Friday, February 29, 2008

Singing a song of wholeness

Most of us understand that our bodies are made up of cells, and that those cells are constantly dying and regenerating. But did you realize that over the course of a year ALL of the cells in a hand die and are replaced by new cells?

And yet the hand looks the same. This hand, in the picture, a year later will still be Allan's hand; maybe a little older-looking, but still recognizable -- and still with the memory of how to play my guitar. How is this possible?

Scientists have learned that it's possible because each of the cells in Allan's hand contains not only the data about its own role but also a complete DNA imprint for Allan as a whole. Each of Allan's cells contains what Buckminster Fuller called "pattern integrity", also referred to by Rupert Sheldrake as a "morphic field;" a kind of social identity.

And it turns out that "when a cell's morphic field deteriorates, its awareness of the larger whole deteriorates. A cell that loses its social identity reverts to blind undifferentiated cell division, which can ultimately threaten the life of the larger organism. It is what we know as cancer."

This quotation is from a book I was reading yesterday about transformational change, called Presence. The authors of this book, led by Peter Senge and Otto Schwarmer of MIT, contend that those of us who deal with institutions persist in treating them as if they were mechanical in nature: if a part breaks, fix or replace it and it will be as good as new.

But in fact, they say, because institutions are made up of humans, they have this same organic quality of wholeness that humans have. Which to me would explain two things I know to be true: that institutions, organizations, and communities have what I would call "institutional memory;" and that when members of that community lose that sense that they are part of a whole, the effect can be cancerous.

It seems to me that there are positive and negative aspects of both of these features. For example, we as Americans carry an institutional memory of democratic principles -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." And this is surely a good thing.

At the same time, you will note the use of the word "men" in that first sentence. It has taken centuries to bring this institution around to the thought that it is not just men but humans, male and female, who were created equal. And though we legislate that now, the institutional understanding has been very slow to die out.

...and the departure of that institutional memory can be traced, in part, to what I would call the positive effects of cancer: at some point some members of the community decided that their own objectives -- in this case, to consider males and females equal -- were more important than the established pattern. To effect change, they had to cut themselves off.

And yet I would also claim that the reason change has occurred over time is because new members, new cells -- our children, growing up in a world where we at least give lip service to the idea that women are equal -- come along with a slightly modified institutional memory.

But I did not start this post with the intent to write about feminism. What I really wanted to talk about here is community. I think that if we understand that institutions and organizations have this intriguing organic quality, then we also understand the importance of keeping the sense of community alive in its members. I would claim that to some extent it is an understanding of this that drives such activities as reciting the pledge of allegiance, memorizing the declaration of independence, and singing the Star-Spangled Banner at baseball games.

I also think that when we, for whatever reason, lose that sense of connection, of being part of something larger -- of which we have some communal understanding -- then the results can be cancerous.

We can blame Al-Qaeda all we want for the devastating attacks of 9/11. But I think the problem began when we as Americans began to lose the sense that ALL humans are created equal. Like the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm, we began to believe that "some animals (in this case, American ones) are more equal than others." And in stepping apart, claiming so much for ourselves without thought for the needs of the rest of our world community, we created the seeds of the cancer that came back to claim us, and that even now is eating away at our economy.

So how do we heal? How can we regenerate the understanding of wholeness and community? Clearly some think it requires radical surgery: eradicate Al-Qaeda and all possible related threads, and life will get "back to normal." But I think the disease goes deeper than that, and that that particular cancer will continue to recur in different forms until we reach a new understanding of connectedness and wholeness that is all-inclusive. And as I write this I realize I have come full circle to the song of which I last wrote:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Perhaps if artists, poets, and musicians continue to paint for us a vision of true wholeness, the repetition and recitation of that vision, singing that song of wholeness, will help to plant that understanding more deeply in our institutional memory.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Longing for the song of hope

If you are the sort of person who listens to your instincts and tries to follow where they lead you, you may occasionally find yourself in surprising places doing surprising things. I say this up front as a sort of apology, because one of the surprising things I have been doing lately is (I am somewhat embarrassed to say) watching American Idol.

Last night I figured out why -- or perhaps, given the human psyche, I just found something I could use as an excuse for this bizarre compulsion. I mean, it's not that I haven't watched the show before. But I don't remember actually choosing to do that, or looking forward to it; it was more that it happened to be on, or I was just looking for some downtime and turned to the TV for that.

