Friday, December 30, 2016

What Really Matters

"Day is Done"

I have been somewhat overwhelmed with the number of people who are talking about how happy they are that 2016 is finally coming to an end. In some sense this really was a pretty tough year in the world and in this country. It seemed like every day we were reading about some new crisis or other; and regardless of whether or not your candidate won, the recent mean-spirited presidential election has left the entire country divided by bitter culture wars. For lots of people this has certainly not been a very good year.

My wife and I have been away this past week visiting our family,  and so I have been spending lots of time playing with my little grandson. It's amazing how small children can help adults get a better grip on what really matters in life. They haven't yet figured out how to mess things up and haven't lost their way in the maze of the ambitious rat-race of life. A 2-year old child just takes life as it comes and embraces it all with surprise and joy - every morning is really and truly a brand new day filled with exciting possibilities.

This morning I've been thinking about this end-of-the-year and reflecting on how easily I can lose sight of what really matters in life. I am reminded of some relatively recent research that has emerged from the study of various "end-of life" interactions in the "Hospice" literature. It's so interesting to me that regardless of culture or life-circumstances, when people get to that stage where they are at the very end of their lives, they almost universally say the same things. 

As they lay on their death-beds most people tap into the things that really matter as they turn to their loved ones gathered around them and say things like:

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you

As I think about it I suppose that these are the qualities that really are endemic to living a full life as human beings: Forgiveness. Thankfulness. Love.  It seems to me that anything else we may say or do in life is always at the periphery of these three things that matter most.

So, as this year comes to an end, I reflect upon 2016 and I ask how well I forgave others. I also ask myself if I have been thankful or if most my time has been spent complaining.  Most of all I look at how well I have extended my own life for the welfare of others, how well I have loved.  When I do this, I discover that all the other stuff that happened last year really pales in comparison.

I am also reminded of a very wise teaching of the Buddha that I hold before me today and take with me into 2017:

In the end these three things matter most
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?

Some good questions for some serious reflection before the countdown to a new year begins.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

O Holy Night

"Stars in the Wilderness"

I just finished reading a very poignant message written by a young friend who was having a very difficult time celebrating Christmas this year. The darkness and violence in the world, the ugly face of racism again raising its ugly head in this country and personal tragedy in his own life made him feel like he wanted to shut out all the beautiful and tender images he was about to encounter this Christmas Eve: brightly colored trees, carols in a church, the tender story of a sweet little infant born in a Bethlehem manger as angels light up the sky singing songs peace and goodwill.  With all the darkness he was experiencing it was all sounding very hollow and empty to my friend this year as he struggled to figure out what Christmas might actually mean.

As I read his message, it was so very reminiscent of something that happened in my own life many years ago on a Christmas Eve when I was a college chaplain at Syracuse University. It was just a few days before Christmas when we got the news that Pan Am flight 103 had crashed over Lockerbie Scotland, blown apart by a terrorist bomb. Thirty five students from Syracuse University who were studying abroad were returning home for Christmas and they were on that fated plane.  I personally knew many of them.   

As I look back at it now that was probably one of the darkest periods of my entire life. Such profound sadness permeated everyone and everything on campus. There was a profound sense of loss and dismay over such senseless violence that took so many young lives before they even had the chance to be lived.

When Christmas Eve came along I wanted nothing do with any of it. In light of all that had happened I just couldn’t face the joy of Christmas.  I wanted to shut it all out, go to bed and wake up in a few days after it was all over. But our now-adult boys were still small children at the time, wide-eyed with excitement, Santa was about to show up. So like it or not, Christmas wasn’t about to go away.

It had been our long-standing family custom to celebrate Christmas Eve by honoring an old-world tradition of eating a celebratory Christmas “vigil meal” with food prepared from special recipes that had been handed down for generations.  During this “vigil meal” it was also a custom to place a lighted candle in the window and to set an “empty place” at the dinner table. The purpose of the candle was to alert the “Christ” about to be born that there was an empty chair at our table and a place had been set, waiting for him to come and join us.

On that dark Christmas Eve back in Syracuse, our family, friends and some university colleagues gathered at the table to share the “vigil meal.”  In light of all the recent tragedy our spirits were glum and we were all doing our best to “put on a happy face,”  when suddenly and unexpectedly the doorbell rang. When I went to answer it I discovered a lone student standing at the door. He apologized for barging in and informed me that he was unable to go home for Christmas. He was out walking alone when he saw that the “Chaplain’s Residence" was all lit up and a party was going on - he rang the bell and took the chance that maybe we might invite him in.

Of course I hugged him and welcomed him with open arms—and guess where he sat?

Yes, there was an empty chair awaiting and a place was already set for him at that Christmas Eve table. As he sat and ate among us, none of the stunning symbolism of it was lost on any one of us.  Thirty five of our students had just been killed but that night one young man was sitting at the place reserved for the “Christ” to be born that night.  Our dark and gloomy mood soon turned into joy. The darkest night became a “Holy Night” as the the dying embers of love were stoked again by a glimmer of hope that sparked in the night.

Tonight many people around the globe will gather together. Some will be filled with joy and others will be struggling with what it all means - some may be facing darkness, perhaps feeling the brokenness of our fragile human condition. It seems to me that it’s only when we struggle with the darkness that we can ever hope to see the light.  I remember something Martin Luther King Jr. once wisely said:

Only in the darkness can you see the stars

Regardless of whether or not you will be celebrating Christmas this night, my wish and prayer is that this may be a holy night for everyone.

