Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Wellspring -- Part One the Celtic world, wells were sacred places.  Wells were seen as threshold places between the deeper, dark, unknown subterranean world and the outer world of light and form.  ...Wells were reverenced as special apertures through which divinity flowed forth.  Manannan mac Lir said, "No one will have knowledge who does not have a drink from the well."   --  John O'Donohue*

I feel like I've fallen down a well!  It's been over a month since my last blog posting, and whereas the trend over the last couple of years toward fewer and fewer postings has been due to the lack of time spent reflecting about faith and life in my journals, that hasn't been the case this time around.  This time, the reason has to do with the fact that I have completely submerged myself in studying and journaling.  It all started with a class on the Enneagram, presented a few weeks ago in the school for people who want to become spiritual directors, called Tacheria, in which I am enrolled.   I found the subject absolutely fascinating, and have spent most of my days since then, reading and journaling, and trying to understand it. 

On the surface, the Enneagram is a personality-typing system, with each of us falling into one of nine personality types -- although there is some blending and cross-over between these nine types.  It is often used to help people figure out what career would be best for them; or for companies to find the right people for the jobs they have in mind.  I would hazard a guess that online computer matchmaking programs also use it, if not similar, personality typologies.  It is certainly amazingly accurate at nailing one's personality.  For me, it was like looking in a mirror.

For example, according to the Enneagram Institute's online test, I am a "9," which is often described as "The Peacemaker."  Nines are generally easy-going, accepting, and are good at seeing all sides of an issue; they are unifiers, mediators, harmonizers, good at resolving conflicts; they are often spiritual seekers.  I think this describes me pretty well.  The fact that this blog focuses primarily on finding spiritual unity in the midst of so much diversity, that I'm passionate about ecumenism and interfaith concerns, and that the book I have been working on for the last three years in subtitled "Lessons in Unity," was not lost on me.  Nor was the fact that I made a bumper sticker earlier in the year that reads "Unity in Diversity Creates Harmony."  Nor was the fact that I sign off nearly everything I write with the blessing, May the Peace which passes understanding be with you always.  Nor was the fact that I most often think of God as that very Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding!  So it got that right, most definitely.

But, lest you think the Enneagram is all sweetness and light, describing only positive attributes, you might, or might not, appreciate knowing that it also describes one's flaws pretty accurately, too.  As a "9," I also have a great tendency to procrastinate (and how often have I written about that in this blog?!), I have a tendency to lose myself in the agendas of other people (ah, yes), I have a tendency to avoid conflict whenever possible (unfortunately, also true), and I would sometimes rather get lost in a book or take a nap than face a hard reality (yikes!).  It was a bit disconcerting, to say the least, to see yourself all laid out on a piece of paper like that.

So I started to wonder...and ask questions -- all of them, in fact.  How?  Who?  What?  When? Where?  Why?   Now, finally, I feel competent enough to share some of what I have been learning.  There is a lot more to the Enneagram than finding the right career.  In fact, the Enneagram goes quite deep.  Like a bucket bringing forth water out of a very deep well, it offers a wellspring of insight into  "the subterranean world" of our unconscious motivations.  So, I'm gong to take this in stages.

One of the most significant concepts described in the Enneagram is that your particular gifts, talents, and interests -- and your flaws for that matter -- come about as the result of a specific loss, fear, or avoidance you experienced or learned as a child.  This doesn't have to be a traumatic experience -- although it can be.  Sometimes what you learn as a child is cultural, as it was for me.  My parents -- good northern Europeans that they were -- taught me to avoid talking about certain subjects, particularly politics, religion, sex, and money, because doing so might lead to conflict or unpleasant confrontations.  So for most of my life I avoided, as much as possible, talking about concerns that might lead to conflicts.  I was almost 40 years old before I could talk about God out loud, and then only to my closest friends!  When that didn't result in the terrible catastrophe I feared, the floodgates truly opened.  When, a year later, I found myself repeatedly defending gay marriage from a religious point of view -- laying aside three taboos at one go -- I knew something was definitely different.

Coincidentally, when I read that part of the Enneagram about the connections between our gifts and our fears, the Gospel reading in church was about the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus tells the story of a man who would not invest the one talent God gave him because he was too afraid of failing.  And I could see that, Yes, our fears rule our lives far too often, with little warrant.  Recognizing our fears, and overcoming them somehow, so that we are able to take risks, is really what God wants us to do.

The more I thought about the various personality types described in the Enneagram, and the fears or avoidances associated with them, such as conflict, pain, weakness, need, emptiness, failure, etc., and the ways we hide from these fears, the more I learned.  At one point, the Beatitudes came to mind:  Blessed are the peacemakers....  Blessed are those who mourn.... Blessed are the meek....  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness....  Blessed are the pure in heart....  Blessed are you when people revile you....  (see Matthew 5:1-12)   It turns out that there are also nine Beatitudes.  And slowly it dawned on me that The Beatitudes matched the Enneagram in this area of fear.

To the person who wants to avoid conflict, like me, Jesus says, blessed are those who get into the fight, even if it means being reviled; to the person who wants to avoid appearing weak, Jesus says, blessed are those who are meek; to the person who wants to avoid emptiness, Jesus says, blessed are you who are poor in spirit; to the person who fears failure, and so puffs themselves up to look better than they actually are, Jesus says, blessed are the pure in heart; etc.  Now I knew that the Beatitudes offered advice that ran counter to the establishment, but here also Jesus seems to be encouraging us to face our specific fears, that doing so will help us see God's love for us more clearly.

That alone ought to keep us thinking for a little while...  There is more.  Until then, 

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue, (Harper Perennial ed., pg. 86)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Getting Unstuck

What shall the believer do in times of darkness -- the darkness of perplexity and confusion, not of heart but of mind?  Times of darkness come to the faithful and believing disciple who is walking obediently in the will of God; seasons when he [or she] does not know what to do, nor which way to turn.  The sky is overcast with clouds.  The clear light of heaven does not shine upon his pathway.  One feels as if he were groping his way in darkness. 
   Beloved, is this you?  What shall the believer do in times of darkness?  Listen!  Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and rely upon his God.   --  Dr. Pardington*

There was a time when I was in a very dark place, spiritually.  My home life sucked.  My husband was stressed-out at work, and did not then know how to handle stress in a healthy way.  He brought his stress home and yelled a lot, and he drank a lot.  One "coping mechanism" fed off the other, becoming more and more of a problem.  This was something that had never happened before, and I didn't know how to respond.  I didn't know how to make things better except to pray to God to change my husband, or pray to God to change me.  But nothing changed.  If anything, life just kept getting harder.

The thing is, although I believed in God, I had stopped going to church.  I was angry with the church for excluding people who were different:  who thought differently, who looked differently, who had different lifestyles.  And so, because it made perfect sense at the time, I excluded myself from church.  Who needed church, anyway?   I thought. 

Well, it turns out ...  I did.  I needed that hour on Sunday morning to sit in peace and listen to God's word on a regular basis.

It's ironic.  I knew that I could find God's guidance in church.  That was, in fact, how I thought of God:  The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding found in church.  For I couldn't begin to count the number of times I had gone to church, a little (or a lot) stressed and found just what I needed to hear in the words of a sermon or song.  That coincidence was the surest proof I had of God's existence.  And yet, when I got angry with the church, I removed that one mode of sustenance from my life.

Well, I eventually did go back to church, but it took me reaching rock-bottom for that to happen.    After one Christmas vacation, in which all of us were home for two weeks, and in which each day was filled with one angry blow-up after another, I finally realized how miserable my life had become, and how utterly alone I felt.  It's a cliche, but I felt like a small deserted island.  As this thought came to me, it was immediately followed with another thought:  You may be an island, but you are an island made by God.  It was such a simple thought, but I felt like I was being embraced by the kindest and gentlest of friends.  My control finally started to crack.  I handed everything over to God, and knew I needed to go back to church.  I had always found The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding in a church, and I had to trust that I always would, whatever church I happened to go to.

So the following Sunday, I went to the nearest church, and listened to a sermon about remembering that we are children of God and honoring our diversity as children of God.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.  I immediately asked how to become a member of that church.  And life got better, as I learned to listen to God again.

There is a story in the Bible about Moses leading the people through the wilderness, that describes pretty well what happened to me.  The people traveled three days in the wilderness and came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it had become bitter.  Moses cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him how to make the water of Marah sweet again.  God said, "... listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes...."  And then the Lord led them to Elim, "where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water."  (Exodus 15:22-27)

For me, Marah was the church, in general -- not any specific one.  God led me to see that church was actually a place where sweet water could be found.  And God also led me to other springs of delicious water, as well.

What are those other springs?  Where else can you find the sustenance, comfort or peace you need in times of trouble?

