Friday, January 29, 2010
Last night was the first meeting of the "Intro to World Religions" class I'm teaching at a nearby prison. This college-level program is sponsored by Rising Hope, Inc., a non-profit organization that funds similar programs in seven prisons. Their website is: http://www.risinghopeinc.org/introduction.htm
My 12 students were respectful, engaged and engaging, and eager to learn. The two and a half hours of class time breezed by. At no time did I feel threatened or in danger, even though this is a maximum security prison. In fact, these men put me at ease with their humor and grace.
If these men study hard and stick with this program, they will earn one year of college credit. When they get out, they will have the skills to continue their college eduction. Studies show that programs like this dramatically reduce recidivism.
It fed my soul to be with these eager students and I look forward to our journey through the major religions of the world. None of them had ever taken a world religions course and were very curious to learn about them. They were especially curious about Sikhism and Taoism.
As I told them, I will learn much more from them than they will from me. The paradox of the Christian faith is that when we give of ourselves, we are the ones who receive.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
For the past three days, I've been interviewing candidates for the ordained ministry. One of the things I carefully listened for is a sense of being called to the ordained ministry. I heard a variety of "call" stories, ranging from those who heard an audible voice to those who felt a gravitational pull to ministry.
From a spiritual viewpoint, there is a belief that our life-work can choose us. This work-that-chooses-us is captured in the concept of vocation. The Latin root of vocation is vocare, which means “to call.” A vocation is a calling, a calling not to a job but to one’s life-work. The “voices” that call us to our life-work can come from outside of us and from inside as well.
What are these “voices”? There are the voices of our parents who let us know, subtly or overtly, what they think we should do with our lives. There is the internal voice of reason that enables us to evaluate our strengths and match them with a likely career. There is the voice of emotion that lets us know whether the work we are doing brings us joy and gladness. There is also the voice of our society telling us, “Choose a career in which you’ll make the most money.”
Deciding which voice we listen to and obey makes a huge difference in finding the right vocation. In his sermon, “The Calling of Voices,” Frederick Buechner writes,
"The world is full of people who seem to have listened to the wrong voice and are now engaged in life-work in which they find no pleasure or purpose and who run the risk of suddenly realizing someday that they have spent the only years that they are ever going to get in this world doing something which could not matter less to themselves or to anyone else."
Among the many voices that beckon us to one vocation or another is the voice of our soul. This inner voice comes from our deepest self and is, perhaps, the most important voice to listen to when it comes to our life-work. How do we listen to this voice? I'll try to answer in tomorrow's blog.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I've been working on developing a spirituality for those who find their spiritual connection through motion and movement. Because the field of spirituality is overwhelmingly tilted toward practices that involve being still and outwardly inactive, active souls can easily feel left out or, worse, marginalized. The inability to sit passively while meditating, contemplating or praying, can lead to the feeling that we are outsiders to the spiritual life. Most spirituality books focus on being rather than doing. Therefore, they are biased toward passivity and stillness.
But who’s to say that our inner life can’t be nurtured and fed by active spiritual practices? The great religious traditions of the world include spiritual disciplines that involve movement.
All of the major world’s religions not only acknowledge but affirm active souls. In Hinduism, the spiritual path of Raja yoga involves physical movement. Some of these yoga positions are so physically demanding that they are viewed by many as exercise. Certain Buddhist spiritual practices involve chanting and beating drums while walking. There are the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, who connect with Allah through a ritual circular dance. In Taoism, Tai Chi Chung is a practice of intense, yet controlled, movement that enables one to align one’s individual Tao with the Universal Tao.
In the Hebrew scriptures of Judaism, the motif of the journey is paramount. There is the journey of Abraham and Sarah from Mesopotamia to Canaan, the collective journey of the Hebrews during the Exodus, and the journey to and from Babylon during the Exile. These journeys were in response to a Divine call and were, at their core, deeply spiritual. Israel’s greatest King, David, is portrayed as dancing in joy before the Lord.
