Friday, December 17, 2010

If You'[re Going To Put The Christ In Christmas . . .

I have been getting tired of hearing myself say some of the same things over and over and over again.  As the so-called "right wing" of our political scene rallies against what the decry as the "liberal socialist agenda," and latch on to phrases like "redistribution of wealth" as though these were bad things, I often notice that these folks are often the same ones who claim to be Christian and say that this was -- and should be again -- a "Christian Nation."

And I find myself asking, "Have they ever read The Book?"

Because in the Bible that I read, there are passages that make the most radical proposals in play today look weak and timid.  In the book of Leviticus there is described a plan known as "the year of jubilee," in which all slaves were to be freed, all debts were to be forgiven, and all land was to be returned to its original owners.  What would that do to our economic system today?

In the book of Matthew, Jesus is rememberd as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven will be like a place where the owner of a vineyard goes out in the early morning and hires workers, arranging with them a fair salary for a day's work.  Throughout the day, the owner goes out and hires more workers, telling them only that he'd do right by them.  At the end of the day, he pays everyone the same amount -- from the ones who'd worked all day to the ones who'd only been there for the last hour.

In the book of Acts we're told that the earliest Christians lived communally, combining all their possessions so that everyone might have all that they needed and that no one might be in want.

If these right wing folks want this to be a Christian Nation, I say over and over again, then how about getting behind some of the things that the God of the Christian Bible makes pretty clear a priority.  (Read the well-known "Magnificat" of Mary if you have any question what the whole thing's supposed to be about.)

I was recently overjoyed to hear someone else sounding this same call:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Thanks, Stephen.

In Gassho,


Friday, December 10, 2010

I Have Some Idea Where I Am Going Thanks To You

Today, December 10th 2010, is the forty-second anniversary of the death of the Trappist monk, Father Thomas Merton.  The Trappists are traditionally a silent order, yet Merton's voluminous writings continue to inspire generations of seekers -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  Although many of his works seem dated now, and certainly his language could be more inclusive, Merton had a way of getting to the heart of things which still speaks to people, and his willingness to see past dogma and doctrine to what one might dare call "spirit and truth" is still inspiring. 

When Merton met the then relatively unknown Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh he declared that he had more in common with him than he did with most Catholics, because in this fellow contemplative monastic he recognized someone who'd gone deeper than the surface and found the place where all was One.  (It didn't bother Merton that for Christians it was all One Presence while for Buddhists it was all One Emptiness; it didn't bother Nhat Hanh either.  They both recognized that they'd had similar experiences of life's essential and underlying Oneness.)

One of my favorite prayers -- and I've written about it before -- was first uttered by Thomas Merton.  He published it in his book Thoughts in Solitude, an excellent book and well worth reading.  In my own book on prayer, Simply Pray, I confess that I think this prayer of Merton's is more perfect than the so-called "Lord's Prayer."  It speaks so eloquently and so clearly to the situation in which I so often find myself, and it manages to both challenge me and comfort me at the same time:
My Lord God,  I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.  Amen.
In Simply Pray I analyze this prayer at some length.  Most days, though, I simply find myself praying it.  Meditating on its words.  And finding that while I do not see the road ahead of me with any greater clarity, if I am honest with myself, and truly cannot know for certain where it will end, I often feel (at least) that I have some idea of where I am going thanks to the wisdom, and the compassion, and the love Father Merton shared with the world.
In Gassho,
and in gratitude for the life of this monk,

Friday, December 03, 2010

A Sign and a Symbol

This morning I saw a link to an article while on FaceBook that had a photo of a woman wearing the hijab, the head scarf that some Muslims understand Islamic tradition as requiring a woman to wear.  In the past few years, the hijab has become the focal point of international ire -- a symbol, some say, of repression or a sign for religious rights.  (The photo at right is of Sura Al-Shawk, a Swiss citizen of Iraqi origin, a twenty-year old woman who has been told that she cannot play professional basketball unless she removes her hijab.  She is considering appealing the case the the Switzerland's highest court.)

When I looked at this photo this morning, though, I suddenly saw another image -- one I grew up with.  Oh how I loved the comedic exploits of Sally Field as Sister Bertrille, the Flying Nun.  Yet she wore her habit whenever she went out in public.  (And often wore that absolutely ridiculous hat, too!)  Where was the furor then?

And I have colleagues who always where a clerical shirt when they go out and about.  They want to be identifiable as ordained ministers, visible signs to the world of the vows they've taken and the vocations that have taken them. 

Perhaps you may argue that these folks have all chosen to wear what they wear.  And perhaps so.  But then it seems to me that those countries -- and those individuals -- who would consider banning the wearing of the hijab are making the same mistake as those who would require it.

In Gassho,


Thursday, December 02, 2010

All Will Be Well

One of the most well known phrases to come out of the Christian mystic tradition would have to be:  All Will Be Well.

It came to the English mystic Julian of Norwich, a fifteenth century anchoress at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich.  In her 30s she suffered from a terrible illness and thought she was dying.  During this time she had intense visions of Jesus which, after her recovery she wrote down in both a short form and then, twenty years later and with more commentary, a longer form.  Within these visions she saw and heard God say to her, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

This morning I awoke with a similar vision, although I am sure in a form quite different than that experienced by Julian.  I feel as though the message was much the same, though.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Is This Thing Called God?

My friend and colleague the Rev. Stefan Jonnason recently posted a story to FaceBook about an exchange he overheard in one of the congregations he's served.  This church has a banner that proclaims its historic three-word theology: 


One especially ardant secular humanist approached another person he knew to be of a complimentary mind-set and asked, "Doesn't it drive you crazy to see that banner week after week?"

To which the other person responded, "Oh, you must be reading it wrong.  It's supposed to be read from bottom to top."

I've previously written about this idea that if "God is Love" then "Love is God."  Some folks within the various 12 Step movements have found this a way to make sense of the Higher Power concept.  Others have found that it helps with all sorts of theistic "language of reverence."  Try reading the famous passage on love found in the Christian scriptures -- 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 -- replacing the word "love" with the word "God."  Changes the image of God for most people, doesn't it?

Here's another one.  I woke up with it actually.  The song's an old Cole Porter classic, What is This Thing Called Love?  What if the incomperable Sarah Vaugh were singing about God?

In Gassho,


Friday, November 26, 2010

Looking For That Perfect Gift?

Are you looking for a great holiday gift for that certain someone?  How about the book about which James R. Adams, President of the Center for Progressive Christianity said, "Anyone with curiosity about the Jesus Seminar or the writing of Bishop John Shelby Spong will find [this] an excellent place to begin"?  The Rev. Dr. Tilden Edwards, founder of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation said of it, "This book will especially appeal to people educated with a modern world view who have had difficulty appreciating Jesus' giftedness for us and who are open to a new understanding of his vision and his way."

Teacher, Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus in a secular world  was my first book, published by Skinner House in 2004.  In it I attempt to wrestle with the questions:  who was this man, Jesus, and who might he be for a person living in the world today?  To do so I explore the work of those who "search for the historical Jesus;" I examine the various portraits in the four cannonical Gospels (as well as in the Gospel of Thomas); and I look into my own heart and lived experiences.

Teacher, Guide, Companion is not a hefty tome.  At under one hundred pages it can be read in a night, yet over the years I have heard of people who have read and re-read it, and that it has provided many with more than enough substance to inspire deep conversation and rich encounters.

