Monday, November 30, 2009

Where Does Gratitude Come From?

In light of having recently celebrated Thanksgiving, I've been thinking about gratitude. How does it arise? When am I most grateful? Where does gratitude come from?

Gratitude is at the center of nearly every major religion. It is one of the two key duties in Islam (along with submission). In Taoism, gratitude is connected with humility. In Buddhism, gratitude is an important ingredient in compassion. In Christianity, gratitude is a key virtue. In Judaism, gratitude is at the heart of the concept of covenant.

Obviously, gratitude is at the heart of a spiritual life. So then why aren't we more grateful? I think part of the answer is that it is too easy to take things (and people) for granted. When something good happens, we often think "I deserve this," as if we are entitled to the gifts we receive. An entitlement mentality negates gratitude.

Where does gratitude come from? A wise sage whose name I can't remember once said, "Grace evokes gratitude like the voice evokes an echo." In other words, we are grateful when we get in touch with the fact that we are recipients of grace. Since grace, by definition, is unearned and undeserved, we cannot help but to be grateful when we receive it.

I am most grateful when I am most humble. When I become aware of the gifts of food, shelter, and companionship that have been bestowed upon me, and how little I deserve them, I become thankful. I once heard someone say that the most important prayer we can utter is two words: "Thank you!" Being able to say those two words and really mean them is to be grateful.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing...

The Thanksgiving feast is now over and I'm looking forward to leftovers. Thanksgiving and Christmas have become times for overindulging one's appetites for food and drink. In the past, I've eaten too much delicious Thanksgiving food. This year, I tried my best to eat enough to be comfortably full and had modest success.

When the food is so good, it's hard to stop enjoying it. My tendency is to keep eating until I'm stuffed like a tick. However, too much of a good thing isn't good for body or soul.

Just as it's possible to overindulge one's bodily appetites, it's possible to overindulge one's soul. Take whatever feeds your soul and imagine doing that activity over and over. At first, it may be enjoyable. But, eventually, even the soul can suffer from overindulgence.

In Buddhism there is the concept of "the middle way," a spiritual path between extremes of excess and deficiency. In Confucianism, there is the "doctrine of the golden mean," which emphasizes balance and harmony in one's life.

Just as a balanced diet is good for the body, a balanced inner life nourishes the soul. Finding the right balance between being and doing, between activity and inactivity is one of the important challenges of a spiritual journey. Avoiding the extremes is a good beginning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"My Words Can't Carry All the Praise"

The Thanksgiving prayer below is based on one by Ted Loder (Guerrilla's of Grace, LuraMedia, 1984). Enjoy!

Gracious God,
how curious and what a confession
that we should set aside one day a year
and call it Thanksgiving.
I smile at the presumption,
and you you smile, too.
But the truth is, Holy Friend,
that my words can't carry all the praise
I want them to, or that they should,
no matter how many trips they make.

So this day, all is praise and thanks for
all my days.
I breathe and it is your breath that fills me.
I look and it is your light I which I see.
I move and it is your energy moving in me.
O think and the thoughts are but sparks
from the fire of your truth.
I love and the throb is your presence.

O Glorious One,
for this curious day,
for the impulses that have designated it,
for the gifts that grace it,
for the gladness that accompanies it,
I pause to praise and thank you
with this one more trip of words
which leaves too much uncarried,
but not unfelt, unlived, unloved.
Thank you!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What Type of Cook Are You?

With Thanksgiving approaching, it's good to reflect on cooking. Studies show that the person who buys and cooks the food has the biggest influence on family eating habits. These “nutritional gatekeepers” influence more than 70% of the foods we consume (2006 Report in the Journal of the American Diabetic Association). If you are the nutritional gatekeeper in your family, cooking with love means cooking healthy.

Cornell researchers questioned 770 family cooks and identified five different types: “giving” cooks who specialize in comfort food, especially baked goods; “methodical” cooks who rely mostly on recipes; “competitive” cooks who focus less on health than on making an impressive dish; “healthy” cooks who use fresh vegetables and ingredients but don’t focus much on taste; “innovative” cooks who like to experiment with ingredients and cooking methods. It turns out that “innovative” cooks produce the healthiest and tastiest meals overall.

