Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once In A Blue Moon...

Today, at 2:13 p.m. EST a full moon will rise for the second time within the month of December. This astronomical event is called a "Blue Moon." It seems a fitting way to mark the end of a decade-- and what a decade it's been!

Do you remember the anxious start to the decade with the "Y2K" scare? We were worried that our computer-driven world would suffer distress because most computer clocks didn't automatically go from 1999 to 2000. Those fears turned out to be unfounded. However, the next year, on September 11, we had a real world-changing scare that has defined the rest of the decade.

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, has called this past decade the "Zero Decade" because it seemed that so little progress has been made in the political and financial realms.

My question is: How do we measure progress? In the spiritual realm, this question is difficult to answer. For, how can the increase of love, hope, peace and joy be measured? These intangibles are probably the most important things in our lives, and have more to do with whether we are healthy and thriving. Yet, they are difficult to measure.

My hope is that the next decade will see a decrease in war and an increase in peace, an increase in reconciliation and a decrease in alienation, a decrease in selfishness and an increase in selflessness. I know this is a big, even unrealistic, hope, but hope by nature defies realism.

For me, a Blue Moon is a hopeful reminder that the universe has existed for billions of years and will continue to exist. Time marches forward into a new decade.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Having A Good Midlife Crisis

Have you had your midlife crisis yet? If not, here's an idea for you: make it a positive experience. A December 23 Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger titled, "Have A Nice Midlife Crisis," offers examples and suggestions on how to do this.

The term "midlife crisis" has come to describe a time of transition or turbulence between the ages of 35-53. The popular notion is that a midlife crisis involves "reckless, self-indulgent behavior, from infidelity to splurging on sports cars," according to Shellenbarger.

However, some younger baby boomers are having their midlife crisis in a new way: they are turning it into something positive. If they are fired from a job, they are pursuing the career they really want. One woman, described in the article, decided to pursue a life of community service and founded a nonprofit during her midlife crisis.

Here are some of Shellenbarger's suggestions: (1) Plan a step-by-step transition, (2) Integrate old passions, (3) Assert yourself, and (4) Honor your creative side.

I believe there can be a spiritual component to a midlife crisis. Because it is a time of change, even upheaval, there is an opportunity to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As we struggle with questions of meaning and purpose, we are more open to spirituality.

Midlife is often a time when we change directions and become the persons we really want to be. It is also a time for discovering or rediscovering our calling, our vocation. To make midlife a positive experience, we need to be open and receptive to our deepest selves, our souls.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Those Post-Christmas Blues

Christmas is quickly becoming a fading memory. If Christmas was a high moment for you, either spiritually or materially or both, feeling a letdown is natural. For some, the holiday period from Christmas through New Year's is a depressing time anyway.

For me the poet W.H. Auden captures the essence of the time after Christmas in his poem, "For the Time Being":

The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory.
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
of Lent and Good Friday, which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience.
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

My question is: Does the return to our usual routine of work and chores need to be depressing? I think there is something positive and even comforting in returning to "normal" life. Can we enjoy the celebration of Christmas without it making everyday life seem dull and boring by comparison?

I believe we don't have to give in to the post-Christmas blues. How? By recognizing that life will always have its high moments and its low moments. Life will always be a mixture of joy and sadness and everything in between. Life is not lived mostly on mountaintops or in valleys, but on the everyday plains.

There is so much to affirm and enjoy about the routines of everyday life. It is here and now, on the Monday after Christmas, that the meaning and purpose of life can be found.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Prayer

For me, the light Jesus brought into the world is a universal Light. I like the "stained glass" metaphor for the relation between the world's religions. There is a single light shining through a stained glass window, but it gets refracted into different sizes, shapes and colors.

Christians find their Truth in the Light of Christ, but this same Light can be found in the Buddha, Lao Tze, Confucius, Abraham, Muhammad and many other spiritual leaders throughout history.

Here is a prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship by John Sutter that captures this Light imagery.

Send, O God, into the darkness of this troubled world,
the light of your Son.
Let the star of your hope touch the minds of all people
with the bright beams of mercy and truth;
and so direct our steps that we may ever walk in the
way revealed to us,
as the shepherds of Bethlehem walked with joy
to the manger where he dwelled,
who now and ever reigns in our hearts,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Playful Soul

When you think of the word “play” what images come to mind? Children shouting gleefully in a game of playground tag? Swinging high into the air on a swing set? Shooting a basketball? Kicking a soccer ball? Enjoying a game of Bridge or Hearts or Spades? Throwing dice and moving your piece in a game of Monopoly? Gliding down a snow-covered slope on parabolic skis? Dancing the tango with your partner? Obviously, this list could go on and on.