If you grew up within a Christian tradition and wonder if there's a way to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater, or if you'd like an introduction to this man (as well as his myth and legend) to see what he might have to offer you, I heartily encourage you to get a copy of Teacher, Guide, Companion.  And if you know someone like this, get one for her or for him.  (And what better time than when the world is preparing to celebrate his birthday?)

Teacher, Guide, Companion is available from as well as through the UUA Bookstore (where small group study guides can also be downloaded for free).

In Gassho,


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

God is a Playful Puppy

I recently read a book about St. Francis of Assisi -- John Michael Talbot's The Lessons of St. Francis:  how to bring simplicity and spirituality into your daily life -- in which I came across this marvelous passage:
"What is it about some religious people -- whether in Francis' day or our own -- that makes them think God is a cosmic killjoy?  That sancity must lead straight to solemnity?  That hymns must be funeral dirges?  They certainly don't get such ideas from God, who rejoiced as he created the universe, or Jesus, whose first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding feast.  Many people obviously don't understand what the anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing meant when he talked about 'the delight of the Lord's playfulness.'"
I've said before that I think one of the better images we could have of the divine is that of a playful puppy -- literally falling all over itself with exuberant energy and slobbering all over you and me with affection.  Nothing we can do will ever diminish the puppy's enthusiasm, its excitement and delight, its devotion . . . and so I think it is with God. 

If God's an old man in the clouds, then there's a twinkle in his eyes and he loves to pretend to pull a quarter out of your ear just so that he can see the way your face lights up.

The ancients didn't tell us that God feels love or is loving towards us, but that God is love.  Some have interpreted the mysterious revelation to Moses -- "I am that I am" -- as God saying "I am existence itself,"  Note that this doesn't mean, "I am all the things in existence," but rather, that God is existence or, as some have put it, is IS-ness itself.  God is love and, I would add, is exuberance, is delight, is joy.

For this, may we be truly grateful.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Lesson in Perspective

This morning I heard it reported that six billion dollars was spent on this election, making it the costliest election in U.S. history.  Six Billion dollars.  That's a six and nine zeros:   $6,000,000,000.00. 

I immediately began to fantasize about a world in which that money was used for more useful things -- like feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless, or providing healthcare to those who need it, or supporting literacy programs, or dealing with any of the other truly serious problems facing the people of our country and the world.

And then the announcer said that that six billion dollars was just one third of what Americans spent getting ready for Halloween.

And I remembered what world I was really living in.

Lord forgive us.  We know not what we do.

In Gassho,


Thursday, October 28, 2010

W-T-M-G-H ?

One of my favorite prayers, one I find myself coming back to again and again, was written by the Trappist monk, Father Thomas Merton.  It goes like this: 
My Lord God,  I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I even really know myself, and the fact that I think I am doing your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do that, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always though I appear to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.  Amen.  (from Thoughts in Solitude)
I love this prayer for it's straightforward and unflinching acknowledgment of my frequent state of fundamental cluelessness.  And it offers a sense of assurance that that's alright, that it's okay not to know what I'm doing because, in the "grand scheme of things," the most important thing is the attitude with which I do them.  "It's the thought that counts," I suppose.

Yes, good intentions may pave the path to hell -- a thought attributed to people the likes of Samuel Johnson and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux -- yet they are, after all, realistically the only thing we've got.  We can't know the outcome of our acts, all the paths and permutations that any behaviors of ours will precipitate.  And we can't be entirely clear of our own motives because we are a tangled mess of free will, patterns, and programming.  So all we can do is the best we can do.  And then, seeing what resulted from that, correct our next action to aim for even better outcomes.

Merton offers one tool for discernment.  "I believe that the desire to please you [God] does, in fact, please you."  Note his humility here.  He doesn't say that he knows this to be so but that he believes it to be true.  He continues, "And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire."

This reminds me of a passage from that wonderful 17th century work, The Practice of the Presence of God in which Brother Lawrence declares that he has taught himself to so live his life for the pleasure of God that, "I would not take up a straw from the ground against [God's] order, or from any other motive but purely that of love to [God]."  In everything Brother Lawrence did, no matter how mundane, he asked himself, "Is this expressing my love of God?"

Which brings me to the acronym that titles this post.  A decade or so it was all the rage for some to wear bracelets bearing the letters W-W-J-D ?  What Would Jesus Do?  The idea was that this would encourage the wearers to pause, before acting, and ask themselves that question -- in this situation, what would Jesus do? 

Of course, for some people it's difficult to imagine what a first century itinerant Jewish preacher, teacher, and healer would do in the face of twenty-first century problems.  And some people found it hard to liken themselves to Jesus -- despite Paul's assertion that "Christ was like us in all things but sin," many people have what I call the Sunday School Cardboard Cutout image of Jesus in which he is some kind of cross between Superman and Obi-Wan Kenobe (without the violence).

Last night I had reason to pray Merton's prayer again and I found myself struck by that phrase -- "the desire to please you . . ."  For that to make sense, of course, you need to anthropomorphize the divine so that you have some kind of Sacred Someone/Something who can "be pleased" by the things we do.  But let's go with that.  There's a dimension of imagination and poetry in all of spirituality any way.

So what if the question we ask ourselves is not, "What Would Jesus Do?" but, rather, "Would This Make God Happy?"

The Great Soul Mohandas Gandhi said that he would ask himself what affect an action would have on the poorest person he could imagine before he would take it.  Perhaps he did this only before taking some big step -- initiating some new campaign, for instance -- or maybe he did it when deciding mundane things, too.  But can you imagine living your life with such a measure to apply to the choices that face you day in and day out?

Last night I found myself caught up with the idea of asking myself the question, "Would this make God happy?"  When I'm tempted to engage in some unhealthy behavior -- scarf down some fast food, for instance, instead of deal with some uncomfortable feelings:  would this make God happy?  When I'm on the verge of taking out my stress and anxiety on my spouse or my kids:  would this make God happy?  When I can feel that it's just laziness that's making me lean toward watching reality TV instead of engaging my regular prayer practice:  would this make God happy?

I don't know how well I'll be able to do this, but I take heart that Brother Lawrence entered the monastery when he was about 24 and he died at age 77 -- he had 53 years in which to practice his practice.  And he does say that it was as hard, at the beginning, for him to do it as it was, at the end, for him not to. 

That gives me hope.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Fall From Grace

Today I had the great joy of facilitating the weekly chapel for my colleagues on the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  I'd described the service like this:
This summer, Erik fell down his basement stairs and shattered his shoulder. Ever the preacher, he’s been dying to get into a pulpit and talk about it ever since. Come find out what the comminuted fracture of his proximal humerus, an ancient Semitic story, and that thing that sometimes gnaws at you in the middle of the night might all have in common, and what our Unitarian Universalist faith has to say about them.

I thought I'd share the homily I wrote (along with the opening and closing words).

In Gassho,


Fall From Grace
a service for the UUA Staff Chapel
October 26, 2010

Call to Worship: At times this is a meeting room, and the work of the Association is done here. At times it is a stop on a tour, and the history of who and where we’ve been is remembered. At this time – right at this very moment in time – there is the opportunity for it to be a sanctuary, a sacred place.

And we are a collection of clergy and laity, Administrative Assistants and Directors, important people and . . . other important people, but in this time and place – including this cyberspace – we have the opportunity to be a congregation.

May we bring all that we are, to all that is here, and create all that can be.

Blessed be, and amen.

