Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Blizzard Sabbath

The past two days brought a major snowstorm to the Northeast U.S. The storm started on Sunday and lasted into yesterday morning. The New York area where I live got a direct hit from this monster blizzard that brought from 1-2 feet of snow and raging winds.

This blizzard brought nearly everything to standstill. Roads were impassible. Trains and subways stopped running. Many businesses were closed on one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

Once I accepted the reality that I was home bound for a while, I enjoyed this forced quietude. I realize that part of my enjoyment was due to not losing electricity. For those who did, surviving the blizzard was miserable.

In a way, yesterday became a sabbath, a day of rest. I did some active rest by doing a workout on my rowing machine in the basement and digging my sons cars out of snowdrifts. I also read two newspapers completely (something I never seem to have time to do), took a nap and went to a movie with my wife. It was a relaxing and enjoyable day.

After enjoying this day, I reflected on why I don't take a sabbath day each week. When such a day is forced upon me, I always enjoy it and benefit from it. So why aren't I intentional about making time for a sabbath? Perhaps it's because I'm caught up in a "I must always be busy to justify my existence" mode.

Our souls are fed both by being and doing, by inactivity and activity, by silence and conversation. What we need is a balance between the active and the passive aspects of spirituality. When our souls are out of balance, then we need to pay attention to how to bring them back into equilibrium.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Good Worrying?

I was half-listening to the radio while driving yesterday when an author of a book on "worrying" was interviewed. I didn't catch his name or the title of his book. I just caught the last part of the interview.

My ears perked up when he said, "There are three categories of things we worry about: (1) things we have no control over, (2) things we have control over, and (3) things we have influence but don't have total control over."

He went on to say that worrying over #1 is futile, while worrying over #2 and #3 might spur us to take positive action. In other words, there is a type of worrying that has benefits.

All of us have experienced the futility of worrying over things we can't control: the weather, airplane delays, the outcome of a game we're watching, and so on. Worrying about these things only increases our anxiety and wastes time and energy.

However, if worrying about something we do have control over (even limited control) motivates us to take action to alleviate our worries, then this is "good" worrying. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus echoed this idea. In Matthew 6:25-34 he admonishes his disciples to not worry about the mundane things of life--what to eat, drink or wear. Instead, he encourages them to strive first for the "kingdom of God and its righteousness."

To paraphrase Jesus, striving for a right relationship with God will diminish our worries and keep us focused on what's truly important. Good worrying can point us to reorder our priorities and to let go of the futility of worrying about things we can't change.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Learning Patience

It's seems that I'm always waiting for something or someone. For the past six months, I've been awaiting final approval from a bank about refinancing our mortgage. I'm waiting to hear back from one of my editors about a writing assignment. And, I'm waiting for this semester to be over.

Waiting is an inevitable part of life. We have little or no control over much of what we must wait for. What we can control is how we wait. Do we wait patiently or anxiously? Do we allow ourselves to become stressed while we wait or do we use the waiting time productively?

Waiting patiently may be the ideal, but it isn't easy. When we are anxious in our waiting, we just want it to be over asap. When the resolution of our waiting doesn't happen our our timetable, we can become upset and angry. Yet, getting upset or angry doesn't make time pass more quickly. Giving in to these negative emotions only makes the waiting more difficult.

Patience is something we must learn through practice. Patience comes from accepting that we can't control everything and learning humility. Much of our anger about having to wait comes from an inflated sense of self importance.

Even though I don't enjoy waiting, I am working on how I wait. Since waiting is so much a part of daily life, I have plenty of opportunities to learn patience!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Enjoying the Pain?

I've started a winter workout program on rowing machines on M/W/F/Sat. These workouts last about an hour and can be grueling. Our new Ukrainian rowing coach is intense and has challenged us to work harder.

Our coach has come up with some interesting sayings during these hard workouts. This morning, while we were doing the last of three 20 minute rowing sessions, he said, "Enjoy the pain." What I think he meant was "enjoy the physical exertion of a hard workout."

While I didn't enjoy the workout, I did enjoy the results. After a hard workout you feel relaxed from the endorphins that are released. You also feel good when the pain of the workout stops. You're hungry for breakfast and feel fully justified in eating a full breakfast. At night, you're tired and sleep better.

A hard workout is a useful metaphor for certain times in our life. When we have endured a painful or difficult time, there is relief when the pain stops. There is also the positive feeling that "I've survived this." Often, we can learn some life lessons from a painful episode.

I'm not suggesting that we seek out painful experiences. Enough pain comes into every life without looking for it. What I'm saying is that we can learn how to survive these challenging times and become stronger in the process. Perhaps we can even learn to enjoy the pain-- after it's over.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sung Prayers

In my Hebrew Scriptures class last night, we focused on the Book of Psalms. There are 150 psalms, divided into 5 collections. The Psalms functioned as a hymnal for the ancient Israelites. Even today, psalms are sung as hymns or chanted.

In the psalms we encounter the full spectrum of human emotions-- from despair to hope, from sadness to joy, from anger to praise. The psalms are basically prayers of individuals and the community offered to God. They are written in Hebrew poetry, giving them a power and beauty.

Poetry is "concentrated language" and can express and evoke our deepest emotions. For many, the psalms stir up feelings deep within us. The laments (the most common type of psalm) express our deepest human needs for a connection with God. The hymns of thanksgiving express our gratitude for life's many gifts. The hymns of praise put into words an awe that is beyond words.

The psalms were intended to be sung. St. Augustine once said, "When you sing, you pray twice." Words and melody are two ways of praying. In the psalms, both ways of praying converge. Singing the psalms gives them more power because of the ability of music to evoke and express our emotions.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Circumstance-Proof Gratitude

Of all the qualities of character I aspire to, I believe that gratitude may be the most important. Gratitude is so basic and foundational. If we don't have it, then we will also likely lack other key qualities: faith, hope, love and joy.

The kind of gratitude I want is one that isn't dependent upon my circumstances. It's easier to be grateful when life is going well-- when we're well fed, housed, clothed and loved. But the test of genuine gratitude is when life goes against us-- when we fail or suffer pain, loss or disappointments.

The above-described "gratitude test" is one that I often fail. Yet, I want to do better. I want my gratitude to grow so large that it eclipses the negatives of daily living.

The key to gratitude is memory. When I'm feeling ungrateful, it is because I have forgotten about the gifts I have been given. The main gift to be grateful for is the gift of life. I did not create my life-- it has been given to me. Life is a gift of God's grace.

There are so many other gifts to thankful for: love, family, relationships, work, play, imagination, opportunities and more. This list could go on and on. Yet, when we're not feeling grateful, we have difficulty finding even one thing to be thankful for.

When I'm not feeling grateful, I still try to be grateful. That is, I try to remind myself of the gifts mentioned above. Our life circumstances change constantly. I want a gratitude that transcends these circumstances. I don't believe this desire is impossible, but neither is it easy to achieve. Grace can always evoke gratitude, if we will open our eyes, mind and heart to it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Paying Attention

According to brain scientists, "attention" is their holy grail. For years, scientists have been trying to discover what causes us to focus on one thing rather than another and why.

