Sunday, December 31, 2017

Endings

"The Old Year Passes"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As I read the morning newspaper on this last day of 2017,  I was struck by the number of articles that featured some sort of year end review. There were numerous pictures, stories and reports of the year now coming to an end: mass shootings, a new presidential administration, a royal engagement, the ten best books of 2017, the ten best movies.

I suppose it’s only natural for us to look back and review what went on at the end of every year but I also wonder if a year-end review might be more helpful if it was more than an opportunity to look back and make a “laundry list” of everything that seemed to be noteworthy over the past twelve months. Instead, it might be better to ask some probing questions about what lessons we may have learned over the past year so that we might take that learning into the year yet to come.

I remember something I read a while back about the kind of life-end review that people often engage in as they lay on a death bed. For most people, when they come to the end of their lives, they do more than make lists of all the stuff that happened to them over the span of their lives; instead, as life comes to and end many people experience a certain clarity about what is really important about living.

Dr. Ira Byock, a nationally renowned hospice-care physician, has witnessed and documented thousands of death-bed experiences; and he discovered that, at the threshold of death, almost everyone says some very similar things as they take their final breaths. Dr. Byock has distilled these “end of life” statements into four very basic sentiments:

Please forgive me
I forgive you
Thank you
I love you

As I think about it, these simple yet profound statements are at the very core of our common humanity. They may be the things we say when we die but they also are beautiful expressions of what it means to be fully alive.  What really matters and gives ultimate meaning to our living is our capacity for forgiveness, thankfulness and love.

So many of us devote a lifetime doing the things that, in the end, don’t really matter all that much – building a career, climbing the ladder of success, accumulating more and more stuff, holding onto anger or grudges, constantly seeking the praise of others. But in the end most of us will not use our last breaths to inquire about our bank balance or ask to see a copy of a business report.  Instead we will look to the people who have surrounded us in life and we will seek or offer forgiveness, thank them, and tell them how much we love them.

As I do my own year end review on this last day of 2017, I am asking myself some of these ultimate questions about what really matters in life.

Today I am reflecting on a piece of wisdom that is often attributed to the Buddha and I am relying on this wisdom to help me review the year that is ending and to guide me into the next year as it begins:

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The What's Next Syndrome

"Now"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday, I noticed that some neighbors had already put their Christmas tree out to the roadside to be picked up with the trash - it was only the day after Christmas. As I looked at that tree on the trash heap I wondered what it was that motivated them to throw away their tree so early in the holiday? It also made me wonder if perhaps, now that Christmas Day had come and gone, it was time to get ready for the next big event - maybe a New Year’s party or some other special occasion?

It seems to me that the tree in the trash on the day after Christmas may be very iconic of life in today’s popular culture.  We painstakingly plan and prepare for a future event and then when it finally arrives, it’s often sort of disappointing or we get tired of it easily, and so we ask the question, what’s next?  Then it’s on to something else, something newer, perhaps something bigger and better.

People buy new clothes, new furniture, a new car or even a new house and before long they get tired of it all and they start looking for something else - a newer model, perhaps something more expensive.  Some people plan and prepare for months for the 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. Many people spend their days at work dreaming about that better job in anticipation of moving up the career ladder.

The what’s next question is even applied to the way in which many people approach other people in their lives. They accumulate business contacts, acquaintances and even friends who perhaps are useful to them, but they tire of them easily or perhaps they determine that they are no longer useful and then it’s on to someone else who may be more exciting or more valuable.

The what’s next syndrome is spiritually draining. It bloats up an already too-big ego and destroys relationships. It 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 wonder if the people who have already moved on from the Christmas holidays, looking forward to “what’s next," may be missing the joy life has to offer.  That “magical moment” never happens in the future, it 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.

Today the feast is happening - life is available now.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Birth of the Rebel Jesus

"Long Live the Revolution"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am sometimes asked if I have a favorite Christmas carol and the answer I give is often quite surprising to people who expect me to name “Joy to the World” or maybe “Silent Night” as my number-one choice.  Instead, my all-time favorite is a rather obscure song written a few years back by singer and songwriter, Jackson Browne. The name of the carol is The Rebel Jesus:

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
They’ll be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

I’m quite sure that most people who gather around a “Christmas hearth” during this season will not be thinking of the newborn Baby Jesus as a “rebel.”  People usually picture “Baby Jesus” as a sweet little infant asleep on the hay.  And yet, in point of fact, the baby born in Bethlehem went on to become a rebel, a political subversive who would devote his entire life to planting the seeds of a revolution. In fact, that little baby boy would grow up to be a “thorn in the side” of the “status quo" and a dangerous threat to the “powers that be.” Throughout his entire life Jesus would constantly turn the acceptable norms of the culture of his day upside down.

The Baby of Bethlehem was born into a system of violence, extreme prejudice, oppression and revenge, a culture where the powerful crushed the weak and the rich controlled the poor - throughout his life and ministry Jesus did all in his power to “stand against” that system into which he was born. He preached about a just and compassionate society where no one was left outside looking in and where everyone had a place of equal dignity and respect at the table of life. Jesus sowed the seeds of revolution as he invited his followers to overthrow the old way and build up a new kingdom, a kingdom of love and compassion, a kingdom where forgiveness and tender mercy were the order of the day.

Jesus was very much a rebel. In fact, he was such a rebel that the religious institution and the government of his time finally arrested him and executed him for his revolutionary sedition.

It’s so paradoxical that Christian believers who celebrate the birth of the “Rebel Jesus” often think and do the very things that Jesus rebelled against.  As the world celebrates Christmas, people will sing the carols, exchange gifts and gather around family tables and as they do so they will condemn foreigners and build walls against strangers. During this season, many people who celebrate Christmas will do their best to exclude and crush those who do not belong, and many followers of Jesus will barely even know that they are remembering the birth of a rebel who expected his followers to continue his revolutionary way of love.

Over these days many Christians will make their way into some church or other where they will likely recite the words of the all-familiar Lord’s Prayer (The “Our Father”). I am reminded of something Professor Amy-Jill Levine once wrote about this prayer:

I do wonder, do all those who pray
‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,’
really want a change of the status quo
or are they pretty satisfied with the kingdom we have here and now?
Do they really want the time, as Jesus promises,
when the first will be last and the last first,
when we are assessed on how well
we have loved our enemy and fed the hungry?

People who recite the Lord’s Prayer should be careful of what they are saying - it’s a pretty subversive prayer.

It seems to me that you don’t actually have to be a Christian to follow the way of the “Rebel Jesus.”  May that the revolution he first began be continued in the lives of all people of goodwill everywhere.

Long Live the Revolution!