I knew when I turned on the TV last night that I would not be watching again tonight. Because last night was the male singers and tonight was the female singers, none of whom interest me. So we've established that something was pulling me to the males. But each of the guys' performances, while acceptable -- and fun, in many cases, because they were doing music of the 70's -- was basically just adequate, and I found myself thinking, well, this is the last time I'll watch this show.

I kept leaving the set to "do stuff" -- checking email, medicating the cat, walking the dog -- all the while with this sense of waiting for something. And it turns out that what I was waiting for was the last performance of the night, a song sung by a 16-year-old boy named David Archuleta. I knew from previous performances that I liked his voice, but my first thought when he started to sing was, oh, no, not this song: it was John Lennon's Imagine, never one of my favorites.

Apparently time constraints meant that David could only sing one verse of the song, and he later explained that he had chosen the third verse because he really liked the message. Well, I guess by the time Lennon got to the third verse I had already tuned him out, because its message was totally fresh and wonderful to me. And David sang it as if lit from within, with (and I hesitate to say this because it sounds so trite) the voice of an angel.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

My cynical brain kicks in here and says things like "what are you thinking? This is so hokey!" and "You're such a throwback, this is just some autonomic reflex; you're just longing for the optimism of your youth." But there is no denying that my heart was deeply stirred, and there was a quickening within. And I found myself listening, not just to David, and John Lennon's song, but to the cheers of the crowd -- which was obviously just as touched and moved as I was.

What I heard is the same thing I hear from the folks who have been going to certain political rallies these days: I think I heard the sound of hope, waking up from a long sleep. It's a sound that brings tears to my eyes, the same tears we all cry at weddings, or at the first cry of a newborn child.

I think we all long for that sound, and that something inside us rejoices when we hear it. But the fact is that most of us sit protected from it, behind the bars of cynicism. Because hope so often brings disappointment, and good intentions so often pave the road to pain. But how lovely to hear, that in spite of all that, hope still sings its longing for oneness. And how encouraging to know hope has a voice that can be heard above the crowd.

I can't wait to hear it sing again.

... and if you want to hear David, he's on YouTube:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Showing up for joy

It must be spring: I awoke a couple of days ago to a really dense fog and decided to go out with my camera -- something I haven't done in months except on assignments.

I only had about 45 minutes before I had to take the dog to the vet, so I decided to go for a sure thing: the 15 minute drive to Waterfront Park almost always yields great images. I would only have 15 minutes for shooting, but that should bring me all I needed.

So I drove to the park. It was okay, interesting, but not great; no unusual boats, just the familiar standbys, though I shot several versions of this intriguing reflection. But all in all it only took a few minutes, so I stopped to buy my husband a cup of coffee on the way home. And, driving home from the coffee shop, my eye was caught by these delightful geese.

For some reason I love this photograph: it has such a fairy tale quality to it. It was the bright white of the geese against the dark of the dirt and the fog that first caught my eye. But I also love the bright orange of their beaks; the crisp contrast of the turkey's tail, his blue eye and hot pink wattles; the blue reflected in the tarps in the background, the sense of the road stretching off into fairyland, the one goose looking in the opposite direction from all the others...

I'm sure there are lots of stories we could imagine here. But I think the lesson in it for me is that the joy and fulfillment in life don't always show up in the expected places. It's kind of like those occasional exhilarating moments we get in meditation; they just don't seem to happen that often. But in order for them to happen at all, we have to keep up the practice. In order to get photographs, I have to go out with my camera. As Woody Allen says, "Ninety percent of life is just showing up."

In The Cloud of Unknowing this morning I read that there are pleasures that may occasionally arise from the heart as we meditate, but that we shouldn't rely too much on them; that we should do the work solely out of love for God, and that the mark of an immature spirit is that we whine when the pleasures go away or don't come at all. And I thought, yep; I'm still pretty young at this.

That's the thing: it's hard to keep plugging away sometimes, whether you're plugging away at a job or school, at worship or meditation, or being in community or living in a relationship. There will always be times when you wonder why you bother; you just want to throw up your hands, toss all that hard work to the winds and try something new. But suddenly, for whatever reason, like a flock of geese, a moment of joy will burst into your life. And then, as the Dalai Lama says, we "remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck."