Here are some springs:

*  journaling or centering, contemplative prayer -- they are the same thing to me.
*  reading the Bible -- a daily selection from the Old and New Testament is most helpful.
*  reading a daily devotional
*  reading any book, mindfully -- especially a faith-related book -- that you feel especially drawn to read
*  belonging to a small group in which you talk about faith on a regular basis  -- Where two or three are gathered in my name I will be there.
*  listening to music, mindfully  --  sometimes the lyrics will tell you exactly what you need to hear.
*  paying close attention to the small blessings, all the good things, that come into your life on a daily basis -- gratitude brings grace.
*  listening to that very quiet inner voice within you that tells you what to do next.  Don't put it off.
*  doing some kind of physical or creative work:  gardening, exercise, handwork, etc. --  focusing on something else will actually free your mind enough to bring some clarity and insight.
*  sleep  -- sometimes it's the most spiritual thing you can do for yourself
*  being in the midst of your favorite kind of landscape, be that the beach, the mountains, the desert, etc.

Besides church, that makes eleven springs of water.  There may be more.  Moses mentions twelve at Elim.  I found another spring recently.  It came out of failure.

I've shared these ways of finding God's presence with many people in my life, hoping to help them through a period of spiritual darkness.  Sometimes my advice helps, and sometimes none of my advice works.  Sometimes the person I'm trying to help doesn't believe that God exists, or would actually be able to guide them through anything so mundane as their personal crisis.  But even with some people who believe in God, these ways of seeking God fail to move them.

I have a very dear friend who sometimes gets stuck in a dark place.  Because I love her, I have tried many ways to help her find God's guidance:  I have given her a journal; I have given her my favorite daily devotional -- "Streams in the Desert," from which the above quote is taken; I have told her how important church is to me, and how much I learn from the books I read and the women's faith book study I belong to; and, since she is Catholic, I have even made her a beautiful rosary.  But even though she believes in God, she doesn't want to go to church, or use her rosary, or do any of the other things I have encouraged her to do.  These are all too religious for her.  I understand that attitude.  Believe me, I've been there.

Recently my friend came to visit, and she shared how utterly stuck she felt about a particular concern of hers.  As she shared her pain, I listened, as I always do.  And, afterward, I wondered how I could help her, as I always do.  Only this time, since I knew that all of my previous advice to her had failed to move her, I kept thinking, What can I say to her, dear God, that will make a difference?  All of my attempts to point her to you have failed.  What would you have me say?    And I found the words that I believe God wanted me to tell her.  They did not mention God, or church, or faith, or religion, but they were the words she needed to hear to help her get unstuck.  As she left to return home, she commented on how peaceful our weekend together had been. 

And so, I would say, the twelfth spring is:

*  talking to a person you trust who is listening to God. 

Sometimes we get stuck, spiritually.  And yet, all of the traditional trappings of spiritual sustenance -- church, praying, the Bible, etc. -- are no longer sweet-tasting to us, if they ever were.  So telling someone about them is less than helpful.  I believe God understands this.  And I believe God brings people into our lives who will speak to us the words he would have us hear -- even though no mention is ever made of God.  It's a mystery how it happens, and yet I know that it does happen.

Last week I was struggling with the book I am writing.  I had many questions, which were mounting, as I had asked an acquaintance to critique it for me.  As the deadline for handing it to her approached, I considered putting her off.  But then my friend, the one mentioned above, and I popped into the bookstore for a minute, on our way to picking up my son, and I found William Zinsser's "On Writing Well:  The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction."  Reading it over the past few days, I have found answers to all of my questions, even to my concern about the finished product.  Zinsser devotes a whole chapter to "The Tyranny of the Final Product."  His solution to this common problem was to "teach a writing course in which no writing is required." (pg. 255)   I repeat:  a writing workshop in which writing is optional.  The class was simply devoted to collectively solving the problems of writing.  Kind of like a discussion of spiritual problems in which no one mentions God, isn't it?

Last time, I wrote about the need to empty ourselves of what gets in the way of communication.  At the time, in church, the Sunday lectionary was from The Letter to the Philippians, where Paul writes that "Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.…"   Now again, I see God doing something similar:  emptying himself even of himself, when it is our perception of him that gets in the way of communication.

All I can say to that is...

May the Peace
Which Passes Understanding
Be With You


*  quoted in "Streams in the Desert," by Mrs. Charles B.Cowman,  Oct 7

Monday, October 6, 2014


"When you meet only at the point of poverty between you, it is as if you give birth to a ghost who would devour every shred of your affection."  --  John O'Donohue *

I like this insight.  It expresses something I have noticed between my husband and me, between my friends and me, really, between anyone I have regular contact with.  As much as I value unity in diversity, and as much as I have learned about valuing the other, I recognize that I still have a tendency to judge some people's understanding as just plain wrong.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but one thing I do know is that if I focus on this point of contention between us, I lose all sight of the goodness that is in that other person.  And that's a problem.  For, then, although there could be a more meaningful and enriching relationship, there is no relationship at all.

I've been reading M. Scott Peck's "The Different Drum:  Community Making and Peace."  I wish I had read this book years ago.  It might have saved some real heartache for more than just myself.  For through countless years of community building workshops, among very diverse groups of people who came together for very diverse purposes, Peck learned that communities, in order to become real, healthy, functioning communities, must go through specific stages.  I'll describe them in a moment, but just knowing there are phases that must be reached and passed-through in order to achieve a better relationship is so hope-filled, that I couldn't help but share it.

The first stage of community is called Pseudocommunity.  It's where you look at the other through rose-colored glasses, seeing and projecting only the positives, the commonalities.  It's a phase of good manners and politeness, where conversation is kept at a very superficial level.  Even though there may be serious differences between you, you ignore them, preferring to be friendly and not make waves.   This is how we generally behave when we first meet someone, or first join a workplace, or a church.  Unfortunately, it is not real.  "The basic pretense of pseudocommunity is the denial of individual differences.  The members pretend -- act as if -- they all have the same belief...even the same life history."  (pg. 89)  Have you ever kept your diverse opinions to yourself in order to not make waves?  I think we all have.  And if you want to keep your relationship with that person or community on a superficial level, then that's what you do.

If, however, you want to be a little more honest with yourself and with the other person, then you have to give voice to your differences.  Doing so means entering the next phase of community making, called Chaos.

Chaos is as unpleasant as it sounds, but it's a stage that must be reached in order to achieve true community.  In this stage, individual differences are out in the open for all to see.  But differences sometimes threaten our own understanding, and we tend to respond to threats in not so healthy ways:  we may separate ourselves from the one who is different or form cliques and gangs; we may try to convert the other to our way of thinking; we may actually verbally or physically abuse them; and, we may also resort to trying to resolve the differences in organizational constructions -- handing the issue off to a leader for ultimate decision, or to a committee subject to Robert's Rules of Order, or even calling for a democratic vote.  None of these methods resolve conflict, however.  And we all know that to be true.  When did a ruling or even a majority vote ever change our own opinion? 

No, Peck says, there is only one way through Chaos, and that is through Emptiness, through letting go of anything that gets in the way of communication.  Some of the things we need to let go of are our preconceptions, our expectations, our prejudices, our ideology, our need to heal and fix things, our need to control, even, to some extent, our theology.  "Such giving up is a sacrificial process....  And sacrifice hurts." So some communities revert back to pseudocommunity, get stuck in chaos, or disintegrate.

When asked if we needed to give up everything, Peck replied, "No... just everything that stands in your way."  (pg. 100)  This means that, without necessarily giving up your own understanding, you learn to become open to the understanding of the other.  You acknowledge that your understanding fits your experiences, but you allow for the possibility that other experiences have led to other understandings. You acknowledge that you don't have all the answers and actually need the other person's point of view to some extent.  If you can learn to let go of the things that stand in the way and accept the other as a unique individual with gifts as valuable to the whole group as your own, then you are on your way to being a real community, where decisions are reached by consensus, and everyone's opinion counts.

Many examples come to mind as I read these words of Peck, but I can't help thinking of my church.  It was a pseudocommunity when I first became a member.  It didn't take long for me to see that there were many differences between us, especially as regards to theology, religious practices, and political issues, but I could also see that these differences were rarely, if ever, given voice.  Then our church-wide assembly adopted a Social Statement on Human Sexuality, which acknowledged our differences on the issue of same-sex marriage, and allowed both sides to be honored.  Then all hell broke loose in our church.  With the result that all our diversity spilled out, and our congregation split painfully along ideological lines.  Some people who had been friends could be so no longer for they could not see past "the point of poverty" between them. 

