Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Meaningful Life

"Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.  As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain covers it with pools.  They go from strength to strength."  --  Psalm 84:4 -- 7

Over the past few weeks, I've learned some important lessons about faith and life.  But first, I had to struggle through my own wrong thinking, the results of my mistakes, and the mental and physical stress that accompanied all of it.  It dawned on me recently that all the lessons I've ever learned about faith and life have always come on the heels of a struggle.  Is everyone's life this way?  Do we all go from struggle to struggle, growing and learning something new with each event?  Nietzsche's famous words that, "Whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" are probably a good life motto for many people.

And yet for me, unlike for Nietzsche, the solution to my struggles did not come from relying on myself.  The solution to each problem came only when I heard or saw something outside of myself that seemed to be especially pertinent to my situation and I accepted this oddly coincidental word or image as significant and meaningful for me.  When I did that, and listened to the guidance that came from it, a door opened which led to better understanding, to reparation and healing, and to freedom from all that had weighed me down.

I believe these unexpected and odd coincidences are one way that God communicates.  However, even as a person of faith, I feel a little odd saying that.  For not even all people of faith would accept these coincidences like I do.  They might not notice them, or they might dismiss them as mere coincidences.  Some would rather rely completely on their own inner voice to guide them through their struggle.  Or they might try to ignore their inner turmoil altogether.  Unfortunately, listening to my own guidance and ignoring my struggles is usually what gets me into trouble in the first place!  If I continued doing that, I wouldn't get anywhere except stuck in a dismal rut.

Sometimes I wonder... How else could God work, if not by giving us little clues that can only be reckoned as meaningful by a leap of faith?  If God obviously intervened in everyone's struggles, we would never be autonomous.  Just as teenagers whose parents continually intervene in their struggles never become independent.  And if God only made himself obvious to a select few, we would either become arrogant or resentful depending on where God's grace fell.

As Jesus said, "I speak in parables, so that, "'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'"  (Luke 8:10)   Jesus does not say they won't understand, only that they may not.  We can all only be given a hint, one that allows for freedom and for uncertainty.  I truly believe that if there is anything God cannot be, it's obvious. 

I've been reading Victor Frankl's books lately.  Frankl spent his life writing and speaking about the importance of attaching meaning to life's events, even when it comes to painful events.  He helped many people change their unhappy, empty lives to happy, productive ones by pointing the way to meaning.  He knew first-hand what a difference this had made in his own life.  He survived four concentration camps because he felt that he had an important message to share with the world.  In fact, it was because he experienced such great suffering and inhumanity in these camps that he was able to help other people who also suffered greatly. 

He tells the story of his experiences and his therapeutic insights in "Man's Search for Meaning." In this book he also shares the significant events that gave him greater awareness of his purpose.  One such turning point came when he was given the choice to emigrate to the U.S. or stay and support his parents in Vienna.  This was in the late 1930s, when it was becoming increasingly clear that all Jews would be deported to death camps.  As he was struggling with this decision, he went to visit his parents and noticed a piece of marble stone on a table.  When he asked his father how it came to be there, he was told that his father had picked it up from the site of their burned out synagogue.  His father further explained that it had come from a table which had been engraved with the Ten Commandments.  This particular piece contained the Hebrew letter that served as the abbreviation for the commandment to honor thy father and mother.  There and then, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and help his parents as much as he could.  He later wrote, "I for one am convinced that if there is such a thing as Heaven, and if Heaven ever accepts a prayer, it will hide this behind a sequence of natural facts."  ("The Will to Meaning," pg.30)

This choice to see an underlying meaning in life's events, even when it comes to suffering, as opposed to seeing no meaning at all, is perhaps the ultimate example of our having free will.  Free will is sometimes offered by people of faith to explain suffering itself:  most of the suffering in the world comes because we have been given the freedom to make bad choices as well as good choices.  However, some psychologists, scientists, and philosophers nowadays argue that because of our genetic make-up, which determines our health and intelligence, and because of our upbringing, we really don't have free will.  That is a myth, they say.  We are merely a product of mechanisms that are beyond our control.  Stuff happens and we are driven by our instincts in the way we respond.  But I believe, as did Frankl, and the author I read last week, Michael Singer, that we at least have the ability to choose the attitude we will take toward suffering.  That is our willpower at work.

