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 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 (

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!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

One-Third Over!

Today is July 1 and summer is 1/3 over! It's hard to believe that June passed so quickly. Paraphrasing Paul Simon, "Slow down, you move too fast. Got to make the summer last."

Time passes either slowly or quickly, depending on what we're doing. When we're bored, an hour can seem interminable. Boredom slows time down to the painful ticking of seconds off the clock. But, when were engaged in something interesting, we hardly notice the passage of time.

We know that time, as measured by clocks, passes at the same rate. But we also know that our perception of time has an internal component that can speed it up or slow it down.

In the New Testament there are two Greek words for time that capture the external and internal components of time. Chronos is the word used for "clock time" or "calendar time." The passage of chronos was constant and measured by minutes, hours, days, months and years.

The other word for time is kairos, which roughly means "at the right time" or "at the appropriate time." Kairos is internal time and can be applied to events that unfold in on their own timetable. The birth of a baby, the maturing of a person, falling in love and spiritual awakening-- these happen when they're ready to.

Kairos is also used in the New Testament for "God's timetable." In the spiritual realm, most things don't happen on a set schedule-- they happen when we are ready.