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,


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wait . . .

I felt the urge again. 

Once again I felt the urge I've felt so often throughout my ministry -- the urge to pack it in, metaphorically "take off my collar," and go flip burgers somewhere or retire to a cave. 

Here am I, this guy who's had the audacity to stand up in front of two different congregations on a regular basis (as well as an untold number of others as a guest), who's led retreats and workshops, given talks and presentations . . . not to mention having written three published books and essays included in two anthologies.  You might think I know a thing or two.

And that's the thing.  So do I sometimes.  And then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, it hits me.  I don't have a clue.  I have no idea what I'm talking about.  And the urge comes upon me again.  As Mark Twain once famously said, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and risk appearing a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt."

The impetus for this most recent urge is my reading of another of my beloved mentors in prayer, the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello.  de Mello, who was born and lived most of his life in India, brings a very Hindu perspective to his Christianity; he has sometimes been called a "Christian guru."  In his fabulous book Awareness:  the perils and opportunities of reality, he says,
"Spirituality means waking up.  Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep.  They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.  They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thin that we call human existence. . . . most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.  They are having a nightmare. . . .

The first thing I want you to understand, if you really want to wake up, is that you don't want to wake up."
How's that for provocative?  He also says, and this book is a transcription of talks he gave during a retreat, "Do you think I am going to help anybody?  No!  Oh, no, no, no, no, no!  Don't expet me to be of help to anyone.  Nor do I expect to damage anyone.  If you are damaged, you did it; if you are helped, you did it.  You really did!" 

I love this guy.

So I'm now reading a book which is new for me:  Contact with God.  It also is transcripts of talks he gave to Jesuit priests who were on retret with him, and so far it's really great stuff.  I'm having to do some "translation" of course -- his theology and, especially, his mode of expression are not fully in synch with my own -- but why would I expect them to be?  What he says, though, comes from such a deep place, and it resonates with that equally deep place in me.  In that deep place we speak the same language.

Well, anyway, in an early chapter -- it was the beginning of the retreat -- he says this: 
We read in Acts 1:4: "While Jesus was in their company he told them not to leave Jerusalem.  'You must wait,' he said, 'for the promise of my Father.'"  Do not leave Jerusalem.  Once again, 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.  Once the Spirit has come, "You will bear witness for me in Jerusalem . . . and to the ends of the earth."  But not before, or you will be lying witnesses -- or, at best, you will be pushers, not apostles.  Pushers are insecure people who have a compulsion to convince others, so that they themselves will be less insecure.  (italics mine)
That's all it took, and the urge was once again upon me to shut up and go flip burgers, or start bagging groceries at Stop n' Shop. 

There is a line in Richard Bach's book Illusions:  adventures of a reluctant messiah -- "You teach best what you most need to learn."  I have always felt that that's what qualifies me to speak and write about spiritual matters.  I am a seeker and, as Anthony Bloom said of himself, am only a beginner.  Yet I claim nothing more than that -- I offer only descriptions of what I have seen and heard and felt and tasted and touched along the way that I have wandered. 

Still I wonder if Lao Tzu was right -- those who know don't talk; those who talk don't know.

In Gassho,


Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Exercises for Stopping Time

In Anthony Bloom's book Beginning to Pray, he offers two exercises to help with what he considers the necessary task of learning how to slow down time.  Or, rather, to be more precise, learning how to slow ourselves down so that we let time move at its own pace without trying to hurry it along.  He gives the image of a person on a train "who ran from the last carriage of the train to the first, hoping that the distance between London and Edinburgh would be shortened as a result."  If we just stay where we are, right here in the present, the future will come to us all on its own; we need do nothing to hasten it along.

And yet we do.  We live as though we have to hustle from one thing to the next, as though we have to move things along, as though the turning of the world was up to us.  So here are two exercises Anthony Bloom, who was a Metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church, recommends for learning to slow yourself down.