Keep your eyes open: there are probably some very silly geese out there somewhere, just waiting to bring you a little spark of happiness.

Friday, February 22, 2008

More lessons from the Crossroad

After completing the last post (whose ending felt most inconclusive to me), I went downstairs to have lunch. As is my habit, I looked for something to read and picked up David Richo's book, Shadow Dance, which was recommended by a friend, and which I seem to be having trouble getting through.

I opened it to the page where I last stopped reading, and found, on that page and the following page, numerous additional insights into this photo, so I am re-posting the photo and will list the insights in the order that they appeared:

1. "Every person and thing is simultaneously everything and all." Which is, I believe, pretty much where I left off at the end of the last post: the horizontal isn't just my axis; it's an all-inclusive plane.

2. "The Self is the vehicle of an unconditional yes to the conditions of human existence with all its dust, and a yes to the the condition of human sanctity with all its grandeur." So, yes, we exist here on the road, with the dust, and at the same time in the vertical/holy/sanctified dimension.

3. "The Self is the Buddha nature, our essential wholeness that waits for full awakening. Our work is to take steps in that direction." To me this feels like standing where the photographer stands in this image, taking in the wholeness, the connectedness with what is around us, and at the same time the call to move forward onto the road ahead.

4. [When we take these steps] "the shifts occur in our consciousness that engender compassion because they actualize that potential of the Buddha nature. This is why when we are awakened from the slumber of ego, the first thing we say is: "May all beings benefit from my work and from my gifts." I love this: it's like suddenly getting that there are three dimensions, not two, and then saying "Hey, it's all connected, everything we do affects all of us." Well, duh!

5. "The compassion happens when and because we realize we all have this same enlightened nature, but some of us are so caught up in ego fear and desire that we miss our access to it." What I had forgotten is that by focusing on the vertical I was getting caught up in ego, focusing on MY connection to MY God.

6. "The Self, Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, is our essence, always and already whole." We are not two-dimensional beings, we are three-dimensional; to only see the two dimensions would always be to be less than whole.

7. "The purpose of spiritual practice is to display in our lifetime the timeless life of the Self, our Buddha consciousness. Existential work unveils the essential reality. This essential reality is described as a void or emptiness because it is empty of separate, self-standing existence... in this freedom from division is the access to awakening and to compassion." Yes! (and this might explain that big red X, and the no-turn sign) The purpose of spiritual practice is to choose to step forward, but not into the future, or some other separate vantage point. Rather we are called to step into the picture itself; to move from the sense of a separate observing ego, the photographer who stands apart and takes the picture, into the mystery at the intersection of the axes; to move into an experience of oneness, not just with God, but with all creation.

8. "The Self cannot be defined... it is a mystery...not something hard to understand becuase it is so complex, but rather that which is not graspable by the analytically, linearly limited ego that has the wherewithal only to solve problems. A problem is something to be solved; a mystery is something to become involved in. The deeper we reach into a mystery, the deeper it becomes, that is, the more mysterious. The reach takes letting go of ego, which is the point and aim of spiritual practice."

Ah. Amazing, isn't it, how these lessons have a way of falling into our path...

Life on the Crossroad

Earlier in my meditation practice, I used to think of my life as the intersection of two axes. The horizontal axis consists of the world I live in and the worldly thoughts that distract me over the course of time: in one direction lie the people I have known and things I have done in the past and in the other people and things that occupy my thoughts of the future. The vertical axis, on the other hand, is the link that flows from the traditional God above me to the sense I have of God within me.

In those days, when I would breathe I would visualize a sort of membrane that sat at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical axes, connected somehow to each of them, rather like one of those Mexican ojo de dios string sculptures.

I imagined it sort of like two pieces of leather, sewn together but disconnected out at the points of the diamond, so the axes would pass through. As I breathed, the membrane would rise and fall, gently calling me back to center and keeping the four poles of my life in balance. And if my thoughts drifted off, a simple word would bring me back to the membrane and center me again.

In recent months I have been more concentrating on the vertical axis, and the membrane has sort of faded into the past. But this morning in Cloud of Unknowing the author was talking about how a little short prayer of one small syllable, uttered with the passion of a cry of "FIRE!", "prayed with a full spirit, in the height and in the depth, in the length and in the breadth of the spirit of the one who prays it...would pierce the ears of the Almighty God more than does any psalter thoughtlessly mumbled in one's teeth."