Once again Nietzsche comes to mind, this time as someone who chose not to see any meaning in life's events.  Nietzsche believed that stuff just happens, and like some thinkers today he believed that we have no responsibility for the things that happen one way or the other, nor does anyone.  Interestingly, Nietzsche also experienced a series of coincidences that strongly resonated with him.  And yet, because his life's work was centered around announcing that God was dead, he struggled to explain these significant coincidences.  He wondered if he was going insane.  Eventually, these coincidences piled up to such an extent that he did go insane, though some of his contemporaries actually thought he chose to go insane.  ("The Hidden Face of God," by Richard Elliott Friedman, pg. 184).  Perhaps, if he had not gone insane, he might have had to attach meaning to these coincidences in a way that allowed for the possibility that God existed after all.

As I pondered all this, I read the above passage in the daily lectionary.  I especially like the verse, "As they go through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs."  The Valley of Baca was also known as the Valley of Tears.  It was a dry, desolate place, difficult to cross.  To make it a place of springs required them to see the difficult journey as a blessing.  It could only be a blessing if they learned something meaningful along the way.  And the things they learned allowed them to go from strength to strength.  I find the connection between this passage and my thoughts to be highly significant.  It's connections like these that give my life meaning.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Friday, October 18, 2013


Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, "...Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I; and let it be a witness between you and me."  So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar.  And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, "Gather stones," and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap.  Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha:  but Jacob called it Galeed.  Laban said, "This heap is a witness between you and me today."  Therefore he called it Galeed.  ...So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country.  ~~  Genesis 31:43-55 (excerpt)

In this passage, we witness the reconciliation of Laban and Jacob after nearly two decades of built-up resentment and distrust.  Recall that Laban cheated Jacob several times:  he switched his promised daughter Rebecca with his daughter Leah on Jacob's wedding night even though Jacob had labored for seven years for Rebecca; he made Jacob serve him another seven years before he could marry Rebecca; and then Laban outmaneuvered Jacob over another agreement they made to give Jacob a share of Laban's herd.  Jacob in turn cheated Laban by breeding the weakest herd animals for him and keeping the strongest ones for himself; and then he left the land taking Laban's daughters and grandchildren, and all his hard-earned property, without even letting Laban know they were leaving.

It all came to a head in the hill country of Gilead when Laban finally caught up to Jacob.  Thankfully God sent a message to Laban, in a dream the night before, to not speak "a word...either good or bad" to Jacob.  This was to prevent the resentment and mistrust from increasing even more through words of judgment or flattery.   However, Laban couldn't ignore what Jacob had done, so he questioned Jacob about his actions.  Jacob also couldn't ignore the past, so he questioned Laban about his actions.  Everything, all their baggage, was laid bare.  And they realized that they had both been less than charitable towards the other.

It is at this point that they decided to start over.  They made a covenant promising to never again do harm to one another.  God would be their witness to this promise.  And they marked this occasion with the custom of that period:   a pillar of stones.  And everyone among them, Laban's kinsman and Jacob's household, brought a stone to make a heap beside the pillar.  There was another slight disagreement about what to call this special place -- Laban wanted to call it one thing, Jacob another.  But in a final act of reconciliation, Laban  agreed to use Jacob's suggestion.

What a perfect illustration of how to resolve conflict!  If Jacob and Laban can do it, there is hope for everyone:  in our government, our faith communities, our workplaces, our families.

From this story, we see that the ingredients for reconciliation are:  (1) meet face to face; (2) offer no words of judgment or praise -- neither will be appreciated; (3) if the past cannot be forgotten then question the other's actions honestly but respectfully; (4) recognize that it takes two to damage a relationship; (5) forgive and forget -- truly let the past go; (6) make a new pact of doing no harm to each other; and (7) compromise over disagreements.