My own religious tradition, Christianity, was founded by two active souls. Jesus was constantly on the move teaching, preaching and healing. At one point he said, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” Yes, Jesus withdrew to be alone, but even the act of withdrawal involves movement.
The Poster Boy for active spirituality is the apostle Paul. He was in constant motion as he spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world. On his four missionary journeys, he covered around 10,000 miles. He never stayed anywhere for very long, except when he was imprisoned. Paul was a man on a mission. Even when he remained in a town for a while, he was in perpetual motion as he preached and taught in synagogues and in the street. When he wasn’t engaged in preaching and teaching, he was earning a living by leatherworking.
Why couldn’t Paul sit still? I believe that it was his nature to be in perpetual motion. He harnessed his active nature in the service of a religious mission. It is obvious to me that his soul was fed by fulfilling this mission with energy, enthusiasm and even exuberance. Because of Paul, Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots into the wider world. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Since I find my deepest spiritual connection through active practices, I recommend you try some, even if you enjoy more "passive" practices like prayer, meditation and contemplation. The key is discovering what feeds your soul?
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Do you remember Carl Sagan? I certainly do. This Cornell astronomer and Pulitzer Prize winning author wrote and starred in the PBS series “Cosmos”. He was perhaps the best known and most outspoken scientist of our generation. I still remember his favorite phrase to describe the number of galaxies in the universe: “billions and billions.”
Dr. Sagan died in 1996, but his widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan, has collected and edited Sagan’s 1985 lectures on the boundaries between science and religion in a book titled, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
Sagan’s comments on religion in general and Christianity in particular are worthy of our attention. He said that it is curious that no Christian nation has adopted the Golden Rule as a basis for foreign policy. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was the nuclear war policy of the 1980’s and 90’s. He also said, “Christianity says that you should love your enemy. It certainly doesn’t say that you should vaporize his children.”
He acknowledges that religion can give rise to hope and can speak the truth to those in power. He cited the civil rights movement in the U. S. as an example of the positive power of religion. However, he also says that religion rarely acts in this way.
But Sagan is at his best and most persuasive as a questioner of religion and science. He argues that we should never stop questioning either. It’s when we think we have the final answers that we are in danger of self-deception and arrogance. He said, “I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
While some of us have been taught that questioning the tenets of our religious faith is wrong, even sinful, I agree with Dr. Sagan that questioning leads to the truth. An unquestioned faith is an untested and, often weak, faith. Questioning and searching for answers is the way we seek and find truth.
Another prophet of the 20th century, the late Baptist pastor Carlyle Marney, once said, “We [Christians] need not fear truth wherever it is found.” Never have truer words been spoken. If the truth we find contradicts the truth we believe, then it is time to rethink that belief.
Faith is not static, but dynamic. Faith is a journey more than it is a destination. If our faith is not developing and evolving, then it is not growing.
Seeking the truth, religious or scientific, is the way we grow as humans and as persons of faith. Like Sagan, we need to be fearless questioners in our quest for truth and the Truth. For, if God is the Source of Truth, then genuine questioning will only serve to lead us to God.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Yesterday was a beautiful day in Connecticut-- sunny and around 40. So I took a midday hike in one of my favorite places: Devil's Den Nature Conservancy. I love Devil's Den because of the thick forest and many streams, but especially the numerous dramatic rock outcroppings.
When I hike in this place of natural beauty, I usually find it easy to hike mindfully while focusing on the surroundings. However, today was different. After hiking for a mile or so, I remembered the mountain lion sighting nearby in Westport, CT.
Even though this sighting was a few weeks ago, I began to think about it more and more as I hiked alone deeper into the forest. Every so often I would stop and look behind me, making sure that nothing was sneaking up on me. I began to plan what I would do if attacked (use my trekking poles in self-defense) and who I would call and what I would say. My imagination stoked my anxiety.
This brought home the lesson that fear is the enemy of mindfulness. When we're afraid, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present in the present moment. Paradoxically, fear does cause us to focus, but we focus on the negative possibilities (i.e. being attacked by a hungry mountain lion).