Maybe the split was necessary.  After all, the debates that followed made us aware of so many of our differences:  how we read the Bible, how we viewed sin, whether we thought homosexuality was a sin, what we wanted to teach our children, etc.  However, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if we had been able to look past our points of contention and remember what we had in common:  a love for Jesus, and a desire to honor God to the best of our ability.  I wonder what would have happened if we had just been able to acknowledge our differences, accept them, and not let them stand in the way of loving one another, as the Social Statement on Human Sexuality encouraged us to do.  Perhaps a more honest community would have resulted. 
In my last posting, I described the television show Utopia.  So far, it, too, perfectly illustrates the phases of community making.  For, from the beginning, amidst this group of fifteen diverse people, there were people that just wanted to be pleasant to one another, and there were people that didn't care a fig about being pleasant; they just wanted things to go their own way.  That opened the door for some of the pleasant people to also express their contrary opinions, just as ferociously, and the first couple of weeks in Utopia were truly chaotic.  Slowly, they are learning to function as a group.  For they are learning to let go of the things that stand in the way of communication.  At least the ones who want to stay in community are letting go.  The others are being encouraged to go, or choosing to leave the community on their own.  I do, however, have great hopes for the ones who remain.  I almost envy them their opportunity to form a really close community. 

However, Peck cautions his readers to understand that making a real community is not a one-time deal.  It is a continual process of moving from pseudocommunity, through chaos, and through emptiness to honoring individual differences, and back again.   This rings true to me when I think of my marriage, my friendships, and my church.  I keep thinking that at some point my relationships will function without any upheavals.  But, so far, that hasn't happened.  There's always some conflict to resolve.

Fortunately, Peck says that the sign of a healthy community, whether consisting of two people or more, is not that you never experience conflict, it's that you move through the stages, especially the stage of chaos, more quickly.  You learn to recognize the communication blocks and let them go more quickly.

I can see glimmers of that kind of maturity in myself.  I have done my share of fighting against, as well as trying to fix the other, for sure.  But I have also done my share of honoring the other, and I am learning to do this more and more.  So there's hope for me.

And hope for all of us, really.  Don't you think?  Maybe if more of us saw this big picture of what a real community looks like, and what it takes to make one, we would actually be better able to attain it in all of our relationships.  Wouldn't then God's will be done on Earth as in Heaven?  I think so.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* from "Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Cliff Street Books ed, pg.12)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Teachable Moments

"We are always on a journey from darkness to light."  -- John O'Donohue*

"If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn't there a chance that what we are running from is God?"  -- Barbara Brown Taylor

A few weeks ago, I taught an ESL class for adults, substituting for the teacher for the day.  I used to teach math, and so usually substitute for math teachers, not English teachers, but I thought... Why not?  I do, after all, love to read and write.  Besides, I would have lesson plans to follow.  Thankfully, the lesson plans were very thorough and gave us more than enough to do for the three-hour class.  It was a lot of fun, too, for the teacher had provided us with many learning games to play to get us thinking of English words and their usage.  She also wrote in her lesson plans: "Be open to teachable moments."   I'd say, in hindsight, that any time the students got stuck, made mistakes, or had questions, those were teachable moments.

Shortly after this, I finally got around to watching a new television show called "Utopia."  It's about 15 very diverse strangers who are confined to an isolated, semi-developed compound for a year and asked to form a cohesive, sustainable community.  It's not pretty.  Almost immediately, it's clear that these 15 adults are at varying stages of maturity.  Some rise to the top, staying out of the fray, and some sink to the bottom, creating the fray, when faced with any sort of opposition or adversity.  And others are somewhere in between.  These in-betweeners are the ones who make mistakes, but learn from them.  They're the one I relate to the most.  When one of them asks another, "Are you teachable?" it struck me as a somewhat odd thing to say, but really, when you think about it, that's what's makes it or breaks it in life; and, that's what ultimately distinguishes a child from an adult.   

Are you teachable?

None of us are born wise.  We are born with a certain level of intelligence, yes, but whether we grow in maturity is something altogether different.   That takes, first of all, a will to learn, a desire.  Secondly, it takes a readiness to learn, a certain level of mental or physical maturity to begin with.  And, thirdly, it takes the ability to learn, the freedom and opportunity to learn.  We have to be ready, willing, and able to learn in order to learn.  If one of those components isn't in place, we won't learn.

Having the freedom and opportunity to learn is not always up to us.  Having the desire to learn is a part of our personality, and differs from person to person.  For example, I, for one, have no desire to learn about cars, and never have, so it's not too surprising that I know very little about cars.  On the other hand, I have a great desire to learn about God, and have throughout my life.

So, I wonder why has it taken me so long to learn about God.  I've written before about how, although I've gone to church for as long as I can remember, for most of my life, my understanding of God grew only in rare moments of crisis.  It wasn't until I was thirty-six years old that I started asking questions about God, and even then those questions came slowly.  Why did it take so long for me to start asking questions?  The desire to know God was there from an early age.  The opportunity was there, as well.  But clearly something was missing.  Was it just that I had to be at a certain level of maturity?

I see a similar lengthy learning process with parenting.  When I became a mother, I didn't even know how to change a diaper!  So, I took whatever advice I could get and read loads of books about parenting, wanting to be the best mother I could be.  After a couple of years, feeling confident with one easy-going child, we had another, who was so different from the first, it was like starting over from scratch.  The third was equally as different as the other two.   Unfortunately, there's no parenting manual that fits every child.  However, with lots of opportunity to learn about parenting, and a keen desire to do so, maturity has come in baby steps.

Maturity, like wisdom, is not something we are born with.  It comes gradually, over time, as the need arises, from having the opportunity to get stuck, to make mistakes, and to be confused, combined with the desire to learn, to get unstuck, to do better, and to ask questions.  These "teachable moments" come one after the other, hopefully, for as long as we live.

I wonder if God waits for "teachable moments," also, and gives us just what we can handle in the moment, no more and no less.

As a parent, unlike God, I have wanted to shield my children from difficulties, to prevent them from making the same mistakes I have made, to prevent them from making any mistakes at all, if possible.  And while some of my protection has been warranted, most of it just creates in them an overactive sense of caution, or sheer obstinacy, depending on the personality of the child.  Neither one are desirable.

In "The Return of the Prodigal," Henri Nouwen writes that the fulfillment of the spiritual journey is for us as individuals to move beyond acting like the prodigal son who rebels or the elder brother who always does what he is told, and to become like the wise, compassionate, and generous father -- this father who lets his sons make mistakes, get stuck and ask questions.

We know that the prodigal son learned.  Darkness and difficult times are perhaps our best teachers, our only teachers, as Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully describes in "Learning to Walk in the Dark."  For, in these dark nights, there is a special kind of light to be found, one that only shines in the darkness, if we can but see it.

But what about the elder brother?  His darkness was hardly noticeable, the bare hint of a shadow, in an otherwise light-filled life.  Unfortunately, it's sometimes very hard to see shadows.  It's hard to notice them on others when the light seems to shine so brightly on them, and it's hard to see our own shadows.   However, it's the students and "Utopians" who never think they make mistakes who are most likely to crash and burn.  Since the elder brother did not recognize his shadow -- at least, not as far as the parable of the prodigal son reveals -- can he even learn?  Can we learn if we are never aware of being stuck, of being in darkness?  I don't think so.

At least, not unless we have a teacher who is willing to come and point out our mistakes -- like Jesus did.  Or, a substitute who is willing to follow the lesson plans.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


* from "Anam Cara:  A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Clift Street Books ed, pg. 4)

** from "Learning to Walk in the Darkness," by Barbara Brown Taylor ( Harper One ed. pg. 57)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Coincidence of Opposites

"The fruit of education... was the activation of that inmost center, that scintilla animae, that 'apex' or 'spark' which is a freedom beyond freedom, an identity beyond essence, a self beyond all ego, a being beyond the created realm, and a consciousness that transcends all division, all separation....  This realization at the apex is a coincidence of opposites.... The 'spark' is not so much a stable entity which one finds but an event, an explosion which happens as all opposites clash within oneself." -- Thomas Merton*

I have made no secret of the fact that my husband and I are fairly opposite in many ways.  Some of these differences are benign, some compliment each other, and some clash.  For example, he likes to be the center of attention, I do not; he likes to tell jokes, I couldn't tell a joke to save my life; I believe in God, he does not; he likes to get things done, I like to procrastinate; I like to question, he likes being decisive; he likes to talk about doing, I like to talk about being; he's a computer guru, I'm always, somehow, getting computer viruses; he likes a sink to be free of dishes and doesn't see the messy counters; I like clean counters and am not bothered by dishes in the sink.  I could go on.  Some of these differences are laughably minor, but at one time or another they have all been the source of aggravation between us -- usually when I wish he was more like me, or he wishes I was more like him.

Now, I've described, in an earlier post , that the way we met was definitely a God-moment.  But we also met on April Fool's Day.  So either these opposites are there for a reason, or the whole thing has been one cosmic joke.  Only time will tell.