My point in sharing this information is to help you identify your cooking personality so you know where your biases are. Once you’re aware of your cooking type, then you can decide to move toward a healthier, more innovative style of cooking that will benefit those you cook for.

Becoming aware of your cooking type is a step toward mindfulness in cooking. When you’re cooking mindfully, you are aware of the ingredients you are using and their effect on those who eat the food you prepare. You are also aware of the movements of cooking: preparing and mixing the ingredients, selecting the pots or pans, cooking the ingredients to perfect doneness, and arranging the food on dishes or plates. Cooking is an act of creativity and it can both express and enhance our inner life. Healthy cooking not only feeds our bodies, but also feeds our souls.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hiking With Hunters

After guest preaching at Pawling United Methodist Church yesterday, I enjoyed a hike in Pawling Nature Reserve. Since the Appalachian Trail runs through this 1,000 acre reserve, I hiked along this famous path. The most spectacular feature I saw was a large waterfall in Duell Hollow Brook. The photo on the left is from the Nature Conservancy website.

This is hunting season in this part of the world and I shared the reserve with a few deer hunters. Orange vests were provided at the trail head so that hunters can distinguish hikers from deer.

Even wearing my orange vest, I felt a sense of wary anxiety during the hike. Although the few rifle shots I heard sounded far away, it stoked my uneasiness. I decided to cut my hike short.

I must admit that the knowledge of deer hunting nearby diminished the spiritual dimension of the hike. Fear is a formidable enemy of mindfulness. When you're focused on the possibility, however remote, of meeting a stray bullet, it's difficult to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. I plan to avoid hikes with hunters in the future!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Joys of De-Cluttering

Lately, Donna and I have been engaging in de-cluttering. After living in our house for ten years we've accumulated lots of stuff. Actually, we're going through stuff we moved with us from the previous house. For the past year, we've been sorting through this stuff stacked and packed in closets, attic, basement and garage. Some things we've thrown away and others we've given away.

What a great feeling it is to de-clutter! First, there's a glow of joy at having finally dealt with the accumulated mess. It's a good feeling when you can freely walk around in your attic or basement. Secondly, there's the joy of giving away things to those who can use them. Several local organizations, including churches and the Salvation Army, have been the beneficiaries of our de-cluttering.

I wonder if it's possible to de-clutter our hearts and minds? Certainly, dealing our emotional clutter (called "baggage") is a positive thing. In this case, de-cluttering means letting go of things that weigh us down or are destructive.

A de-cluttered mind is a clear mind able to focus. Meditation is one way we can clear our minds as the goal is a blank mind-- a mind free of distractions and disparate thoughts.

Obviously de-cluttering has multiple benefits. So, why don't I do it more often?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Dwarfing Power of Nature

Since I had the day off from teaching yesterday, I spent the day climbing Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills (4,180 feet). In the photo on the left by Scott Larsen, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the background.

This hike was a favorite of John Burroughs, a 19th century naturalist and nature writer. He was the John Muir of the Catskills and there is a plaque in his memory near the top of Slide. Here's what he wrote about the view from the summit:

"The works of man dwindle, and the original features of the huge globe come out. Every single object or point is dwarfed; the valley of the Hudson is only a wrinkle in the earth's surface. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself, which stretches away on every hand so far beyond your ken."

I, too, had a sense of looking into eternity while on the summit of this heavily forested mountain. On a clear day, you can see 34 of the 35 peaks above 3,000 in the Catskill range, as well as the Hudson River valley far in the distance.

John Burroughs reminds me that the works of nature dwarf the works of humans. That's a humbling, yet uplifting, thought. When we become aware of how vast and endless is the universe, we recognize our own smallness and insignificance. Yet, as the Psalmist observed, we are each valued and loved by the Creator of all that is. Significance has been bestowed upon us as an act of grace.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Important Matters

Not that it matters much, but lately I’ve been bumping up against the word “matter.”

First, I came across this word in a sermon title of a colleague, “You Matter To God.” Next, I saw it in a New York Times review of a book titled, “Success Built To Last.” The first element of lasting success in work is, “What you do must matter deeply to you.” Then, looking for a book on my bookshelf I saw a book titled, “Faith Matters.”