Since I'm writing this, you can surmise that I wasn't attacked by a mountain lion or anything else. My fears were unfounded, as most fears usually are. Yet, to be human is to fear. We need to learn which fears to pay attention to and which to dismiss as remote or improbable (i.e. being attacked by a lone mountain lion that hasn't been seen for two weeks).
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Lately, I have been turning off the radio or CD player in my car so that I can enjoy a few minutes of silence. At first, driving in silence seems strange. There are so few places in our lives where we experience silence. Yet, silence feeds the soul in ways different than music or words.
When you think about it, our lives are filled with noise. Much of this noise is in the background and we become so used to it we don’t even notice it. We once lived in a house a few blocks from Interstate 95. At first, when we sat out on the deck in the evening, we were conscious of the almost constant traffic noise. But after a few months, we didn’t “hear” it any longer and when friends would come over and comment on the noise we were surprised. Then, we moved to a house much farther away from the highway. It was so quiet that, at first, we couldn’t sleep at night! Eventually, we got used to the quietness. Yes, silence takes some getting used to.
Praying is one of the most spiritual acts. In prayer, we bring all that we are to God in words spoken, thought or felt. When I use the word “prayer” I am referring to the fullness of kinds of praying: praise, thanksgiving, confession, intercession and supplication. However, we can fall into the trap of viewing prayer as a one way street: us communicating to God. The other dimension of prayer is listening. And to listen, we must be silent.
Silent driving opens up the possibility of listening to God and to our innermost selves. The great 20th century spirituality writer, Thomas Merton, once said, “God speaks to us in three ways: in the words of scripture, in our deepest selves, and in the voice of the stranger.” When we are driving in silence, we especially are open to hearing God speaking in our deepest selves, our souls.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
I've been rereading the story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden in Genesis chapters 2-3 in preparation for a Lenten study book I'm writing. What a marvelous story!
There are two trees in the center of the garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God tells Adam (a generic Hebrew word meaning "the man" or "human") that he can eat of every tree in the garden except for this latter tree because he will "die."
Since we know the end of the story, the death from eating the fruit of this tree isn't physical death, but the "death" of harming one's relationship with God through disobedience.
A detail I noticed in this rereading was that Adam and Eve were given permission to eat of all trees, including the tree of life. What great freedom they are given! Their freedom has only one limitation: the prohibition of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
What I take from this story is that humans have been given an amazing amount of freedom. Yet, this freedom comes with the limitation of using it responsibly. When we are irresponsible with the exercise of our freedom, it is curtailed. In the Genesis story, the consequences for their misuse of their freedom is to leave the garden of Eden. Paradise lost.
This ancient story of freedom and its limitation is repeated again and again in our lives. Here's the good news. Even though Adam and Eve must leave the garden, God doesn't leave them. God is with them as they toil to survive. So is God with us in our daily living even when we are irresponsible.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Initially, I resisted seeing James Cameron's film Avatar. I was put off by the hype about the new 3-D technology. Also, the blue aliens shown in ads reminded me of my least favorite character in the Star Wars saga: Jar-Jar Binks. However, I overcame my resistance and I'm very glad I did.
Avatar is an amazing movie. The 3-D technology lives up to its hype. But, the movie also has a powerful, and prophetic, storyline. It develops the classic battle of "humans versus nature." Because "nature" in this case is alien only gives the movie more power and relevance.
What I found absolutely stunning about the movie is the biology of the planet Pandora. Everything on the planet is interdependent, from the blue Na'vi people to the pterodactyl-like ikran to the deerlike yerik to the jellyfish-like creatures that glow and float in the air. Pandora is one giant organism.
One of the truths driven home by Avatar is the interconnectedness of all life. To destroy or exploit one aspect of life is to negatively affect other aspects. Pandora is a powerful analogy of our own planet. We, too, are interconnected with all living and non-living things. And, because we are interconnected, we are interdependent.
