved for one man and one woman in a committed, life-long relationship.

As I see it, there is very little in the Bible that says much at all about marriage as it is understood today, and as for yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, it is a stunningly clear example of a law of this land that is solidly based upon core biblical principles.

While many religious pundits like to spout off about what the Bible says about marriage, the fact is that back in biblical times marriage was viewed very differently than it is today. For one thing, many of the key biblical figures had more than one wife- some had many. In fact, right up until the middle ages, “marriage” was more of a property and inheritance transaction than a commitment of lasting love between two people. In a highly patriarchal society, wives were often seen as property to be owned - sometimes just above the status of slaves.

On the other hand, the Bible (especially the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels) has a great deal to say about love, relationships and human dignity; and when I read yesterday’s eloquently-crafted opinion regarding the petition for the recognition of same sex marriage (written by Justice Kennedy) it looked to me like it could have been spoken by Jesus himself:

In forming a marital union,
two people become something greater than they once were….
marriage embodies a love that may endure after death.
It would misunderstand these men and these women (the petitioners)
to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.
Their plea is that they do respect it,
respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment in themselves.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.
They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.

Jesus came as a champion for human dignity. He came among us to free people from the “condemnation of loneliness.”

Jesus talked about dying to the ego, breaking out of the walls that keep us isolated from others, walls that condemn us to live in loneliness.  Jesus pronounced that human beings are most fully and most abundantly alive when they are in deep and committed relationships with others. In lasting, loving, committed relationships we become more than we once were-we become fully human.

Jesus’ whole life was devoted to tearing down the barriers that kept people apart.

This is, of course, not only the teaching of Jesus – it is also the core wisdom of the Buddha who taught that it is a delusion to think we are isolated from others, everyone and everything “is” a web of dynamic relationship, and so when we are isolated, we experience our deepest suffering. The Buddha also devoted himself to free people from the condemnation of loneliness.

So yes, I do indeed believe that what happened in the Supreme Court yesterday was biblically-based, firmly grounded in core biblical teaching.  In fact it was consistent with the essential wisdom teaching of many, if not most major religious traditions.

While marriage isn’t the only way to enter into those kinds of relationships that make us fully human, it is certainly one of the ways that people in this culture have established as a way to be freed from the “condemnation of loneliness,” and as of yesterday everyone in this country now has access to it.

Today these United States are a “Land of the Free” more than ever before.

Yesterday was a holy day!