We've all heard of "attention deficit disorder" (ADD), a condition in which attention moves quickly from one thing to another. This is an impediment to learning, as the ability to pay attention to what we're reading or writing is a key academic skill.

When it comes to spirituality, attention also plays a key role. Being able to focus our attention on the sacred dimension of life is a critical spiritual practice. When our attention wanders, our soul meanders.

Attention is an important dimension of "mindfulness"-- being present in the here and now. Another way to understand mindfulness is "being fully present in the present moment." When we are mindful of what we are doing (or not doing) our spiritual connection is strengthened and deepened.

Another name for mindfulness is "flow," the ability to be fully engaged in what we are doing. I find that mindfulness/flow is fostered by "losing" myself in whatever I'm doing. That's where paying attention comes in. To focus our attention serves to keep us from being distracted or having what Buddhist's call a "monkey mind" that moves rapidly from one thought/feeling to another.

I don't believe it's possible to always stay in the present moment. But when I do, I am engaged, energized and, at the same time, calm and balanced.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Call or Calls?

I spent the past three days interviewing candidates for the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. My task was to discern and confirm a person's call to ministry. It was an interesting, and tiring, process.

About 2/3 of the 15 candidates we interviewed were beginning their second or even third careers. Having more than one career in today's rapidly changing work environment is very common. I've read that those in college now will have and average of 3 different careers and 9 different jobs.

When we're at the beginning of the work phase of our lives, we often struggle with the question: What am I called to do? This vocational question is important to answer if we are to thrive in life. However, it might be more appropriate to speak of calls rather than a single call.

The pattern I've often seen in candidates for ordained ministry is that they heard a call to ministry early in life, but ignored it or delayed responding to it. Then, in midlife, the call to ministry comes again and it is answered.

I like the idea that we have more than one call in life to respond to. As we grow and change, so can our understanding of what we are called to do and to be. The key is to listen-- to our deepest self, to the voices of others and to the voice of God.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Force Majeure

Now that the racing season is over for rowing, I was looking forward to some peaceful, smooth, undemanding rows in the morning. The change to Standard Time yesterday meant that there would be light at 6:30 a.m., the time when we row. So I went down to the rowing club this morning anticipating calm water and weather.

While it was somewhat windy, four of us were enjoying a good row in a quad in the protected waters of the Norwalk River. Then, suddenly, a huge snow squall came out of nowhere, carried by wind gusts of over 40 MPH. Our boat was literally blown backwards! We rowed with all of our skill and power to make forward progress into this stiff headwind with white-capped waves washing over the bow of the boat. We struggled to keep the boat from being blown into the muddy river bank. The sleet pelting us felt like needles.

When we finally made it back to our dock we had a new challenge. The dock was covered with ice from the snow/sleet mixture! Somehow, we got the boat out of the water and up the icy ramp without injury to us or the boat.

Once again, I was reminded of how powerful the forces of nature can be. The term "force majeure" is defined as "an overwhelming or irresistible force." To experience nature's power is an awesome and heady experience. I emerged from this battle with nature with a sense of awe at nature's power and a sense of gratitude that I and my fellow rowers survived this force majeure.

Experiences like these can be thrilling. Experiencing nature's power (and surviving it) made me feel more fully alive. I also have greater respect for those forces beyond our control. This was just a small taste of nature's power. I have renewed respect and empathy for those who must deal with more dangerous force majeures: tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Not everyone survives nature's unpredictable and overwhelming power.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Conquering and Acquiring Fears

One of my professors at Yale Divinity School, the late Paul Holmer, once asked our class, “Over the past year, what fears have you conquered and what fears have you acquired?” Such a question isn’t easy to answer and requires some real, honest self-examination. The class was silent for what seemed like an eternity and it dawned on us that this wasn’t a rhetorical question. Dr. Holmer expected an answer!

Then, a courageous middle-aged woman raised her hand and said, “I have conquered my fear of being alone after my husband’s death and I’ve mostly conquered my fear of spiders. But I have become increasingly fearful of cancer and of my children getting hurt.” We all admired her honesty, but she was the lone respondent to the question. The rest of us were too afraid to venture an answer.

What were we afraid of? I can’t answer for others, but I was afraid of revealing too much about myself in this group of peers. If I was honest about my fears, how would they judge me? Once we give a name to our fears and voice them, some can seem silly. For example, many of us are afraid of insects—especially spiders—but might not like to admit this publicly. Yet, a fear of spiders is a rational fear. Poisonous spiders like the Brown Recluse can genuinely hurt us. Snakes are also in this same category of “rational fears.” A healthy fear of snakes and other creatures that can harm us is a good thing to have when you’re on the trail.

Dr. Holmer’s question contains an assumption that expresses another truth about fear: we are always in the process of conquering some fears and acquiring others. How are fears conquered? The first thing to do in conquering a fear is to face it. As long as a fear lurks in the darkness of our subconscious, it will elude us and restrict us. As long as we deny or repress a fear, it will have power over us. To rob a fear of its power, we must bring it into the light of consciousness. This allows us to name the fear and to take responsibility for it.

While facing a fear won't make it magically disappear, it is the first step in overcoming it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Prayer for All Seasons

Eternal Friend, once again we come to express our thanksgiving for
everything have have done for us and everything you have given us.
We praise you for all the gifts of life, love and joy you have so
generously bestowed upon us.

One of your gifts is the gift of seasons and we give you thanks
for the beauty of autumn. The leaves of gold and red have graced our
walks and our drives. Sometimes the beauty of a season is so overwhelming
that we cannot find the words to capture the joy and wonder of it.

As fall draws to a close, winter will come. Some of us know what it is to
suffer a winter of the soul, where we feel that you are distant or absent. During this inner winter, we suffer the pain of alienation and long for reunion and
reconciliation with you.

As we look at our world, we see other kinds of winter. When we see the alienation and tragedy of war, we hope for a spring of peace. When we see the ravages of diseases like cancer and AIDS, we pray for an autumn of healing. When we see the life diminishing effects of poverty we long for a summer of abundance shared.

Give us the vision to see the possibilities you have in store for our world.
Let us see the world and its peoples not with wintry distance but with summer warmth. Let us bloom where we are planted and find ways to improve our corner of the world. Let us make a positive difference in the world you have given us. Amen.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Practicing Courage

One way to conquer fear is to exercise courage. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the will to act in the face of fear. Someone has pointed out that only cowards say they have no fear. Everyone has fears. The issues in fear are: are we going to allow our fear the power to prevent us from doing what we should? Will our fears restrict what we can and should do in life?

One way to gain courage is to practice. Yes, I said “practice.” You develop your courage muscles by exercising them. The way to practice courage is to get outside your comfort zone. Everyone has a comfort zone—a familiar place where you feel safe and secure. A comfort zone isn’t just a physical location, like a home, but has emotional and behavioral components as well.

For example, something outside my comfort zone is going into a room full of strangers and striking up a conversation. In this situation, I tend to become as passive as a wall flower and wait for someone to talk to me. I am envious of extroverts like my wife who find it enjoyable to talk to strangers.