Monday, January 18, 2010
This is a day to remember the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. The prayer below is from The United Methodist Book of Worship and includes quotations from King's book, Letter From the Birmingham Jail.
We remember the conviction of Martin Luther King, Jr., that
"freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor'
it must be demanded by the oppressed."
We remember Martin's warning that
"a negative peace which is the absence of tension
is less than a positive peace which is the presence of justice."
We remember Martin's insight that
"injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
We remember Martin's hope that
"dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away
and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted
from our fear-drenched communities
and in some not too distant tomorrow
the radiant stars of love and brotherhood
will shine over our great nation with all
their scintillating beauty."
Friday, January 15, 2010
The horrendous and tragic earthquake in Haiti demonstrates the awesome and destructive power of nature. Not for a second do I believe that God deserves any blame for this natural disaster or any other disaster.
When the earthquake hit Haiti two days ago wreaking its havoc, God's heart was the first of our hearts to break. Where is God in this earthquake? God is with those who are suffering from it. What is God doing? God is working through the thousands of persons who are working to alleviate the suffering by sending aid or by being there as a relief worker.
Yes, God is the creator of all that is, including the forces that lead to earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes. But God's intention for creation is not for destruction and death, but for thriving and life.
Here's how I understand these events of "natural evil." The same conditions and forces that lead to earthquakes and other disasters are necessary for life to exist at all. All the forces that enhance life-- rain, wind, geologic forces, water-- have the possibility of coming together in random and destructive ways. God did not create the destruction, but created these natural forces to sustain life.
It was out of chaos that God brought order and life. God is still creating order out of chaos. As co-creators with God we have a responsibility to do our part in helping rebuild and heal when disaster strikes. For God has created humans with gifts of compassion, skill and resources. It's a critical time to put these gifts to good use.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
I just returned from a 7 mile hike in the Bandelier National Monument wilderness. This rugged wilderness near Los Alamos, NM, is laced with canyons, mesas, streams and the spectacular cliff dwelling ruins of the Anasazi.
My hike took me down and up four canyons, each progressively deeper. Alamo Canyon, the fourth and final, was 600 feet deep. The trail into this canyon of red, orange and grey cliffs was a marvel of engineering. Most of it was rock steps and descended over many switchbacks. I had lunch at the top of Alamo. The photo of Alamo Canyon on the right comes from wilderness.com.
Because there was lots of snow and ice on the trail, I had to be careful. I used trekking poles and this allowed me to look around when I was hiking on more level ground. I was rewarded for my vigilance by seeing four elk, five mule deer, and one jack rabbit. The elk must use the hiking trail as it was graced with a multitude of elk droppings. I didn't hike for more than a few steps without seeing elk raisins.
What was most compelling about this hike was the total silence for a large part of it. There was no wind and few birds. When I ate lunch, I was surrounded by silence. There are few things that feed the soul like silence. In silence there are no distractions other than those we create ourselves.
Experiencing this soulful silence reminded me how rare it is in my life. There is almost always noise in my life. Even when I'm typing at my computer in a very silent room, I can still hear the noise of the keys.
The psalmist said, "Be still and know that I am God." Out of stillness and silence can come a stronger relationship with God. I wonder how I can create more silence in my daily life so I won't have to find a wilderness whenever I need nourishing stillness.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Over the past two days, I've hiked to the tops of two volcanoes (extinct): Tetilla Peak and Otowi Peak. The views from the top of these peaks were spectacular, as they rose high above their surrounding New Mexico desert. I could see three mountain ranges: Sangre de Cristo, Jemez and Manzano.
Hiking up a volcano is an unusual experience. From a distance a volcano looks gentle and not too challenging. Up close is a difference experience. First, volcanoes are very steep in places, especially toward the top. Secondly, volcanic rocks are rugged and sharp, making for a somewhat chaotic scramble over them. In steep places, you have to use hands and feet to make your assent.
