Friday, September 25, 2009

Breath Prayers -- part two

Three times during this prayer practice you return to your breath prayer, and each time you repeat it five times. That's fifteen opportunities to repeat this short, two-phrase prayer. Thirty times a day if you do the practice twice. Two hundred and ten times a week if you do it every day. Ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty if you never miss a prayer time all year. That's a lot of opportunities for these words to work their way into your mind, your heart, your soul.

The breath prayer I've settled on for now, and which I'd like to "unpack" in this posting, is: Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be.

Open my heart - this reminds me of the words I use in the "entering-in" section of the practice: open my eyes, open my ears, open my hands, and open my heart. Plus, I think there are few situations in my life that can't be improved by my opening myself a little more than I am. I love the metaphor Sting uses in his song Fortress Around Your Heart (not to mention the song itself), in which he talks about his lover's heart as a city around which he helped build a fortress, complete with moat and mine-stewn fields around. I often feel like that's what my heart is like, so I can't hear often enough the words, "open my heart."

dear Lord -- I was raised within the Christian traditions (primarily Presbyterian and Methodist) and still have warm associations with that upbringing. The figure of Jesus, while certainly used and abused by many, was lovingly introduced to me by camp counselors and others, and it is not coincidental that my first book Teacher, Guide, Companion: rediscovering Jesus in a secular world attempts to make sense of a relationship with this figure within the context of a twenty-first century liberal religious life. This simple phrase, "dear Lord," puts me back in touch with this relationship. The word "Lord," in particular, reminds me that I don't want to be in charge here. (As the bumper sticker has it, "If God is your co-pilot, change seats.")

that I may become the man you made me to be -- there's a lot in this phrase, which I say on the out-breath. I acknowledge that I'm engaged in a process -- I'm talking about "becoming" something. And, in particular, I'm talking not about becoming something entirely new and different but, rather, something that's already encoded in me, that which I was meant to be. In this language I hear echoes of the 139th Psalm (my favorite) which talks about God knowing me fully before I was made in the womb. There's also a hint of that bumper sticker, "Lord, may I be half the person my dog thinks I am."

Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be. In this I hear the promise that I have within me the stuff I need to become the person I wish to be; that, in fact, I was made to be such a man. Standing in my way -- or, at least, the fundamental hurdle I need to overcome -- is the "fortress around my heart." And so, day in and day out; fifteen times in the morning and fifteen times at night; two hundred and ten times a week; ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty times a year I ask God -- using the metaphoric name "dear Lord," with all of the positive imagery that that conjures up for me -- to open my heart that I might become the man I was made to be.

And then I keep on praying with that as the foundation of my practice.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In the religious tradition I serve few things would create such a firestorm as the suggestion that we ought to develop a regular practice of confession. For one thing, there are a great many self-described "recovering Catholics" in Unitarian Universalist pews and such a suggestion might be too much for them. (Especially anyone already struggling with trying to pray with beads in their newfound religious home!) Yet even for Protestants and even non-Christians who might not have quite the same "allergic" reaction, the idea that in the 21st century there is a serious suggestion that a regular dose of confession is, well, "good for the soul," would strike many as a decidely antiquated notion.

And yet that's just what I'm suggesting.

In fact, every religious tradition we human beings have ever created have incorporated some disciplined form of confession among their spiritual practices, at least when confession is fully understood. If all confession consists of is a legalistic listing of the bad things you've done -- according to someone else's criteria -- then it's a practice we'd all be well done of. If, on the other hand, it consists of a true and full appraisal of ourselves, it's something with which we could all use a little more.

In the various Twelve Step movements it's called a "fearless moral inventory," and the analogy used is that of a business which must inventory its stock to see what's in good shape, what's gone bad and needs to be replaced, and what's been used up and needs to be reordered. As it says in the so-called "Big Book" of Alcoholics Anonymous, "A business which takes no regular inventory goes broke. Taking a commercial inventory is a fact-finding and a fact-facing process. It is and effort to discover the truth about the stock-in trade." ["Chapter 5: How it Works," from AA Big Book Online] In this case, the "stock-in trade" is everything that makes up your life.

"Oh Lord, you have searched me and you know me," begins the 139th Psalm. Gnothi seauton, it said above the gateway to the Oracle of Delphi, "Know Thyself." Properly understood, the prayer of confession is truly about nothing more -- and nothing less -- than fully knowing yourself. Yet since you have just spent time in the Naming prayer paying attention to those things for which you are grateful, in the Knowing prayer you focus on those things you regret or for which you are sorry.

Here, too, there are many ways to do this. I sometimes let my mind begin to generate a list of each of the things for which I am sorry at that time -- most recent or most serious first. At other times one thing may be so strong (even if it is not "objectively" the most important or seemingly the most "serious") and I will dwell on that for the entirety of my time with this bead. At other times I just allow feelings of grief and regret to wash over me and, hopefully, flow out of me. (These feelings can build up and sometimes just need to be released -- thinking about them doesn't always do the trick; sometimes they just need to be poured out.)

Just as with the Naming prayer I have found that it can be difficult to stay with Knowing prayer without turning it into something else. I will think about how deeply I regret an interaction I had with someone, for instance, when I begin to think about the part the other person played in it. Anger and resentment -- sometimes even justifiable -- may begin to rise. I am learning to let those thoughts go, at least while I am praying this Knowing prayer because I am trying to learn discipline and, during the time of this prayer my focus is on knowing my own responsibility. (Staying "on my own side of the street," as Twelve Steppers often say.) Sometimes, too, I begin to think of things I can do to make ammends or reparations, ways I can turn the situation around. Even these thoughts I am trying to learn to set aside, if only for the duration of this prayer. The discipline is hard, but is part of the practice.

The purpose is Knowing prayer is not that I might have more ammunition to hurl at myself. Rather, it is that I might say of myself, as the Psalmist says of God, "I have searched me and known me." Because when I can truly say this, I can truly move forward.

In Gassho,


Monday, September 14, 2009

Breath Prayer -- part one

The five beads in between each of the medium-sized beads are for what I called in Simply Pray "breath prayers." These are two line prayers to be repeated one line on each in-breath, one on on each out-breath. I gave three examples in the book (p. 72):

Breathing in I develop calm and equanimity. /
Breathing out I find peace and joy.

Lord Jesus Christ / have mercy on me.

Great Mystery / I seek to know.

In my own practice I have since settled on the breath prayer: Open my heart, dear Lord / that I may become the man you made me to be.