Reading: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

(The Christian Scriptures, the Gospel of Luke 10:25-37)

* * *
My formal religious education was begun by the good people at the First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin, NY. (They must have done something right there, because First Presby is, I believe, the only Presbyterian Church to have the distinction of producing not just one, but two Unitarian Universalist ministers.) I graduated to the Presbyterian’s summer camp programs, and my advanced training, if you will, took place over at the camping programs of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. In other words, you could say that I had a fairly mainstream Christian upbringing.

And so I learned the story we just heard, the story of The Good Samaritan, and knew that it’s moral, it’s point, was that we—that I—should strive to be like the Samaritan and do good things for people who were in tough situations, the less fortunate than me. It was all right there in Jesus’ last words, “Go and do likewise.”

It would be a number of years before I learned that most scholars believe that those last words, that whole setting of the story in fact, is a later addition, written so as to try to clarify this otherwise fairly confusing story. It’d be some time before I learned that it is the fact that that neat and tidy moral is, indeed, not the moral of the story which makes scholars believe that this parable may well originate with the rabbi Yeshua himself. And it’ll be some time before I come back to all of this this morning.

First I want to tell you about falling down the stairs.

I work at home three days a week, and I was walking downstairs to my home office when my sneaker caught on a step – you know how your sneaker sometimes has a little too much traction and catches on the floor and you swing your other foot up quickly to regain your footing? Well, I did that, but because I was on a staircase, so there was no floor to regain my footing on. I did a forward roll down the stairs. I bounced off the bottom two steps on my head and then came to a crashing stop on my shoulder.

My wife, who was home at the time, came running down stairs, surveyed the situation, and ran to get an ice pack and call 911. I have to tell you – the pain was pretty intense. I couldn’t move. I felt like my shoulder was dislocated or something. It was really scary. So Mary came back with the ice pack and put it right on my forehead. You see, she could see that I had a lump the size of a baseball and shaped like a horn sticking out of my head. But I could feel the pain in my arm, so I moved the ice to my shoulder. She moved it back to my head. I moved it back to my shoulder. Luckily the ambulance arrived pretty quickly and took me to the hospital.

It’s too late to make a long story short, but it turns out that I shattered the bone in my arm up near the shoulder – the proximal humerus – and broke it into several pieces – a comminuted fracture. A couple of months for the bone to heal. “Long” and “painful” physical therapy to follow on that. And, as you might have guessed, I’m right handed.

When I got out of the hospital the pain was still pretty intense, and the bone itself – although now screwed together with titanium screws – still had to heal, so I was given some pretty powerful pain medication and told to stay in bed. My sister-in-law Judith, my oldest brother’s wife, flew up from North Carolina to spend a week with us, because this week was also the last week of the kids’ summer vacation – during which they didn’t have any camp (they’re six and nine) – and my wife’s first week of nursing school.

Yeah. Take all that in. I broke my shoulder the week that my kids had no summer camp and my wife was starting school. So the worst part of all of this was not the pain. And it wasn’t the weird drug buzz. It was the feeling of letting everyone down. I was supposed to have been picking up the slack. I was supposed to have been supporting my wife as she started this new adventure, reducing the stress in our household, and thanks to this damn fall I was now adding to it.

Ever feel like that?

Ever feel the fear that no matter what you do you can’t do what you most need to do?

Ever feel like a failure? Like you’re not good enough? Or smart enough? Or capable enough? Or strong enough? Or calm enough? Or wise enough? Or sensitive enough? Or perceptive enough? Or savvy enough? Or financially secure enough? Or emotional secure enough? Or just plain enough enough?

Ever feel like that?

I’m guessing you have. I’m guessing you have and that sometimes it keeps you up at night. Or maybe for you it doesn’t hit you at night but comes on you when you’re driving home from work. Or jogging in the morning. The “I’m not enoughs.” But you know them, don’t you? You know them. And at some time they’ve knocked you to the ground, haven’t they? Knocked you flat on your . . . back, haven’t they?

I once had the opportunity to listen to a wonderful Catholic Priest who said that the one of the greatest mistakes the Christian church had made was to forget that Jesus was not a theologian, but a storyteller, and so the parables need to be read from a storyteller’s perspective. And from that perspective, he said, it is impossible for the story we heard earlier to be the story of The Good Samaritan.

For one reason, at the time Jesus would have told it, the Samaritans were a really outside, outcast group, reviled and rejected. Despised. It would have been an incredibly rare Jew who would have been able to put herself or himself into the place of a Samaritan character, yet that’s what you’d have to do if the moral of the story is, “be like the Samaritan.” It’d be like saying, “and after a while, a Tea Bagger came by and tended to his wounds,” or “and after a while, Glenn Beck came by . . .,” or, “after a while Fred Phelps came by . . .” “Go and do likewise.”

Also, oral storytellers usually begin by introducing us to their main character, so that we know instantly who we’re supposed to identify with and who we should focus our attention on. And this story doesn’t start off, “There once was a good Samaritan.” It begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers.”

The character we are to identify with is the person who fell prey to the robbers and, so, the moral of the story is not, “be like the Samaritan.” It’s: you are in a heap of trouble. You’re lying, beaten and bloody, on the side of the road. You’re batter and bruised. And it hurts. Life hurts.

But there is another part to the message, too: Help is on the way. Help is coming, but you’ll need to keep your eyes open and your heart open and keep yourself receptive because it might be coming from a direction you’d never expect. But rest assured, help is coming.

Now our Unitarian Universalist faith has not always been so good at dealing with the first part of this teaching. Oh, we’re pretty good at dealing with the world’s brokenness, the world’s wounds, the systemic problems, but our own? Not always so much. But we’re getting better at it. We’re getting better at finding the ways – the words and the wordless ways – of naming and knowing the pains and the fears and the brokenness we all share because we are, after all, only human.

But we have been good – very good – at sharing the good news that we are not alone and that help is on its way. To our core we believe that and have since the time of our forebears. As I like to put it, “We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in our miraculous universe, bound by love” – that is our message. Love, embodied in this human community, is a force to be reckoned with. It can heal any wound, fix any brokenness, comfort any fear, make anything whole . . . and, therefore, holy.

That love, known in so many ways and by so many names, is the heartbeat of our faith. And when we fall – when I fall . . . when you fall – we can count on it to pick us up, and care for our woundedness, and do what it takes to get us back on our feet again.

I’d like to invite us, now, to sing one of our movement’s favorite songs about this love. We’ll sing it through three times. You don’t need your hymnals – you either know it or you will. I’ll call out the words, and if you really don’t know them be sure to mumble or hum along with feeling. [We then sang Carolyn McDade's "Spirit of Life"]

Closing Words: The Buddha tells us that “life is suffering,” and Christian scriptures tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short,” and if we don’t know this then we at least suspect that it might be true. We’ve all known times when we could believe it. Yet they tell another truth as well – “everything is perfect, just as it is,” and “you are loved beyond your comprehension.” Perhaps they might just be right about this, too. As Sister Julian was taught, “All will be well; all will be well; and all manner of things will be well.”

Blessed me.  Namaste.  Assalamu Alaikum.  Ashe.  Shalom.  Amen.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

In The Image of God

Every so often I come across something on the Internet that I experience as so moving that, for me, it's a religious experience, and act of worship to watch it. This is such a thing.

A friend of mine posted it on FaceBook, and in my comment to her I said that such things give rise in me to two immediate thoughts. The first is that while I know that we humans are capable of acts of unspeakable barbarity and unimaginable cruelty, when I see something like this I am reminded that we're capable of incredible beauty and wonder as well, and I am given hope once again. 