Yet, over the years, I’ve conquered my fear of talking to strangers by simply doing it more. The first few times were difficult, but I got better (and less anxious) the more times I stepped out of my comfort zone and spoke to a stranger. What I discovered is that most of the persons I spoke to were, like me, waiting for someone to speak to them. I’ve had many good and meaningful conversations that I wouldn’t have had if I had stayed firmly planted by the wall.

This is a minor example of getting outside a comfort zone, but it makes the point. When we step outside of our comfort zones enough times, our fear of doing so diminishes and courage is developed.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Prayer and Action

There is a strong connection between prayer and action. There is an African proverb that goes, “When you pray, move your feet.”

We aren’t called to be totally passive in our praying. If discouragement takes the wind out of our sails, prayer is the wind at our backs. Prayer can move us to take action. Praying for something motivates us to do something about it. If we pray for the hungry, then we’ll be more motivated to donate money to the local food bank or prepare and serve a meal at a soup kitchen.

Prayer isn't reciting flowery phrases, but is a connection with God that moves us in a direction. To pray isn’t to motivate God to take action for us. God already wants the best for us. God isn’t going to do something for us that we should be doing ourselves. Prayer motivates us.

The chaplain of Cambridge University once wrote, “Prayer as Jesus taught isn’t just a private matter. It’s not personal therapy or a crutch for the weak. Prayer is about refusing to believe that the way things are has to be the way they always will be; prayer is about imagining how the world could be, and gaining the wisdom and energy to bring it about. “

Prayer changes the one praying. Praying can help us discern what we can and can’t control. It can give us the motivation and energy to do the positive things within our control. Praying can also give us the strength and courage we need to not give up and persevere in trying and difficult times. While prayer itself is an action, it also moves us to live as God intends.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Filling Your Tank

I've been reminded again of the importance of refilling your "tank" when it is on empty. Last week, I had too much to get done in the allotted time and, by the end of the week, was running on fumes.

Having too much to do is only one of the things that empties our tanks. Anything that is stressful or energy-sapping can lead to the need for a refill. Pain, disappointment, loss and failure are some of the main culprits of draining energy and will. When our tank is empty, we can become discouraged and lose heart.

Fortunately, I know what fills my tank. So I took time to go on a hike with a friend. The hike was both challenging and scenic because of the fall foliage at its peak in color. For the time I was hiking, I forgot about all of things that were causing me stress. When I returned, I was better able to deal with all the tasks ahead.

Each of us needs to discover what fills our tank. We can't run on fumes for very long before we're totally out of energy. A synonym for "filling your tank" is "feeding your soul." When we learn what refreshes and rejuvenates our souls, then we will have energy, vitality and will to tackle the tasks that life throws at us.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Over the weekend I received the tragic news that the 15 year-old daughter of a colleague took her own life. There were no obvious warning signs that she was in such deep distress. She was an outstanding student, athlete and person in every way. She was lively and outgoing and had a wonderful smile.

All of us who knew her and her family are devastated and in shock. Everyone is heartbroken. Of course, we're all asking the question "Why?" We ask this question as if there is an explanation that would satisfy us and we could say, "Yes, now I understand."

Yet, I don't believe there is such an explanation. We search in vain for a rational answer to an irrational act. Suicide, especially for a young person, doesn't make sense. It's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Yet, in a 15 year-old mind, temporary problems can seem overwhelming and unsolvable.

When we ask "why" maybe what we're really doing is crying out for help, comfort and consolation. I believe that comfort can come from the Divine Comforter. However, grieving is a process that is painful and takes time. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process.

I believe that even the deepest wound can heal. Yes, the scar still remains, and the ache and longing linger, but we can discover a resilience in tragedy that enables us to survive and, over time, embrace life once again. The name I give this inner resilience is faith. When tragedy strikes it is faith that gets us through it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some Trips Take Us

I just finished reading Bearfoot A Northbounder: Emails from the Appalachian Trail by Patrick Pittard. My nephew sent me this book because Mr. Pittard was one of his professors at the University of Georgia.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this pithy account of hiking the 2,200 mile AT. I've hiked several sections of the AT in NY, CT, VT and ME and found the descriptions in the book accurate and sometimes insightful.

At the conclusion, Mr. Pittard quotes from John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie: "We find that we do not take a trip, a trip takes us..." Although I read this book more than 40 years ago, this sentence still resonates with me.

Some journeys we take end up taking on a life of their own and we find that we are passengers rather than tour directors. I felt this way about hiking the Inca Trail this past June. On that trip, I morphed from observer to participant and found myself immersed in an adventure and spiritual pilgrimage.

The difference between a trip we take and a trip that takes us is a shift in perspective, understanding and engagement. There is also the issue of control. When we hand over the reigns of a trip, we relinquish control and can focus on living fully in the present moment.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A Balanced Life

The Northeast U.S. had been hoping for rain because of a long dry spell over the summer. Lawns had turned brown and reservoirs needed replenishing. We got much more than we had hoped for with Tropical Storm Nicole, which has brought flooding, power outages and even death. This is a case of "too much of a good thing."

The extremes of weather provide a helpful analogy for the spiritual life. Spirituality is fostered by avoiding the extremes and embracing balance, stability and harmony. Buddhism calls this "the middle way" and Confucianism calls it "the golden mean."

In the spiritual life there can be too much of a good thing. It's great to commune with nature, but spending too much time communing shortchanges other soul-nourishing activities. The same is true of every dimension of the spiritual life. Too much emphasis on one area diminishes the wholeness of a balanced spiritual life.

Like a well-balanced meal, we need variety in our spirituality in order to be well nourished. Even good things, when taken to an extreme, can turn into negatives.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Listening to the Music of Nature

On a hike this weekend, I passed a hiker going in the opposite direction who was wearing ear pieces hooked to an Ipod. When I said "hi" he was so into his music that he didn't hear me.

I have listened to music in the same way, mainly on airplanes. There's nothing inherently wrong with hiking to music. Yet, I felt that he was missing another kind of music that you can only hear while walking in nature. This "music" is all around if you open your ears, and mind, to it.

What is this music of nature? It is the whispering of wind through the tree tops, the singing of a brook, the songs of birds and the chirping of insects. When walking on a carpet of pine needles, there is a soft thumping of your boots. There is also music inside of you in the rhythms of breathing.

I find nature's music compelling. It satisfies a deep longing for a connection to the earth. Albert Schweitzer recommended the concept of "reverence for life." Hearing the sounds of nature makes me aware that I am walking through a forest that is alive with so many different forms of life.

To truly hear the music of nature, you have to stop and listen. I'm always surprised at how many sounds I can hear when I'm silent and still. Listening is an important element in spirituality as well, especially in prayer. Perhaps listening to the music of nature is a form of prayer.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

True Stories and Truth Stories

In my Hebrew Bible class last night we had a lively discussion about the historicity of the stories in Genesis. One student raised the issue of whether the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis was "factual."

Some understand this creation story literally and calculate that the earth is around 7,000 years old. You arrive at this by counting the generations from Adam and Eve going forward. Others understand the "seven days" in this creation story as figurative, pointing out that science has calculated the age of the earth as 15 billion years old.

I believe that the debate over "literal vs. figurative" is misguided. This is where the difference between a "true story" and a "truth story" comes in. A true story is a story that historically factual while a truth story ignores the issue of whether a story is factually based.