I love the way this story ends.  "Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home.  Jacob went on his own way and the angels of God met him."  Each left the other feeling content and blessed.

I've been reading a wonderful book lately, called "The Untethered Soul," by Michael Singer, which speaks about this very thing.  Singer writes that there are two routes we can take in our lives when a disturbance with another person occurs.  We can worry and stew about our hurt or our grievances, creating such anxiety within us that we either become more and more fragile or we seek revenge.  Or we can accept the disturbance, examine what it is within us that is making us feel disturbed, and let it go.  We actually have that choice, Singer writes.  The first route leads to physical and mental distress.  The second route leads to spiritual health and wholeness, to what Singer calls "liberation."  Laban and Jacob illustrate the route to liberation.

It sounds too simple to be true.  And yet I can personally attest to its validity.

The other day I was feeling a great deal of stress.  I kept thinking about my grievances with another person, one after another, cycling through them over and over again, until I actually began to feel physically ill.  My chest began to constrict, more and more painfully. 

Before I tell you what happened next, I need to fill you in on a little bit of background.  I've been doing this a lot lately:  stressing-out over problems with other people, feeling justified about some things and guilty about others, cycling through past incidences, etc.  Also lately, I have been experiencing some heart problems:  an irregular heartbeat, pain, pressure, a tightness in my chest area.  Although I wondered if the heart problems were stress related, I've seen my doctor, I've worn a heart monitor, and I'm even taking a beta-blocker now.   Throughout these past few weeks, the only thing that's been made clear to me is that I need to hand everything over to God.  I truly cannot figure out my life on my own.

So, back to the other day... The pain in my chest was increasing, and so was my stress level as I was going to have to meet with this person soon.  Not wanting to be a complete wreck when I did, I prayed to God to help me.  Then, to distract myself before my meeting, I picked up a book, Singer's book, that I had just purchased.  The book had been recommended by my sister-in-law who is an art therapist, but I wasn't too sure about it.  This guy Singer seemed a little "out there," with all his energy-flow talk.  However, I couldn't think of anything better to do, so I read.  And this is what I read,
"Let's say you love somebody, and you feel very open in their presence.  Because you trust them, your walls come down allowing you to feel lots of high energy.  But if they do something that you don't like, the next time you see them you don't feel so high.  You don't feel as much love.  Instead you feel a tightness in your chest.  This is because you closed your heart.  The heart is the energy center, and it can open or close.  ...This flow of energy comes from the depth of your being.  It's been called by many names.  In ancient Chinese medicine it is called Chi.  In yoga, it is called Shakti.  In the West, it is called Spirit. ... This energy is equally available to everybody... The only thing you have to know is that opening allows energy in, and closing blocks it out. ... There is a very simple method for staying open.  You stay open by never closing.  It's really that simple.  All you have to do is decide whether you think it's worth closing... It's ultimately under your control." (pg. 45)
Singer's words, " feel a tightness in your chest," spoke so directly to my situation that I felt this was an answer to my prayer.  I've learned to trust such coincidences, so I listened to Singer's advice and I relaxed.  I let go of my fear and distrust, and decided to be open to whatever came.  I recalled the words of Jesus, "Can any one of you add a single day or hour to your life by worrying?"  and "Consider the lilies of the field...."   And guess what?  The pain in my chest immediately began to fade, until there was no pain at all.

I hadn't realized how much of my difficulty was in my own mind.

Truly I should know this by now.  I remember writing before about my meditation bowl that was so full of junk that I couldn't hear its music.  I'm like a child who needs to be told the same thing over and over again before she finally gets it.  Thankfully, God is very patient.