And then I think that perhaps these things give us a glimpse into the meaning of the words, "made in the image of God." We cannot create the Grand Canyon, or a supernova, or mitochondrial DNA, but we can take an oversized hula hoop, the sounds of a piano and a cello, and a warehouse floor, and create, this:

How does someone "see" this before it's been done?  Surely no one has ever done anything quite like it.  This performer was literally creating a new performance style.  So how did he develop it?

And, for that matter, how did Beethoven "hear" the 9th Symphony?  Or how did Van Gogh "see" the Starry Night?

"We are made in the image of God."  That means, as I understand it, that we are compassionate, loving, wise, and creative.
Every so often I come across something on the Internet that I experience as so moving that, for me, it's a religious experience, and act of worship to watch it. Amen.

In Gassho,


Monday, September 20, 2010

For All The Saints

During the Battle of Pamplona in 1521 the Spanish nobleman and knight Ignatius of Loyola was seriously injured.  (A cannonball injured one leg severely and broke the other.)  During his long and painful convalescence he read De Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony as well as stories of the lives of the saints.  Through his reading he was converted from a desire to be a great knight to a desire to be a great saint, and during this period he began to develop many of the principles that would later be organized in his famous Exercises.

Throughout her life, the great mystic Theresa of Avila, who produced such classics as The Interior Castle, was tormented by extremely serious illnesses.  Some of these lasted for years, and it was during some of these intense times of sickness that she had her deepest spiritual experiences.

Last month I fell down the basement stairs and broke my right proximal humerus into three pieces.  I needed a surgeon to screw it back together for me.  During my convalescence, though, unlike Theresa and Ignatius, I've had Oxycodone and Vicodin to help moderate the pain.  (And help me to sleep through the night.)  And I've had TV, and On Demand movies, and the Internet, and FaceBook to keep me stimulated.

What would have happened if Francis had had Twitter in Assisi?  Or if Hildagarde had had an iPad in Bingen?  Perhaps they would have headed the call anyway.  Even in their day there were ways, as my teachers at Shalem said, to get "kidnapped," but they managed to stay true to the call.  Yet it seems as though there is exponentially more noise today, more distractions, more side paths, dead ends, calling for our attention.

So I've decided to try to take advantage of the opportunity my broken shoulder has afforded me.  I am, thankfully, able to work again already, but not yet full time.  So in my "off" time, rather than turning on a lot of electronics I'm opening up a series of books I'd collected a while ago, intending to use them in a parish setting.  Now I'll use them on my own.  They're called, Bridges to Contemplative Living With Thomas Merton, and I'm finding the program to be quite rich even though I am doing it alone.  I've also entered into relationship with a Spiritual Director again, after many years away.

There is so much clutter, and so little time.  Or, rather, there is only now . . . and I want to make the most of it.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Myth of The One

RevWik has been on hiatus for a while.  I've been on one of those metaphoric motorcycle trips into the back country, ridiing the blue highways of my soul trying to figure a few things out.  It's good, every now and then, to cut out, live off jerky and biscuits, and sleep out under the stars.

But I'm back again, and I've got a lot of things on my mind, so I should be writing up a storm.  My plan is to get back to writing regularly -- Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  I'm also planning on going back to writing on whatever topic is on my mind. I'd gotten rather focused for a while on prayer and, while that's important to me, there are other things I've been musing about, too.

Like, for instance, the myth of The One.  The photo is, for anyone who hasn't seen one of the Wachowski brother's Matrix films, Keanu Reeves as Neo.  I'll be using this movie as my reference point, but I could just as well be using any of a hundred other films, books, comic books, or other stories which have essentially the same plot.

Neo, for those who don't know, is an average guy who is told that he may be "The One," a person of mythic ability and importance.  The film chronicles his attempts to discover if he is, indeed, The One.  Some people believe that he is; others doubt it.  At times he, himself, grows to believe it, and there are certainly experiences he has along the way which would give him reason to.  And yet, he also faces obstactles and challenges that try his growing conviction, which cause him to doubt.

Whether he is or not we'll leave up in the air -- I don't want to spoil the movie for you if you haven't seen it.  (But if you've ever watched any American TV or movies or read a comic book in your life, then you already know the answer.)  What matters to me is that I grew up on this myth.  I took it in with the air I breathed and the food I ate.  It became a part of me. 

I wonder how many other people this is true of?  Raised on a diet of Kwai Chang Kane and Al Monday, Steve RogersJohnny Storm, and Hal Jordan, not to mention Jesus and Buddha, the myth of The One -- the Special One, the Chosen One -- has deep roots in many of us.  And I wonder how many, like me, have uncounsciously wondered -- let's be honest -- if in some way, in some place in our lives, we were The One?  As a husband, am I The One?  As a preacher and a minister?  A father?  A writer? Will it be my archery?  My juggling?  Will something in my life single me out and designate me as special, unique, the One that people have been waiting for?  Am I, The One?

So, now, back to the myth and the movie.  I've gotten to wondering -- what if Neo isn't The One?  I know, it'd blow the whole ending of the movie and certainly mess up the trilogy, but what would it mean for him personally?  How important is it, really, to be The One?  Morpheus and Trinity are both amazing fighters.  Astonishing, really.  Would it be so bad to be "only" as good as they are?  Even Mouse is kind of cool in his own way.  Why is it so important to be The One?

Wouldn't it have been cool if the first movie had ended with Neo realizing that he was The One.  After all, storytelling conventions must be obeyed at some level.  But what if, in the second or third, he realized that he wasn't The One after all -- that there was no One.  Or, rather, that each of us is The One.  What if he helped to awken The One in Morpheus and Trinity and Niobe and all of the others, and together they dismantled the matrix?

In the Christian scriptures Jesus is remembered as telling his disciples that they will "do what I have been doing [and] will do even greater things than these . . ."  (John 14:12)  Yet through the centuries the myth has held that Jesus was The One and everyone else was (and is) a mere shadow.  What if we'd been raised on that other story?  Not the one -- the many?

In Gassho,


Friday, June 18, 2010

The Benefits of a Classical Education

When I was in college I took two semesters of Latin.  I knew that I was intending to be an ordained minister, and somehow I thought that it would be useful to know this ancient language. 

I will confess that I do not appear to have a gift for learning languages.  I remember very little that Señora Delgado taught me of Español during my high school years.  And I really only got two things from my year of Latin studies.

The first is good pronunciation.  My teacher was a stickler for it.  I was taught that in Latin, unlike English, all consonants have only one sound.  So the letter "c," for instance, only has its "hard" sound.  (There's no "soft c" as there is in English.)  The same with "g" and others.  So when you see the word C-A-E-S-A-R, whether referring to the Emperor or the salad dressing, you wouldn't say "sea-sir."  Instead, according to what I have been taught, an ancient Roman would ask for a "kah-eh-sar" salad.  I didn't go to college for nothing, as the Flying Karamozov Brothers have said, it cost me thousands of dollars.

The other thing I took away from that class has had a little more lasting value for my life.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, when I come in to Boston to work at UUHQ, I walk through the Boston Commons and encounter dozens of Columba livia -- that's the Latin name for the common rock pigeon.  These beautiful birds are everywhere -- flying and flapping.  And cooing.

