Sunday, April 30, 2017

Easter Stories

"Daybreak"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

If Christians show up for church during this “Easter” season they are likely to hear one of many biblical stories about various times when the disciples encountered the living “Christ” after his resurrection. Most of these stories depict a scene in which apostles or disciples are sharing a meal together and as they do so, the once-dead and now living “Christ” appears to them. He walks through locked doors, sits down with the disciples, eats a piece of bread and fish with them, and then just as quickly he vanishes.

A few years ago I remember being confronted by someone after a church service during which one of these Easter stories were read. A young man literally shook his head at me and said: “You seem like an intelligent guy, you can't really believe that story you just read about a recently killed Jesus who walked through a locked door and then, to the delight of his disciples, sat down to eat a meal, then mysteriously vanished?” The young man who confronted me thought that “magical” stories like this were basically ludicrous fantasies.  I told him that he probably needed to understand the role metaphor and poetry always play in all the stories (not only in the Christian Bible)  but in all the various scriptures of all the world religious traditions.

As I see it, language about “God”, faith, belief, religion and spirituality always involves some use of metaphor and poetry. Whenever we talk about any experiences of transcendence we will inevitably turn to poetic and metaphorical language to help us “get at” an experience that cant be logically described.  But metaphorical language is a different kind of language than most people employ nowadays in ordinary everyday life. In fact, lots of people today hardly even know what a metaphor is and are unable to recognize metaphor when they see it, thinking instead only in a language of fact and description.  

As I see it, it is virtually impossible to understand the Bible (or the scriptures of almost any faith tradition) without realizing that it is filled with an abundance of “stories’ written thousands of years ago that are always rich in metaphor, much more prone to poetry than to history. If you don’t understand metaphorical language then, of course,  many if not most of the stories of the scriptures will be either seen as magical fantasy to unbelievers or as basically “irrelevant”  to the everyday lives of believers (most of us have never seen a dead person appear while having supper, so it’s a nice story but it doesn’t really have much to do with our everyday lives).

I think of the story in the Buddhist scripture about angels singing in the heavens at the birth of the Buddha and the story in the Hebrew Bible about the earth being formed and fashioned in the six days of creation. These are all beautiful poems celebrating the harmonious splendor and unity of all creation.  I think of the story in the Christian Gospels about Jesus walking on water and calming a turbulent sea or the Easter story about the risen Christ walking through locked doors. These also are “rich” in metaphor, stories told to inspire and strengthen faith, to give hope and provide guidance for the living of everyday life in our own time and place. If you take this language too literally, you will inevitably miss its richer meaning.

I am reminded of something scripture scholar and theologian, Dominic Crossan, once said about the kind of language ancient peoples used in composing the various stories of faith in the scriptures:

My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories
and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically,
but that they told stories symbolically
and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

I am also reminded of something the theologian, Dan Maguire, also wrote in his provocative book, Christianity without God. He makes an interesting observation about how fundamentalist believers as well as well as hard-core atheists often fall into the same camp in their inability to recognize and appreciate metaphor as the language of spirituality - especially “metaphor” as found in the scriptures.

Fervent atheists often join faithful believers in reducing
the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading
as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teaching like ‘paradise,’ “exodus,’ ‘incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’
and downsize them as if they could have been caught on film
and featured in a documentary.

During this Easter season, Christians may go to church and hear stories about how the ancient disciples encountered the “Living Christ” while they gathered together and shared a meal. There are many times when I have sat down to share a meal with others, sometimes sharing a communion meal at church, sometimes sharing a meal in my home around our dinner table, and during meal I have experienced a deep sense of relationship  with those who were gathered together with me,  sometimes I experienced a sense of profound Love. My guess is that I have encountered the living Christ as we broke bread together, and I think that this is exactly what these “Easter stories” are trying to say.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Revolution of Tenderness

"Cactus Blossom"
- in my meditation garden -

The people attending the annual TED conference in Vancouver the other day got a big surprise when one of the speakers turned out to be Pope Francis giving a TED talk via a video link from Rome. I was surprised that a pope would be giving a TED talk but I was much more “taken” by what the pope had to say.

In his talk, Pope Francis extended an invitation to his listeners (and to the people of the whole world) to engage in what he called a “Revolution of Tenderness.” I was particularly struck by this phrase because, to me, these two little words pretty much sum up the basic path of any spiritual journey.

We hardly ever hear or use the word “tenderness” nowadays and when it is used, it is often a way to talk about the “tender” feelings we associate with romantic love. However, far from being a pleasant feeling, “tenderness” is actually a “practice” and a “discipline” championed throughout almost every one of the world-wide spiritual traditions.