I believe that many of the stories in Genesis are "truth" stories. They convey important truths about God, the world and us. For example, whether you take the creation story in Genesis 1 as factual or figurative, the truth is that God is the creator of a creation that is pronounced "good."

To view many of the stories in the Bible as truth stories means that you put a bracket around the issue of their historical reliability and try to discern the truth that the story conveys. This makes the question of "did it happen in this exact way?" superfluous.

If upholding the historical facts of the biblical stories is important to you, that's fine. However, the more important issue is not "did it happen this way" but "what is God saying to us through this story." God speaks the truth to us in a variety of ways, not only through historical events, but through story, poetry, metaphor and parable. To hear the truth in these stories is to be set free to follow it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weather-Proof Spirituality

This past weekend felt life autumn in Connecticut with cool mornings and warm, sunny days in the 70's. Even though astronomical fall arrives on Wednesday, fall weather often comes earlier here.

Taking advantage of this excellent weather, I did two hikes over the weekend. Hiking in fair weather is a soul-nourishing experience. You don't have to continually wipe sweat out of your eyes or brush away mosquitoes like you do in summer. Neither do you have to negotiate icy trails and cold temps like you do in winter. And you don't have to slog through mud as you often do in spring.

I wonder: Is good weather a precondition for finding one's spiritual connection? I hope not. I want a weather-proof spirituality. I want a spirituality that isn't dependent on the changing conditions of each day. I want to be able to discover a spiritual connection in stormy times as well as calm times.

Adversity is the true test of the strength of our spiritual connection to God. It's easy to stay connected in times of ease and success. What challenges this connection are the difficult and trying times. "These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine during the revolutionary war. When our souls are put to the test, how will we respond?

So, I'm going to do what feeds my soul (hiking) in all weather conditions (except dangerous conditions). For, there is beauty in every season of life, even in times of adversity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

God As Father, Mother, Brother, and Friend

Today I offer a prayer I wrote a few years ago that lifts up different aspects of God's love for us.

Loving God, we give you thanks for your infinite love that comes to us in so many different ways that we can barely comprehend its variety.

You love us like a compassionate father with strength and authority. As a father guides his children, you guide us on our life journeys. You rejoice at our successes and support us through disappointments and failures. As loving father, you wait for us to return home when we stray and, when we return, you welcome us with a loving embrace.

You also love us like a gentle mother. Like a mother, you gave birth to the universe and created us. As a mother comforts her children, you are console us in difficult times, not taking away our pain but easing it by sharing it. With a mother's love you touch our deepest wounds with your healing touch.

In Jesus Christ, you have loved us like a brother. He came among us filled with your loving spirit. As our brother, Jesus shared fully in our lives, experiencing the heights and depths of being human. On the cross, he experienced death and made possible new life for us.

Through your Spirit, you love us like a friend, always near and always ready to help. As our divine friend, you give us strength and courage in the dark times of life. As a friend, you share in our sorrows and joys.

Help us to be obedient children, loving brothers and sisters, and faithful friends to you. Amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Blessings of a Crisis

Nobody welcomes a crisis. Crises are usually negative events, causing suffering and upheaval. Yet, a crisis can be a catalyst for positive changes. This was the case in the weeks following 9-11.

After the devastation of 9-11, Americans came together in mutual grief and a spirit of cooperation. There was a sense that "we're in this together." The partisan politics of congress was transformed into unanimous passage of legislative bills relating to 9-11. Courtesy replaced road rage on our highways. American flags became as commonplace as mailboxes. Compassion, courage and cooperation reigned.

But look where we are nine years later. The solemn 9-11 observances were marred by protests for and against an Islamic Cultural Center being built in lower Manhattan. A lunatic Florida pastor threatened to burn the Qu'ran. Congress is as divided as it has ever been.

I know we can't go back to those days after 9-11, but can we go forward to find ways to work together for common purposes? I hope it won't take another crisis to remind Americans that we have a common good to pursue and common goals to work on. Actually, we have suffered a crisis in the form of the Great Recession. Where is the compassion, courage and cooperation that we so desperately need? I believe these spiritual values are within each of us. However, we need to reclaim them and put them into action.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Life is "Dukka"

I'm covering Buddhism in my World Religions course. Today, we started on the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is "life is dukka." Dukka is a Sanskrit word often translated as "suffering," but also means "out of joint" and "dislocated."

What The Buddha discovered after seeking the truth for six years was this: life doesn't meet our expectations and when it doesn't, pain and disappointment are the results.

Others have discovered this truth for themselves. Henry David Thoreau expressed it by observing that most people lead lives of "quiet desperation." M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled, "Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-- once we truly understand and accept it-- then life is no longer difficult."

Buddhism and other major religions offer spiritual paths to help us deal with the difficulty, suffering and dislocation of life. Because this is a spiritual problem, it requires a spiritual solution. However, the first step on these spiritual paths is virtually the same: to admit the truth. Once you admit it, then you can begin to deal with it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Learning How to Learn

There's an oft-repeated proverb that goes, "Give a person a fish and you'll feed them for one day. Teach a person to fish and you'll feed them for a lifetime." This applies very well to education.

I tell my students on the first day of class that they are in college to "learn how to learn." Once they master the skill of learning, they are set for the rest of their lives because they can apply this skill to anything.

The challenge is that there are different ways to learn and we have to discover what works for us. Often, this involves trial and error. But, if you're disciplined, committed and pay attention, you'll master the art of learning.

An article in yesterday's New York Times presented some recent research on learning, test-taking, and knowledge retention. Learning researchers have found that the conventional wisdom about studying is wrong in most cases. This conventional wisdom says that (1) you should always study in one place, usually a place free of any distractions, and (2) you should focus on one subject intensely rather than study multiple subjects at one sitting.

What learning researchers have found is that learning is enhanced when you (1) study in multiple places and (2) study a variety of subjects in one study period. Apparently, variety is the spice of studying!

The point is that each of us needs to find the way(s) that we best learn. This also applies to spirituality. We need to discover what feeds our souls. Once we discover this, we can be fed for a lifetime.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bodily Intelligence

I spent yesterday afternoon at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in Flushing, NY. It was hot (96 degrees), the food was expensive ($13 for a crepe and bottle of water), and it was crowded (30,000+ attendees). Yet, I had a great time.

Part of what is so great about the first few days of this annual tournament is that there are around 100 matches being played on 15 different courts. So you can wander from court to court and catch parts of as many matches as you want. I saw 5th sets (the final exciting set in a match) in four different matches. The photo above by Philip Hall is of Arnaud Clement reacting to a bad shot (he eventually won in a 5th set upset of 16th seed Carlos Baghdatis) from the U.S. Open official website.

What was so remarkable was seeing players up close. On the "back" courts behind Ashe Stadium, you can get so close as to be able to reach over the fence and touch the players. The athleticism is amazing. It's hard to fathom how hard they hit the ball and with such pinpoint accuracy.

Watching these matches reminded me of Howard Gardner's multiple kinds of intelligence. We normally think of intelligence as unidimensional (academic) but Gardner identifies 8 different kinds: bodily, interpersonal, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, intrapersonal, visual/spatial, musical and naturalistic.