And I thought again of that earlier practice with the membrane -- and wondered. The height and depth clearly correspond to the vertical. Couldn't the length and breadth of the spirit correspond to the horizontal axis? And therefore couldn't it be that prayer and meditation are meant to encompass both? After all, I take what I learn on the vertical axis and apply it on the horizontal one; wouldn't it make sense to admit that it is what arises on the horizontal axis that frames the questions I bring to the listening process?

The problem is just that it's somehow more challenging to encompass all four points than it is to just stay in the vertical dimension. But I explored that this morning, and I have to say that, for today at least, the membrane method, for me, was richer. So perhaps it is true that we are meant, as much as is humanly possible, to stay centered in the present moment, to remain firmly anchored --and conscious -- at the intersection of past and present while at the same time aware of and inviting the holiness that calls to us from above and from within.

But what I find most interesting is this: I wanted an image of the ojo de dios, and went to Google images to find one. This little photo, from the Brunswick Community Library website in Eagle Mills, New York, was the clearest of those offered, so I loaded it in. It wasn't until later that I realized I wanted an image of an intersection to open the blog.

So I went hunting through my collection and found this photograph, shot over Christmas break in Taiwan. And now, as I do my final edit pass of the blog, I am intrigued to observe that the two images are in the same color palette -- almost as if understanding the first helped me choose the second. And how intriguing is this, that the colors of both are the red and green we traditionally associate with the season of Christ's birth?

So I spent some time looking at the crossroad image to see if it had something to teach me. And what I realize, looking at this image, is that there are not just two, but three axes; that the world is in fact a plane formed by two axes -- the people coming into and leaving my life from the right and the left, and the future which stretches before me, with the past behind me. And this consciousness of the Holiness above and within -- the vertical axis -- is in fact a third dimension; Christ breaking in.

It is, I think, an important reminder that life is not just about me and my center, my past and my future, my God and my spirit. Surely we are all in this together, and what each of us chooses at any moment affects us all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

God Without, God Within

In an earlier post to this blog (February 14th) I was exploring some of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and concluded with a statement about the importance to me of a Supreme Being.

The problem with that concept, however, comes when we begin to insist on it as something wholly outside ourselves. In preparation for an upcoming workshop I've been reading The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystical text that is intended to serve as a guide to spiritual experience. And this morning I read the following:

"When this method is correctly conceived it becomes nothing else than a true knowledge and feeling of yourself as you are, a wretch and a filthy thing far worse than nothing. This knowledge and feeling is meekness. And this meekness results in God Himself coming down with great stregth to avenge you on your enemies."

Now I will add that, though this is the quote exactly as written, it is taken slightly out of context. But to me it encapsulates much of what I find absolutely distasteful about a religion whose emphasis is on some anthropomorphic Father God completely exterior to the self.

As far as I can see, though this book has much to offer, the root contention of it is that the purpose and drive of a meditative practice should be solely upward, a constant projection of love darts tossed repeatedly through "the cloud of unknowing" that separates us from God.

And I think that if we follow this admonition and continue to perceive God as totally Other, it is inevitable that we fall into the "wretch and filthy" trap, forgetting that we were made in God's image; that there is Godness within us as well as outside of us.

Yes, it is true that we are weak and imperfect. But I think it is far too easy for Christians to wallow in that mud, and, more importantly, to use it as an excuse for bad behavior and/or inaction. At the same time, I read this, felt my distaste for it, and immediately began to wonder if this was just my own reluctance to walk into the shadow.

At which point I returned to the Thomas Merton text where I left off yesterday to find him stating that when "the good" is defined as something outside oneself, the more it becomes "something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes...receding further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability. The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to be used to attain it. And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one's effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten."

"This is," Merton concludes, "nothing but organized despair: "The good" that is preached and exacted by the moralist thus finally becomes evil, and all the more so since the hopeless pursuit of it distracts one from the real good which one already possesses and which one now despises or ignores."

This, I believe, is exactly the heart of the problem: the more God/Good is projected as something outside ourselves, the more we become obsessed with the rules governing what it would take to reach out to that separate good (and our own, or others' failure to honor those rules), and the less attention we pay to lifting up that good already planted within and around us.