In his book Open Mind, Open Heart, Fr. Thomas Keating writes about the practice of the "active prayer," a simple, short prayer of five to nine syllables that you repeat so regularly that it becomes part of the background of your life. He writes:

"The active prayer has to be repeated again and again at free moments in order to work it into the subconscious. The old tapes were build up through repeated acts. A new tape can be established in the same way. it may take a year to establish one's active prayer in the subconscious. it will then arise spontaneously. One may wake up saying it or it may accompany one's dreams." (p. 114 of the combined Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life edition of Keating's works.)

I was not familiar with Keating's "active prayer" when I wrote Simply Pray, yet this is certainly what I had in mind when I was writing about the breath prayer. The phrase that you repeat on each in-breath and out-breath with each of the five small beads between the major beads of this practice is intended to work its way into your conscious and unconscious mind, to become something that you "learn by heart," so that it is always with you.

Each of us has "voices" in our head. The "old tapes" Keating writes about are familiar to us all -- they tell us that we're not good enough, or that we're not smart enough, or we're too fat, or too unprepared, or too old, or too something or not enough something else. These "voices" run as background noise, ready to come into the foreground whenever there's a lull or when the stresses and strains of our lives make us particularly susceptible to their influence.

The ancient practice of rote, repetitive prayer -- so out of fashion today -- is really a corrective to this fundamental human condition. Shed of the particularities of the various theological overlays of the traditions the different practices have come from, each of the repetitive prayer practices function to put powerfully positive "tapes" in place, recording over (as it were) the negative tapes we seem to naturally favor for some reason. And because these tapes were "recorded" in the context of prayer, they carry with them the feeling tone of your prayer time -- when one of these phrases really plants itself in your subconscious it brings with it your whole prayer practice.

And so, the next time the old tapes begin to play, this new tape may begin to play as well, or you may make the conscious decision to start playing it. Replace "I'm not good enough," with "Open my heart, dear Lord, that I may become the man you made me to be" or "Great Mystery, I seek to know." It's really amazing what happens.

In Gassho,


Friday, September 11, 2009

When Faced With Evil

I'm taking a break from the series I've been writing exploring the prayer bead practice I originally described in my book Simply Pray because today is September 11th, the eighth anniversary of the devastating terrorist attacks of 2001.

I've been thinking lately about how unified we were as a nation in the days, weeks, and months after that terrible day, and how fractiously fragmented we are today. In recent weeks we've seen an uproar generated by the President of the United States intending to talk with our nation's school children about the importance of staying in school and working hard. (To be fair, there was a similar brouhaha when a Republican President did the same thing.) Have we become so cynical that we cannot trust our President -- any President of whatever party -- to do what we hope he (or, perhaps sometimes soon, she) would do in an address like that? What, in fact, both Presidents Bush and Obama did?

And then the other night, during his address to Congress, President Obama was responded to by a Representative calling out "you lie" as if a joint session of Congress were a town hall meeting. Where is decorum? Where is the respect for the office? Where have gone our manners?

These musings have made this September 11th anniversary feel especially poignant and, so, I have decided to post here the sermon I delivered at the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth (Maine) that following Sunday.

“For there to be peace in the world . . . there must be peace in the heart.”

Opening Words: Our opening words are taken from the Holy Qu’ran, al-Hujurat 49:13:
“O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other not that ye may despise each other.”


“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed
I have cast my lot with those who, age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary
power reconstitute the world.”
—Adrienne Rich
* * *
This past July, during the Question & Answer service, someone asked, “How do you reconcile Universal Salvation with Timothy McVeigh?” This question came to the fore again this week—how do we reconcile our Unitarian Universalist optimism, our belief in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” our theological presumption that “ no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should,” how do we reconcile these things with the events that took place in New York City and Washington DC and rural Pennsylvania last Tuesday? How do we make sense of the tragedy that’s unfolded and is unfolding still? Upwards of 5,000 people are missing and presumed dead, countless others are wounded in body and spirit; innocent men, women, and children—whose only crime was being on the wrong plane at the wrong time—were used as weapons. It has long been a tactic of terrorists to pack their bombs with bits of glass, broken screws, rusty nails in order to increase the devastation; these terrorists packed their bombs with people. What are we to do when faced with such evil?

To prepare for this morning I looked in the back of our hymnal, where the readings and hymns are organized by theme, but there is no listing for “Tragedy;” there is no listing for “Evil.” It seems that our hymnal is void of resources to which we can turn for support in a time like this. Or is it? The reading we just heard—those beautifully evocative words from Adrienne Rich—is #463. And that haunting song with which we began our service and the one we’ll sing in a moment are both there too. I will to come back to these responses, but first I want to dwell a bit longer with the questions.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about evil very much. Maybe that’s because our Universalist ancestors believed so strongly in the doctrine of Universal Salvation—that all souls would be reunited with an ultimately loving God and that none are destined for an eternity in hell. If you take away hell, perhaps, the idea of “evil” doesn’t make quite so much sense because there’s nowhere to “put” it. Or maybe it’s because our Unitarian ancestors were so convinced of humanity’s ability to climb onward and upward, to rise above our basest instincts. (An old joke has it that Universalists believed God is too loving to damn humanity and that Unitarians believed humanity is too good to be damned.) Perhaps it’s that our Unitarian Universalist rationalism has been so infused with the psychological mythologies of our day that turn “demons” into “conditions,” that “evil” has become “maladjustment” and “bad choices.”

By whatever route, it seems that our religious tradition has largely lost the language to deal with something like what happened this week: because someone decided that the United States was the Enemy and that there are no innocents here, because someone decided that their own lives—and the lives of all those people on the planes and in and around those buildings—were expendable, the Pentagon lies in rubble, the Twin Towers are no more, and a planeload of heroes lie dead in a Pennsylvania field.

How are we to make sense of that?

One response is to name the act and the persons who committed it “evil” and, so, separate ourselves from them. Hopefully we won’t take the step of expanding this demonization, you and I are not likely to start saying that all Muslims—or all Afghanis—are at fault and should pay for this. We’re not likely to generalize in that way—although I’ve already heard some of us speak words which come disturbingly close—but even if we’re specific in our demonization, targeting only the particular people who are, in fact, responsible, we are still, I believe, making a mistake.
For if they are evil and we are not, if that’s how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy. That’s the problem of evil. Not so much that it exists—in that it’s really just a fact of life, or a force of nature. The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it’s out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us. And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil—to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.

Stay with me here for a moment. The core of our Unitarian Universalist faith—and the core of all the religious faiths that I know of—points to the truth that we are part of a family that includes all of creation. You, and I, and caterpillars, and stars, and even anti-American terrorists are, in truth, part of one family, children of one divine reality. We call it “the interdependent web of existence.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Theists call it “the family of God.” Whatever we call it, and we do have lots of names, the truth remains that our faith teaches that what is real is our connectedness.