Play is in the mind of the beholder. What counts as play to me may not seem like play at all to you. What makes an activity play? First, it should be fun and enjoyable. Play is the difference between walking and skipping. When play is separated from enjoyment, it can be drudgery or mere exercise. Another feature of play is that it involves movement of some kind. Even playing video games involves moving one’s thumbs. The Nintendo Wii video game system has games that involve imitating the movements of sports and dances, a kind of virtual play. At its best, play is exuberant, spontaneous and joyful.

The third definition of play in Webster’s College Dictionary is: “activity, often spontaneous, engaged in for recreation, often by children.” At the heart of play is recreation. Recreation is refreshing and renewing. The word “recreate” can also be expressed as “re-create.” When it comes to feeding the soul, recreation becomes re-creation.

The question to ask yourself when it comes to play that feeds the soul is: What do I do for recreation and relaxation? Answering this will offer clues to play’s soul-nourishing possibilities. Just as play is important for the mind and the body, it is also important for the soul.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Giving Human Gifts

In this time of shopping, buying and wrapping presents to give, I'm thinking about a different kind of gift giving... human gifts.

What is a human gift? It is a gift of time and love. Some examples: a supportive email or phone call to a family member or friend in need, fixing a meal for someone close to you, shoveling the snow off the sidewalk of a neighbor, taking a walk with someone close to you.

These human gifts don't cost money. You don't have to shop for them. You don't need to wrap them. You just need to be creative in giving your time.

As a child I remember giving my Mom the "gift" of "ten lawn mowings without complaining." I think she appreciated this gift more than any store-bought gift.

Although I enjoy receiving store-bought gifts, it is what they represent that is more important: that someone took the time to think about what I would like and then took the time to get it.

There is something deeply spiritual about any act of giving. Yet, giving human gifts seems to nourish the soul in a richer way.

Monday, December 21, 2009


The huge storm that hit the Northeast dumped over 10 inches of snow where I live. So yesterday I went snowshoeing for the first time. I got the snowshoes last Christmas, but there wasn't enough snow to use them until now.

Snowshoeing is a blast! I went to Woodland Nature Preserve, strapped on my snowshoes and headed into the forest. One great thing about snowshoeing is that you don't have to worry about trails (if you're not where there are cliffs or crevasses). In fact, it's harder to walk on packed or uneven snow. So, trailblazing is a fun necessity.

I loved being able to make my own trail through the woods. I felt the heady joy of freedom to go wherever I pleased. Snow transforms a dull, brown landscape into one of white beauty.

Somehow, snow makes you feel like a child again. The spontaneity of trailblazing also has a childlike quality to it. Snowshoeing was like playing! I felt deep gratitude at being able to enjoy nature's gift of fresh snow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I recently saw the movie, "Invictus" directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. What a great movie! It was entertaining, inspiring and a joy to watch.

The movie title is based on the poem "Invictus" by English poet John Henley in 1875. Henley suffered from tuberculosis and the poem was written from his hospital bed. In the film, Nelson Mandela gives a copy of the poem to rugby captain, Francois Pienaar, as a way of inspiring him to lead his team to a World Cup championship.

Here's the text of the poem,

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Inspiring poetry and amazing film. Go see it!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Raise Tolerance and Lower Expectations

After complaining about our teenage sons' immaturity and irresponsibility, a friend gave me this wise advice, "When it comes to teenagers, you need to raise your tolerance and lower your expectations. Otherwise, you'll always be upset."

That's not such bad advice for the holiday season. Many of us have high expectations of holiday family gatherings. These too high expectations often go unfulfilled for a variety of reasons. Holiday stress strains already fragile relationships. Someone gets a cold or the flu. The gifts we expected aren't under the Christmas tree.

Because there is no such thing as a perfect family, the myth of the perfect holiday is also unrealistic. We are human and, therefore, have faults and flaws. We make mistakes. We say things we don't mean or speak too quickly when we're angry.

Having realistic expectations of the holidays can help. So can raising our tolerance of each other's idiosyncrasies and faults. Then, we are better able to "roll with the punches" and ride out difficult or trying holiday celebrations.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Work Worth Doing"

The importance of having a job was underlined by a front page article in today's New York Times titled, "Poll Reveals Depth and Trauma of Joblessness in U.S." This article explores the effects of joblessness on workers and their families. Here are some of the horrible effects and the percentage reporting them: emotional trauma (48%), trouble sleeping (55%), children's lives changing (56%), cutting back on medical care (54%), taking money from savings and retirement accounts (60%).

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Losing a job means more than losing one's livelihood-- it also can mean a loss of meaning, purpose and sense of self-worth.