Except that they don't really "coo."  If you listen closely, the sound a pigeon makes is a little more complex than a simple "coo."  It's really more like "coorrr."  Kind of like the beer, but without the "s" and with a little more roll to the "r."

So what does this have to do with my Latin studies?  I first noticed the pigeon's true call while walking to class with a friend one day.  The two of us smiled, and immediately said in unison reply to the pigeon, "Propter."  Because, you see, cur -- pronounced just as the pigeon had -- is Latin for "Why?"  Propter is, of course, the Latin word for "because."

My walks through the park have never been the same.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Vision of Reality

In the Christian scripture The Gospel of John (chapter 15, verse 5), Jesus is remembered as saying, "I am the vine; you are the branches."

What if the universe were like this?  There's one central trunk from which emerge various branches.  These separate into even smaller twigs, upon which leaves grow.  And fruit, of course, or other kinds of seeds.  And then there are the roots -- a mirror, of sorts, below the ground of what is going on in the air.

Each of these limbs is, in its own way, independent and, yet, completely dependent or, perhaps better, inter-dependent.  They grow in their own directions, following their own unique paths, and yet all are growing essentially sunward, and they all are nurtured by the same source.  Each leaf might think of itself as an individual, yet who can say where "tree" ceases and "leaf" begins?  And even when, at the end of autumn, the leaves fall, don't they become the very nutrients that nurture the tree's ongoing growth and it's next crop of leaves?

Is it so very different?

We may think that we're seperate, autonomous.  We may believe ourselves to be individuals, yet we are part of an interconnected whole.  Quantum physics tells us that at the subatomic level the boundaries between the energies that makes up "us" and the energies that makes up "not us" are blurry indeed.  The dividing line between us and the rest of the universe is not as sharp as we think.  And biology tells us that we are directly related to the other life on this planet.  Humans are not something extraordinarily unique -- we share 50% of our DNA with bananas for goodness sake!  And astrophysics tells us that we are made up -- we, the big we that includes all life on this planet, we and all of our kin -- of the same elements as the stars, are made, in fact, from star dust.

Some say that, perhaps, we should call the trunk of the "tree of life," by the ancient name "God" and recognize ourselves and limbs branching off, or leaves, or fruit.  Sit with that image for a while.

In Gassho,


Monday, June 14, 2010

Holding the Banner High

I've been on a roll lately with posts about the spiritual life and, in particular, the practice of prayer.  But today is "Flag Day," and I want to make a shift and offer a sermon I originally delivered to the folks of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine on Flag Day 2002.  I must have struck some kind of chord that resonated -- the owners of the hardware store across the street asked me what I'd said to the congregation because that next week they'd had a run on flags!  The order of service was topped by this quote from President William Jefferson Clinton:
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Here is my sermon --   "Holding the Banner High."

In Gassho,


I can tell you at the outset that you’re not going to hear the sermon I intended to write. When I learned that we were being given an Earth Flag to join the U.S. and U.N. flags that have long hung in our sanctuary, and when I decided that our receipt of this gift should coincide with Flag Day, I envisioned a vexillogical sermon. Vexillology is the study of flags. The term comes from the Latin vexillius—which means, simply, “flag”—and which is, itself, the diminutive of velum—which means “sail.” (Etymologically, flags are tiny sails.) The use of flags seems to go back as far in human history as our gathering together in groups or clans—the story is told in the Hebrew Scriptures of the people of Israel wandering through the desert, each of the twelve tribes beneath its own banner, and this is by no means the earliest reference to such a practice.

Anyway, as I delved into my research I was about as fascinated as you are now, so I stopped and asked myself why I was taking this particular tack. Why, having decided to do a flag day service, was I so seemingly intent on doing a boring one? That’s when I realized that I was feeling uncomfortable. That’s when I realized that I was ill-at-ease with this whole “flag day” thing and that I was trying to cover up that discomfort with a veneer of pedantic erudition.

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. When I see something I’m afraid of—I mean, when I genuinely recognize that I’m facing a full-blown fear of something—I generally try to walk toward it. I figure that anything that scares me so much must have something to offer. And, so, I decided that rather than a sermon of facts and figures this morning I’d offer you a sermon of feelings. My feelings. My feelings about the flag, about our country, about the whole idea of patriotism. I offer such a sermon not because I am convinced that I have anything profound to say, not because I feel certain that I have any answers, but, rather, in the hope that in the particularities of my wrestling with this topic there’ll be something to help you with your own. And I think it’s something we should be wrestling with.

I began with a question: why am I uncomfortable? What makes me ill-at-ease? And I realized that I’m embarrassed, that I don’t want to get too close to the flag. I realized that I’m afraid you’ll think of me as “a flag waver,” the connotations of which to me are overwhelmingly negative. Those right wing, red necked, flag waving . . . well you can see why I’d want to keep my distance.

George Bernard Shaw said that “patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy. . . . the conviction that [your] country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” Well, I know that I don’t want to be associated with that. I know that I don’t want to be associated with the kind of provincial, xenophobic, jingoism that is so often associated with . . . flag wavers. I am, after all, a citizen of the world. I am not so much an American as a member of the Human Family. Erich Fromm said, “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say that, by ‘patriotism,’ I mean that attitude which puts one’s own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice . . .” “My country right or wrong,” in other words. “America, love it or leave it.”

But when did this happen? When did all these negatives come to be associated with pride in our country and its symbols? When did the flag become a blindfold rather than a banner—requiring us to be “blindly” patriotic in order to be patriotic? In some ways it’s analogous to what’s happened with religion—people who take their religion seriously have become “Bible thumpers” and “Holy Rollers,” and people who love and are proud of the United States have become “flag wavers.” In both instances there’s a whole mental picture that’s conjured up with those words, a picture I in no way want to be associated with.

Yet the older I get the more I find that I want to wave the flag. Last month I discovered that one of the great pleasures of living on the Snow Road in Freeport is that it’s where the High School marching band practices. Coming up on Memorial Day I’d hear the cacophonous warm up of the drummers and take Theo onto the front porch to watch. “See, Theo,” I’d say, pointing to the kids trying—and not trying—to walk in step while playing. “Your mommy and daddy did that when we were kids.” I remember so clearly my own days of marching in the Memorial Day Parade, and for a couple of weeks I had sounding in my head the words of that quintessential Memorial Day song, George M. Cohan’s, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

“You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of, the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.”
That song—and the memories that go with it—touches me at a very deep level. It conjures up images of little league baseball, and home-town parades, and “John John” Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket passes, and communities gathering for cookouts or to help raise a barn. It calls to mind wheat fields, and Times Square; Charles Ives and Charles Mingus. It calls to mind “America” and all that is good and right in her.

And when, at the opening of the Olympics in Salt Lake, they marched in with the flag that had flown at the World Trade Center and I heard Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” I’ll readily admit that tears rolled down my cheeks. 9-11 gave new meaning to those well known words:

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And this is the part that got me:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It did. It does. How can I not feel proud?

To be sure, there has been much said and done in the name of patriotism of which I am not proud. There is much this country has done, is doing, and no doubt will do with which I disagree and, at times, of which I am deeply ashamed. But that does not mean that I don’t love this country, as well. That doesn’t negate all that is good—all that is great and might be great—about it. Our flag is the symbol of those ideals, and the fact that we have not always lived up to them is not the fault of the symbol.

So this Friday I intend to do something I’ve never done in my adult life. Fly the flag outside of my house. And I intend to fly the flag again on July 4th. Yet I’ll do so not because I think that my country is better than anyone else’s but simply because it is my country. I’ll do so not because I think that everything we do is right and just but precisely because I don’t think so—I will hold the banner high as a reminder of the ideals for which we should strive and my responsibility in that striving.