Certainly at this point an easy case could be made for stating (as my husband once did) that "religion is the source of all wars." It isn't faith that it is the source, but the projection of an external good, and the elaborate and often indefinsible proclamations and rules that emerge as each ruling class attempts to define (in ways often fraught with hidden agendas) how to attain that which is -- by that definition -- unattainable.

And then Merton says, "Does the constantly greater emphasis on theology as an objective science open the way to the One we seek? Or is it true, as Chuang Tzu said, that we have become blind to the One we already possess?

In the end he concludes, "If we're always thinking about contemplation...union with God... that's fine... But if we constantly over-emphasize those things to which access is inevitably something quite rare, we overlook the ordinary authentic real experiences of everyday life as real things to enjoy, things to be happy about, things to praise God for."

Reading this, I am reminded of my high school study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Where, one asks, does the Good lie? In the relentless moralizing of organized religion, or in the simple pleasures of a picnic on a sunny afternoon, the dappled shadows in the forest, the burbling of a quiet stream?

Surely there is a way to find a balance between the two.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Uncovering the angel within

I know that many non-Christians take issue with what they perceive as the Christian emphasis on sinfulness. And I agree that we sometimes get a bit carried away with that -- I am thinking of the Hellfire and Damnation preachers of the American Restoration period, and the bizarre instances of self-flagellation recently highlighted in Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.

Which means that Lent, with its emphasis on sinfulness and penance, can be an uncomfortable concept to deal with. But as I read Henri Nouwen's Encounters with Merton, I see again why this piece of our faith is every bit as essential as the understanding that the primary message is that of God's love and forgiveness.

In fact, reading Merton, I realize that the work we do -- and God does through us -- in the course of Lent is a variation on the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. With Tonglen, if we are hurt, or angry, or in pain, we are to remember that we are not alone in whatever feeling is troubling us, and to breathe in the hurt, anger and pain of the rest of the world. Then, when we breathe out, we breathe out to the world whatever peace or joy we have found within.

The Lenten process is similar: we look at the sin, evil and violence in the world, and seek to acknowledge the roots of sin, evil and violence in our own souls, learning that "the impurity of the world is a mirror of the impurity of our own hearts."

In both actions, Tonglen and the self-examination of Lent, the result is compassion, "a compassion that comes out of a deep experience of solidarity, in which one recognizes that the evil, sin and violence one sees in the world and in the other are deeply rooted in one's own heart."

If we can open our own hearts, see and forgive the ugliness within, then we become less prone to bitterness, which is, Nouwen tells us, "the reaction of one who expects something from another without daring to look into his or her own heart, and therefore becomes quickly disappointed."

In the experience of admitting our own spiritual bankruptcy and finding forgiveness for that, we are better equipped to be voices for truth and non-violence in community. Because in the process of Lenten examination, we learn that evil is not "an irreversible, visible, sharply outlined tumor to be cut out" but rather a universal and pervasive experience which can be turned into good by forgiveness.

Knowing that, we then understand that "to punish and destroy the oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression. The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time from the same tyrannical automatism of the violent process which contains within itself the curse of irreversibility."

It is, of course, an easy step from this point to move into condemnation of the forces of our own government, heading off into Iraq to commit violence as punishment for violence. But I don't think Lent is about the easy steps; I think it is about the hard ones. For those, we need to look closer to home -- to the family member whom we ostracize because of their perceived betrayals; to the neighbor we want to punish for destroying the neighborhood peace; to the community leaders we resent for their mismanagement of contracts or money; to the religious leaders whose hypocrisy we find so distasteful; to all the people toward whom we sense an inner bitterness, for whatever reasons.

Psychologists are fond of saying that we hate most in others the sins of which we ourselves are most culpable. The dark parts of the shadow, the ones we can't see or won't take the time to explore, are the ones we are most likely to project onto others and despise.

Lent is our annual opportunity to reverse the irreversible; to step in silence and solitude into the darkest recesses of the heart, carrying with us the light of forgiveness and love. Because I believe that it is only when we come to fully understand the ugliness of our own internal spaces that we can uncover the angel within and empower it to shine as a beacon for truth, love and forgiveness.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A whole new world on the other side

Normally my Sunday mornings are predictable: I rise, feed the dog, drink my coffee and read, meditate, and then leave for church, listening to uplifting music as I drive.

But today was a little off: I overslept a bit, and my meditation period, already shortened, was further interrupted by a cat who was determined to build a nest somewhere inside the neck and sleeve of my bathrobe.