So I believe that a working definition of “evil” could be “whatever distracts us from our essential relatedness.” In other words, whatever convinces you that I am not your brother; whatever gets me to think of you as anything less than my kin—that thing is evil. So even this distinction of “good” and “evil” can be seen as one of evil’s most pernicious tools, for it tempts us to think of the evil and the good as separate from one another.

The eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once wrote,

“The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil has need, first and foremost, of self-knowledge, that is, in the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion. Both are elements within his nature, and both are bound to come to light in him, should he wish—as he ought—to live without self-deception or self-delusion.”
In his book Peace Is Every Step, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and poet, writes about receiving a letter about a twelve-year-old girl, a refugee, whose boat was attacked by sea pirates. The pirates raped the girl, and she threw herself into the ocean and drowned. He writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. . . . [And if] you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that.” From out of his deep meditation, Nhat Hanh wrote a poem, “Call Me By My True Names”

“. . . I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
. . .
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.”
This is the religious response to evil, not setting it apart and intensifying the illusion of separation but recognizing, as Jung said, both how much good we, ourselves, can do and what crimes we, ourselves, are capable of; recognizing that both are part of each of us, that both are found in me. As Jesus said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”

Oh, it is easy to get angry at them, whether them is those who are responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, or those who are responsible for the bloodshed and the anguish in Israel and Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in Serbia. They do such horrible, such horrendous things and we want retribution, we want revenge, we want someone to pay. Which is just what they said before the stones were hurled, and the bombs set off, and the planes hijacked. This cannot be our response to evil, because this is just what evil wants.

Today I say to you, with all the conviction in my soul, that we must take the harder route—opening our hearts rather than closing them, looking with compassion not only on those who are suffering because of the carnage of Tuesday but also on those who caused the suffering. This is how “Universal Salvation” and “Timothy McVeigh” are reconciled because, in truth, such reconciliation is our only hope. It is not easy, but unless we respond to violence with peace, to hatred with love, to fear with faith, the cycle will only continue. Gandhi is remembered as having said, “‘an eye for an eye’ will leave the whole world blind.” “An eye for an eye” will leave the whole world blind.

Far from having nothing to say about evil, our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the face of evil is the face of alienation, of separation, of us and them. And our Unitarian Universalist faith tells us that the only response to a tragedy such as this is to look through the eyes of what is best within ourselves, opening the door of compassion and remembering our place in our common family.

In the days, weeks, months and years ahead, our resolve will be tested. As much as I wish I were wrong, Tuesday’s tragedies will not be the last blows struck against us. We will be tempted to enter into a battle we cannot win, for the battle itself is the enemy. But there is another choice. We can say “no” to death, and “yes” to life over and over and over again, no matter how hard it becomes. We can refuse to let go of our faith in the essential goodness of humanity, even in the light of how horrendously evil our acts can be; we can refuse to settle for the simplistic solution of “an eye for an eye,” even when it’s our own eye that has been shattered; we can refuse to replace the love in our hearts with hate, even when we ourselves suffer indescribable anguish. As I wrote in my column in yesterday’s paper, when faced with evil the only response we can make is that we will continue to Live and will continue to Love. Let this be what our children hear. Let this be what our neighbors hear. Let this be what our world hears.


Closing Words: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” —Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
In Gassho,

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Having centered ourselves, and taken the time to enter this time of prayer we now arrive at the first of the four medium-sized beads and the first of the four primary types of prayer: Naming.

In Simply Pray I described this as a combination of the types of prayers generally called Invocation, Praise, and Thanksgiving -- saying that this bead was for naming the sacred and holy in whatever way(s) made most sense to you. Since then, however, I have come to focus nearly exclusively on the practice of thanksgiving.

With this bead I engage a prayer of gratitude. Sometimes I make an explicit list of every single thing I can think of for which I am grateful at that moment. I'll often begin with my wife and kids, and then move on to my extended family, and then my friends, my job, various experiences I've had, etc., taking each one in turn, calling it to mind as vividly as possible and trying to feel my true gratitude for it.

Here's something I've learned since I wrote about this practice back in 2004, it can be hard to remain grateful. When thinking about my wife or my kids, for instance, I may begin to think about something that they've said or done recently about which I am particularly not grateful right now. Or when thinking about my job, there may be something going on that's causing me anxiety. I've come to appreciate that a part of the discipline of this practice is that while I'm here at this Naming bead my focus is to remain on the things for which I am grateful. If my mind starts to wander, I am to return it to the "attitude of gratitude" which is the tone of this bead. Sometimes, then, I'll even include in my list people or things about which I am not feeling especially grateful for at the moment but for which I know I am grateful -- this prayer can help me reconnect to this deeper reality.

Sometimes I don't have a "list." In much the same way the Course in Miracles material includes several exercises in which you let your attention simply land wherever it lands with no attachment or judgement, sometimes I use this bead as a way to cultivate a more grateful heart. While fingering the bead I simply allow my eyes to wander and to land on whatever they land on -- the sky, a tree, the person next to me, the ground, my own hand, the chair -- and wherever my attention lands I say to myself "I am grateful for . . ." Or I'll do the same thing with my thoughts and feelings, allowing whatever thoughts come to rise up on their own and be greeted only by a non-attached "I am grateful for . . ." (It's important not to get caught up in then thinking about these things -- just notice the thought or feeling, say "thank you" for it, and then let it go.)

You can also, if you prefer, just use this bead as a time to "feel grateful" with no object to which you direct your gratitude. Can you remember a time when you felt particularly thankful? Get back in touch with that feeling. Recall it as fully and completely as you can. This is actually an ancient prayer practice, recollecting one's spiritual experience as a form of spiritual experience, so recreating in your imagination -- or your memory -- a feeling of gratitude that you once had is a way of getting in touch with your gratitude now.

The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that we are all like television sets with hundreds of channels. When we're feeling sad to say, "I am sad," is like a TV set saying, "I am channel 5." The truth is that the sad channel is simply what's on at the moment, but all of the other channels are also there -- including the gratitude channel. This bead, this prayer, is a way of setting the gratitude channel as a favorite, preset channel on your remote so that you can return to it more easily when you want to or need to throughout your day.

And I always say how grateful I am for this prayer bead practice.

In Gassho,


Friday, September 04, 2009

Entering in: fourth bead

Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you -- you who created me, you who redeem me, you who sustain me. Amen.

This is the last of the four beads between the largest -- the centering -- bead and the first of the four medium sized beads which are the cornerstones, as it were, of this prayer bead practice. As I engage with this practice myself, I use each of these beads as another step in preparation for the prayer time to come and, so, I ask that my eyes, my ears, and my hands be opened not just in my life in general but more specifically in this upcoming time of prayer. And now, as I am on the verge of engaging the first of the primary prayer practices, I ask that my heart may be opened "that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you."