Many of our differences we have learned to accept as unchangeable parts of our personalities.  The only difference between us that we can't accept, and which has been a continual stumbling block for us, has to do with how we want to raise our children.  We, of course, what to raise them in the way that we know best, the way we were raised.  Yet, the way we were each raised is about as different as you can get.  My husband was raised in a caring family, in which you did what you were told without question because a person in authority over you said so, and you were rewarded for your achievements and punished for your mistakes.  I was raised in a caring family in which you were expected to figure things out for yourself and you were never rewarded for achievements or punished for mistakes.  His parents emphasized success and my parents emphasized personal happiness.  It's as if the elder brother and the prodigal daughter got married and had kids -- think law vs. gospel.

Being a parent isn't easy, but when the parents are on opposite ends of the parenting spectrum, there is an extra dimension of difficulties.  We both want our kids to be successful and happy.  However, accomplishing that when we have such different parenting styles has been a challenge, to say the least.  We have, in turn, tried his way, then my way, then his way, then my way, getting more and more frustrated in the process because neither way worked completely:  either there was too much unhappiness, or too little success.  It's been so challenging that, more than once, I have considered divorce, thinking that parenting would be so much easier if I could just do it my own way!  I wouldn't be surprised if my husband thought the same, on occasion.  The thing is, however, since we both love our children, and because our kids are thoroughly a mixture of both of our personalities, they really need both of our parenting styles.

After about fifteen years of parenting, we are finally learning to lean toward each other rather than to see-saw back and forth when it comes to parenting.  We are finally figuring out the right balance, a happy medium, between his way and my way, that also works for our children.  Four essential ingredients have made this possible.  First, we want the same things for our children:  success and happiness.  Second, we love each other and are committed to staying together, despite the differences between us.  Third, we have learned to talk to one another calmly, face-to-face, about our concerns.  And fourth, we are willing to acknowledge both the negatives and positives in our individual styles.  That last ingredient was the hardest to find.  For both my husband and I can be fairly obstinate.

Related to all this, as I hinted at above, is the idea of Law and Gospel.  I used to not understand the Lutheran emphasis on Law and Gospel.  Why do we need the Law?  The Gospel is good enough for me.  Back then, I associated Christianity with the Gospel, and Judaism with the Law.  For I used to think the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, was all about the Law -- ordinances, statutes, rules, and rewards and punishments -- and the New Testament was all about the Gospel -- forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and unconditional love.  But after studying the whole Bible, I know that while the emphasis in the Old Testament is on Law, and the emphasis in the New Testament is on Gospel, there is both Law and Gospel throughout, from beginning to end.  Wrapped-up in the Law of the Old Testament is a God who loves his children and who continually forgives them despite their transgressions.  And wrapped-up in the Gospel of the New Testament is a God who show his children how they should live and who continually warns them to change their ways.  It is actually impossible to separate love from the Law and the law from the Gospel in God's word.  The prodigal needs to learn right from wrong, and the elder brother needs to understand mercy and forgiveness.  For the father loves them both, equally.

So why do we, especially as faithful people, try to separate them?

I think we must all be fairly obstinate people.  We all like to do things our own way.  So we emphasize the wrong-doings of the other, and forget to understand, love and forgive as God understands, loves and forgive us.  And, none of us likes to be corrected.  So we emphasize understanding, love and forgiveness in order to avoid correcting the wrong-doings of the other. 

Somehow, if we are all going to live successfully and happily in this world of six billion different people, we are going to have to figure out how to marry both Law and Gospel.  And the only way I know how to do this is, first, to seek common ground; second, to stay in community with one another, despite the differences; third, to speak calmly, face-to-face; and finally, to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives of each party.

You know, everything I have learned about unity in the midst of diversity, about loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, a matter that is the foundation of God's will, has been learned in this one relationship.  The rest is just repetition and practice.  And for that, I thank God.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


*from "Love and Living," (Harcourt ed.), pg 10

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Houston, We Have a Problem

"Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced."  -- James Baldwin

Last week, I had to write a summary of my journey of faith for a class I am taking this Fall.  Since I have been writing about faith and life for a long time, and have been working on a book about it for the last two years, you would think this would have been an easy assignment for me.  It wasn't.  How do you condense 200 pages down to less than 20 and not leave out anything important?  It seemed impossible.  So, first, I tried to ignore it:  I put off the assignment all summer long.  Then, I tried to get out of it: "Could I just send you chapters of my book, please?"  Then, I looked for a shortcut:  maybe I could rehash a 15-minute talk I gave at church in 2012 -- but, that wasn't too appealing either as I've learned a lot about my journey in the last two years.  Finally, I started thinking.  As I thought about all the God-moments in my life, it dawned on me that for most of my life, for 36 of my 47 years, these moments only occurred as a result of some crisis.  Since I only sought God in those moments of crisis, I only learned something new about God on those rare occasions.

Crises have a way of focusing your attention. When you are in the midst of a crisis, there is very little else to think about except surviving.  In a crisis, you need help now:  from God, from friends and family, from your community, or from your government.  Some of my crises came unexpectedly, such as a miscarriage, but others started out as mere difficulties, such as a lack of communication.   And, as you see from the example above, I would, and maybe most of us would, often rather ignore, or avoid, or short-shift, difficulties; pretend they don't exist and hope they go away.  Unfortunately, problems don't go away if they are ignored.  They just lead to more problems, until, sometimes, you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.  Problems only go away if you pay attention to them and seek a solution. 

But, and here is the thing, I also have learned a lot about God in the last ten years, even in non-crisis mode, simply because I started thinking about God, about faith, and about Jesus.  It seems so obvious, doesn't it?  We learn about whatever we give our attention to.  Clearly this doesn't just apply to understanding God.  People become specialists in a field of study because they have spent countless hours thinking about it.

And that's the other obvious thing... thinking takes time.  I recently watched a biography of Benjamin Franklin and learned that he did not become an inventor until after he retired from the printing business.  He didn't discover that lightening was electricity until he had time to devote to thinking about whatever came to his mind.  He didn't get involved in politics and become one of the founding fathers of America until he had time to devote to thinking about the problems around him.

How much time does the average person set aside for just thinking?

In our western society, very little.  Americans highly value productivity, hard work, lending a helping hand, and even highly value entertainment and the pursuit of hobbies when we are not working.  We don't value sitting and thinking, unless that leads to greater productivity.  Eastern society may have a different understanding of productivity.  I recently learned that the Dalai Lama sets aside at least four hours a day to meditate.  No wonder he is so wise and harmonious.

I envy Benjamin Franklin, the Dalai Lama, and other inventors and discoverers, for their freedom to just think.  Women do not often have that luxury.  Women with children especially do not often have that luxury.  Not even women with children who "stay-at-home."  How many women with children do you know who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pulitzer, the Field Medal, or become a saint?  Throw in the adjective "stay-at-home" and I'm pretty sure the number would be nada, zilch, zippo.

As a stay-at-home mother, I have odd working hours:  geting the kids ready for school in the morning, taking them to school, housework, groceries, laundry, errands, picking up the kids at the end of the school day, helping with homework, making dinner, getting them to do their chores, spending time with them, and then getting them to bed.  However, thinking that all this isn't enough, I often fill the gaps.  This last year I filled it with volunteer and charity work, and, as a result, I wrote less and I thought less.  My garden, so to speak, was chock-full of plants.  They were pretty plants, and grew fairly well, but I didn't leave any room for grass to grow.

I wonder what would happen if I set aside three or four hours of time each day and made that time inviolate, sacred, sealed it off from my other responsibilities, and just thought.  I doubt that that's always going to be possible; usually something unexpected comes up:  a kid gets sick, the toilet gets clogged, the dog needs to be taken to the vet, my car breaks down, etc.  But I wonder if I could at least try, as far as is within my power, to set that time aside.  I know it's worth the effort.  It is truly essential.

This last week, I read "The Plague," by Albert Camus, which echoes these thoughts but adds even greater significance to them.  The story is, on the surface, about a French village in Algiers, whose citizens work from morning until night, and then "fritter away at card-tables, in cafe's and in small talk, what time is left for living."*  Then, over a nine-month period, half the population is killed by an onslaught of both bubonic and pneumonic plagues.  The story chronicles how the citizens respond:  some ignore it, some despair, some try to escape, some blame, some make rules, and some get into the thick of things and help.

But the story also hints at the fact that there are many kinds of plagues.  One of the characters in the novel says, "...I had the plague already, long before I came to this town and encountered it here.  Which is tantamount to saying I'm like everybody else.  Only there are some people who don't know it, or feel at ease in that condition; others know it and want to get out of it.  Personally, I've always wanted to get out of it. ... Then one day I started thinking...."** 

You know... racism is no less a plague than eboli; child abuse is no less a plague than AIDS; war is no less a plague than cancer; hunger is no less a plague than malaria or leprosy.  And the only way to counteract a plague is with effort and courage and understanding.

Yet, how often do we give these problems a thought?