Earlier this year, when I preached following the attacks of September 11th that we should hold onto the hope of peace and the vision of our common humanity, that we should not allow evil to win by dividing us into “us” and “them,” I was told by some that I was being “un-patriotic.” (“Aiding and abetting the enemy” was one of the phrases used.) Yet the writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us that “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots,” and Edward Abbey once wrote, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” We should never forget that our flag is the symbol of a people who challenged the actions of their government to the point of revolution.

I want to fly the flag to help reclaim it from those who would use it to bully and blind, to stifle and stagnate. As a Citizen of the World, I want to fly the flag of my country with pride and hope and commitment; not as a comparison to others but as a grounding for myself. The members of the tribe of Dan or Benjamin marched beneath their banners without ever forgetting their membership in the larger community of the people of Israel; the one does not preclude the other. In fact, I believe the one makes the other truly possible.

The quote I read earlier from Erich Fromm—the one that began, “Nationalism is . . . our insanity [and] ‘patriotism’ is its cult . . .”—continues with a positive description of patriotism as: “. . . the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with it power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love [he concludes], love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

There is a wonderful passage in Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like A Star.”

“So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.”
The same can be done with a flag. Rather than tear it down, or burn it up, we can hoist it higher as a reminder of who we are and who we want to be. That’s why I’m glad we have these flags here, these banners beneath which we gather week after week and which, as I said to our kids earlier, remind us of the expanding circles of our community.

In closing, I want to tell you that I had a hard time finding hymns for this service—at first glance there are no patriotic songs in our hymnal. In order to get us to sing “America the Beautiful” I had to have Pat make an insert from our old hymnal. But as I thought about how to conclude this service, I realized that we have what I think of as the most truly patriotic song I’ve ever heard, and so I ask you now to stand as you are able and join me in singing hymn #159 in our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, “This Is My Song.”

Holding the Banner High, © June 9, 2002, Erik Walker Wikstrom

Friday, June 11, 2010

I can't help it . . .

My last post got me thinking . . . not in a profound way . . . not in a spiritually deep way (whatever that is) . . . but in that way that my brain sometimes works that those who know me well have gotten used to and that those who don't probably will never get used to.  So, for today's post, a revelation of sorts:

In Gassho,


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friend

Today I'd like to pick up on a theme I began to explore in a post a few weeks ago -- the idea of prayer as a mutual relationship.  I'd been reading the work of a wonderful teacher of prayer, the Russian Orthodox priest Anthony Bloom, who stresses that prayer is all about building a real relationship with a true, living, active Other -- a mutual relationship, not a one-sidded affair where I call all the shots. 

Bloom implies, and I'd agree, that if you look at it with honest eyes this is exactly what most of us are actually doing when we pray -- acting like we're in charge of the encounter.  We expect God to show up because we've called and respond to our requests in the way we've imagined, generally fulfilling all of our expectations.  Not a very nice way to treat a friend . . . especially if that friend happens to be God!  And not what happens in any other relationship we have . . . not any that last for very long, at any rate.  In real relationships there is a mutuality and so, Bloom contends, we must expect a mutuality in our prayer lives as well.  If this God we are trying to be in relationship with is truly a living God and not simply some cardboard cutout or some idol -- at one point he uses the phrase, "an imaginary God, or a God you can imagine" -- then we need to expect real interaction, real give and take.  It'll be a two-way street.  And that's one thing most of us are probably specifically not ready for!

But I want to take this idea in another direction today.  I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor of "relationship."  I'm stressing that the use of this word is a metaphor because -- and this is important -- whatever this thing that Bloom and I are calling "the living God" is something that we can not imagine.  (Remember, Bloom says specifically that the living God is not "[the] imaginary God, or [the] God you can imagine."]  This is the God about who Thomas Aquinas said, si comprihendis non es deus -- "if you understand it, it's not God."  And if this God is so utterly unimaginably incomprehensible, then this "relationship" must be different than anything I've ever experienced, either.

And yet I can tell you from my own personal experience -- and here I'm backed up by contemplatives and mystics from a myriad of religious traditions -- there is an experience that feels like relationship with this "sacred something" that I'm calling God.  I know of no better word to describe it, even though I know that that word is not entirely accurate and leaves me open to easy misinterpretation.  Still, it's the best that I have to work with.

So I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor, of "relationship," but I want to take this idea in another direction today.

I was recently facilitating a discussion about prayer with a group of seminarians, nearly all of whom said that they were in this particular workshop because they wanted to deepen their prayer life or because they were struggling with it.  There were a few people there for other reasons, but essentially there were these two groups -- those for whom things were going well and who wanted to learn what they could do to go deeper, and those who were having trouble getting started who wanted to know what they could do to get over the hurdles they were tripping over.  What both groups had in common, though, was the assumption that they, themselves, had to do something; that it was up to them to take the next step.

We talked for a bit about this idea of prayer-as-relationship, and I asked them what they thought might happen if they just showed up and didn't do anything in particular to try to improve the relationship other than just showing up.  Well, that and having the expectation that their partner in the relationship has a role to play, too.  In fact, doesn't it make sense to show up and let the person who's better at something take the lead?  And who would be better at prayer -- you or God?

You see, once again, we act as though we're in charge, as though the whole encounter is up to us.  But what if it really is an encounter?  What if we really are engaging with the Sacred Something, the Ground of Being, the Spirit of Life, the Living God?  Well, then, God is engaging with us, as well, and God might be fully capable of helping us deepen our prayer lives or getting over the hurdles of a rough beginning, don't you think?

But don't take my word for it.  Try it.  Even if you don't know who or what you're hooking up with, go into the encounter expecting to be met.  Show up and see what greets you.  And if you want to know how to deepen your prayer life, bring that question to your next encounter and see what comes up.  (After all, wouldn't you ask your friend how to deepen your friendship rather than go and ask someone else about it?)  Sometimes all it takes is a little help from your friend.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Answered Prayers

I was flipping channels the other night and caught a bit of the movie Evan Almighty.  There was a scene in which God, played by Morgan Freeman, talks about the way prayer works.  He says,
"Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?"
I love it when a goofball movie includes a bit of theology I really resonate with.

One of the complaints I often hear people make against prayer -- against God, too, but that could be another post of its own -- is that it just doesn't "work."  We pray and pray and pray for something, the argument goes, and nothing happens or, even worse, we seem to get more of the very thing we're praying to get rid of!

There's a story told by either Anthony de Mello or Anthony Bloom (I honestly can't remember now which) about a monk who had something of a short temper -- he was frequently annoyed by the other brothers in his monastery and was, in turn, rather annoying to them.  Finally he realized that this was a problem, and so he went to the chapel and prayed before the statue of Christ that Christ might remove his temper.  After spending several hours in prayer he did feel calmer and a lightness of spirit that he had never known before.

Immediately upon leaving the chapel he came upon one of the brothers who had actually never bothered him in the past, but today this brother said something really insulting to him.  The monk felt some of his old anger returning.  And then one of the lay sisters who worked in the monastery and who'd always made him smile passed by and was really rather rude, and before he knew it he was rude back to her.  And then, as a passed a visitor, someone he'd never seen before, he said a cranky word.