First, when you have nothing else to do, sit down and say "I am seated, I am doing nothing, I will do nothing for five minutes."  And then, do that.  Nothing.  For two minutes, or five minutes, or ten minutes just sit there and allow yourself to sit there, noticing that you're just siting there, wherever it is that you are, surrounded by whatever it is that's around you, in whatever state or condition it's in, doing absolutely nothing else but being there.  He notes,
"There is, of course, one more thing you must do:  you must decide that within these two minutes, five minutes, which you have assigned to learn that the present exists you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden usurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years."
This is a relatively easy exercise, as you're doing nothing when there's nothing else going on.  It is, of course, actually extremely difficult, and if you've never tried it you'll quickly discover what a myriad of things are going on within you when "nothing's going on."  But be that as it may -- this is a relatively easy exercise.  For his second exercise, Bloom suggests learning to "stop time . . . at moments when it rushes, when it puts forward claims."  He says this:
"The way to do it is this.  You are doing something which you feel is useful; you feel that unless this is done the world will falter on its course; and then if at a certain moment you say 'I stop,' you will discover many thngs.  First, you will discover that the world does not falter and that the whole world -- if you can imagine it -- can wait for five minutes while you are not busy with it."
He recommends setting a clock, while in the midst of some task you consider tremendously important, and when the alarm goes off you simply stop right there, wherever you are in your work, and take five minutes, as in the previous exercise, doing nothing.  Bloom says,
"In the beginning you will see how difficult it is, and you will feel that it is of great importance that you should finsish, say, writing a letter or reading a paragraph.  In reality, you will discover quite soon that you can very well postpone it for three, five, or even ten minutes and nothing happens."
Could you imagine doing these exercises for one week?  I intend to do them both this week.  I bet the world will keep spinning just fine.

In Gassho,


Friday, May 07, 2010

Beginning to Pray, part 2

I'd fully intended to get right back to this post, but I was writing from vacation last week and those last few days were rather full.  And then there was the getting back from vacation.  And the getting back to work.  And . . . well . . . here we are.

But I do want to reflect for a bit on one of the real treasures in Anthony Bloom's wonderful book Beginning to Pray.  As I noted in the last post, this is a book I have returned to over and over again.  It has never let me down.

Anthony Bloom, a Metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church, has such a humble, down-to-earth style of writing.  He says early on in the book, "As I am a beginner myself, I will assume that you are also beginners, and we will try to begin together."  What a lovely, refreshing invitation.

Near the end of the book he sums up quite succintly his understanding of what prayer is all about.  For Bloom, "prayer is obviously a relationship, an encounter, a way in which we have a relationship with the living God."  This may not seem, at first glance, too radical of an understanding.  But listen to where it takes him.

He addresses the experience so many people have of trying to pray yet feeling that no one is listening.  He says of this, "We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply."  This has certainly put many people off prayer, convinced them they didn't know how to do it; it's even put lots of people off God, convincing them that there must be no God since there's no one there when they call.  Yet for Bloom prayer is all about relationship, and because he thinks this he responds to this experience of the perceived absence of God like in this way:
"First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.  The fact that God can make Himself (sic) present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship.  If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter.  We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.  A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom.  If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him.  We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer 'I am busy, I am sorry' or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life."
I know that the exclusively male language Bloom uses will be problematic for some folks -- I know that the theistic language of this will be problematic for some folks! -- but let's try to read through those particulars to hear what he's really saying.

Let's start with the idea that there's something -- I often call it the Sacred Something -- that's "bigger" than you and me.  Call it whatever you want, the name doesn't really matter:  Higher Power, Ground of Being, Spirit of Life, God, the Force, Life, Is-ness, Creative Principle, That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived, Gaia, All That Is.  Call it what you will, but let's agree (for the moment at least) that you and I are not the be all and end all of it all.

That said, pretty nearly all of the mystics and contemplatives in all of the religions we humans have developed over time have in one way or another come to use the poetic language of relationship with regards this Sacred Something that is bigger, deeper, higher.  All agree that from within their own lived experience of probing this Mystery they have discovered that they can related to it and "it" can relate to them -- there is a relationship.

Bloom is telling us that it's a mutual relationship.  That we shouldn't imagine that we are somehow in charge of it, that we're calling all the shots.  That's what you can do with an idol or, as Bloom puts it, "an imaginary God, or a god you can imagine."  The living God -- Bloom's name for that which is worthy of the name, the real deal in other words -- would have to be an equal partner in a real relationship . . . and what kind of relationship is an "unreal" relationship?

This is one of the gifts of the theistic traditions -- this idea of relationship with the Sacred Something.  Especially when understood as Bloom invites us to, as a challenging mutual relationship.  The living God is not at my beck and call; the living God is not my puppet, any more than I would be a puppet in this God's hands.  And that means that this relationship, just like any relationship between two beings, will always be filled with mystery and invitations into the unknown.

In Gassho,