Too often we don't see ourselves as intelligent if we don't do well academically. However, as athletes demonstrate, you can be very successful using bodily intelligence. Most of us have several kinds of intelligence in varying measures. I wonder if "spiritual" intelligence should be added to the list...

Monday, August 30, 2010

What Feeds Your Soul?

When I asked my Iona students to introduce themselves at our first class meeting, I asked the question: What did you do over the summer that fed your soul? As usual, the answers were both interesting and revealing.

Here are some of their answers: going to the beach, visiting friends, spending time with family, travel, spending time alone, doing nothing. The most common answer was a pleasant surprise-- several students worked as camp counselors and said that working with younger kids was soul-nourishing.

While what feeds our souls has an individual element to it, I believe that giving our time in the service of others is universally soul-feeding. We were created in a way that when we give of ourselves that we receive back even more.

I have found this to be true in my life. Even though I have often been a reluctant volunteer, invariably I have found fulfillment in helping others. The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast was yesterday and it reminded me of a week-long work trip to Gulfport, Mississippi I took four and a half years ago. The work was dirty and hard, but I felt a deep sense of satisfaction at having done a small part in the recovery effort.

What makes helping others even more soul-nourishing is when we don't expect or require anything in return. When we don't expect a reward for self-giving, we receive the "reward" of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Mosque At Ground Zero"

As a World Religions teacher, I've been closely following the debate over the so-called "mosque at ground zero." The debate has generated much heat and little understanding. I'm glad that the Roman Catholic Archbishop and Governor of New York have asked those involved to lower the volume.

There is much misinformation about this issue. First, what is proposed is not a mosque, but an Islamic Cultural Center with a prayer room. Secondly, this building is not at ground zero-- it's two blocks away. The question I have for those who oppose this as "too close" is: How far away is ok? 4 blocks? 6 blocks? 10 blocks?

What distresses me is the anti-Islam rhetoric. Because of the actions of 20 Islamic extremists, a religion with 1.5 billion followers is being stigmatized. That's just plain wrong. I wouldn't want Christianity judged by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber and Roman Catholic. I don't think residents of Oklahoma City would have opposed building a Roman Catholic Church two blocks from the Federal Building that was bombed.

America was founded on the principle of religious freedom and I support the freedom of any religion to build a building wherever they want (if it conforms to local laws and ordinances). The argument that building an Islamic Center near ground zero rubs salt in the wounds of those who are grieving for lost loved ones doesn't hold. Islam is not responsible for this horrendous attack-- terrorists who distorted Islam were.

A better model for religious freedom and tolerance exists at the "second" ground zero site on 9-11: the Pentagon. There, just a few hundred feet from this ground zero, a weekly Islamic service is held. I'm proud that there are persons of reason and tolerance among our military. They are lighting the path of freedom for the rest of us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

Classes begin tomorrow where I teach and I have mixed feelings. I'm looking forward to beginning a new semester with a new group of students. There is a tinge of excitement and anticipation at this new beginning. On the other hand, the beginning of classes means the end of the freedom to set my own schedule as I have this summer.

Every transition in life brings a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. When a new phase of life begins an old one ends. Endings often involve feelings of loss and grief over what has been lost. Of course, beginnings have a sense of excitement and adventure into the unknown.

We are always moving into an unknown future, even if we don't realize it. Nothing about our personal futures is guaranteed. We live as if life will always continue in the same way with the same comfortable routines. But life changes in an instant and we can find ourselves journeying into new territory.

What remains constant is our spiritual connection with God. This relationship endures the endings and beginnings in life and continues beyond the ending called death. This relationship offers stability, reassurance and hope-- all essentials for a fulfilling life.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Last Hurrah

Since I'm starting back teaching next week, I did a last-hiking-trip-of-the-summer to Acadia National Park in Maine. What a jewel this place is! There are rocky mountains rising from sea level to 1,500 feet with amazing vistas of the dramatic Maine coast. The photo from Acadiamagic.com is of the summit of Gorham Mountain looking down to the shore.

I also love Bar Harbor, the largest town near the park. It's quaint and filled with life this time of the year. As you can imagine, you can get excellent seafood here. I had grilled Atlantic salmon last night.

This 2 day trip feels like a last hurrah for summer. Even though astronomical summer lasts another month, it feels like the season is on the wane. It's colder in the mornings and there is the gradual decrease of sunlight each day as we move toward the Winter solstice.

I feel a certain sadness at the end of most seasons, but especially summer. It's been so great to spend so much time outdoors eating, walking, rowing and hiking. But time moves on like "an ever rolling stream" as one poet put it. And this is good. The movement of time gives an urgency to daily life. We need to enjoy each and every moment to the best of our ability. Once those moments pass, they are only alive in memory.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Keeping Faith

In a group I regularly attend, the question was raised, "How can we keep faith?" When pressed, the person raising the question admitted that his faith in God had been undermined by the depression he was currently suffering from.

I approach the question of keeping faith by looking at a prior issue: How do you lose faith? Since faith is an act of trust, faith can be "lost" when trust is betrayed or broken. When it comes to our relationship with God, we need to be aware of our expectations of this relationship.

When God doesn't act in the way(s) we expect, we might feel deserted or abandoned by God-- especially when we're in a time of distress. When we cry out to God for help, and don't receive what we're asking for, we tend to blame God for being nonresponsive.

We need to examine our expectations of God and how God acts in our lives and world. When our expectations aren't met, perhaps it's a sign that we need to revise our expectations rather than blaming God for not responding as we asked.

When trust is lost in a relationship, it can be rebuilt. This process of rebuilding takes time and patience. If faith can be lost, it can also be found again. What is needed is a commitment to stay in the relationship and work through its challenges. This is true of our relationship with each other and our relationship with God.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Restorative Power of Nature

A front page article in today’s New York Times describes a river raft trip in a remote area of Utah by five brain scientists. The trip’s purpose was to study the effects of nature on the brain. In more sophisticated terms, the purpose was “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects."

Dr. Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and leader of the trip, believes that being in nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate—you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river; the sounds, the smells; you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”

Other scientists aren’t sure why being in nature aids clearer thinking. One scientist, Dr. Kramer, thought that the exertion of hiking and rafting may play a role. In any case, all five scientists noticed effect on their brains such as the slowing down of time, the clearer perception of sounds and the lowering stress of being away from phones, email, and the Internet.

Here's another effect of being in nature: the restoration of the soul. The soul, our deepest self, is nourished and nurtured by the beauty and the silence of nature—especially when nature is understood as a sacred gift. Nature is one of those places where God can be encountered. Even though God’s presence can be experienced anywhere, it is in nature that we pause and listen. Unfortunately, God often gets eclipsed by the noise and multitasking of everyday life.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Small Stuff

It's natural to be thankful for the big things in life: a new job, a financial windfall, the birth of a child, the end of a war. However, many of the small positives in daily life go unnoticed.

A few years ago there was a book titled, "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff--and it's all small stuff" by Richard Carlson. Carlson's book was filled with practical advice for reducing stress and increasing happiness (there are 100 suggested ideas in the book). One chapter is titled, "Be Grateful When You're Feeling Good and Grateful When You're Feeling Bad."