Work has a spiritual dimension as well. Good, honest work not only feeds the body, but also feeds the soul. Soulless work is doing something that is drudgery. Soulful work is doing something that is fulfilling, "work worth doing" as Roosevelt put it.

When you don't have a job, your work is to look for one. Conducting a successful job search is a full time job in itself. Finding a new job in this "jobless recovery" is very difficult. However, a job search is definitely "work worth doing."

One more idea on the spiritual dimension of work. Volunteering doesn't bring you a paycheck, but can be spiritually rewarding. A saying attributed to Winston Churchill confirms this, "You make a living by what you earn; you make a life by what you give." Giving our time and talents in the service of others can surely help us "make a life."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Giving as Self Giving

More than any other time of the year, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is a season for gift giving. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa fall within this period. All of these celebrations involve gifting.

One important component of active spirituality is giving. Although I recognize the dangers of commercialization of any holiday, I also believe that the effort of giving gifts can be soul enriching.

When you give a gift, you have taken the time to think of what would please the receiver. You have also either shopped or invested time in making the gift. And you have taken time to wrap and deliver the gift.

When you think about it, the true gift we give is the gift of our time. Time is our most valuable resource. We can't make any more of it--that's why it is so precious. When we give our time to something or someone, we are saying, "You are important to me."

Giving gifts can be an act of self-giving. When we get in touch with the love that motivates us to want to give and then take the time to carry out this thought, gift giving becomes a spiritual act. I will try to keep this in mind as I wait in long lines at the Post Office this week to mail several gifts!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grading Research Papers

I'm in the midst of grading nearly 80 research papers of students in my two Religion 101 classes. The assignment is to write a 4-6 page paper on a topic in religion that interests the student. There is a huge variety of topics. Some examples: "The Great Schism of 1054," "Jim Jones-- The People's Temple," "Buddhist Symbolism," and "Scientology."

Reading and grading so many papers has its challenges. There is a variation in the quality of these papers. Some are a pleasure to read and others are difficult to get through (usually due to poor grammar and syntax). At times, I've humorously refered to this task as "Research Paper Grading Hell." When I finish, I will have read approximately 500 pages of papers-- equivalent to a good length novel.

What I try to bring to this task is fairness, curiosity and energy. I want to give each paper a fair reading and to appreciate the good qualities and wisdom in each. I'm also trying bring a measure of mindfulness as I read these papers.

Can grading research papers have a spiritual dimension? I believe it can. First, I am learning new things about the world's religions. A teacher is, first and foremost, a learner. Secondly, I am engaged in important work. Even though grading is one of my least favorite teaching tasks, I know it is important to the student and, therefore, give it my best. That being said, I'll be glad when I'm finished!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"The Rush of a Violent Wind"

We're under a wind warning today in Southwestern Connecticut. Already, there have been gusts of 40+ MPH. Trees and limbs are falling. There are power outages. Wind is one of nature's most destructive forces.

It's interesting that the word "spirit" is often associated with wind in the New Testament. At Pentecost the disciples experience the coming of the Holy Spirit "like the rush of a violent wind." This is an analogy to describe the power with which the spirit comes.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (3:8) Since the Greek word for both spirit and wind is pneuma, wind is a double entendre.

If the spirit is like wind, then our challenge is to "catch" it. This means putting ourselves in a place or state of mind where the wind is likely to blow. For me, this place is most often in the beauty of nature. The wind/spirit blows there both literally and metaphorically. Where do you feel the wind/spirit? That's a good clue to where you need to spend some of your time each day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"The Pillars of the Earth"

I just finished reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It's a sprawling novel about building a cathedral in the 12th century. While it's not in the category of my all-time favorite, The Lord of the Rings, it is a very good read.

Even though building the cathedral is the theme that runs through the story, it is really about human relationships. Like any good novel, the well-drawn characters give the story its drama and suspense. There are kings, earls, peasants, builders, monks, bishops and knights who clash in both violent and peaceful ways. Follett is an excellent storyteller.

While I learned more about cathedral building than I ever knew existed, my imagination was engaged in the unfolding drama of how the various characters either aided or were obstacles to the building.

I saw the building of the cathedral as a metaphor for pursuing any long-term goal. To be successful, we need to have persistence, resilience and determination. This is also true of the spiritual life. A healthy spiritual life isn't built in a day or even a year. It takes time-- even a life time.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Beauty of Snow

In Connecticut we received our first snowfall of the winter on Saturday. It wasn't a big storm-- just a few inches. However, it was very wet and stuck to the trees. On a Sunday hike in Sleeping Giant State Park I found myself in a winter wonderland.

When it is fresh, snow is one of the most beautiful of nature's gifts. Snow can transform a winter landscape from a dull and lifeless brown into a vibrant and brilliant white.