Although the most common definition of “matter” is “what something is made of,” the meaning I’m concerned with is, “something of importance or significance.” When we say that something or someone matters to us, we are saying that they are important to us. And, if something matters deeply to us, then it is of great importance to us.

When I ask myself the question, “What really matters to me?” the answer comes quickly: my family. There is my immediate family of Donna, Brandon and Matthew, and my larger family, including parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. And there is also my extended family of friends and colleagues.

The people that matter most to me are the people with whom I share life and love. When we love someone, they immediately matter to us, which is to say that they become important to us.

In that marvelous fable, The Little Prince by St. Exupery, the fox who is the wisest of creatures says, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” I think what St. Exupery was telling us was that what matters most in life are not material things but invisible love.

If my colleague’s sermon title is right (and I believe it is), each of us matters to God. How much do we matter? Tremendously. Not only did God create us, giving us the gift of life, God provided a fruitful earth to nourish and sustain us.

Paul was astounded at how much we matter to God when he wrote, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” On the cross, we see how greatly we matter to God.

I believe the reason we matter so deeply to God is because we are God’s children. And, if we are God’s children, then we are brothers and sisters to each other. We are all part of the human family created out of love by God.

So then, let us show others that they matter to us in words and deeds. For showing love is a very important matter!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Whether Weather is Good for the Soul

We've been enjoying spectacular weather this week in Connecticut. After a violent northeaster blew out to sea on Saturday, we've had a string of unusually warm and sunny days. This weather has enhanced my enjoyment of being outdoors to hike and row.

Fair weather is good for being outdoors, but I've been wondering how weather affects the soul. On the one hand, good weather enables more enjoyment of outdoor activities. On the other hand, fair weather enables us to stay in our comfort zone.

Spending too much time in our comfort zone may not be beneficial for the soul. Our souls often expand and grow by challenges that push us outside of our comfort zone. While foul weather is usually only an irritation, it can become a challenge-- especially when weather becomes dangerous or violent.

My goal is to appreciate all types of weather and to see the benefit in sun and rain, wind and calm, storm and fair weather. Foul weather enables us to appreciate fair weather. Foul weather also forces us indoors to engage in activities we might not otherwise do, such as reading, writing, meditating or cleaning. Since any activity can have a spiritual dimension, variety is good for the soul.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Experiencing A "Different" Worship Style

I participated in my first "contemporary" worship service on Sunday as the guest preacher for the Open Door service at New Milford (CT) United Methodist Church. The experience was strange (to me) and enjoyable.

The Open Door band (pictured above) played songs whose words were projected onto a large screen. They were talented musicians and the music was upbeat and uplifting. Although I didn't know any of the six songs they played, I was able to pick them up quickly.

One feature I really liked was a "visual prayer," a series of nature photos projected on the screen set to meditative music.

Although there was no liturgy for the service, there was an order of worship that included songs, prayers, an anthem, scripture, sermon and benediction.

Although I prefer a more traditional style of worship, I enjoyed this change of pace and style. I can see why youth and young adults are attracted to this worship style. As long as a service has integrity and purpose, I believe the "style" issue isn't critical. Just as our spirituality is individual, so are preferred styles of worship.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mini-Sabbaths at the Mount

I just returned from three days at Mount St. Alphonsus, a retreat center in Esopus, NY. This magnificent building, pictured on the left, sits above the scenic Hudson River about a half hour south of Albany.

Although this is a wonderful setting for a spiritual retreat, my purpose for being there was to interview candidates for the United Methodist ministry. Because the interviews went from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., there was little time for exploring the 400 acres of green fields and old forests. The best I could do was take short walks around the building during breaks and after meals.

Even though I only had, at the most, a half hour for a walk, they nourished both body and soul. Taking a walk outside was a welcome break from the intensity of listening carefully to the candidates' answers.

These walks were mini-sabbaths, times of rest and renewal. They reminded me that when we don't have the time for a long time for spiritual renewal, we can still take short "retreats" during our day. Just because we can't do everything we would like isn't an excuse for doing nothing!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Finding Power in Pain

Ogden Nash penned this brief poem:

Some pains are physical,
some pains are mental,
but the one that’s both is dental!

