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,