Truly, God does not want anyone to be enmeshed in negativity, conflict, worries, or fear.  In many different ways, through many various means, God shows us how to be reconciled with one another.  We simply must make the choice to listen.  The way is open.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Friday, October 11, 2013

Moldy Thinking

"The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:  When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, 'There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.'  The priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease...and afterward the priest shall go in to inspect the house...."  -- Leviticus 14:34 - 44

This is a fascinating story.  It also makes me smile, especially the part about the man saying to the priest, "There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house."  But what really fascinates me is the process the priest must follow.  I haven't included the whole passage, because it's very long, but basically:  the priest must examine the mold, which I guess is what it means for a house to have a leprous disease; then the priest must let it sit, closed up, for a week; then if the mold has grown, that part of the house is removed along with all of the plaster, and new plaster is put up; if the mold doesn't reappear then the house is declared clean; otherwise the whole house must be demolished.

The reason this story speaks to me is because I have been thinking about belief systems lately, in religion, psychology, philosophy and science.  A belief system is like a house, and sometimes we believe things that are false.  The wrong thinking is like the mold.  Wrong thinking can undermine our whole system.

In the story, the furnishings are removed, so the priest can examine the walls.  I liken this to the fact that it's probably not the heart of the person that is causing the trouble.  The person could be decent, loving, and honorable, and still they could be wrong.

It's a wonderful example to me that the priest doesn't condemn the whole house right off the bat.  The entire house is not effected, only a small part.  So first, he does a little surgery, trying to correct the part that's causing the problem.  He removes the diseased area, repairs the hole, and puts on a clean coat of plaster.  It's only if the mold returns and spreads that he has to give up on the whole house.

Possibly we ourselves recognize when our thinking is faulty:  we are discontent, we are making mistakes, we are struggling, we meet opposition.  Like the man in the story, we may even say something along the lines of, "There seems to me to be some kind of disease in my house."  Sometimes we ask for help, and sometimes someone comes along even if we don't ask for help, and suggests an alternative way of thinking that actually works better in the real world. 

This has happened frequently throughout history:  one person's understanding is corrected by another's because the first answer didn't work in all cases, especially as new discoveries were made.   Copernicus and Galileo corrected Ptolemy's understanding of the universe.  Einstein corrected Newtonian physics.  Victor Frankl corrected Frued's predominantly inward, searching-in-the-past focus with a more outward, future-looking focus.  In philosophy and science, Heidegger corrected the fixation on sense data (things we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell), that had directed thinkers since the Age of Enlightenment by showing that reality also consists of "events in time" or processes.  As far as religion goes, one just has to look at the many different sects or denominations within any particular religion to see the changes in thought over time.

What I'm curious about is what makes someone resistant to change, even when their current understanding or practice no longer works effectively, even when it starts to cause problems.

I like this idea of reality consisting not only of "things" but "events in time."  What happens when we rely entirely on things (not just objects, but ideas and practices) and discount events in time?  That seems to be a good description of the problem.  If a way of thinking or a practice no longer works effectively in the here and now, and even may cause problems for people, why do we cling to it persistently?

It's like what happens when we make something an idol.  Anything can become an idol:  money, fame, toys, people, rituals, traditions, books, doctrine, beliefs.  When we cling to these things even when they have no power to improve our lives, then we have made them into idols.

I'm not saying that everything we believe or do, causes a problem.  I'm not talking about demolishing the whole house, or to use another analogy:  "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."  Traditions, rituals, money, fame, people, books, doctrine, belief systems, etc, are not inherently bad.  They can and do powerfully enhance our lives.  It's just that when they stop helping us, and we continue to cling to them, they create more problems than they are worth. 

So how should we respond when our current way of thinking or doing doesn't work?  Well, first of all we need to be wise, courageous, and humble enough to admit it.  Then we need to stop, and remove the offending belief.  And then we need to repair the breach created by our mistakes.  And finally, we need to learn to think in a clearer and more sustainable way, a way that strengthens us for the future.  Very often this means listening to other people, and learning from other people.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Thursday, October 3, 2013

What's Good about Sin?

Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"  He said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only one who is good.  If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments....   -- Matthew 19:16-17

This passage is odd.  Someone asks Jesus about good deeds and Jesus says that only one being or person is good (implying God).  But why does Jesus switch the topic from good deeds to good persons or beings?  There's a disconnect here which is hard to understand.  Luke has a similar version of this event, but Luke's is slightly different, and it's that difference that provides food for thought, especially in light of recent events.  In Luke's version the passage reads,

A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone...."  Luke 18:18

In Luke's version, Jesus's response makes sense.  The person calls Jesus good, and Jesus says only God is good.  

I can't help but think that Matthew changed the words of the actual story.  But why?

In Luke's version, Jesus is saying that even he should not be called "good."  Really?   Does that mean that Jesus was not without sin?   According to Luke's version, that is the implication.  And that is not easy to swallow.

Yesterday I heard on the news that Pope Francis recently said something very similar.  He said, "... the Church is all too evidently made up of sinners.  Sinful men, women, priests, nuns, Bishops, Cardinals, Popes.  All of them."  It was somewhat shocking.  Even the Pope is not without sin?  How can that be?

Many of us have a problem with sin.  For some it's even a hard word to say aloud.  The multiple versions of The Lord's Prayer attest to this difficulty.  In the Bible, there are two versions of The Lord's Prayer, one in Matthew and one in Luke.  Matthew uses the word "debt" and Luke uses the word "sin."   The traditional version of the prayer that is said in church services uses the word "trespasses."  Now, to me, the words "debts" and "trespasses" imply mistakes.  We all make mistakes.  No one is perfect.  Now let's move on.

But sin... that's more serious. 

There is an important difference between making a mistake and committing a sin.  Making a mistake implies that we did something wrong, but it doesn't convey the sense that we actually intended to hurt someone.  Sin is different.  Sin implies that we did something or failed to do something even though we knew it was going to hurt someone.

I experienced this difference for myself, recently.

Mistake:  I forgot to communicate with a couple of people about a recent ministry fair I was helping to organize.   As a result, they felt a little excluded.

Sin:  I spoke critically to a friend even though I knew what I was going to say was going to hurt her.  I did not even try to figure out how to say what I felt I needed to say in a less hurtful way.  As a result, she felt like I had punched her in the gut.

Now, both of these transgressions require apologies.  But the mistake was unintentional.  The sin was not.  I had no idea I had made the mistake until after the fact.  I knew I was going to hurt my friend and I did it anyway. 

People who murder, who commit adultery, who lie, cheat and steal, etc., know they are doing something wrong.  And they do it anyway.  That's the difference between a sin and a mistake.

Do we all sin?  Do we all do things that we know we shouldn't do, things that are harmful to us or to other people?  Yes, I believe we do. 

Is there anything we can do about it? 

Well, we can beat ourselves up, but that's not very helpful.

There is only one thing I know that actually improves our lives and the lives of those around us, and that is to rely completely on God.  

Now, I'm not talking about forgiveness, about relying on God to forgive me for my sins.  I'm talking about relying on God to lead me, to be my guide in all things.  

Left to my own devices, I would be a heapful of vices.  But when I let God be my guide in all things, I make better choices.  I am a better human being.

The morning before I hurt my friend's feelings, I thought about seeking God's advice.  But I was pressed for time.  I thought I knew best.  So I didn't bother to seek God's advice.  In hindsight, I wish I had.  For I know that God would have guided me to do things differently.  As God is guiding me now in the aftermath, helping me to understand what I did and to put my friend's needs before my own.

Recognizing our sin is the key to changing our lives, and the lives of others, for the better.  Recognizing my sin forced me to see how much I still need to rely on God.

And that is why I value Pope Francis's words.  "Holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things," he said, but in leaving it to God, stressing that "the meeting of our weakness with the strength of his grace, is to have confidence in his active service to others."  (from "Pope Francis: Do not be afraid of holiness,"  by Elise Harris, Catholic News Agency) 

At the end of the passage above in Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, "Then who can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."

Amen to that.  God will show you a better way if you listen.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you