As I ascended Otowi Peak this morning, I thought about how hiking a volcano can be a metaphor for life. Often, what looks easy from a distance is very difficult up close. There are many things that fall into this category: learning a new skill, playing a sport, and deepening one's spirituality.
Just like ascending a steep volcanic slope, it takes determination and perseverance to do something you haven't done before. These same qualities are important in spirituality. Few things in life come easy, especially the important things like love, gratitude and joy. These things take practice and effort to cultivate, but are definitely worth the effort.
Monday, January 11, 2010
I just returned from a day of skiing at Santa Fe Ski Basin. The day was glorious-- sunny and in the 30's. While they need more snow to open all the runs, there was plenty of base (32 inches) to cover most slopes. The photo on the right was taken at the ski area by Kyle Webb.
What I love about skiing is the sense of freedom it offers. When I'm skiing well, I feel as if I'm floating down a white slope with no end in sight. One person I skiing with once said skiing felt like "dancing with the mountain."
Skiing can be a soul nourishing experience. When I lose myself in skiing, it's almost like a moving meditation. Another skiing friend said when he was skiing well he had a sense of "flow"-- an effortless and joyful experience. Of course, you do have to watch out for hazards and other skiers.
Even riding the lift was enjoyable. I was able to view several peaks, including two that I have hiked to: Deception Peak and Lake Peak. Just being in a place of such beauty and serenity is well worth the $60 lift ticket.
Skiing is a form of play and can be spontaneous and joyful. Each of us needs to discover those things that bring us joy. Joy is a giveaway clue to what feeds our souls.
Friday, January 8, 2010
With the frigid temperatures gripping the nation, I've been reflecting on cold and it's power. There is something mysterious and even awesome about cold.
To that end, I've been reading a book titled, Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, by Bill Streever. Streever, a biologist who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, is an aficionado of cold places. The book is a travelogue of places he has visited over a year's time.
"We fail to see cold for what it is: the absence of heat, the slowing of molecular motion, a sensation, a perception, a driving force. Cold freezes the nostrils and assaults the lungs. Its presence shapes landscapes. It sculpts forests and herds animals along migration routes or forces them to dig in for the winter or evolve fur. It preserves food... It preserves the faithful in vats of liquid nitrogen from which they hope one day to be resurrected."
We know that cold is powerful, causing injury and even death. But can this force of nature be respected and even appreciated? Without cold the earth couldn't exist in its present form. We need the polar ice caps for nature's balance. The cycle of nature in the northern hemisphere needs cold to produce needed snow and to foster hibernation for certain species.
Cold is a necessary part of God's creation. While it is one of nature's gifts that is difficult to be thankful for, we need to see its importance. Maybe we would appreciate cold more if we got out of our heated homes and cars and felt cold's power to invigorate.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Here's how I read the newspaper every day. After reading the front page and the sports section, I go right to the obituaries. Why? I don't think it's morbid curiosity. Neither is it because I want to check to see whether my name is there. I read the obits because they are often interesting and sometimes fascinating.
Today, I was fascinated by the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who died at the age of 93 in Nagasaki, Japan. He was the only official survivor of both atomic blasts in Japan in 1945. However, there were an estimated 165 survivors of both blasts. These survivors were known as "nijyuu hibakusha" or "twice-bombed."
In his later years, Mr. Yamaguchi campaigned against atomic weapons. In 2006 he wrote a memoir and participated in a documentary about double bombing survivors. When the documentary was shown at the United Nations he called for the abolition of nuclear weapons
Here's what he said about surviving the blasts: "I could have died on either of those days. Everything that follows is a bonus."
Wouldn't it be great if we could see each day as a bonus? I don't believe we have to have a close brush (or two) with death to realize that life is a gift. All we have to do is be grateful for each day and give thanks to the Giver of the gift of life.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
With today being the Christian festival of Epiphany, a reflection on its meaning seems appropriate. The primary meaning of the Greek word epiphany is "appearing" or "manifestation." In Christian tradition, this is the day when Christ was made manifest to the gentiles in the form of the Magi.