Another way to say this might be that I want to live my life more fully conscious of the presence of God, live my life more fully grounded in the awareness of the reality of the divine. One of my favorite spiritual books is Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century lay brother who developed the spiritual practice of living each moment aware of God's presence so that whether he was chanting the psalms in the chapel, in prayer on his knees in his cell, or in the kitchen cutting carrots made no difference to him. I want that kind of life -- aware, always, of being surrounded and suffused by the sacred and holy reality of life. (I would say, of course, that I am surrounded and suffused whether I am aware of it or not, just as I am immersed in the air whether I acknowledge it or not. Yet I want to know about it and appreciate it!)

So, open my heart -- because my eyes, and ears, and hands have already been opened -- so that my living and my loving might be more fully and deeply grounded in this reality. And then I describe this reality in, admittedly, extremely trinitarian terms. Yet rather than, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," I use the terms "creator," "redeemer," and, "sustainer." Let me unpack these:

You who created me -- in the Christian Gospel of John (1:3) it says, "Through [God] all things were made; without [God] nothing was made that has been made." That sounds about right to me since, as I understand it, one way of defining God is as the creative force of the universe.

You who redeem me -- I know that this is traditional language with very specific meaning within the Christian tradition, and the familiarity of it is part of what appeals to me, yet I think of it too as meaning that through my growing relationship with the sacred my life is redeemed from a life which I would otherwise find less meaningful and devoid of that "spark." Being in this relationship redeems my life from an existential loneliness in which I have spent far too much time.

You who sustain me -- And if God is "the ground of being," the "Spirit of Life," than God is that which sustains all things. Just as nothing is created without the creative force being involved, so nothing exists without sustaining power. Is this a tautology? Of course. Does that make it any less true?

So -- Open my heart, that I might live and love more fully and deeply in you -- you who created me, you who redeem me, you who sustain me. Amen.

And this brings us to the end of our preparation. Of course, it isn't like the preparation isn't, itself, a part of the processess; it's not as if we have not been praying up until this point. It's all been prayer. Yet now, with the next bead -- the first of the medium-sized beads and the first of the four primary prayer types -- our prayer journey begins in earnest.

'till Friday.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Entering In: Third Bead

So far we've taken two "steps" from our Centering Bead toward the first of our four major prayer beads; we've taken two steps in the four-step process of entering into our prayer. As I noted in the first post on this topic you can do this in any way that makes sense for you. I've composed a prayer that is all about "opening," and thus far I've talked about opening my eyes and opening my ears. When I engage my prayer bead practice, the third bead's prayer is:

Open my hands, that I might let go of controling things and grasping after false security.

This is considerably different than the prayer I wrote about in Simply Pray. As I said it then, the prayer was, "Open my hands, that I might freely give whatever is mine to share." (p. 68) These things change over time. I have no idea exactly when or how the one prayer changed into the other. All I know is that now, where I am in my life with the concerns before me and issues I am wrestling with, the new phrase is the one that makes the most sense to me.

It is important, as with any disciplined practice, that you stick with the words and forms you choose for long enough that they can have the time needed to work their way into you, psyche and soul. Yet it is equally important that you hold onto them with a light enough touch that they can change as you do. Note that the Christian's so-called "Lord's Prayer" -- also called the "Our Father" -- actually exists in two fairly different forms. It is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (6:9-13) and the Gospel of Luke (11:2-4). Now, this is not as radical a change as occured in my prayer, yet it just goes to show that even the most well-known words change over time. (And not just "debts" and "trespasses.")

So I'm now concerned with the need to let go of control. One of my favorite bits of wisdom comes from the Rev. Barbara Merrit's contribution on adversity as a spiritual practice in Everyday Spiritual Practice. She writes, "Whether or not we believe in God, we must recognize that we ourselves are not God." I've written elsewhere that even during times when I did not believe in any kind of Higher Power I seemed to be living my life as if I were at least applying for the job. I want that to stop. I need that to stop if I'm going to have any chance of finding peace and balance in my life and I really want both. So each day I announce my attention, I ask the help of the universe -- of the Spirit of Life, of God, of the Living God, of the "really Real," of the Life in life -- to help me "open my hands, that I might let go of controling things."

And that not only applies to my life "out there" but this time of prayer as well -- I want to try to make sure that I'm not trying to be in control of what happens here but am, instead, open to its unfolding on its own. Even that's not easy! Yet again, as I mentioned in the last post, my teachers at Shalem encouraged us to think of prayer as something that God was already doing in us -- our job is to get out of the way, to quiet the internal noise and stop trying to direct the flow of things enough so that we can become aware of and attuned to the prayer God is praying in us. Not easy for us results-oriented, action-focused, product-driven American personality types.

The other thing I try to remind myself of here is that much of what I seek after as security is actually a false security: the approval of others, the material things, the momentary feelings of success. None of these things lasts, and so none of these things provides the kind true security that can provide real peace of mind and heart. And so I seek to stop grasping after those things, to "open my hands," and instead to pursue only those things that lead to real security.
And finding those things, one might say, is what the rest of this prayer stuff is all about.
In Gassho,
PS -- because of the holiday on Monday, I'll post again on Tuesday. 'Till then . . .

Entering In: second bead

Open my ears, that I might hear your voice in whatever form it takes -- especially those I might rather not hear.

Continuing the process of "entering in" to the time of prayer I ask that my ears might be open. The e. e. cummings poem I referred to yesterday -- "i thank You God for most this amazing" -- ends with the lines: "(now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened)." This is what I think of when I pray "open my eyes" and "open my ears."

And it isn't quite right to say that I am asking that my eyes and ears be opened as there really isn't a someone of whom I am asking this. (At least not in the sense those words are usually used.) This "God" to whom I am praying is not exatly Other but not exactly Self, either -- I'm not really talking to another person but I'm not really just talking to myself. So I'm asking for my eyes and ears to be opened and I'm stating my intention that my eyes and ears be opened; there's a merging of active and passive voice here that makes little linguistic sense but makes perfect mystical sense. (Remember Augustine's si comprihendis non es deus -- "if you understand it, it's not God.")

So the second of the "entering beads" -- as I do the practice -- is an invitation to open my ears to the "voice" of the sacred "in whatever form it takes." Remember the television show Joan or Arcardia in which Amber Tamblyn played a teenager who kept seeing God in different forms -- a teenage boy, a little girl, an elderly woman, a security guard, a homeless man . . . God kept showing up in different forms in part because God had no one form of his/her own. Likewise, metaphorically speaking, God has no single voice and, so, all things are potentially the voice of God.