It's all good, I thought, as I climbed into the car, but the song I had in my head as I drove out was not a hymn, a chant, or Taize but rather a Cuban rap song called "Represent Cuba" from the soundtrack of Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights. What the heck, I thought; and popped in the disk into my CD player, though of course it was so inappropriate for a meditative Sunday morning.

So I pulled into the church parking lot and went in with a lilt in my step. Interestingly enough, the sermon was about telling a new story and singing a new song. And the preacher for the day, an 82-year-old lifelong Episcopalian, informed us that his new story was that he had discovered he could appreciate the companionship of Lutherans and Presbyterians.

Having been raised in the Presbyterian church, and having grandparents who are Lutheran, atheist, Baptist and Catholic, I am always delighted to hear when others get a chance to discover how irrelevant our denominational differences can be.

After the service I climbed back into my car and headed for the coffee shop (another very important part of the Sunday morning ritual). Driving out the parking lot it seemed important to consider my own preconceived notions, and the prejudices I carry.

And there in front of me, the car I passed just before I pulled out onto the road, was someone against whom I've held a grudge for years, and was finally able to forgive just this past Ash Wednesday; one of life's amazing miracles.

As I waved a cheery hello, and he waved back, I heard the tail end of my Cuban rap and then another song came on with which I am less familiar. I think you could call it a new song.

And as I listened to the lyrics -- it had a delightful sort of salsa feel -- I realized that this new song had in it the same lesson as today's sermon:

The world divides from the bitter
sweetness that love provides.
I will redefine my place,
within this union.
If a word is a lie,
and the better me can show its side.
I will try to find my way to higher ground.

There's a million stories
and a million ways to get there from here.
Baby I'm gonna put your skin on mine...

If you let your heart
open up your mind.
There's a whole new world on the other side...

When I hear you scream, I hear you cry,
makes me realise that I am only human.
The world relies on the balance between
Love and Pride.
I'll abandon all my pride and bring you love.

There's a million reasons
and a million ways to get to your heart.
Baby I'm gonna make you step outside
the corners of your world and find,
that if you let your heart open up your mind
There's a whole new world on the other side...

Isn't it amazing, what the world has to offer, if we just listen? And we who preach have much to learn about love and unity and respect from the world around us. We forget, I think, that the truth does not just reside within the limits of our denominations, or even within the walls of a church, its community, its teachings or its music.

Surely the writer of this song articulates so much better than I the essence of this photograph: that under the skin-deep differences of race, religion, age, region and social standing -- and even the music we choose to listen to -- we are one.

So that's the sermon for today: Listen to your heart, open up your mind:
There's a whole new world on the other side!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Love letters in the sand

I know this picture isn't up to my usual standard; it is what an instructor of mine once referred to as "a record shot," i.e., it records an event but has no intrinsic artistic value.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, but I wasn't really thinking of that when I wrote the blog yesterday morning -- the blog I later realized was, in its way, a love letter to God.

Yesterday was also a very full day, so, after finishing the blog, I dressed and prepared to leave the house for what would be the rest of the day. Since we have a dog, I had arranged for my daughter to come home and feed him at dinnertime, and I made sure to walk him before I left.

It was a brief walk -- just out the boardwalk to the beach for a quick stroll. And he was good; he "did his duty" and was done with it and ready to go back. But while I was waiting I looked down and saw a piece of red beach glass.

If you spend as much time on the Northwest beaches as I do, you know that red beach glass is extremely rare. In fact, I've only seen a piece once before: it was picked up by my friend Karen's daughter Katie, the first time the three of us ever walked the beach together, several years ago. I remember making a big deal about it then, and I remember how proud Katie -- an absolutely adorable child of seven at the time -- was to have spotted it.

I walk our beach a lot. When we first bought the house and I felt so lost and alone, I used to rejoice every time I found a piece of blue glass (also rare, but they do show up from time to time) because I felt it was a reminder that God was with me. I remember telling Karen about that -- she, too, walks the beach a lot, and she collects beach glass as well.

Since Katie got sick I never walk the beach without thinking of her and Karen, and of that one piece of red glass. Was it an omen? Could I have somehow prevented her cancer by taking it from her?

And now, here, another piece. And when I picked it up, I realized it was in the shape of a lopsided (broken?) heart, and so I photographed it on top of the valentine my daughter made for me, and sent the photo to some friends.