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* Modern Library College Edition, pg. 4
** ibid, pg 222

Friday, August 15, 2014

Tunnel Vision

"Every Day is a Gift."  -- unknown

"Life is difficult."  -- M. Scott Peck, M.D.*

Both of these sentences have been much on my mind over the last several weeks.  The first one I found on a wall plaque in a second-hand furniture store.  The words resonated with me, especially since the day before I had had a particularly wonderful experience of God's grace.  "Yes, indeed," I thought with a smile.  On that day, all was right in the world.  The second sentence I read after a particularly aggravating day in which I wondered if I would ever be able to not be deeply hurt by the negative remarks of my husband.  "Yes, indeed," I thought with a grunt.  On that day, the first saying came to mind and I thought, "Yeah, right.  Every day is Not a gift."

Why is so hard for us to remember the difficulties on good days, and to remember the good stuff on difficult days?  Why do we have such tunnel vision?  Why is it always either/or, black or white, good or bad, and very seldom both/and, or gray, or a mixture?

Maybe because either/or, black or white, and good or bad, are simpler constructs and therefore, easier to see and understand than the alternative.  At least it seems easier.  In reality, it's much harder in the long run to maintain such tunnel vision.  The world, and everything in it, is not all positive or all negative, all good or all bad, all high or low.  To think that it is requires constant effort, energy, and resistance to reality.  Ignoring reality -- both the good and the bad that makes up life -- will cause us much mental and physical pain in the long run.  For life will continue to surprise us with its opposite, and turn us around, or upside down, whenever we think it is all one way. 

I don't have to look far to see the truth of this.  Think of Robin Williams.  It is hard to believe there was a more joyful man than him.  He exuded wonder and delight.  And yet we know that he was also a very unhappy man.  Think of Richard Nixon, who is in the news because it is the 40th anniversary of his resignation.  We mostly think of him with disgust, and yet he also ended the Vietnam War, ended the draft, gave 18-year-olds the vote, and helped desegregate Southern schools -- all very amazingly good achievements.  I was talking to a friend the other day about a school we both taught at.  It had a reputation as a tough, gang-riden, school, but we both agreed that it was full of the nicest students we'd ever had the pleasure to teach.  Another friend's back disintegrated while on vacation in a most luxurious hotel in gorgeous sea-side town.  She could see the beauty around her, but could not move.

For better or worse, life is very ironic.  Just when you think "all is right in the world" something beyond your control upsets the apple cart.  Just when you think life can't get any worse, you're given a precious gift:  of love, of sympathy, of insight.

Somehow we need to learn to accept that this is they way the world is, and remember it, holding these opposites in our minds, at the same time.  When we are in the midst of great difficulties, we need to remember that things will get better.  When we are in the midst of great joy and happiness, we need to remember that this too is fleeting.   We need plaques on our walls that say, "Every day is a gift," but we also need plaques that say, "Life is difficult."  And they need to be placed side by side.

Acceptance of reality, both the wonder and the pain, is key.  Resistance -- to all that is good, or all that is not good -- is truly futile. 

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth,"  pg. 15

Sunday, July 27, 2014


"...if you are to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words ... it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God's spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit."  --  Thomas Merton *

Every time I read the teachings of a mystic, I feel a kinship on many levels, but I also run up against a wall.  The kinship comes from the fact that mystics experience the presence of God in their lives.  The wall comes from the fact that the mystical experience is so often described as a union with God:  "God and I are one."  I don't think that way.  To me, God is God, and I am me.  I can't imagine ever saying that God and I are one.  However, recent reflections have allowed me to understand a little better what all these mystics, like Merton, are talking about.

I have increasingly become aware that there are two very different voices in my head.  Now don't worry about my sanity, just yet.  When I say voices, I mean more like kinds of thought.  But these different kinds of thought are so very distinct from each other that I will call them voices.  One is very quiet -- almost too quiet.  It is easily disregarded because it is so quiet.  I'm not even really sure you can call it a voice or a thought; if it's even heard, it's more like an idea that pops into your head.  It says things like:  Go this way;  Do that;  Take that with you; etcIt gives simple directions in the present moment.  The second voice, in contrast, is very loud, and sometimes, is all I can hear.  It says things like:  I can't do that; That was mean; She is an exceptional woman; That will become a problem some day; I did that really well; I've made so many mistakes; etc.  This voice judges, makes comparisons, thinks about the future and the past, and is always accompanied by a positive or negative feeling.  There is another voice, with a volume level closer to the quiet one, in me as well:   it's the one I'm using now, the one that asks questions, wonders about life, reasons through problems unemotionally, and says Yes or No to the thoughts that come to mind.  There may also be other voices, but I'd like to focus this blog posting on the first two.

What I've noticed lately, is that when I listen to that quiet voice and do what it tells me right away, my life is simpler, runs eminently smoother, and I am happier.  But when I say "No" to that voice, or I say "Later," my life gets complicated and unhappy.  When I listen to it, I feel grateful; when I don't, I feel regret.  The opposite happens when I listen to the loud voice and assent to what it says:  my life becomes complicated, unhappy, and full of regrets;  and when I don't listen to it, I am relieved and grateful.

I have written before about not trusting my first inclinations.  But that's because my first, and most natural, inclination is to deny the quiet voice (to say "No" and "Later") and listen to the loud one.   I am, unfortunately, a very slow learner, but lately I've made some progress.  I think that's because I've realized its connection to my happiness.  I'd like to get better at listening to that quiet voice.

Where does it come from?

Sigmund Freud described three kinds of personality, at varying levels of consciousness, familiarly labeled the ego, id, and superego, which are driven by what he called The Pleasure Principle.  But that's not exactly what I'm describing.  While Freud's "ego" is somewhat like that third voice I described above -- the voice of reason -- his "id" and "superego" are both found in that loud voice which desires and judges with great emotional attachment.  So were does that leave the quiet voice?

As I've said, I've only recently become aware of it, begun to "hear" it, but I think it's been there for a very long time.  The first time I had the barest inkling of being guided, I thought it must be what artists experience when they are listening to their muse.  Writers say that they sometimes do not know where their characters came from, they just appeared.  All they had to do was be attuned to their muse to create wonderful art.  That's what I experienced that first time.  But I only realized it after the fact, after all of the connecting pieces fell into place, so to speak.  And that is primarily how I've noticed this guidance since then:  after the connections to my own private thoughts have become apparent. 

This guidance has always felt entirely external to me.  Events happen, people say something to me, and books have a way of jumping out at me, that unexpectedly address my most private concerns.  Since I don't believe that I have the ability to subconsciously create the world around me (make these events, people, and books appear in front of me), I attribute this guidance to God.  Only God can bring these things into my life just when I need them.  All I have to do is listen and accept them.

However, that act of listening to and accepting what comes into my life is very similar to the act of listening and assenting to the quiet voice within me.  Only the content is different.  What I generally recognize as God's Holy Spirit speaking to me through the words of other people is, not surprisingly, more wordy than what I hear in that quiet inner voice.  Those words are also more like observations than directions.  But then again, the guidance that comes from external happenings is also different.  Then there are no words, only events, which I must then interpret.  So I wonder... Could this quiet, almost unconscious, inner voice also come from God?  Is this the "God in us" spoken of by the mystics?

It's possible.  One test for whether something comes from God is whether it bears good fruit, and this quiet inner voice certainly bears very good fruit.

So, is there anything I can do to become more attuned to it?

Many people of faith talk or write about practicing the presence of God.  I've done this as well -- most recently in my last posting regarding journaling -- but from personal experience, I know that I cannot make this guidance appear at will.  No amount of active searching on my part will yield what I'm looking for when it comes to God's guidance.  In fact, doing that may lead me down the wrong path.  God's guidance comes unexpectedly, in God's own way and God's own time, according to God's own will.  It is pure gift.  All I can do is be open to whatever comes.

However, learning to shush that loud, judging, comparing, worrying voice is a step in the right direction, I think.  For, in the peace and quiet that remains, it is much easier to hear my Muse.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always,


* from "Merton's Place of Nowhere," by James Finley, pg. 109    

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


"If we would return to God, and find ourselves in Him, we must reverse Adam's journey, we must go back by the way he came."  --  Thomas Merton*

In the Spring, I applied to a school for people interested in becoming spiritual directors.  Recently, I met with two of the principals of the school, to learn a little more about the program and its requirements.  Among other things, they asked me to keep a journal and to write a spiritual autobiography.  Both of these activities are already a big part of my life:  I started keeping a daily journal five years ago, and the book I've been working on for the last couple of years is essentially a spiritual autobiography.  So I started to wonder a little more about why these introspective activities are so important for the spirit.

Journaling gives me the opportunity to be quiet and reflect on my concerns, questions, or just review the day's events.  But more importantly, journaling also makes it easier for me to see God's presence in my life.  I've noticed that the busier I get, going and doing, and the less time I take to stop and center myself in my life, the less aware I become of God.  Whereas the more time I take to journal, the more aware I become of God.  (Finding the right balance is a little tricky sometimes!)  I've noted this fact in previous postings, but now I began to wonder why.  What is it about journaling that allows me to more easily notice God's presence?