Jesus calls his disciples to be be gentle (tender) of heart, the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures invite the people of Israel to embrace hearts of flesh not hearts of stone, to be tender-hearted and not hard-hearted. The sages of Islam (especially in the Sufi tradition) extol the virtues of cultivating tender hearts and the practice of loving-kindness in the Buddhist tradition is the practice of “tenderness.”

In his TED talk, Pope Francis said this of “tenderness:”

What is tenderness?
It is the love that comes close and becomes real.
It is a movement that starts from our heart
and reaches the eyes, the ears and the the hands.
Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other,
our ears to hear the other, our hands to comfort the other.
To listen also to the silent cry of our common home,
our sick and polluted earth.

We practice the discipline of tenderness when we are able to get out of our own restrictive and protective ego and extend our lives in relationship with others, acting on behalf of others especially those who are poor or needy or sick or alone. And when we seek to mend the deep wounds of our broken planet we are also practicing the discipline of tenderness.

But tenderness is not a virtue that is highly-prized in our own chaotic time of unbridled self-centeredness and so the practice of tenderness in this culture is indeed revolutionary. Those who practice tenderness walk a path that that goes against the flow of popular culture and this takes boldness and courage - it’s revolutionary!

In his TED talk, Pope Francis observed:

Tenderness is the path of choice
for the strongest and most courageous men and women of our time.
Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude.

At the end of his TED talk the pope got an enthusiastic standing ovation from everyone listening to him - I hope this is the response we might all be wiling to give. In fact, as I think about it, the degree to which the people of the world respond to this invitation to a revolution of tenderness may well determine the very survival of our planet and the continued existence of our human species.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Wisdom of the Elders

"A Breathtaking Sunset"
- At the Desert Retreat House -


Many older and retired people reside out here in this desert “city” where my wife and I live, but all that changes at this time of year when the famous Coachella Music Festival comes to town. For the past two weekends, more than 200,000 predominantly young people have made their way out here to listen and dance to Indie, Rock and Electronic music under the desert skies. The average age of the population of this region has been radically “lowered’ in this festival season as hordes of young people staying here occupy the hotels, shop at the stores, sit in the restaurants and coffee shops and walk on the streets.

A few days ago I was standing in line at a local market and overheard two young men in front of me “poking fun” at the other customers in the store. One guy said: “Wow there’s a lot of old people here.”  His friend responded “I’m surprised that some of them can even make it out of their house to go shopping.”  I chuckled to myself when I heard this because the other shoppers in that market didn’t seem all that old to me.

I’ve been thinking about the observation of those two young men who were surprised to see so many “elderly” people.  It’s interesting to me that the word “elderly” has taken on a rather a negative connotation in today’s youth-oriented culture   An “elderly” person is often thought to be someone who is confused, cranky and even somewhat decrepit (hardly even able to go to a store to do their grocery shopping).  In fact even older people don’t want to appear elderly so they seek out creams and potions and surgeries to  get rid of the wrinkles and make them appear to be younger..

And yet as I think about it, I fear that the contemporary aversion to being “elderly” may also cause us to “miss out” on the kind of wisdom that elders can inject into a culture. Among “Native Peoples” and Eastern cultures “elders” are honored as “sages,” and "spiritual guides" respected for their wisdom, often sought after for counsel and advice – getting older is a badge of honor not a flaw to be repaired or a process to be reversed.

The poet, Robert Frost, once said:

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.

As I get older, this makes a lot of sense to me. In the afternoon of my life I see things a whole lot differently than I did when it was morning.

I am not saying that someone should be “automatically” honored for their wisdom just because they have managed to achieve a certain chronological age. There are plenty of folks in in their 60’s and 70’s or even older who are rather judgmental, ornery, and just as narcissistic (if not more so) in their later years as they were when they were younger.

In his book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr,  makes a helpful distinction between “elderly” people and people who are “elders”

Our elderly are seldom elders,
but when they are true elders we fall in love with them.

In his book, Rohr goes on to suggest that “elders” are people who have come to a new spiritual awareness as they have grown into their later years - all the glib answers and clear certainties about the “truth” of life acquired have dissolved. A true elder is someone who has evolved into a wisdom of uncertainty.

An “elder” is someone who a has developed what the Buddhists would call a “Beginner’s Mind.” They were once the experts with all answers and now they no longer want to be experts anymore – they see themselves as beginning anew on the journey of life.  Elders want to experience the surprises life now has to offer in every moment of every day, they are comfortable with doubt, and are always open to enfolding mystery.

Elders have lived long enough to recognize and embrace their own failures and past mistakes and to realize that imperfection is part of the human condition, so they forgive themselves for the past and don’t expect perfection in anyone else.

As I get older I do so very much want to be an “elder” and my guess is that you can probably be an “elder” at almost any age.