While we might smile at Nash’s witty words, pain is no laughing matter. November is “Pain Awareness Month.” It may seem strange to call for a greater awareness of pain since pain calls attention to itself so well. Too many of us suffer silently with our pain.

Most of us seek medical attention when our pain reaches the level of intolerance. Unfortunately for some, pain can become chronic. Chronic pain is an overwhelming issue for a vast number of persons in the United States. It is estimated that fifty million Americans live and suffer with chronic physical pain.

As the Nash poem reminds us, pain is not only physical. A large number of us suffer from emotional pain. However, in the case of emotional pain many persons don’t seek treatment because of the stigma associated with depression, grief, or bipolar disorder.

Pain is often the first sign that something is wrong and is nearly always viewed as a medical issue in need of medical treatment. There have been many advances in the treatment of physical and emotional pain. If these treatments alleviate, or reduce our pain to manageable levels, we are fortunate. But what happens when medical treatments don’t bring the relief we need and want?

One of the most dehumanizing aspects of pain is that it can cause us to feel helpless and powerless. We can easily see ourselves as victims with little control or power over our pain. Is there a way to find power and purpose in our suffering?

Because of a strong and proven mind/body connection, a spiritual approach could help when other treatments fail.

A spiritual approach involves: (1) acknowledging that pain is an inevitable part of being alive, (2) facing our pain rather than running from it, (3) learning the lessons pain can teach us, (4) discovering our inner strength to cope with pain, (5) being willing to journey with others in finding hope in the midst of pain.

How we cope with the pain that inevitably comes into our lives has so much to do with whether we feel happy, content and fulfilled. So let us suffer silently no more. If we have chronic pain of any kind, let us resolve to seek treatment.

A Rainbow Around the Sun!

While at Rowayton Beach in the late afternoon yesterday, I saw an amazing phenomenon. There was a faint rainbow almost completely encircling the sun! It was an inspiring sight and it lasted until just before sunset.

I did some research on this phenomenon and learned that these sun rainbows are called halos. The two very bright patches of this halo on either side of the sun are called "sun dogs." They are caused by the reflection of the sun on ice crystals and usually occur when there are high clouds. The sun dog photo above is by Jerry Walter from the website.

Although this was my first time to see such a sight, I learned that sun dogs are more common than rainbows. The reason I hadn't seen one before is that I just haven't looked up at the sky at the right time.

There are wondrous sights in this world if we have the eyes to see them. If we are to enjoy the world around (and above) us we need to open our eyes. This is true of so many areas of life. Openness and receptivity are great companions on life's journey.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Recovery of Wonder

As a child, I remember feeling wonder at all kinds of things: thunder, insects, a new toy, lightning, Christmas, chocolate. Children have a great capacity for wonder. Yet, as we grow into adulthood wonder diminishes.

I wonder (no pun intended) why? Maybe as our capacity for rational thinking increases, wonder decreases. Or, perhaps everything becomes so familiar and routine, we lose our ability to be surprised. "Been there, done that" kills wonder.

However, our capacity for wonder doesn't die. It becomes dormant and can be reawakened with practice. For instance, this morning I saw a glorious sunrise over Long Island Sound and felt wonder. The sky turned a deep red just before the sun peaked over the horizon and the sun itself was even redder. One of my fellow rowers commented, "This looks unreal."

Seeing our world through eyes of wonder and delight involves appreciating the beauty that surrounds us. At the heart of wonder is gratitude. When we are thankful for the daily gifts that surround us, we are more likely to experience wonder.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Loneliness and Solitude

As a writer, I spend much of each day sitting by myself in front of my computer. Sometimes, I enjoy being alone and sometimes I don't. When we are alone there are two possibilities: we can feel lonely or we can enjoy solitude.

Loneliness and solitude are such different spiritual states that I consider them polar opposites. So,what's the difference? Loneliness is anxious and painful—it is a type of suffering of a wounded soul. Henri Nouwen wrote eloquently about the pain of loneliness, “[It is] that strange inner gnawing, that mental hunger, that unsettling unrest that makes us say, ‘I feel lonely.’ “

However, solitude is a contented aloneness. Solitude is peaceful and even joyful. Nouwen argued that a key movement of the spiritual life is from loneliness to solitude. Solitude is the “rest” that St. Augustine was pointing to when he wrote, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord."