In the darkness, may you see the stars!

Blessings and Peace.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Frantic Preparations

"All is Calm, All is Bright"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it is also the beginning of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, so today lots of people everywhere will be running around making frantic preparations for the upcoming holiday celebrations – cleaning the house, rushing to the mall for those last-minute gifts, going to the market to prepare for the big holiday meal.

Standing in line at a local supermarket yesterday, I literally “laughed out loud” as I overheard someone in front of me telling the cashier: “It isn’t even Christmas yet and I am already sick of looking at my Christmas tree. I put it up a month ago and I just can’t wait to take it down.”  
All those people rushing around in that market getting ready for “tomorrow” and that one shopper’s statement about taking down her tree before Christmas even arrives struck me as being quite emblematic of life in general nowadays.

We painstakingly plan and sometimes frantically prepare for a future event and then when it finally arrives (or perhaps even before it happens) we easily tire of it, then it’s on to something else - something newer, something bigger, something better.

People buy new shoes, new clothes, a new car, or even a new house and before long they get tired of it and start looking for something else, or they plan for months for that big vacation and before it’s even over they begin planning for their next trip hoping to do something a little more exciting next time. We spend days of preparation for Christmas and when it finally arrives it may be that we are already tired of it or perhaps we are disappointed because it didn’t live up to our great expectations. 

All this leads us down a slippery slope into the dead-end of greater suffering.

I think of something Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

In everyday life we are always looking for the right conditions
that we don’t yet have to make us happy,
and we ignore what is happening right in front of us.
We wait and hope for the magical moment,
always something in the future when everything will be as we want it to be,
forgetting that life is available only in the present moment.

There is a piece of Zen spiritual wisdom that teaches something very similar:

Treat each moment as your last.
It is not a preparation for something else.

I have been thinking about the people making all those frantic preparations today for tomorrow’s big feast and festival.  I fear so many of us may be be missing all the joy life has to offer because we will spend so much time today looking for the magic to happen tomorrow when the magic of life only happens now.

Poet and author, John O’Donohue once wisely observed

Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that
we are already at the feast.

Tomorrow may be Christmas Eve or it may be the beginning of Hanukkah but today we are already at the feast.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Here Comes the Sun

"Sure and Certain Hope"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends told me that she was having a hard time finding any sense of hope in this Christmas season. The outcome of the presidential election has caused her to despair over her future and the future of the country. I suppose that there may be plenty of people who have lost hope, not necessarily because of an election, but because they find themselves in a dead-end place in their lives.

I am reminded of a line from Dante’s famous poem, The Divine Comedy. Over the “entranceway to hell” is this inscription:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

I actually find this to be extremely insightful - when we lose hope we place yourself in a living hell.

As I went to sleep last night I was thinking about my hopeless friend from Facebook and wondering about all those people who may be going to sleep that night having lost all hope. I suppose last night was a good occasion to think about hopelessness because it was the longest night of the year, the beginning of the winter season here in the Western hemisphere. On top of all that, it was one of the bleakest nights I ever remember experiencing out here in the desert. It was cold and damp, it had rained most of the day and was supposed to rain all night (very unusual for this desert). 

When I woke up this morning it was still raining but I had this sudden flash of insight that, during those long dark hours of the night, something cosmic had happened. The planets and stars had shifted and the sun will now begin its return to rule over the skies. From now on the daylight hours will be longer than the hours of night.

Winter does not signal the beginning of the darkness but rather a return of the light.

I have always found it interesting that people of every race religion, tribe and culture throughout history have always celebrated the Winter Solstice with some type of festival of light - the prehistoric rituals at Stonehenge, the various “Light Festivals” of ancient Persia, Asia, Greece and Rome, the Hebrew feast of Hanukkah, the festival of Kwanza, and yes of course “Christmas. There seems to be something deeply inherent in our human condition that calls us to gather together with other human beings to celebrate the cosmic happening of the planetary shift on the Winter Solstice.

Some anthropologists have suggested that people gather for Solstice festivals as a protection against the darkness of the darkest night of the year - I have another take on it. I think humans gather to celebrate the Solstice not to hide from the darkness of winter but to celebrate the victory of the light.

As I lay in bed this morning it struck me that the return of the “light” is an almost-perfect icon of what hope is all about. The “light” returns because that’s just how the world works. We can ignore the light or we we can sit in darkness and hide from the light, but no matter what we do or think or say, the light comes back.

Deep in my heart I believe that love is stronger than hate and ultimately justice will prevail on this earth. Even in the bleakest and darkest times of life, love doesn’t die and in the end love will win the day. This is why I have have hope, a sure and certain hope.

I am reminded of a line from a poem by W.H. Auden:

Defenseless under the night
our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere
ironic points of light
flash out wherever the Just
exchange their messages.

Yesterday, when we all went to sleep on that longest night of the year it may have seemed like a pretty bleak time to lots of people who have lost hope in their lives. But in the midst of it all, the power of Love was abiding among us, a Love that will never let us go. Today the light returns, the just exchange their messages and ironic points of light flash out as people act with kindness and compassion, as reconciliation happens and as injuries are forgiven. People of goodwill all have the final say.

The ancient Celts offered one another a beautiful Solstice Blessing - I pray this blessing on us all:

May all your winter places be kissed by light!