Epiphany occurs on the Twelfth Day of the Christmas season and is the season's end. In early Christianity, Epiphany was a more important festival than Christmas-- and this is still the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Another meaning of the word epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception or insight into reality or the essential meaning of something, often initiated by some simple, commonplace occurrence" (Webster's Dictionary).
This latter meaning of epiphany is intriguing. Haven't all of us had sudden insights into the essential meaning of something? These are rare occurrences, but can be life changing. I am fascinated by the idea that these epiphanies can be initiated by a "simple, commonplace occurrence."
Such epiphanies can happen at any time and in any place. The key is our openness and receptivity to them. Perhaps epiphanies would happen more often if we looked and listened for the sacred and holy in everyday life.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Dr. George Bonanno has written a new book on grieving titled, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. I've read two reviews that highly recommend the book.
Dr. Bonanno challenges the conventional wisdom that there are five stages of grief based on Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's research of persons facing their own deaths. He contends that this research doesn't necessarily apply to those who are grieving the loss of loved ones.
Instead, he points to three "grieving patterns": 10-15% of people have chronic difficulty coping with loss; 15-20% struggle for several months and then recover; over 50%, although pained by the loss, are able to function from the beginning, demonstrating "resilience."
"Resilience" is defined as being able to function well despite the loss. He says of those who are resilient: "They oscillate between turning inward, to face the fact that the loved one is gone, and turning outward."
Resilience is an important spiritual quality-- it is the capacity to draw comfort and strength from one's faith in God. To be resilient doesn't mean that we will be immune from the pain of loss, but that we will be able to cope with it and live a full and meaningful life.
Monday, January 4, 2010
As in previous years, the #1 New Year’s resolution is (you guessed it) to lose weight. Exercising regularly is a close second with quitting smoking in third place. The fact that losing weight/going on a diet has been at the top of New Year’s resolution lists ever since I can remember is a testimony to the weakness of our resolve.
Or maybe the reason losing weight is our top priority is that New Year’s follows the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, where overindulgence at the dining table is a national tradition.
I like how W.H. Auden put it in his long poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio: “There are enough leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week/Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,/Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully--/To love all of our relatives, and in general/Grossly overestimated our powers.”
Even though it is good and healthy to not be overweight, I’d like to suggest we try a different kind of New Year’s resolution, a spiritual resolution if you will: to go on a “spiritual diet”.
What I am suggesting is that we take some time early in 2010 to examine the state of our souls and recognize what we need to lose or shed.
For instance, many of us are weighed down with worries and anxiety about the future, our own and the future of the world. The weight of these concerns can be crushing.
Is it possible to shed some of the weight of worry and anxiety? If we could learn to trust in God’s grace and love, perhaps we would worry less about the future. If we could let go of our worries by placing them in God’s hands, I’ll bet we’d feel lighter, and happier.
Others of us are weighed down with the affliction of “too much.” We can easily accumulate too much of, well, nearly everything: clothes, wine, jewelry, shoes, and (yes) even money. The cure for this affliction is to go on a different kind of diet in which we give away those things we don’t use or need to those who really need them.
The result of lightening up in the area of possessions is that we can travel through this world lighter—and freer. The real problem with too many possessions is that they end up possessing us. Taking care of our growing number of possessions ends up taking too much of our time and energy.
Another excess weight we carry is the weight of feeling as if we need to have control over everything. You’ve likely heard the expression “he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.” When you think about it, it’s pretty narcissistic to believe that we can even come close to being in control over everything in our lives.
What if we could relinquish our need to control everything? What if we could let go of the illusion that everything depends upon our efforts alone? Again, if we could learn to turn over our need to control things to God, our burdens would be so much lighter.
So, let us resolve in 2010 to go on a spiritual diet of shedding worries, giving away unneeded possessions, and letting go of our need to control everything. If committed ourselves to losing this spiritual weight, our lives would be so much lighter and happier.