Even though I associate solitude with certain places where I am alone, the most important solitude is an inner spiritual state that we can carry with us wherever we go. To cultivate this inner solitude I find it necessary to withdraw from the busyness of daily life from time to time. However, withdrawing by itself will not create solitude-- solitude is the byproduct of a soul at peace with itself.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Peace of Wild Things

Some of you have asked me about the Wendell Berry poem,"The Peace of Wild Things," I quoted from in yesterday's blog. Here's the full text of the poem.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

What a beautiful and lyrical way of articulating a way to feed our souls, especially when we despair about the future. Connecting with the natural world brings about inner peace and a sense of freedom from despair. I believe this peace and freedom is the result of knowing that we are part of a creation that is older, larger and grander than we are, a reminder that we come from the earth and will ultimately return to it.

By connecting with nature we become grounded and centered in the present moment and experience grace.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I Rest in the Grace of the World...

I found myself with 45 minutes of free time before I needed to leave to teach class yesterday. So I practiced what I've been preaching and took a "mini-sabbath." When you don't have time for a full-day sabbath, a mini-sabbath can suffice as a time of renewal and refreshment. The photo above is from

My mini-sabbath was a hike in Westmoreland Sanctuary in Bedford Corners, NY. This 630 acre nature preserve contains tall forests, green meadows, rock ridges, lakes and streams. At the beginning of the trail was this poem on a plank nailed to a tree,

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God's heart in a forest,
Than anywhere else on earth.

Although the verses above substitute "forest" for "garden" in the original poem by Dorothy Francis Gurney, I believe her intent is preserved because a forest is a type of garden.

I reflected on this poem as I hiked and experienced its truth. Walking through a forest of white pines, oaks, firs and tulip trees I felt close to its Creator. Even though I only had 40 minutes to hike, I left with renewed energy and a sense of peace. As Wendell Berry writes in his poem, "The Peace of Wild Things": "For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Worth More Than Money"

An interview with Dr. Brian J. Drucker, an oncologist who recently received the "American Nobel Prize" for his work with cancer treatments, appeared in today's New York Times "Science Times."

Dr. Drucker's work concerns using new kinds of cancer drugs that "turn off" the genetic switch that controls cell growth. He discovered that the drug Gleevec could be used to treat people with chronic myeloid leukemia (C.M.L.).

The results of the Gleevec clinical trial were miraculous-- it was successful in 100% of the cases. "These once-dying patients were getting out of bed, dancing, going hiking, doing yoga. The drug was amazing," according to Dr. Drucker.

You might think that Dr. Drucker became wealthy as a result of his work. Not so. He had a choice between using an already-patented version of Gleevec or developing his own version. He chose the former, even though he didn't make a penny off it, because it was the quickest way to get treatment for his C.M.L. patients.

Drucker said of his choice, "You know, my patients were people who'd been told to 'get their affairs in order' because they were going to die soon. And now some of them play with grandchildren they'd thought they'd never live to see. That's worth more than money."

What an inspiring story! It's so good to know there are people in our world who put the welfare and health of others over enriching themselves. Thank you, Dr. Drucker!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fund-Raising, Fitness and Fun

On Saturday, I participated in the "Norwalk Row for the Cure" regatta. It was an enjoyable day of rowing, friendly competition and fund-raising for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, an organization that supports breast cancer research.

This was the rowing version of "Race for the Cure" events that have been held throughout the U.S. over the past decade. These events blend fitness, fund-raising and fun for a very important cause. Since the Row for the Cure was on Halloween, many rowers wore costumes. There were zombies, witches, fairies and aliens. This enhanced the fun atmosphere.

Although there is no publicly stated spiritual purpose in the Race for the Cure events, I believe they are implicitly spiritual. First, they bring people together around common values of compassion and empathy. Secondly, they aim at bringing about something that benefits humanity. Thirdly, they have a spirit of camaraderie and even fellowship as people rally around a common purpose. Finally, they encourage fitness.

I would encourage everyone to participate in these kind of events. You will leave feeling better about yourself, and about your fellow humans.