Journaling has been called a form of prayer, or meditation.  Why?  What exactly is prayer?

Prayer is telling God (either aloud or silently) what is on our mind or on our heart.  It is thanking God, asking for help, or simply expressing wonderment.  But...and hears the kicker... God already knows our innermost being, already knows what is on our mind and hearts before we even know it ourselves.  God already knows what we need before we even ask.  So what does prayer do, if it doesn't tell God what we need God to know?

Perhaps, prayer tells us what we need to know, about ourselves.  Perhaps prayer opens our heart to our own life.  That is certainly what journaling does for me.  I become more aware of what's going on inside me, inside my mind and my heart.  And with that newfound clarity, with that open heart, I am able to notice when events in the world around me address those specific thoughts and feelings.   These connections between my innermost thoughts and the external events in my life are, I believe, how God reveals his will to me, and guides me.  But I would miss this entirely if I did not first tune into my life through journaling, or some other form of contemplative prayer.

Writing a spiritual autobiography is a little different, but it too is a revelation.  So much so that I sometime wonder if I'm writing my book more for my own benefit than for the benefit of other people.  For I always learn something new whenever I try to understand my past.

Like journaling, writing a spiritual autobiography requires you to examine your innermost thoughts and feelings.  Behind the basic events in your life... the who, what, when, where, and how, there is the why:  your reasons, your understanding of things, your intentions, motivations, etc.  Analyzing the "why" is not always easy.  I've discovered that there are sometimes many reasonable explanations for why I did something or thought something, but only one is the truth.  Sometimes I have to dig behind a lot of reasonable reasons (a.k.a. excuses) to find that truth.  And maybe the reason why that is is because the truth requires admitting that I made a mistake, that I was wrong or did something wrong.  It means revealing parts of myself that I don't particularly like, that I'd rather keep hidden.

Can I be truly honest?  I think so. 

Thomas Merton wrote, "The mother of all lies is the lie we persist in telling ourselves about ourselves."  (ibid, pg 46)   He saw in the story of Adam and Eve a perfect illustration for our common human identity crisis:  we don't listen to God either because we are far from God, or because we don't want to listen to God; either way, we do what we know we aren't supposed to do, and then we make up excuses for our actions -- "he/she made me do it."  Essentially we hide and try best to cover up our mistake, our truth. We can't even look at our own nakedness, let alone reveal it to others.  The more outer "clothing" we pile on to cover our truth and make ourselves look great, to other people and ourselves -- success, power, beauty, material goods, admirable work, adventures, etc. -- the further we get from our true selves and from the person God created us to be.

The only way to get back to that person is to peel away those layers of false self.  And the only way to do that is to take an honest look at ourselves.  Journaling is one way to start.  Examining where you are today, each day, honestly, privately to yourself, will begin to open your heart to God's presence.  And you will find in that presence, as I have, a patient and steadfast love that will allow you to continue peeling away the layers of false self, until you can even be honest before the whole world.

That is a pearl beyond price.  Knowing who you really are and that God is with you and for you, loving you beyond all human reckoning, is a story definitely worth telling.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


*  from "Merton's Place of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self," by James Finley, pg. 37

Monday, June 16, 2014

It's a Free Country

"'Free-will' is nothing but the will of God freed of the passions and impulses arising from the false ego.  The so-called 'free-will' of the murderer or thief is not a 'free' will at all, but one that is constricted and obscured by the false sense of ego, and its attendant desires."  *

"...when the heart surrenders willingly to the Divine hold, it becomes free of the manipulation of the lower self.... Paradoxically, such freedom is reflected by a letting go of choices....  When the will of the heart becomes one with the will of God, then whatever God chooses for the seeker the heart accepts with no resistance...."  **

Free-will is a tricky concept.  Do we have free-will, or not?  It depends on who you talk to.  To me, it seems obvious that we have a free will.  I certainly feel like I make completely independent choices, good or bad.  I also believe that this God-given ability to make choices explains why there is suffering in the world, and why there is love.  If we did not have any freedom of choice, we would be automatons, machines, or forever victims of circumstance.   However, many scientists, psychologists and philosophers say that free-will is an illusion, and that, really, the choices we make are completely wrapped up in our DNA, our upbringing, our physical state in the moment, and other matters beyond our control.

Sam Harris, in his little red book "Free Will," states, "Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent.  Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.  If a man's choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes -- perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment -- what can it possibly mean to say that his will is 'free'?" (pg.6)  His argument is persuasive, but I wondered about the people that don't succumb to their environment or DNA, who rise above bad genes, an unhappy childhood, etc.

Harris argues that we simply cannot have free-will because our thoughts arise spontaneously, not consciously.  He supports this by referring to psychologist Benjamin Libet's famous study in which subjects were asked to watch a computer screen of randomly appearing letters, push one of two buttons, and state which letter was on the screen at the time they decided to push a button.  During the experiment, each subject's brain activity was measured.  The results of the experiment showed that areas of the brain "lit up" 7 to 10 seconds prior to a subject's conscious awareness of having made a decision.  Harris writes, "One fact now seems indisputable:  Some moments before you are aware of what you will do next -- a time in which you subjectively appear to have complete freedom to behave however you please -- your brain has already determined what you will do."  (pg. 9) 

I had a lot of questions when I read this.  I didn't get the connection between the results of the experiment and free-will.  All it revealed to me was that the brain becomes active before a person consciously makes a decision.  It says, essentially, that I have many thoughts before I make a decision about any one of them.  Ah... is that surprising?   At an impasse to understand Harris' argument, I put his book back on the shelf.

Later on, however, Libet's experiment was described in another book I was reading, and this time I decided to look into the experiment myself.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to read the actual experiment without paying an exorbitant fee, but, thankfully, other scientists were more generous with their work.  One philosophy of science article thoroughly described Libet's and the follow-up experiments and examined their conclusions in terms of established standards of logical reasoning***.  The authors of this paper, after much detailed explanation, drew the conclusion that there was no causal relationship between the results of the experiment and free will.  And I learned that even Libet himself speculated that it may be possible for the conscious mind to "veto," rather than initiate complex action.  If it's possible to say "No" freely, it is also possible to say "Yes" freely.  So, maybe our free-will comes in our ability to assent or dissent to the thoughts that come to mind. 

Is our ability to do that completely free?  Clearly, our DNA, culture, upbringing, and health do play a role in the choices we make.  We all have within us certain survival instincts which kick-in before we are consciously aware of our surroundings.  Life situations trigger chemical reactions within our bodies that we have no control over.  Crimes of passion, in which reason plays little to no part, are real.  It's possible that if I had grown up in a different family, the choices I make would be different.  I also know that I react to situations more quickly and more negatively when I'm tired than when I'm well-rested.

On the other hand, I have, at times, chosen not to react negatively when my first instinct is to do so.  Which makes me we, perhaps, have different amounts of free-will at different times?  Or, do some people, perhaps those who are more self-aware, or enlightened, have more free-will than others? 

In the last few days, I have come across two different sources which address those questions:  one from a book describing the teachings of Hindu mystics, and another from a book about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.  Both are quoted above.  I read the first one, was confused by it, and picked up the second book right where I left off, only to have it say essentially the same thing.  Coincidences like this make me wonder:  What is it that God is trying to teach me?  After some soul searching, I think I understand.

I was having a conversation the other day with a friend who described how she had made a choice not to react defensively, as she wanted to, when her husband hurt her feelings.  She was able to side-step her normal pattern, and was glad for it.  We both agreed that, as we get older, we are learning that how we react in a particular situation is up to us.  We can either take "the high road" or "the low road," so to speak.

But it's not easy to continually take the high road.  Where we succeed in one situation, we fail in another.   We learn how to react to our spouse, but then a friend, a family member, our own child, or a stranger, hurts our feelings, is rude or annoying.  We get frustrated or angry by what someone does or says.  And we react poorly, defensively, angrily.  And then what happens?   Life gets immediately harder.

When we respond to negative feelings with more negativity, the result is only more pain -- only now, we are not the only one experiencing the negativity.  Now it is shared.  If a better choice is not made, then this pain can reverberate back and forth to no end, getting worse with each poor choice.  Not only that, but the negativity we send off can potentially spread far and wide.

And guess what?  The result of all this negativity is not only a lot of pain, it's also a loss of freedom.  Think about it.  When we dwell on our hurt feelings, or anger, we limit what else we can accomplish.  We limit our happiness, too.  If we dwell on our negative feelings too much, we could potentially become incapacitated with grief or anger.  As Jesus said, "Whoever sins becomes a slave to sin."

But what happens when we react as God wants us to react?  What happens when we turn the other check, when we forgive those who sin or trespass against us, when we love as God loves us, steadfastly, patiently?  Then, and only then, do we have complete freedom.  And then we have the potential to spread freedom beyond ourselves.  But, as the quote above expresses, this means, paradoxically, restricting our choices to God's choices.