In other words, don't allow the "small stuff" to undermine your gratitude for the little gifts of everyday life. For example, this summer has set records for heat and humidity in Connecticut. Being outside, and especially exercising, in this sticky tropical air is less than pleasant. At times, I've allowed the unpleasant weather to negatively affect my attitude.

The weather is only one of the little things that can affect gratitude. But, if we can find reasons for gratitude in all circumstances, life would go so much better. The good news is that there are always reasons to be grateful. Rather than cursing the weather, I need to be thankful that I have the ability to exercise and that my sweat glands are working.

There are so many "small" things in life to be grateful for: water, air, food, sleep, clothes, books, coffee, shoes, and so much more. Making a list of things we're grateful for can shake us out of the malaise of ingratitude and help us see daily life for the gift that it truly is.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Be Prepared

The above title is the motto of the Boy Scouts. It's not a bad piece of advice for non-Boy Scouts, too. I'm in the midst of preparing to teach two courses this fall, a world religions course and a Hebrew scriptures course. Syllabi's are due next week and I'm cramming to meet this deadline.

In teaching, preparation is about 80% of the work. Not being well prepared has consequences such as a boring lecture, poor discussion questions, and leaving students with the feeling, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about."

In hiking, preparation is even more important and the consequences even direr. Running out of drinking water can lead to dehydration. Not taking extra food can result in hunger and a lack of energy. Not dressing properly can lead to sun stroke or hypothermia. Not putting a compass and map in your backpack can lead to getting lost.

Preparation is also important in our spiritual life. So how do we prepare for spirituality? One way is to read books in this field. This can help us become aware of new and different spiritual practices. Another way to prepare is to begin each day in prayer or meditation. A quiet beginning can prepare us for whatever the day brings. Still another way is to take time to reflect on the question, "What feeds my soul?"

So much of our daily life is spent in preparing for what lay ahead. Being well prepared can make all the difference.

Friday, August 6, 2010


In my hiking trip to northern New Mexico, I've hiked through sites sacred to the Cochiti, Zuni, Nambe and Tesuque peoples. I've tried to practice reverence while doing so just as I would expect the same when someone visits a church. The photo above is of Nambe Lake, a sacred place to the Nambe and Tesuque.

I understand reverence as "profound or deep respect" for someone or something. When we're reverent, we are in a state of mind or soul that senses the sacredness of something. This "something" could be a place, a person, God, or even an idea or concept. For example, many Christians feel reverence for the concept of the Trinity and Muslims feel reverence for the Qur'an.

Reverence taken to its logical extreme becomes awe. At times this week, I've felt awe at the profound beauty of what I've seen and experienced. Awe can be overwhelming and is often beyond words. Awe can be evoked by those same things that evoke reverence-- the difference is in the degree.

This week in the wilderness has reminded me that we are surrounded by the sacred. We just need to view the world through the lens of reverence. When we do so, we practice what Albert Schweitzer called, "The reverence for life."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mountain Lion!

On a hike in the Dome Wilderness in northern New Mexico yesterday, my friend and I came across mountain lion tracks on the trail. The photo on the right shows both front and back paw prints in the mud near a stream.

Suddenly, a pleasant, leisurely hike became a more anxious one. We both hiked with our heads up, looking around for signs of the lion. However, as my wilderness-savvy friend observed, if the lion was stalking us, we wouldn't see it until it charged. I thanked him for this reassuring thought.

We didn't encounter the lion, as attested by the fact that I'm writing this. But these lion tracks were a reminder that we coexist with the dangers of nature. While we usually see nature as peaceful and bucolic, there is danger in the wild. Mountain lions have to eat just like every other animal, including humans. I'm just glad we weren't dinner for this particular lion!

There is some risk in nearly everything we do. Yet, most of the time we are blissfully unaware of dangers. If we hadn't seen the lion paw prints, we wouldn't have given this danger a second thought. The same goes with driving on a highway, eating in a restaurant or crossing a street. We could die as a result of any of these activities, but we do them anyway.

We need to find a healthy balance between knowing the potential dangers of an activity and not over-inflating these risks. Otherwise, we'll always be looking over our shoulders with anxiety and fear. A little fear is a good thing, but too much restricts life and keeps us from living life to its fullest.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Walk in the Clouds

Yesterday, I took a walk in the clouds. This journey through mist was on the La Luz trail to Sandia Crest in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This 4,000 foot climb is a spectacular hike through three different life zones and six different climate zones.

As I started the hike at 6,500 feet in elevation, I could see the clouds high above, looking like a waterfall spilling over the summit. When I reached about 9,000 feet I was in the clouds.

Walking in clouds, especially on mountains, is an other-worldly experience. You feel as if you are alone in the mist. This cloud enshrouded mountain called to mind Moses on Mount Sinai and Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration. In the Bible, clouds are associated with theophanies (direct encounters with God-- in Greek this word literally means "God light").

I definitely wasn't alone on the La Luz trail. Some 400 runners ascended this trail in an annual race just minutes ahead of me. The fastest runners finished in an hour and a half. Somehow, I feel that they missed the amazing vistas and joy of walking in the clouds. I took this hike slowly, savoring each view of the dramatic rock spires poking through the mist.

Although I didn't have a theophany, I did experience a connection with the Sacred and Holy dimension of life on my hike. I reached the summit, still enshrouded in thick clouds, filled with gratitude for the awesomeness of God's creation.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Prayer of Gratitude

God of love and power,
We stand in awe of the magnificence of your creation.
The mystery of an infinite universe,
The majesty of snow-capped peaks,
The vastness of the oceans,
The amazing variety of life that inhabits our world.

We give you thanks:
For the inestimable gift of life here on earth.
For the relationships that support us, especially in times of distress and adversity.
For the food and drink that sustain us from day to day.
For the opportunities to work and play, to rest and recreate, to speak and to listen.

We give you thanks for communities of faith and for the many and varied talents, skills and resources harnessed within them. We are grateful for those who serve humanity sacrificially. We are grateful for those who give unselfishly of their time to build homes for the homeless and to feed the hungry.

We pray for a world in need of your love and care. We pray for war-torn parts of the world such as Iraq and Afghanistan. We pray for those whose lives are diminished by diseases such as AIDS and malaria, strokes, cancer and heart disease. We pray for those who suffer from mental and emotional illnesses.

Give us glad and grateful hearts so that we may do the work to which you call us with joy. Amen.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Body's Own Feel-Good Drugs

Do you want to feel better? Then exercise, eat chocolate (or chile peppers) and meditate. Medical studies have shown that these three activities can trigger the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that reduce pain, stress and can create a feeling of euphoria.

There are at least 20 types of endorphins in the body and they act on brain receptors in a similar way as do opiates. Hence, their pain-reducing effect. But the good news is that endorphins don't lead to addiction or dependence like opiates can.

While we usually view meditation as the most spiritual of the three activities mentioned above, I believe that exercise and eating can be spiritual practices.

Exercise can not only strengthen the body and mind, it can feed the soul. Spiritual practices like yoga, tai chi chung and meditative walking are forms of exercise. And, the added benefit to these practices is that you feel better after doing them.