But now I'm sending my little red glass heart to Karen. Because I've decided this one is not an omen: I believe this little red glass heart is a love letter from God and from Katie to both of us, and it truly belongs to her.

Life is full of miracles.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Encountering Thomas Merton

My new (used) camera arrived a couple of days ago, and this is one of the first shots I took with it. It seems appropriate, somehow; a sort of baptismal image, a taste of things to come.

I've been thinking a lot lately about this Buddha statue, whose light guides my daily meditations. Because as much as I am drawn to various aspects of Buddhism -- the emphasis on meditation, on tonglen, on compassion; the peacefulness of it; the sense that it is our cravings that cause our suffering -- for me it lacks something that I, perhaps childishly, find really powerful and moving about Christianity: the sense that there is some entity out there which loves us, which calls us to its heart, watches over us, forgives us, and draws us into new life.

The language of Christianity has been horribly compromised over the centuries, and the institutionalization of Christianity has attached some very difficult connotations to words like God, father, Christ, and sacrifice. So it's hard to talk about my beliefs in a way that doesn't immediately awaken a whole ocean full of faulty assumptions.

... which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to the Gospel of Thomas when I discovered it. There was none of the story factor which so dominates and occludes the Gospel I grew up with: no virgin birth, no baptism or assumption, no crucifixion or resurrection. And useful as those concepts can be, they all seem to be fraught with controversy and confusion.

In Thomas we just hear the inspiring and yet utterly practical voice of Jesus, uttering familiar parables, calling us to unity, and gently chiding us for being stuck in the old ways of being. In Thomas we learn that the kingdom of heaven, unity with God, Love -- all are here with us, not in some other place or some other life or governed by arbitrary leaders, rules or practices.

One of the books currently on my table is Henri Nouwen's Encounters with Merton, spiritual reflections on the life and writings of Thomas Merton, another contemplative Christian who was drawn to Buddhism. And I was thinking about this longing I have for peace (and how difficult it can be to find peace in many technically Christian settings) when I read this from Merton's wartime journal:

We have no peace because we have done nothing to keep peace, not even prayed for it! We have not even desired peace, except for the wrong reasons: because we didn't want to get hurt, we didn't want to suffer. But if the best reason we have for desiring peace is only that we are cowards, then we are lost from the start, because the enemy only sees in our cowardice his first and most effective weapon...

When I pray for peace I pray for the following miracle. That God move all men to pray and do penance and recognize each one his own great guilt, because we are all guilty... we are a tree, of which Hitler is one of the fruits, and we all nourish him, and he thrives most of all on our hatred and condemnation of him, when that condemnation disregards our own guilt, and piles the responsibility for everything upon somebody else's sins!

Perhaps it is my cowardly longing for peace that makes me keep a slight distance from Christianity, that sets me in this place where I worship but remain otherwise disengaged. But I continue to worship, because I continue to believe that there is a God to whom I can pray for the strength and courage to continue on the path of peace; who can help me forgive myself and others when I cannot do that alone; who draws me into a sense of openness, of oneness with all creation, which in turn fills me with what Merton describes as "a constant purpose, an unending love that expresses itself now as patience, now as humility, now as courage, now as self-denial, now as justice, but always in a strong knot of faith and hope."

I do appreciate so much about Buddhism, and I love the sense of peace that emanates from this gentle statue. But I find I cannot live without the faith and hope that comes from believing in a power beyond my own limited self.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dancing with our demons

Yesterday I mentioned that the demons were all coming out to play. Failures and fears, they have a way of creeping back in whenever you contemplate embarking on a new path.

And then, this morning, the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the story of The Garden: Adam, Eve, the Serpent, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It's all about the loss of innocence, isn't it -- on so many levels. We thought life would be one way, and then the knowledge comes, and it's something altogether different. And yet, knowing what we know, part of us still longs to get back to the garden, to return to the time when things were simpler, when we believed we could make a difference, when we didn't feel so exposed.

Do you suppose that's why people cry at weddings? The bride and groom go in with all that hope, and those of us who watch know things are so much more complicated than that.

My husband talks about that with his job, remembering sadly the naive enthusiasm with which he entered the computing field -- where he now spends much of his time responding to criminal misuses of computer code.