Realizing that was returning to his old ways, the monk ran back to the chapel and fell back on his knees.  "Lord," he said.  "I thought I'd asked you to remove my anger?"  And the Lord responded, "That's why I've increased your opportunities to practice."

Every day as part of my prayer bead practice, on one of the entering-in beads, I pray, "Open my ears, that I might hear your voice in whatever form it might take . . . especially those I would rather not hear."  This morning I was feeling seriously tempted, as I got off the bus in South Station, to go to the ATM and get some money so that I could stop and get a fast food breakfast.  I didn't need the food -- I'd already had cereal -- and I certainly didn't really want it -- that kind of food makes me crazy.  But it was calling out to me.

On my way to the ATM I heard a voice in my head say, "Erik, you really don't want to do this."  I pushed on.  A very large man, much heavier than I am, walked by me.  I kept walking.  The next thing my eyes landed on was the book rack in the store near the ATM and, specifically, Jillian Michael's new book Master Your Metabolism.  I still kept heading for the ATM.  And then I had a vision of how good it would feel to be walking on the Commons on this beautiful day without the heavy feeling the BK food would give me.  "Okay.  Okay.  I get it," I said, and headed for the escalator.

Maybe one reason that our prayers don't get answered is that we don't recognize the answer.  We want courage, not opportunities to be courageous; or patience, not opportunities to be patient; or warm fuzzy feelings, not the chance to practice actually being loving.  We don't recognize the form the voice takes, and so we miss it.

Keep listening.

In Gassho,


Friday, May 28, 2010

The Real You

Today I'm going to let someone else have their say in my blog -- two people, actually.  The words belong to Alan Watts, the Brittish philosopher who helped bring Eastern philosophy to a Western audience.  The artistic expression of Watts' words, though, belongs to John Boswell, the creative force behind the Symphony of Science videos that are among my favorite modern scriptures.  I hope you enjoy both.

In Gassho,


PS -- in honor of Memorial Day on Monday I'll be taking the day off.  See you here again on Wenesday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Living Faithfully

And so we come back to the question:  Can I dare to live a life that exposes my beliefs, that tells the world what I believe, even at the risk of being misunderstood?  Last week I said that this is what living a life of faith is all about -- living as though you belive what you say you believe.  And on Monday I said that while the goal of communication is to try to convey as accurately as possible what is in my mind and heart to someone else, still there are times when it is worth it to risk confusion for a greater purpose.

For one thing, I noted the 12 Step spiritual practice of reminding oneself that "what you think of me is none of my business."  So if I live my life according to my beliefs and principles and you misunderstand them and me, so be it.  I'm not living so as to be understood by you, I'm living so as to be in accord with my beliefs and principles.  (I know, a much easier stance to say than to take, right?  Still . . .)

At the same time, factoring in Monday's post, there's something to be said for intentionally trying to expand the meaning of a word or, in this case, an assumption.  Because what are we really talking about here?  Let's be clear, shall we?

When I was in my first few years in the parish, I would check to make sure that no one was in the outer office, and then shut the door to my office, before I would do my morning mediation and chants.  I didn't want anyone to "catch" me doing my spiritual practice.  I didn't want anyone to think I was some kind of "religious nut."  Such was the prejudice I had internalized about people who were overtly religious that I was afraid anyone would mistake me for "one of them."  And I am an ordained minister!  I'm supposed to be a religious person!

I titled a sermon that I preached at a friend's ordination, "What If We Took This Stuff Seriously?"  By "this stuff" I meant all of it -- all of the religious ideas and ideals we are willing to talk about, to explore, perhaps even to say that we believe (in the safety of a discussion group) yet which we seem so unwilling to live our lives as if we really believed.

What would happen in your life?

In Gassho,


Monday, May 24, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

"Even to speak of 'God' is to invite confusion," I wrote this past Wednesday.  "It is so easy to be misunderstood."  Of course, there is a bit of wisdom from Al-Anon, and the other 12 Step traditions that reminds us, "What you think of me is none of my business."  Perhaps I needn't worry so much if I'm misunderstood.

And yet . . . 

And yet it matters because communication is all about the intention of taking the thoughts and feelings and experiences within me and attempting to convey them as accurately as possible to you.  If I know, at the outset, that the manner in which I plan to do this will almost certainly lead to distortion, then shouldn't I take that into consideration?  If I know that you will not understand me if I say something in a certain way, shouldn't I try saying it in a way that I think increases the liklihood that you will understand me?

Imagine, for instance, that we are both bi-lingual, only you know English and French and I know English and Japanese.  I know that if I speak in Japanese, my Japanese friends will be able to understand me, but you will not.  Doesn't it make sense for me to speak in English when we're together?

So if I know that the use of traditional religious terms like "prayer," and "God," are likely to cause confusion -- because I can be fairly confident that I don't mean by them what you do -- then shouldn't I look for other words?

On Thursday I was facilitating a workshop on prayer at Andover Newton Divinity School, and among the sixteen participants most said that they were there because they wanted to deepen their spiritual lives.  Nearly all described, in one way or another, having some kind of "problem" with prayer and were hoping that this workshop could help them.  I said that I thought that I had an insight and wondered if they'd agree:
Our fundamental problem with prayer is that the word itself -- prayer -- is linked in our unconsious mind to the concept of "Talking To God So That HE Can Know Our Problem And We Can Ask HIM To Do Something About Them."  And this concept is so intimately connected to the word, so inextricably bound to it, that we cannot hear, or speak, or even think the word without this idea coming up in our unconscious.  And since we reject this concept, we have a block even with the word.  How, then, can we not have problems with the practice?
Just about everyone nodded in agreement.  This, it seemed, hit the nail on the head for them.  The word, the concept -- and all of its attendant baggage -- was getting in the way of the experience.  So what are we to do?  Forget the words, of course!  Do the thing; don't get caught up in what it's called!

As Shakespeare said so long ago, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and I remember a teacher once telling me that a rose is called a weed when it's growing in a tomato patch.  Don't get so caught up in the names -- they're just signifiers, pointers.  Perhaps that's why the author of the Rule for a New Brother of the Brakkenstein Community of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in Holland advises, "Don't talk too much about God."  Perhaps that's why Lao Tzu said, "Those who know do not talk; those who talk do not know."

Of course, he said that in a book of eighty one chapters.  Because, eventually, we want to try to communicate, to take the thoughts and feelings and experiences within us and attempt to convey them as accurately as possible to others.  And so we resort to words.

We could create new words -- and some mystics and contemplatives have done just that.  And some, I suppose, simply put their sandals on their head or thwack you with their stick rather than say anything.  But we can also take up the old words and "breathe new life into them," attempting to infuse them with the understandings and insights we have discovered.  So when I do this thing that is most definately not "Talking To God So That HE Can Know My Problems And I Can Ask HIM To Do Something About Them," and then use to word prayer to describe what I'm doing I'm helping to expand the word, to make it more useful, more descriptive, and helping to dissolve the linkages that have made the word a block for so many.

And the same can be done with all of the traditional terms:  God, sin, grace, redemption, resurrection, repentence, miracle -- all of these words are only that, words.  The meanings we give them are up to us and should come out of our own experiences.  After all, isn't religion a meaning-making enterprise?  Why are we so often contented to have the meanings of religious words given to us?