I also believe that there is a spiritual dimension to eating. Yes, we can see food as fuel and wolf down a meal. But we can also eat slowly and gratefully, transforming a bodily necessity into a spiritual practice. Another dimension of eating is the social interaction in a meal shared with others. There is something deeply spiritual about a meal shared with good friends.

I don't believe it's an accident that those activities that are soul-nourishing help release endorphins, thus making us feel better. That's how we were created.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Significance of Daily Tasks

Have you noticed how much time each day is used in doing routine tasks? Our days are composed of things like brushing teeth, taking a shower, fixing and eating meals, taking out the trash, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and so on.

The tendency is to view these routine tasks as boring and having little meaning. Yet, completing these tasks is essential to our health and well being. We must eat, sleep, work and play in order to live. These seemingly insignificant daily tasks are actually the stuff that life is made of.

When we devalue these routine tasks, we are overlook their meaning and purpose. I contend that these daily tasks have significance and meaning. If we didn't do them, then our life would be diminished. I would go a step further-- these daily tasks have spiritual significance.

Being able to do these routine tasks is part of the gift of being alive. Every routine task has its place in daily life and we need to acknowledge their importance. I'd write more, but I need to take out the trash...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Prayers From Our Wailing Wall

Our world is in need of healing in a multitude of ways. In the class on the Letters of John I led over the weekend, I asked each person to write a prayer for healing on a post-it note. We then stuck these prayers on our "wailing wall" on a part of the blackboard. Here are some of the prayers that were offered.

For the healing of the country so that jobless people find employment.

Send your healing power to countries torn by strife.

That those who reach out to others in need will not feel that they have done so in vain.

Help us find a solution to war. Heal us, God, and help us work for peace.

Please bring this oil spilling crisis to an end and end the hardship that people are facing because of it.

Dear God, touch the women who are suffering from breast cancer and its effects.

Please heal your family in Haiti, especially those who lost family members, homes and are sick.

I ask that you bless all the people in need of your healing hand and bless families who are going through a difficult time.

What I appreciate about the above prayers is that they are not self-focused, but focused on the needs of others. Of course, this is the message of the Letters of John: we need to love others as God has loved us.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mutual Respect

I really enjoyed my first session of teaching "The Letters of John" here at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. The class was lively with lots of laughter and noise.

The primary source of the noise is the young adults in the class. Of my 24 students, about half are college-age. So this class is a blend of older and younger. Before this class if you had asked these young adults whether they would like to be in a class with older women, I'll bet their answer would have been "no way." Yet, everyone seems to be benefiting from this old/young mixture.

The reason this old/young mixture works is because of mutual respect and appreciation for each other's gifts. Often, there is tension between the generations. Parents have high expectations of their young adult children. And, young adults want to break away from parental restrictions.

I hope the students in the course will see this class as a model for what is possible in their own families. Families are a blend of generations and mutual respect and appreciation for each other's gifts is essential if we are to enjoy being together.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Budget Bucket List

After reading my July 9 blog titled, "Making A Bucket List," a friend pointed out that "affordability" is a limitation on where we are able to go and what we are able to do. I agreed with this point.

Not only is cost a limitation, so is time and physical ability. Can we get the time off to fulfill one of the "dreams" on our list? Are we physically able to accomplish what we set out to do? For example, one of the items on a friend's bucket list is a trip to Mt. Everest base camp. This journey would take over 3 weeks of time, several thousand dollars, and would be a challenging hike to a high altitude. Not everyone can do this.

So what about doing things that don't cost much money or time? Bucket list items don't need to involve travel to exotic places. For example, one of the things on my list was to go to the top of the Empire State building. I did this last year and it cost less than $50, including the train ticket, admission and lunch. Another bucket list item was to hike in Central Park. Again, this was low cost in terms of time and dollars.

Maybe the solution is to have two bucket lists. One list could include those things that are "stretch" items that would be a once-in-a-lifetime fulfillment of dream. A second "budget" bucket list could be those things that we'd love to do, but don't cost much in terms of time, money or physical effort.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Inseparable Dimensions of Love

I'm preparing to teach a three day course at Western Connecticut State University on "The Letters of John." This course is part of an annual School of Christian Mission that offers a mixture of religion courses, worship and fellowship for around 200 United Methodists from this region.

There are three Letters of John in the New Testament. The first "letter" is not really a letter, but more of a sermon on the nature of God and of Christian love. The basic message is: God's love for us makes our love for God possible, and our love for God is expressed in love for neighbor.

The link of love of God with love of neighbor is expressed in the strongest terms possible. "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars..." The author goes on to add, "...for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." (I John 4:20)

The inseparability of loving God and loving our fellow humans is at the core of Christianity. We show our love for God in how we treat our neighbors. While this seems like a simple concept, putting it into daily practice is a complex challenge.

When it comes to love, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: What does it mean to act in love in every situation? When is "tough love" required? What sacrifices are we called to make in loving others? How can I love someone I don't really like? How is it possible to love an enemy? These questions are not so much answered with words, but with actions.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Wildflower Wonderland

My final mountain hike of this trip was on the spectacular Saddle Mountain. This basalt dome is the highest in the area and the vistas are stunning. From the summit I could see five volcanoes and the Olympia range in the far distance. Because of the fog below I couldn't see the Pacific Ocean, but that was only a minor disappointment

The greatest sight from Saddle Mountain, however, is the plethora of wildflowers. On this hike I passed by vast meadows filled with paintbrush, aster, columbine, daisies and foxglove. The photo above from portlandhikersfieldguide.com shows the summit and some of the flowers.

When hiking to the summits of mountains, sometimes I focus so much on getting to the top, I don't enjoy the journey there. This hike reminded me that beauty is to be found all along the way, if we have the eyes to see.

Hiking is a good metaphor for the spiritual journey. When we open our eyes to the beauty in the world around us, we enjoy and appreciate the journey so much more. Looking at the world through the lens of gratitude transforms how and what we see.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Waterfall Wonderland

Tired of climbing volcanoes for two days (Mount Hood and Mount St. Helen's), on Wednesday, I headed to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. What a gift this amazing place is! On my hike, I passed 10 named waterfalls and numerous anonymous falls. The photo of Multnomah Falls n the left is from the Multnomah Falls Lodge site (http://www.multnomahfallslodge.com/).

A waterfall is a remarkable phenomenon. It's a merging of power, beauty and sound. A waterfall engages all of the senses except smell (and I'm sure there are waterfalls that have an aroma-- I just didn't experience this).

Strangely, I find waterfalls are places of peace. Even though the roaring of the water is loud and rushing, even violent, there is a calming effect as I gaze on their awesome power.

Waterfalls are poignant reminders that what brings peace is not always peaceful, at least on the surface. There is the proverbial "calm in a storm" and the "eye of the hurricane." Any force of nature can inspire awe and a sense of inner peace. Perhaps, these forces of nature embody the truth that peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of the sacred. And what is sacred reveals itself just as much in the storm as in the still and calm.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lessons From Failure

The first hike of my Oregon trip was Mount Hood, an 11,000+ foot extinct volcano that dominates the Portland vista to the East. I didn't summit this snow-capped peak, as that is a technical climb requiring crampons and a guide. However, I did hike the Cooper Spur, the highest trail hike on this daunting mountain. The photo above shows the Elliot glacier from the trail.