A person is at the end of her or his rope, in the depths of despair. He sits on a little hill, the sun baking down on him, feeling that his soul is as dried out and parched as the ground on which he sits. "I can't go on," he cries, and just then a little breeze kicks in and his spirit feels just the littlest bit revived. Who is to say that that breeze wasn't the voice of God answering his prayer of despair? The twitter of birds, the laughter of children, the tears of a loved one, the anger of friends . . . each of these could be a much needed message, a "voice" as it were telling us what we most need to hear. (If, that is, the ears of our ears are open to hear it. How often is Jesus remembered as saying, "Those who have ears, let them hear."?)

I remember leading a books study when the book Everyday Spiritual Practice came out. At one point one of the members was having something of a crisis of faith -- he was struggling with a newly (re)discovered sense that maybe there was some kind of Higher Power in some kind of control of the universe, an idea he'd long ago abandoned. Driving home from the group one night he found his thoughts tumbling around and around one central question, "Who is in control of the universe?" To take his mind off this existential wrestling he turned on his radio and started surfing through the dial. From the first station he landed on, the first clear sounds were the words, unmistakable, "I am in charge!" (It turns out he'd landed on a Christian station.) He had to pull off to the side of the road to compose himself. Was this a message? A coincidence? (Some say that a coincidence is God's way or remaining anonymous.)

With this bead I remind myself that I have a lot to learn and that there are opportunities to learn -- teachers -- literally all around me. The folks at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, with whom I studied spiritual guidance, say that prayer is not so much about us talking to God as it is about us learning to become quiet enough to listen to what God has to say. "Open my ears that I may hear your voice in whatever form it takes."

One more thing, though. I'm not always going to like what I hear. This is one of the dangers in much modern spirituality -- the "take what you want and leave the rest" mentality that is so prevalant today while in some ways a really good thing is also potentially a prescription for a shallow spiritual life. There are some hard truths that I must face too, if I am going to grow, and each day, with this bead, I remind myself to be open to them as well.

'till Friday.

In Gassho,


Friday, August 28, 2009

Entering In: first bead

The next four beads are for entering into the prayer practice. You could recite the "melt me/mold me/fill me/use me" prayer that I mentioned on Friday, or the four Bodhisattva vows. Any four-line poem or prayer that feels like an invocation or a statement of your commitment or intention will do. I have used one which has changed a little since it was published in Simply Pray (p. 68). Over the next four blog posts I'm going to take each bead in turn and, as we used to say in seminary, "unpack it" a bit.

Open my eyes, that I may see your face in every person I meet, and might seek your fingerprint in every situation I encounter -- myself, my family, and the things of my own life included.

I begin by stating the intention, expressing the desire, that what e.e. cummings called "the eyes of my eyes" might be opened so that I might see the divine in each and every person I meet. The metaphor I use is that of seeing the face of God in every face I encounter, and that seems apt to me. I'm anthropomorphising the sacred by calling it God (and saying it has a "face") in order to talk about anthropomorphising the sacred by seeing it the people I meet.

Yet I believe that each and every one of us is an incarnation of the holy with a human face. As the Unitarian educator Sophia Lyon Fahs said, "each night a child is born is a holy night," not just that one night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. And, so, I'm really wanting to be reminded that what I see when I see another person is someone sacred -- and at the end of the prayer I note that I especially want to recall this when dealing with myself and my family (but I'll come back to this).

And then I note that I want to seek [God's] "fingerprint" in "every situation I encounter." I actually played with this wording for a while. Note that I say that I want to see God's face yet merely ask to seek God's fingerprint. Why? I think it would be presumptious to expect, even to want, to understand the Grand Design (if there is one). No. I think I can yearn to learn to see the sacred in each person yet I think the most I can hope for is to remember to look for the signs of God's involvement -- God's "fingerprint."

Finally, at the end of this phrase of the prayer I there's a line I actually often forget to say. (Freudian slip?) After all, it's relatively easy to remember to see the face of God in the homeless man I talk to on the street, or in the cashier who serves me in the grocery store, or even in my colleagues at work. But in my kids when they're annoying me or my wife when she's being grumpy? Or in me when the old tapes are playing those old messages about . . . ? (Well, that's the subject of another blog I suppose.) And while I might remember to look for the "fingerprint" of God in the life of a friend when things are going south for her or him, how easy is it to forget to do so when it's my own life? And so I always try to remember to include, "myself, my family, and the things of my own life."

And so there you have it. The first of the four "entering" beads: Open my eyes, that I may see your face in every person I meet and might seek your fingerprint in every situation I encounter -- myself, my family, and the things of my own life included.

See you on Wednesday.

In Gassho,


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Large Bead: Centering

The journey begins with the large bead on the circle, and the practice begins with getting centered. We come to our time of prayer from whatever it is we were doing before. Now that might seem overly obvious, yet pause to think about it for a moment. If you were having friends come over you would probably spend at least a few moments getting your home ready--straightening up a bit, perhaps; maybe putting some chips in a bowl and some music on the CD player. Or if you were about to do some intense exercise you'd spend a little time warming up. Similarly, if you want to get the most out of your prayer practice there should be some transitional time of preparation between whatever it was you were doing before you were praying and your time of prayer. Consider it a time of getting your inner house of prayer in order, or a kind of spiritual warm up. This is the purpose of the first bead.

There are all sorts of things one can say or do -- my suggestion has been to recite a short poem or, perhaps, a meditative passage. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has made famous the gatha "Breathing in, I relax body and mind; / breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I realize this is the only moment." You could also light a candle and gaze at it for a few moments; invite a bell or gong to sound and listen until you can no longer hear its sound; or anything else that gives you the time you need to both transition and prepare.

For some time I have made use of a hymn text that I learned many years ago back in my Methodist summer camp days. The words were written by Daniel Iverson and the stanza I use is © 1935, 1963 Birdwing Music (ASCAP):
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
I tie the phrases of this hymn to my breathing, in-breath and out-breath, and I repeat it as often as I need to in order to feel that I have really gotten myself out of whatever mindset I was in before and into an attitude of prayer. I like these words because:

Spirit of the Living God reminds me that I'm not concerned with any of the false idols we've set up in place of the One True God, the "I Am" the defies all categorization and attempts to name it and know it and put it in a box. This is the unknowable Mystery, the is-ness, the very essence of existence, which is, as the Qu'ran puts it, "closer than the throbbing vein in my neck" yet which is also beyond the farthest reaches of the universe. Nothing less than that is my focus.

And I ask it to fall afresh on me. St. Theresa of Avila said that the greatest barrier to our experience of God is our last experience of God. This prayer reminds me to be open to this encounter, this experience, this moment and not any memory of past moments or expectations and hopes for what it might be.