It may be a free country, we may believe we can do whatever we want, but the choices we make have consequences that restrict our freedom, one way or another, either upfront or after the fact. I, for one, not only want to live in greater and greater freedom, but also greater happiness and peace. May the choices I make be the choices you would have me make, dear Lord.  And...

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* "The History of Mysticism," by S. Abhayananda, pg 193
** "The Taste of Hidden Things," by Sara Sviri, pg 9
*** (

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prophetic Progress

"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."  -- the shahada, or witness, of Islam

Studying other religions is integral to understanding God, and one's own faith, better.  I also find it a fascinating endeavor.  Where there is agreement between  many religions, I often think, "There is a universal truth."   For example, most faiths have a similar moral or ethical outlook, of caring for those less fortunate and oppressed, and of treating people the way you would like to be treated.  Most faiths encourage such personal attributes as integrity, humility, and generosity.  Most faiths promote a message of living simply, of being content with the food, clothing, and shelter that one needs, not accumulating more than you need, or hording the excess.  Most faiths share an understanding that we all have an internal source of enlightenment -- our heart, soul, or mind -- as well as an external source of enlightenment -- God, the World Soul, or the Universe; and that these sources can be tapped in moments of quiet openness.  However, where these various religions differ, I wonder...  If there is only one God, as I believe there is, why is there a difference in understanding?  Is the difference a mistake?  Is it a necessary piece of the whole puzzle?  Or is something else going on?

Lately, I've been studying Islam.  It's not the first time I have studied this faith.  Each time, I gain a little more insight, see more similarities between Islam and Christianity, and gain more appreciation for Muhammad and the message he preached.  Yet, also each time, the more I struggle with the differences.  Perhaps it is The Law of Diminishing Differences rearing its ugly head:  the greater the overall similarity, the more important appear the remaining differences.  Yet I can't help but wonder why Islam seems to be more like Judaism than Christianity.

I know that Islam purports to be a middle way between Judaism and Christianity, and that Muhammad believed he was following in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and continuing with Abraham, Noah, Moses, and so on, down to Jesus.  Yet I find the words in the Qur'an which emphasize God's fearsomeness, judgment, and eternal punishment for wrong-doers (as the Hebrew prophets did), to be much more prevalent, and weigh much more heavily as a result, than the words which speak of God's mercy and compassion (as Jesus did).  Why, I wonder, does Muhammad emphasize law, as Moses did in the Torah, as opposed to emphasizing love, as Jesus did?  Why is fighting ones enemies given God's approval, as it is in the Hebrew Scriptures, and not loving ones enemies, as Jesus preached?  And why are women not given completely equal status; as opposed to being treated the same, as Jesus did?  In essence, why does Muhammad seem to go backward from Jesus, instead of forward?   

It makes me wonder how religions develop, and how faith progresses.

Last week in church, I listened to a passage from the gospel of John in which Jesus tells his disciples that he will send an "Advocate" or "Counselor" who will "guide you in all truth."  Christians think of this as God's Holy Spirit, and over the week, I have thought about how God's Holy Spirit has impacted my life.  I have learned many lessons about faith since I began questioning what I had been taught as a child.  As I thought of the things I have learned, I remembered also the struggles that preceded them.  Insight only came about as the result of intensive mental struggle.  In fact, the greater the insight, the greater the struggle beforehand.

And that, I think, is a clue to my question about religion as a whole.  Our insights are particular to our own concerns, to the culture and world in which we live, and to the needs around us.  Revelation comes only as required, to particular people, as the need arises.

It seems to me that this is how progress happens, in general.  We go along with the way things are until they begin to bother us.  The more we are bothered, the more likely we are to find a solution.  We may not always like what we learn, but change only begins when we question the status quo.    However, not everyone has the same questions.  Not everyone has a problem with the way the world works.  Many people are content with the status quo.  They don't want anything to change.  For them, change in the way things are done, or they way people think, is not progress, but regress.  When such a dichotomy arises between the old and the new ways, separation occurs.  When a change occurs in the way people think about God, or their faith, depending on how significant the change is viewed to be, a new sect or new religion is born. 

Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, had a theory that some religions develop from others because the time had come for the truths gleaned in the original tradition to spread to a wider audience.  He said, for example, that he could never be a Hindu because he was not born into a caste.  But he could be a Buddhist, the religion that grew from Hinduism, because the Buddha's insights did away with caste.  His teachings were open to anyone, equally.  And yet some people were content with the original Hindu faith.  The same could be said for Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus primarily questioned the laws and traditions which served to exclude people from God's kingdom.  Jesus was most concerned about the sinner, the sick, and any one else who was judged to be outside of God's favor.  To these, he spoke of God's forgiveness and love.  But because his ministry challenged the exclusivity of male Jewish leadership, he also addressed those who did the excluding.   He tried to bring down the expectations of those who thought too highly of their place in God's kingdom, and he tried to raise the expectations of those who despaired of their place in God's kingdom.  While Jesus probably did not intend to found a new religion, Paul took Jesus' example of inclusion and ran with it, sharing Jesus' message with Gentiles in a way they would understand.  And thus a more universal religion grew from a more insulated one.  So, clearly, progress can happen in small increments, or in great leaps, depending on the questions of the individual seeker. 

This progress from an insulated, or tribal religion, to a more universal one also provides a clue to my questions about Islam.  For Islam grew from a tribal culture.  Muhammad was a goodhearted and trustworthy man who lived in the midst of great brutality, where individual tribes promoted their own individual concerns above those of anyone else, all while praying to their own individual gods.  Included in this mix were various segregated Jewish tribes, Christian sects, and a handful of monotheistic Arabs.  In effect, he was surrounded by warring factionalism.  His culture was a lot like the culture in which the Jews found themselves when they crossed the wilderness and lived in Canaan, which is probably why his message is so similar to that of the Hebrew prophets of old.  Muhammad lived in a different culture than Jesus.  He struggled with different questions.  And he shared the insight he received which addressed those specific questions.

Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad all questioned the accepted practices and religious beliefs of their time and place.  Each received enlightenment and were compelled to share their new understanding with the people around them.  These prophets are remembered, and revered, because their message resonated with a significant number of people.  But progress is an ongoing endeavor.  As people's consciousness evolves, new questions arise, and new answers are found.  Which makes me wonder if there will ever be a final prophet.  Perhaps there will be, but only in God's good time.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Finger Pointing

The Buddha says, "My teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such."  The Buddha goes on to say, "I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.  A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon.  A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon."  *

I have been wrestling with Christianity.  Sometimes, I feel like a rather odd Christian.  Although it's a feeling that comes and goes, lately I've questioned whether I even belong in a church.  You see, I don't believe that Jesus is God.  I believe that Jesus is God's beloved son and that Jesus is God's Messiah, and that Jesus perfectly conveyed God's Way and Will.  I love Jesus.  I greatly appreciate everything Jesus did and said.  I thank God for Jesus.  I just don't believe Jesus was, or is, God.  I believe God is bigger than Jesus.  When I pray, I pray to God, not to Jesus.

My understanding mostly comes from reading the Bible, especially the Gospels.  In the New Testament, Jesus is titled variously as "God's Son," "Messiah," "Lord," and "a prophet mighty in word and deed."  Even for John, the only writer in the canon who came close to equating Jesus with God through a series of metaphors, Jesus is still called "God's Son."  But even more significantly, Jesus himself speaks of God as his Father, he prays to God, and submits his will to God.  Jesus is continually telling people about God's forgiveness and mercy, pointing people to seek God and His Kingdom.  Jesus seemed to see God as a separate entity, as separate from himself.

However, anyone familiar with church history will know that somewhere along the way this separation between Jesus and God began to blur for some followers, culminating in the compromise denoted in the Nicene Creed, in 325 C.E., in which Jesus is both God's Son and "True God from True God."  And then this creed became a universal statement of belief for all Christians.  Thus, to put it in the context of the Buddha's words above:  the finger became the moon.  The one who pointed to God, became God. 

It's problematic for me, for many reasons.  For one, it's confusing:  Jesus now fully divine, must also be fully human in order for his life and death to make sense; the Son is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but there is only one God; one plus one plus one equals one.  Does that mean that Jesus was praying to himself?  Or that God died?  Or that Jesus sits at the right hand of himself?  Although I can accept a great deal of mystery when it comes to God, and I understand paradox, such statements are just plain illogical.

Now, you may wonder... What's the big deal?  After all, it's just a belief.  And, personally, I don't believe God approves or disapproves of us based on our beliefs.  But I'm learning that how you think about God matters.  It matters because very often it translates into how you treat your neighbor.  And that, I believe, does matter to God.  Which is another reason this particular belief is problematic.  If you believe that Jesus is God, then you just might think that only Christians follow God, or that God only accepts Christians.  And that's when the finger pointing really begins!