My plan was to hike to the top of Cooper Spur, an 1,800 ascent, and enjoy lunch and the views there. My plan failed. It is rare when I don't complete a hike I've committed to do-- yet this was one of those rare times.

The culprit was hurricane-strength winds on the ascent. They were so violent that I would have been knocked down by their force had I not had trekking poles. Even so, I slogged uphill against these gales for more than an hour. What turned me back was the volcanic ash that kept getting in my eyes. Since I wear contact lenses, any piece of grit can cause temporary blindness. This happened multiple times on Mount Hood.

So, instead of blindly ascending to the trail's end, I went a little over halfway, acknowledging failure. For a time I felt disappointed. But on the descent, I started "skiing" down the snow (there was much snow in the arms of the mountain) and had some genuine fun.

Failure was my teacher on this hike and I learned a few of its lessons. I learned that you cannot always succeed, no matter how fit or determined you are. Failure is inevitable. Even geniuses fail. I also learned that, out of failure, some good can come. Not only did I enjoy my "skiing" on the snow, I was rewarded with a view of two other nearby volcanoes: Mount Adams and Mount St. Helen's. Their summits poked up above low clouds and were ample reward for fighting, and losing, the battle against the wind.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Westward Ho!

I'm in Oregon this week doing some hikes in the Portland area. I'm here accompanying my spouse who is attending a writer's workshop. The photo on the left is the view from our deck in Oceanside, a lovely coastal village about 1.5 hours west of Portland. These huge rocks are called "Three Arch Rocks" and are part of the Oregon state park system.

As you can see, this is a place of great natural beauty. Oregon has it all: a dramatic, rocky coastline... stunning mountains... thick forests... pastoral wine country... and very warm and welcoming people.

There is something serene about being on the Pacific ocean. The Pacific is anything but peaceful! Continually, there are powerful waves crashing against the coast. Although we're staying several hundred yards from the beach, the sound of the waves can be heard through closed windows and doors.

Oregon is an outdoorsy state. It seems that everyone is either hiking, biking, jogging or doing something active. I'm going to join in and do several hikes this week. Look for coming blogs about hikes on Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and more...

Friday, July 9, 2010

Making A Bucket List

Did you see the 2007 film titled, “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? This movie is about two terminally ill cancer patients who decide to travel the world doing whatever wild thing that comes to mind. So they go sky diving, get tattoos, race vintage cars and visit some of the great sites of the world (like the pyramids in Egypt). Although the movie wasn’t profoundly deep, I took something significant away from this movie: the idea of a bucket list.

Basically, a bucket list is “things to do before you kick the bucket.” After seeing the movie, Donna and I sat down and talked about places we wanted to experience before we died (or couldn’t physically travel). This conversation led to a trip to Normandy and my trips to Patagonia and Machu Picchu. We decided to try to visit one place on our list each year.

I think the bucket list concept can also work with pilgrimages. Making a list of sacred places you want to experience can itself become a spiritual exercise. I have developed my own list that includes: visiting the island of Iona in the Hebrides, going to the Arctic Circle to see the aurora borealis, hiking the coast-to-coast trail across England, flying to Kathmandu to hike in the Himalayas, touring New Zealand, and seeing the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Of course, the above list is of far-off places. I also have a list of places that are closer and easier to get to: climbing Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, hiking the Connecticut portion of the Appalachian Trail, touring Yosemite, visiting the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, I could go on, but my list is beside the point. The question is, what would you include on your list?

Making a bucket list involves allowing your imagination to have free reign. Here are some questions that may help guide your forming a list: What places, when I think of them, bring a smile to my face? What gives me great joy? What feeds my soul? What places have meaning and significance for me? Happy imagining!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Peace and Love

The oldest Beatle, Ringo Starr, turned 70 years old yesterday. His requested birthday gift was for everyone to say "peace and love" at noon. Fortunately, the friend I was eating lunch with reminded me of this (however we said "peace and love" at 1 p.m.-- I don't think Ringo would mind). The AP photo above shows Ringo at Times Square's Hard Rock Cafe.

The message of "peace and love" is so very simple, yet profound. These two words describe the ideal relationship with self, others and God. Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of reconciliation. When we have peace in the relational sense we co-exist with others in a relationship of respect.

Love is the ultimate word to describe our deepest relationship need. We need to give love and to receive it. Without love, life atrophies and is diminished. Love is the life-blood of all relationships. By "love" I don't mean "feelings of affection" but a deep commitment to the good of the other. When we love someone, we act in their best interests even if we have to repress self-interest.

While I don't believe saying the words "peace and love" will change the world, I do believe that being committed to infusing our relationships with these realities will change us. I'm glad that Ringo once again called our attention to their importance.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Holding On and Letting Go

Two important actions in life are holding on and letting go. Much of living a fulfilling life involves learning when and how to engage in these two actions.

We learn very early in life to hold on to those we love. Reflexively, a baby will hold tightly to a finger offered. A child learning to walk naturally holds the hand of a parent. Physical holding grows into emotional holding on. At this stage of life, love involves dependence.

As a child grows, the letting go reflex also begins. Learning to walk on one's own means letting go of the safety of a parent's hand. As children grow, they become more independent-- something that parents encourage. Growing into adulthood means letting go and breaking away from parents physically, financially and emotionally.

Parents also learn to let go of their children as they grow. Sometimes this is painful emotionally. Not only is it difficult to let go of those we love, it is difficult for us to watch them make their own mistakes and suffer the consequences.

Spiritually we also learn to hold on to those persons, values and things which give our life meaning and purpose. Yet, there are also things we need to let go of such as grudges, envy, hatred and prejudice.

Two questions we need to ponder are: What do we need to hold on to in order to grow and thrive? What do we need to release in order to grow? Answering these questions takes some genuine honesty-- a willingness to look at ourselves and our relationships truthfully.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Some Like It Hot (not me)

We're in the midst of a heat wave here in the Northeast. In this part of the world a heat wave is defined as "three or more consecutive days over 90 degrees." In Texas and Arizona, three consecutive days in the 90's would be considered a cool wave!

Being an outdoors person, I am not a fan of hot and humid weather. In such weather I get much more exhausted by rowing workouts, even though we row early in the morning. Hiking in such weather isn't appealing, especially because of all of the insects that seem to thrive in the heat.

Yet, I have discovered an outdoor activity that beats the heat: kayaking. Since the water temperature in Long Island Sound is still in the 60's, paddling in a kayak is a pleasant exercise. Yesterday on my kayak excursion, there was a nice breeze that added to the pleasure.

Being in or on the water is a good way to adapt to hot weather. There is something spiritually renewing about cooling off when you're hot. A dip in the pool, a lake or an ocean is oh so refreshing. No wonder water plays a key role in religious rituals like baptism and ablutions. In these rituals water symbolizes not only cleansing, but also life and new life.

Heat waves come and go, but the renewing power of water transcends every kind of weather. Being on water, in water, and drinking water is a source of refreshment and life. What an amazing gift!