And then there's that wonderful four-fold request:
  • melt me--melt my defenses, break through my barriers, tear down my walls
  • mold me--help me to be the person I know I can be
  • fill me--there is so much emptiness, so much longing in me
  • use me-- and so much need in the world

Sometimes, when I have the time, I just keep repeating these four phrases over and over again until one seems to catch my attention and then I sink into that one, making it the focus of an extended meditation. Usually, though, I simply move on to repeating the first phrase again:

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. After getting in touch with a true and deep desire (and need) to be melted, molded, filled, and used, these words often have an even more profound resonance.

And now, having warmed up, I'm ready to begin in earnest.

In Gassho,


Monday, August 24, 2009

Teach Us To Pray

In the Christian scriptures, the book of Luke (11:1), there is a record of an exchange between Jesus and his disciples. It says, "One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples." In virtually every religious tradition we humans have created to help us wrestle and dance with Life's Big Questions someone at some time asks a question like this.

The friend I wrote about on Monday, who said he envied my belief in God, asked me why I would pray if I didn't think the God I prayed to could come in and save me when things got tough. I told him that, at the very least, it was for the same reason I talked to my parents, or to my good friends, or even to myself, sometimes. Doing so helps me to clarify my own thinking and feeling about things, and it opens me to receive whatever wisdom they have to share. That's the why, but we never got around to the question of how I do it.

Back in 2005 the fine people at Skinner House Books published my second book, Simply Pray: a modern spiritual practice to deepen your life. This book is my attempt to explore prayer freed from any particular theological or religious understandings, to get at something of an underlying architecture if you will upon which a person could build her or his own prayer practice. I wanted -- for my own sake as well as for the people I was ministering to and with -- to develop a prayer practice that was solidly grounded in the spiritual traditions of the religions of the world yet which was also not dependent on adherence to any one of them. This book has also recently spawned a website -- PrayingToday -- through which I hope to continue to explore it's ideas.

The heart of the book is a prayer bead practice I developed while I was doing my chaplaincy training, a practice which incorporates what I believe to be the four fundamental types of prayer found in every religious traditions, as well as the two primary prayer forms. As we're coming up on the fifth anniversary of the publication of Simply Pray I find myself wanting to revisit some of this material, and so I'm planning to dedicate this blog each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday over the next several weeks to a step-by-step exegesis, if you will, of the practice.
The picture above is of my own set of prayer beads. A metaphor that works for me is that this practice takes you on a journey through prayer. Or, perhaps, a journey via prayer. It begins with the largest bead (the one with the face), and that's where we'll begin on Friday.

In Gassho,


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why Do They Think It's Comforting?

I was recently talking with an old friend with whom I'd long been out of touch. At one point in the conversation he said that he envied me my faith in God. "It must be comforting," he said. "Not at all," I replied, and I only just held back the thought that was in my mind -- sometimes it makes my life a living hell.

First I need to be clear -- when I use the word "God" I don't mean the Old White Guy with the Long White Beard hanging out in the clouds tossing down judgements and lighting bolts. (What a teenager in one of the congregations I served once called "Santa on Steroids.") I don't mean the Puppeteer or the Cosmic Cop. I don't even mean a person -- certainly not male or female -- in any way I can understand it.

In fact, one of my favorite descriptions of the way I understand what I call "God" is to quote no less an authority than the Christian theologian and Catholic "church father" St. Augustine who wrote, si comprehendis non es deus. ("If you understand it, it's not God.") Or, to quote Zen Abbot Daido Loori, "once you say, 'I've got it, you've lost it.'" The one thing I know about what I call "God" is that I can't comprehend it -- it's too big, too small, too far away, too close, too Other, too much the same. And yet I have experiences which tell me that in some way I can not fully explain I am in relationship with "it" and, so, I use the word "God" so as to have a name to use.

I also like the philosopher's definition of God -- "that than which no greater can be conceived." In other words, whatever else "God" may be, it is the ultimate. So if you have two contending understandings of God, whichever one can be objectively judged to be the greater one must be the correct one because God, by definition, must be the greatest there is. There can't be anything greater than God.

And so, oddly, a God who is not involved in every detail of our existence--pulling the strings, calling the shots, the synchronicity behind coincidence--seems to me far greater than one who is. Why? Because a God who is pulling all the strings has a lot of explaining to do: why is there suffering? Why do the good die young? Why does evil exist? Why do the unjust prosper? Oh, sure, there have been explanations offered -- it's all part of the plan -- but do any of them really make sense? Would a truly good God make such a convoluted and painful plan?

No, from my perspective, a greater God would be one who -- because of freewill, perhaps -- is not able to do everything. Such a God could still be technically omnipotent for those who care about such things. (A philosopher friend once said that omnipotence could be understood as being able to do anything that was able to be done and that, perhaps, some things just couldn't be done, even by God.) Perhaps the notion that "God is love" means that God can do what love can do. Perhaps the idea that God is like a parent means that, like a parent, God must watch as we children do things that are sometimes going to hurt each other and ourselves.

So right there some of the "comfort" my friend expected me to find in my faith disappears because I don't believe in that God -- the one I can call on to swoop in and save me (or my favorite sports team) from imminent disaster. But why do I say that my faith sometimes makes my life a living hell?

Because I do think that what I call "God" is involved with my life. Like a good parent, perhaps, God is proding me and provoking me; encouraging me to be the very best I can be. Like love, God is calling me out of my comfort zone and expanding me and the circle of my concern. This isn't always easy. In fact, this is usually pretty hard. Perhaps this is one of the reasons virtually every Biblical encounter with an angel begins with the angel saying, "Be not afraid." People knew what they might be getting into!

And yet -- and there had to be an "and yet" or no one would do this -- there is comfort, too. To keep with the parental metaphor, for those who've known loving and supportive parents (or any loving, supportive elders), it can be tremendously comforting to know that these people are in your corner, are there when you need them. You can feel their strength and their wisdom flowing in you and through you even though you know that they can't walk your road for you. And that's how I've found it to be with what I choose to call "God."

In Gassho,


Sound and Fury

When Shakespeare had Macbeth describe life as "a tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," he could have also been describing the recent town hall health care "debates." As John Stewart of the Daily Show recently said, "one side is screaming so loud and so angrily that they've drowned out the other side's incoherence."

Yesterday an exchange between a woman and Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts was making the rounds of the Internet, radio, and television. The woman asked why the Congressman was supporting this "nazi plan," to which the Congressman replied by asking "on what planet" the woman spent most of her time and, then, saying that discussing this with her would be like trying to talk with his "dining room table."