Recently I watched the movie, "God is Not Dead," with my two older boys, a friend of theirs, and two youth from the church.  Though I liked parts of it, it brought many of my concerns to the forefront.  I liked the young protagonist sticking up for his faith in the face of great opposition.  I liked the different intersecting stories, showing the various struggles many people go through:  the pastor's desire to make a difference; the believer in relationship with an unbeliever; being loved for who we are, not for what we do; the devastation of losing a parent; the fear of one's own death.  Granted, some parts of the movie were a bit predictable:  the conversion from disbelief to belief in God for several of the characters.  However, near the end of the movie, it suddenly dawned on me that God was equated with Jesus, and only by confessing Jesus as one's Lord and Savior would you be with God in Heaven.  Unless you do this, verbally, you will be eternally separated from God.  What started out as a movie about God, became a "movement" for Jesus.  Now, even though I consider myself a Christian, this is not the message I want my kids to learn.  I was also very sorry that my son's Jewish friend had to hear this "Christian" message.

Coincidentally, just after watching this movie, I came across the following passage in the book I've been reading:  "A Church of Her Own:  What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit," by Sarah Sentilles -- which is about the sexism that is found in many churches.  I read, "My theological mentor at Harvard, Gordon Kaufman, once told me that asking whether or not there is a God is not the right question.  What interests Gordon is not whether God exists but rather what difference human words about God might make."  (pg. 244)  And I wondered... What difference did, and does, Jesus' words about God make?  What did Jesus have to say about God that is different from what others had to say?

That God Loves.  Patiently.  Mercifully.  Freely.  Unreservedly.  Eternally.  Perfectly.

That makes a huge difference to me.  I hope it does for you.

May the Peace 
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Old Path, White Clouds," by Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Fear Not

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.  --  John 3:16-17

These words from John's Gospel are so famous, so well-known -- though perhaps the second sentence is less well-known than the first -- that I almost hesitate to write about it.  I wonder if you are thinking right this moment..."Oh dear, not that again.  If I hear that verse one more time..."  Or, "Ho-hum.  I already know all about that.  Pass."   But I hope you will give me a chance to explain.  It's not what you think.  Or, let me re-phrase that... it's more than you think.

John 3:16 is a verse that has bothered me for a long time.  Because of the way many Christians use it.  Mostly I've heard it used to claim that those, and only those, who believe that Jesus is God's one and only Son, will go to heaven.  Everyone else is dammed to hell.  It's as if that verse is the only verse you need to know in the whole Bible.  Just pluck 3:16 out, and disregard the rest.  You don't even have to know anything else about Jesus:  just that he was God's only Son.  Believe that, and you're set for life, literally.

I don't buy that.  I actually think those words mean something totally different.  I actually think it means that if you believe Jesus, not just in Jesus, but what Jesus said and did, to the point that you followed what he said and did, then your life would be completely transformed for the better, the world would be transformed for the better. You would even know God -- for that is what Jesus said eternal life meant:  knowing God.

But as great a reward as that is, getting there is just too hard, and too scarey.   What???  I have to love God more than anything else?  More than my family?  More than any other desire or object?  And what else???  I have to put another's needs above my own?  I have to be willing to die for someone else???  It's no wonder that  Christians over the years have, as one person noted, taken the simple but hard Gospel and made it complicated but easy.

In many ways, following Jesus has made my life harder:  I have had to look honestly at myself for one, and I haven't always liked what I've found;  as I have grown and changed, I've had to face people unwilling for me to change; and I've had to stand up to people I love who are not being very loving to me, to themselves, or to others.  None of this has been easy.  For someone who would rather run away from conflict than face it, that last one has been the hardest of all.  There is such a strong core of self-preservation engrained in me (and in everyone else I'm sure), that it's always a struggle to release that hold and let any part of me die.

But, doing so has also made my life immeasurably better, and the lives of my family better, in ways that are so unexpected and so amazing, that I never fail to be surprised.  Truly, unless a seed dies and is buried, new life and sweet new fruit cannot grow.

That is what Jesus's life, his words, his deeds, his death on the cross, and his resurrection mean to me.  Jesus came to show us a better way of life, but one that required sacrificing that core of self-preservation that we all hold onto so dearly.  He came to teach this way to anyone and everyone who would listen.  All they had to do was believe him, trust him, and die to their old ways.  If they could do this, they would be born anew.  Jesus lived and died to show us this way, putting his absolute trust in God.  And no one was more surprised at his resurrection than the people who knew and loved him best.  I wonder if Jesus, too, was surprised.

For as I've learned to follow God, I've certainly surprised myself at what I have been able to do, at the fears I've been able to overcome.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get any easier.  As long as I live, I know I will have to face new hard things.  Speaking up, facing opposition, has always been the most difficult thing for me to do.  Maybe God always asks us to do the things we find the most difficult.  However, I have yet to be sorry.  I have only been sorry when I have clung to myself, instead of listening to God. 

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Journey

No matter what version we read, Mara does not go away.  There is no state of enlightened retirement, no experience of awakening that places us outside the truth of change.  Everything breathes and turns in its cycles.  --  Jack Kornfield*

"I've been here before."  I've been saying that to myself a lot lately.  I know I am a slow learner.  I know that it takes me awhile to sometimes "get" what God is trying to tell me.  I had thought, however, that once I "got it," it would stick.  But no.

I forget, and have to be reminded again.  Or the setting changes slightly, and the lesson has to be learned as if for the first time.  For example, I learn to value unity in diversity, and then want to find a place where everyone thinks like I do -- again.   I learn to value my unique gifts, and then think God must have called the wrong person -- again.  I learn that I need to get my ego out of the picture, and then don't listen to someone because I think I know more than they do.  Seriously.  I could go on.  It's a bit depressing.

My journey of faith has not been very straight-forward.  It has not been like a long, cross-country walk, exploring one new path, or seeing one new vista, after another.  I've been thinking lately that it's more like a spiral.  I seem to be always traversing the same areas, just from a slightly different point of view.  I have consoled myself with the thought that, well, if it's a spiral then maybe I'm getting closer to something.  Closer to God?  I don't think that's it.  I am as close to God as I want to be, now.  I know God is with me -- that, at least, is one lesson I haven't forgotten.  (Yet.)  So what am I spiraling toward?

My sister-in-law sent me Jack Kornfield's book, "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry," for my birthday.  She's good at picking books for me as this was a book that I bought a long time ago for myself!  At first I thought about taking it to the used bookstore since I already have a copy, but then I wondered if I should actually read it instead --  you never know when God is trying to tell you something.  I'm glad I did because this book is shedding a lot of light on my journey. 

Kornfield fills his book with examples of spiritual seekers of all faiths who find integrating spiritual lessons into daily life very challenging.  In a chapter titled "The Fires of Initiation," he writes, "Some experience it as a slow spiral, a steady and repetitive remaking of inner being.  The heart gradually deepens in knowing, compassion, and trust through the hundred thousand repeated practices and heartfelt sincerity of a regular spiritual discipline.  ...learning the same teachings over and over again....  This is the slow way of initiation, putting yourself over and over into the condition of attention and respect, baking yourself in the oven repeatedly until your whole being is cooked, matured, transformed."( pg. 39)  Somehow, I find this comforting.  Perhaps, it's knowing that I'm not the only one. And that there is a purpose to it, after all.

Kornfield writes, "When the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich says she knows of no lover of God who is kept safe from falling, she is voicing the understanding that to descend is also God's will.  Whether we understand this or not, Mara does return.  The fall, the descent, and its subsequent humility can be seen as another form of blessing."  (pg. 131).  Mara represents temptation, but it is a kind that forces us to learn something essential. 

I found confirmed in this book something that I was just beginning to suspect:  that much of my difficulty is caused by ingrained habits of mind:  fear, jealousy, pride, sloth, -- those Seven Deadly Sins as they have sometimes been called.  It's not that I'm in the wrong place, or that I'm the wrong person, and I need to leave.  It's simply that these problematic habits of mind have got to go.  My hope is that the more I learn to let go of these habits, the more open my heart will be to simply following God's will.

In this respect, Mara can be viewed as a friend, instead of an enemy.  For she shows us what needs to be addressed to attain greater freedom for ourselves. And so, instead of beating myself up for again traversing the same territory, I need to recognize that I still have something new  to learn about myself.  And, maybe, the first thing I need to learn is to be more gentle towards myself on this journey.   

I am reminded of the book I am writing about my journey of faith.  It is about the lessons I started learning ten years ago.  Each lesson is paired with a walk, an actual walk that I took, that works as an analogy for that lesson.  I had thought that each walk would represent a specific lesson, but now I think that my journey of faith is composed of repeated walks along specific paths, perhaps even favorite paths, on which I always learn something new.

May your journey, too, be filled with new insights all along the way, and ...

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


from "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path," by Jack Kornfield (Bantam Books, 2000), pg. 124