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...