In Gassho,


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Faith

In Anthony deMello's book Contact With God he talks about reading an article written by two lay psychologists that looked at the priests and monks they had treated.  They reported that,
"out of the dozens of priests and brothers who came to them for help in their personal problems, only two ever even so much as mentioned the name of God in all their interviews, and only one of these, a lay brother, mentioned [God] as an important factor in his life and his cure.  To all the rest it seemed as though God had no part in their lives."
I know that this would be true of Protestant clergy as well, and believe that it probably would be true of the majority of Christian laity as well -- at least from the liberal and progressive branches and traditions.  (I don't know if it also would be true of Buddhists and Hindus and Jains, but I would surmise that it would.)  We live our lives -- even those who claim to be "religious" or "spiritual" -- except for those times that we've set aside as "religious" or "spiritual" time -- an hour on Sunday, perhaps, and maybe a brief period several days a week for our private practice -- as if we were strict secularists.

Functional atheists is the term that's often used for this phenomenon.  (I was going to write, "condition.")  We function in the world as though we do not believe there is anything beyond ourselves, even when we profess that we do. 

Take a moment to think about what you believe to be true about the way the world works?  About your place in it?  About our relationship to one another and to the cosmos?  About the meaning of life?  About death?  About the "Sacred Something?"

Now ask yourself -- and be courageously honest here -- do you live your life as if you truly believed these things?  Could others tell that these are your beliefs by the way you live your life?  (Mohandas Gandhi frequently said that his life was his message, and Dom Helder Camara is remembered as saying that your life is the only Gospel others will read.)  Are your words and deeds in accord with these beliefs?  If, as the saying goes, these beliefs were suddenly declared against the law, would there be enough evidence against you for a conviction?

This, I was once taught, is the difference between belief and faith.  The distinction was lifted up for me during a seminary course, an introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures.  My professor said that so much is made in the Hebrew Scriptures of people's faith because everyone had belief.  Everyone believed in God (at least some god or goddess or other); everyone believed in prayer; everyone believed in miracles; everyone believed in such things.  So belief was not the issue.

Faith was living as if you believed and that's why it was so special, because not everyone had faith -- then as now.  A person of faith was, and still is, a relatively rare thing.

It is, perhaps, especially difficult today because so much of the language -- the images, the metaphors, the poetry -- of faith has been co-opted and perverted.  It is so easy to be misunderstood.  Even to speak of "God" is to invited confusion, yet not to might in the long run be even worse.  Not to might be the path to the situation the psychologists discovered among the priests and monks -- religious people unable to talk about religion, spiritual people divorced from their own spiritual lives in the world.

We'll continue looking at this -- and explore what might be done about it -- on Friday.

In Gassho,


Monday, May 17, 2010

Ready Enough

I've been wrestling lately with "The Urge" -- the urge I get from time to time to pack it all in and go flip burgers or pack groceries, anything but put myself out there as I do in my role as "minister."  Anything get set it off:  a stray comment from a parishioner after church, an inability to find the right words for a sermon, realizing that I totally blew it in trying to help someone in need . . . about twenty minutes after they walked out of my office shaking their head obviously in deeper confusion and distress than when they'd walked in.  The Urge.

This time it was unleashed by a passage in Anthony deMello's book Contact With God in which he reflects on Jesus' admonition to the apostles in the book of Acts that they should remain in Jerusalem and wait, that they should, "resist the urge to be up and doing before you are freed from the compulsion to act; the urge to communicate to others what you yourself have not yet experienced."  That's all it took, and The Urge was upon me again.

Yet over the weekend I had some help.  As is often the case it came through the most profound teachers I have ever found -- my sons.  I have two boys, currently eight and six years old, and in the years they've been in my life I have learned more about Life than in all of the years previous put together.  I believe that they are at least part of the answer to my long prayed prayer for a teacher.

So this weekend I was having one of those moments during which I looked at them and wondered just what I could have possibly done to deserve this daily contact with these living miracles.  And then, perhaps because The Urge was upon me, I found myself worrying, "What do I think I'm doing?  What gives me the audacity to think I'm capable of guiding their lives?  What makes me think I'm ready for that responsibility?"

And in that moment, The Urge revealed itself to simply be a variation of the daemon "Not Good Enough."  You can see how, "you're not spiritually mature enough to preach," is really the same thing as, "you're not good enough to be a parent," or, "you're not smart enough to launch out on your own," or, "you're not good enough to make the team," or, "you're not [whatever] enough to [whatever it is that you're afraid of doing]."

There is, of course, wisdom in waiting, but the daemon "Not Good Enough" takes that wisdom and twists it until it becomes no longer wisdom but a paralysing poison.  If I'd waited until I knew everything I'd need to know to be the "perfect parent," I'd never have brought my boys into my life -- I'd still be waiting.  If I'd waited until I knew everything I'd need to know to be the "perfect partner," I'd not be married.  To paraphrase a marvelous quote from Richard Bach's Illusions, "How can you tell if you've learned everythiing you need to know?  If you're alive, you haven't."

Instead, my boys taught me some time ago, all I needed to do was be ready enough to be a parent, and together my wife, my sons, and I would work out the rest as we went along.  All I have to do is be ready enough to be a partner, and my wife and I will work out the rest through our marriage.  All you have to do is be ready enough . . . and then remember that, as Anthony Bloom put it, you'll always be a beginner.

If the Christian tradition has a marvelous example of waiting in Jesus, the Buddhist tradition could be said to have an example of being ready enough.  Even though Siddhartha Guatama had spent innumerable lifetimes, and many years in this lifetime, preparing for the six days he sat beneath the bodhi tree under which he experience his enlightenment, he continued to meditate every day for the rest of his life.  He was the Buddha, the Awakened One, and yet every day he sat on his cushion as did every other monk. 

Something to think about.

In Gassho,


Friday, May 14, 2010

A Good Example

Here's a good example of what I was talking about in the last post -- waiting until you really have something to say to be up and about the work of saying it.

The Christian scriptures tell the story of a young Yeshua ben Miriam going with his family to Jerusalem for Passover when he was around twelve or thirteen.  It must have been a tremendously stimulating experience, overwhelming even -- a family from the sticks getting a taste of the big city.

And we're told that things got a little chaotic as they were getting ready to leave and that, in fact, the family got separated in the caravan and didn't even realize it until all of a sudden Miriam and Yosef realize that their son isn't with them.  They rush back to the city and begin to frantically look for the boy, eventually finding him in the temple.  As the book of Luke puts it he was, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. [And] everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers."  [Luke 2:46-47]

Precocious kid, right?  Maybe you know somebody like that.  Maybe you were somebody like that.  And what are we told that Jesus did?  Did he go back and become President of his youth group?  Did he become the favorite speaker on Youth Sunday?  Did he go on a circuit of local congregations, and regional gatherings, the talented kid who everyone knew was going to grow up to be a rabbi?

Not as far as the tradition tells us.  According to Luke 2:52 he, "grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men."  That's it.  No great accomplishments.  He lays low and grows up.

And then, some twenty years later, he hears about a wandering preacher named Yochanan who's baptising in the river Jordan and he goes to check him out.  And in that encounter the heavens open up and the voice of God identifies him as God's own beloved.  Yet even with such a clear mandate does he begin his ministry?  No.  Even then he heads off into the desert for forty days of discernment -- prayer and fasting and "wrestling with the devil."

In the last post I noted that Anthony de Mello councils the importance of resisting "the urge to be up and doing before you are freed from the compulsion to act; the urge to communicate to others what you yourself have not yet experienced."  It seems that Yeshua ben Miriam -- Jesus, son of Mary -- himself embodied this approach.

That's good enough for me.

In Gassho,