I'll admit it -- I reposted that video when it showed up on my FaceBook wall and did so with glee. At last, I thought, someone talking some sense. But now I regret my response.

I regret it because that woman -- and the people who think as she does -- is not as stupid as a dining room table. No person is. In fact, although what she said in this particular instance strikes me as particularly stupid, I have no idea how intellegent she is. Many very otherwise intellegent people have been known to have held incredibly ill-informed ideas in one or another area.

The truth is that I know nothing about her save for this one small thing -- her comments at this town hall meeting. She may well be a good mother, a loyal partner, a loving friend, a patriotic American, and a caring individual who really wants what's best for this country. We might like the same movies and music, enjoy the same foods, practice the same religion, and care about the same social issues. It's obvious that we have some serious disagreements between us, but we may also have a great many similarities as well. The moment I dismiss her as a "dining room table," however, I remove any opportunity of our ever finding them.

I'll confess that I listen to Rush Limbaugh fairly regularly. I listen to him because he's incredibly good at what he does, because I want to understand "what the other side thinks," and because I know that if I only listen to people I agree with I'm severely limiting myself. (As the bumper sticker says, "If you can't change your mind, how do you know you still have one?") While I was feeling all self-righteous because of the Frank exhange Limbaugh was playing that same sound bite to his listeners as one more example of how Democrats are really the hate mongers Republicans are so often painted to be.

Once again I was reminded that my experience tells me that if the Left says that the Right spews only lies and hate, and the Right says that the Left spews only lies and hate, and they both insist this with equal vehemence -- which they do -- then there is probably some truth to it. And if you listen carefully -- that is, if you stop cheering when "our" side "scores" on "their" side and getting angry when "their" side takes a "cheap shot" at "ours" -- it quickly becomes painfully obvious that each side is doing precisely what it is deploring the other for doing.

And worse than the hypocracy of this -- which in and of itself is a bad thing -- is that both sides have things worth hearing that are getting lost in all of this "sound and fury." Let me say that again: both sides actually have valid points worth paying attention to, worth considering, worth actually discussing, yet the tenor of the "debate" seems that we are virtually guaranteed that that won't happen.

Recently the satrical parody newspaper The Onion ran a headline "Congress Deadlocked Over How To Not Provide Health Care." Perhaps that's where we are. It's been said that our political process has become more about "scoring partisan points" than actually making a real difference. That's too bad, because there are real problems that need real solutions.

I, for one, want to stop cheering this game on and save my praise for the folks really doing the work.

In Gassho,


Monday, August 17, 2009

A Shift in Perspective

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to take responsibility for other people's emotional health? We worry that something we're thinking about saying or doing is going to make somebody we care about angry or upset -- as though it is within our power to make somebody else feel one way or another. It makes sense, then, that it's also so easy for us to think that other people can do this to us -- we think that other people make us mad, or drive us crazy or, for that matter, make us happy.

Yet all of the great spiritual teachers tell us -- as do the wise psychologists and even the Twelve Steppers among us -- that the power and the responsibility for our feelings lie squarely within ourselves. You may do something to me but only I can decide how I will react to it. Whether I get annoyed or amused by what you've done is a choice, even though it's a choice I usually make unconsciously it's still a choice. You can't make me mad; only I can do that.

And once I recognize that you can't make me mad -- or crazy, or happy -- then I also realize that I can't do it to you, either. Taking responsibility for my own emotional states has the "equal and opposition reaction" of making me stop taking responsibility for yours. This doesn't mean I should become a callous jerk but, rather, that I should realize that I can't make you feel anything. I can only do the things I do and you will feel about those things whatever it is that you're going to feel.

Funny, isn't it? We spend so much time -- and so much of our energy -- taking responsibility for something we have absolutely no control over, and so little time and energy on the one thing over which we do. Yet with a little shift in perspective things fall into place. This won't make everything easy, but it'll mean we can start to apply our efforts where they'll actually begin to do some good.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Get a Job? They've Got One, Thanks.

Three days a week I walk from South Station to my office on Beacon Hill. (The other two I work from home, lest you think I am a slacker or independently wealthy.) The walk takes about twenty minutes and is a decent workout for body, mind, and spirit.

The body has to move itself up a gradual incline at a decent clip carrying my lunch in one hand and my breifcase in the other. For me, in the shape I'm in, it's a workout. (Especially the last hill which is more than a "gradual" incline!) It's a workout for the mind, too, because I'm usually thinking about the projects on the day's to-do list, or the things I read on my commute, or I'm writing something in my head. And the spiritual workout? That's easy. It's all the people I pass -- especially the homeless women and men, asking for spare change.

On the bus ride in I generally do my prayer bead practice as part of which I say the words, "May I see your face in every person I meet this day . . ." And along this twenty minute walk I encounter half a dozen people or more who spend their days on the streets begging, and their nights on these same streets or in shelters. Some of them I've gotten to know. One celebrated his fifty-fourth birthday yesterday.

I've heard people say that these women and men should "get a job." I say that they have one. A hard one. Can you imagine how difficult it is to spend your day asking strangers for their spare change? To endure the rejection -- the passive and the more aggressive? The judgement? I tell you, this isn't easy work.

But what is the job they're doing? Remember, I said that I was engaged in a spiritual workout, so I am looking at this through a spiritual lens. And when I look through that lens I see people who remind me -- who remind us all -- that the world is far from fair. That those of us living comfortable lives do not represent the vast majority of people on the planet and that part of our comfort comes at the cost of their discomfort. They remind me that there is want and misery and pain and that, as Jesus himself is remembered as saying, "the poor shall always be with you." These people I pass each day put a human face on that proverb.

May I see your face in every person I meet, and find your fingerprint in every situation I encounter;
May I hear your voice in every form it takes, especially those I'd rather not hear;
May I open my hands and let go of trying to control things, and stop grasping after false security;
May I open my heart and live and love more deeply in you.

In Gassho,


Friday, August 07, 2009

Happy Anniversary Monsieur Petit

Today is Philippe Petit Danced Between The Towers Day. (A high holy day in my house.) Thirty five years ago a combination of imagination, insanity, hubris, holiness, poetry, and prowess combined over a quarter of a mile above downtown Manhattan as a young French wirewalker named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire cable no thicker than your pinkie and began to dance between the towers of the World Trade Center.

He and his compatriots -- an odd assortment of friends and acquaintances who came together because of his passion for this "great adventure" -- had been up all night, having illegally entered the towers the afternoon before, rigging the wire for the walk. In the early morning hours he stepped out . . . and into both history and legend.

Why did he do it? Later, when he'd had time to think, he said something to the effect that when he sees three oranges he must juggle and when he sees two towers he must string a wire and walk. But at the time, immediately after the police arrested him, as the media were pushing their microphones into his face, he simply answered, "Why? There is no why."