Hiking in the snow is also a great experience. The snow muffles the sound and you feel as if you're in a place of pure silence. The only sounds I could hear on my hike were those I made myself. Because the snow was soft even my footsteps were quiet.

Each season has it's own intrinsic beauty and winter's beauty is enhanced by snow. Since the soul is fed by beauty, winter is a bountiful feast! The key is to get out of the house and enjoy it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Time: Chronos and Kairos

The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is a time of waiting expectantly and hopefully for God's coming. The key to waiting hopefully is centered in our concept of time. In the New Testament, there are two Greek words for time. The first is “chronos” from which we derive our words chronology and chronometer. Chronos is “clock time.” It’s time that is measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years.

The second Greek word for time is “kairos.” The best translation of kairos is “appropriate time” or “right time.” In some places in the Bible, it’s used to describe God’s timetable. One of the classic examples of kairos is in Ecclesiastes 3. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” The poem goes on to say that there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Kairos can’t be measured by clocks. In kairos time, events unfold on their own schedule and can’t be rushed or slowed down.

Understanding time as kairos can help us in our waiting because it means that some things unfold on their own timetable and not on ours. While we measure things by chronos, so many things occur in kairos time. For instance the maturing of a person. There are “early bloomers” and “late bloomers” and you can’t rush a late bloomer. And there are others: the birth of baby happens when the baby is ready. A traffic jam unfolds on its own timetable. A spiritual awaking happens when we’re ready. There are so many things in life that must happen in their own time.

When we accept kairos time, waiting becomes easier. We wait knowing that we don’t control all of the events of our lives and when they happen.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Life Lessons From Tiger

So we've learned that Tiger Woods isn't perfect. What a surprise! Is there anyone who thought he was? Yes, he's the best golfer in the world, arguably the best ever. Yet, even the best golfer can make bad moral choices.

I'm not interested in weighing in on whether Tiger's private life should be left private (it hasn't). My interest is: What can we learn from Tiger's situation?

First, we can learn that bad choices can humble even the most admired of celebrities. Those who put Tiger on a pedestal far above us mortals are disillusioned. But such disillusionment is a good thing because it helps us see that everyone is an imperfect human being. Illusions need to be stripped away so that we can see the truth about ourselves.

Secondly, Tiger teaches us that choices have consequences. We can't know all of the consequences of his bad choices, but we've already seen several of them. He has hurt his relationship with his wife, his fans, and (maybe) his children. He seems to have recognized this, which is good news because recognition is the beginning of the healing process.

Thirdly, I hope we can learn that, without forgiveness, human relationships cannot thrive. Forgiveness needs to happen on several levels. Over time, Tiger needs to receive the forgiveness of his wife, he needs to forgive himself and we need to forgive Tiger. All of this takes time and effort. Forgiveness is not easy nor instantaneous (except in the case of God's forgiveness).

There are surely more lessons to be learned from this, but this is a start. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sunrise and Moonset

While rowing on this cold, crisp morning I was rewarded with an amazing sight. Just as the sun was rising in the east, a full moon was setting in the west. Although this isn't the first of these I've seen in my lifetime, this one was especially spectacular because of the very large full moon.

Like solar and lunar eclipses, such natural phenomena have an aura of mystery about them. Mysteries, by definition, cannot be explained-- they can only be marveled at.

These natural marvels remind us that there are things we cannot control. We can no more control the time of sunrise or moonset than we can control the temperature of the sun or the rotation speed of the earth.

It's good to be reminded that we can't control everything that happens (even though we exhaust ourselves trying). As it says in the serenity prayer, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot control."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Month of Giving

In today's New York Times "Science Times" there is an excellent article by Tara Parker-Pope titled, "In Month of Giving, a Healthy Reward." She interviews Cami Walker, who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

When Ms. Walker was first diagnosed, she was devastated. She went to a holistic health educator and got a surprising prescription: give a gift each day for a month. She followed this advice and details her experience in a new book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life (Da Capo Press).

Ms. Walker gave gifts like making a supportive phone call and saving a piece of chocolate cake for her husband. She said, "Giving for 29 days is not suggested as a cure for anything. It's simply a coping mechanism and a simple tool you can use that can help you change your thinking about whatever is going on. If you change your thinking, you change your experience."

The article cites several studies that document the health benefits, physical and mental, of giving. It seems that volunteerism and altruism make for a healthier life. One benefit is that helping others takes the focus off a preoccupation with one's own problems and shifts it to others.

This paradox that giving benefits the giver more than the receiver is at the heart of Christianity, which teaches that giving one's life in love results in authentic life.

I'm going to try Ms. Walker "prescription" of giving a gift for 29 days. That should take me past Christmas. How about you?