And isn't that as it should be? Do we ask why we see a particularly spectacular sunset just when we need to be reminded that the world is full of beauty? Do we ask why we someone does us a good turn just when we were about to give up on the human race? Do we ask why when we fall in love? Or why when our baby looks up at us and smiles? Or why whenever we're reminded, however it is that we're reminded, that grace abounds and we're surrounded by miracles?

Actually, we do. But later, usually. While it's happening we just watch and try to take it all in. Just as the people who were lucky enough to have been there thirty five years ago did. No one was asking why until Petit was back on the street. While he was dancing, we just watched. And felt our hearts dancing too.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, Gang aft agley." That's a line from a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, specifically, his, ""To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest, with the Plough." In English it's usually rendered, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."

The last time I posted here I was committed to return to the practice of regular posting. I was aiming for weekly. When I was a parish minister, of course, I had a vocational discipline of writing sermons each week. And for a while I made a personal discipline of writing for thirty minutes in my journal each day. (Or, at least, for thirty minutes three times each week.) Yet since I left the parish I have not been doing anywhere near as much writing and I wanted to get back to it. So I determined to blog again.

And then I had a back spasm so severe that I was taken to the hospital. After a week of pretty heavy pain killers and muscle relaxants I had recovered enough that I tried my hand at a little gardening . . . and had a relapse. A week more of bed rest and I was feeling pretty good. As I was getting ready to go to my physical therapy appointment I thought I'd do one quick job around the house -- climb a ladder to take down our flag. The ladder collapsed underneath me.

Needless to say I haven't been up to writing. The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley. Ole' Bobby Burns was certainly right about that. It does seem that whenever we set our minds to saying "this is how it's going to be" we virtually guarantee that it's going to turn out just about any way but that way.

Lately I've begun to engage again the Unitarian Universalist prayer bead practice I wrote about in Simply Pray. With one of the entering beads I say, "Open my hands, that I may let go of my attempts to control things and my efforts to grasp after false security." The last several weeks have given me MANY opportunities to practice this. You too, no doubt. I hope yours have been less painful.

In Gassho,


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Waking Up

In an episode of Mr. Deity -- the web-based, theologically oriented "sitcom" found at -- Mr. Deity (aka "God") and his assistant Larry are playing a card game in which they assign purpose and meaning to people's lives. "Why do we have to assign meaning to everyone's lives?" Larry asks. (And I'm paraphrasing here.) "Why can't they look for their own meaning?"

"Oh yeah. Right." Mr. Deity replies. "Like they're going to look for the meaning in life. They're going to watch TV. And I'm not talking 'Deadwood.' I'm talking about soaps, and reality TV. I'm talking about Public Broadcasting."

I haven't "mused" on this blog since the beginning of the year, and it's not just because I've been watching reality TV. (Although I'll admit to thinking that ABC's "Wipeout" is a hoot!) Life just has a way of "kidnapping" us, as my teachers at Shalem used to say. It's so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day-ness of it all that taking time to muse -- much less write about those musings -- gets lost in the shuffle.

But as the Taoist maxim has it, "fall down seven times; get up eight times."

A Minister's Musings is back on line!

See you in a week.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sitting Still On A Moving Bus

Since September I've been commuting in to Boston three days a week for work, and on these three days I've taken to meditating on my way in and my way out. Now some might think that this is not the right place to take up a meditation practice--it's not a quiet and peaceful place by any stretch of the imagination! It's cramped and crowded, there's all the bumping and jostling, there's the road noise and the noise of the other commuters. A zendo it is not!

But then I think of the Zen temple I visited in Kyoto. Outside the zendo there is a place where icy cold water falls from the mountain ledges above. I was told that the senior monks often meditate there, beneath the waterfall, because it helps them to stay free from distraction to practice in such a distracting place. So maybe a bus isn't such an odd location to set up your cushion after all.

And, when you come to think of it, where can you find stillness anyway? The earth upon which you sit is spinning around its axis at aproximately 1,000 miles/hour. And the it's orbiting around around the sun at about 67,000 mph. The sun is also rotating around our galaxy at 559,000 mph, and the galaxy itself is rotating at approximately 492,000 mph.

So where in all that movement is the stillness? That's what I'm sitting to discover.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, January 21, 2009


This is from a NY Times article titled, "A Portrait of Change: in first family, a nation's many faces" --

For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack — are quite poor.

The inauguration of Barack Obama yesterday represents change in so many dimensions that I think it'll take quite a while for us to become aware of them all.

I am so moved.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

What an experience we, as individuals and as a nation, have just gone through! I was sitting with a number of my collegaues here at UUHQ, watching together as the 44th President was sworn in--I won't hesitate to acknowledge that I had tears running down my face.

I also had words running through my ears, other words than those being spoken on the dias. With apologies (if necessary) to my colleague the Rev. Kathleen McTigue (who wrote the original), I offer these words:

The inauguration of President Barack Obama is another day dawning, the sun rising as the sun always rises, the earth moving in its rhythms, with or without our calendars to name a certain day as the day of new beginning, separating the old from the new. So it is: everything is the same, bound into its history as we ourselves are bound.

Yet also we stand at a threshold, the new Administration something truly new, still unformed, leaving a stunning power in our hands: what shall we do with this great gift of a new era?

Let us begin by remembering that whatever justice, whatever peace and wholeness might bloom in our world this year, we are the hearts and minds, the hands and feet, the embodiment of all the best visions of our people. This new Presidency can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.

Let us take the step forward together, onto new ground, planting our dreams well, faithfully, and in joy.

May it be so.

in Gassho,


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Amazed and Greateful

A colleague recently shared these words, apparently the conclusion of Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope (which I’ll admit I haven’t yet read). I responded that, issues of race and heritage aside, I am amazed that we elected someone so eloquent. Amazed, and deeply grateful:

At night, the great shrine is lit but often empty. Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. I look out over the Reflecting Pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr. King's mighty cadence, and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol dome.

And in that place, I think about America and those who built it. This nation's founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those like Lincoln and King, who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless, nameless men and women, slaves and soldiers and tailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams.

It is that process I wish to be a part of.

My heart is filled with love for this country.

On January 20th we are inaugurating the presidency of a man -- a human man with flaws and failings like us all. I do not expect President Obama to be a messiah or some kind of political wizard or superhero who will make everything okay again. He is a human being, like any of us.

But he appears to be to be a very intelligent man. An eloquent man. A man who understands what oppression and intolerance look like from the inside and who still sees the potential and promise in our nation and our world.
I am amazed, grateful, and filled with hope.
In Gassho,