Can there be such a thing as wise enthusiasm? Or skeptical enthusiasm?

I think that's where faith comes in. Knowing what we know: that the world isn't perfect, that life is not always fair, that human relationships and emotions are unbelievably complex, that the "best laid plans of mice and men" may often go awry, do we take the risk, the leap of faith? Do we dare to believe anyway?

Do we attend church knowing its leaders, like us, are often flawed? Do we vote for an idealistic candidate even though we fear he will be crucified for his convictions? Do we risk telling the truth, believing that openness is the only way to community and healing, even though we understand that someone may twist it to their own advantage?

What will we do with the baggage, the knowledge that came with the burning pain of past losses? Do we go back and try again, in hopes of being wiser? Or do we give up completely the hope that fueled our earlier attempts to make a difference?

Lent is our time to dance with those old demons, to engage with them, to imagine a quick two-step, give them a hug and a twirl, see if they still have power over us; to see if maybe we can dance together, or if we're even interested in getting back into the swing of things. I mean, heck, you know they're out there on the dance floor, waiting to swoop in. Does that mean you'll spend the rest of your life on the sidelines?

I hope not. Because that music is pretty catchy...

Saturday, February 9, 2008

When the baggage gets too heavy...

It's Lent, and, true to form, all my demons are coming out to play. Funny how the baggage we lug around, however charmingly it may be decorated, is still just so exhausting to carry that sometimes we just have to sit down and moan.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

You are forgiven: be at peace

Today is Ash Wednesday, humbling introduction to a long holy dry spell, marked with ashes and sealed with repentance.

For whatever reason, my own internal compass always drifts toward penitence around this time of year, and it's easy to get caught up in the humbling awareness of my own faults and weaknesses. But this morning I finished the Gospel of Thomas and embarked on The Cloud of Unknowing, another obscure Christian text full of contemplative wisdom. And as a welcome to Lent present I was given this heartening image:

"Therefore he kindled your desire with greatest grace, and attached to it a leash of longing."

This yearning to serve, this humbling desire to overcome the petty foibles that keep us from becoming all we were born to be -- all of it is a gift, drawing us closer to the Love that nurtured us before our birth, that soothes us through our sorrows, shelters us in the storm, and waits for us behind that door we are so afraid to open.

In the service that marks Ash Wednesday, we are invited to walk around the room, the Episcopal tradition of passing the peace. But today, it wasn't just peace we shared; it was forgiveness as well; a simple phrase almost easier to say to strangers than to those we know, those we've hurt, or been hurt by. But to say it -- and mean it -- and for it to be heard...the peace of that moment was like a deep clear rush of water.

So I look at this picture, which I wasn't sure I understood when I created it, and I think: take that step. Make that offering. Grab the leash of longing -- and hang on.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sharing our Story

This morning I visited a new art exhibit at Grace Church.

Called Sharing Our Story, the exhibit features works of art by several of the women in the congregation, and parts of it are incredibly moving -- especially if you read the artist's statements that accompany the works.

I was particularly touched by the three pictures closest to my own. They were black and white shots, beautifully composed and executed, of a baby, and my first instinct was (I confess) to write them off: I consider baby pictures in a league with pictures of puppies and kittens; just too easy, too obvious.

But there was a prayerful quality that drew me in, and when I read the artist's statement and learned that this was a child whose life had hung in the balance due to severe medical problems, I understood in my head what my heart had already told me: these were no ordinary baby pictures.

If you have been reading this blog since its inception, you know it began because my friend Karen's daughter died. Karen and I haven't seen each other in over a year, but we still share emails, read each other's blogs and comment occasionally. So this afternoon I got an email from another friend who had followed one of Karen's comments over to Karen's blog, and was deeply moved: she, too, has known the experience of mothering a child whose life hangs in the balance.

This thought, in turn, leads me to the memory of another friend, Leigh, whose son committed suicide while vacationing in Italy with his family a little over six years ago. And I remember Leigh telling me that the images of Mary which litter the Italian countryside and fill the Italian churches were an incredible solace to her.

Because, of course, Mary, too, knows what it means to sit with a child whose life hangs in the balance.

It was also Leigh who shared with me a set of Eckhart Tolle CD's called Stillness Speaks. And on one of those CD's Tolle says something that has become a life lesson for me. Now (to tie this in to my previous blog post) Eckhart Tolle would probably also be viewed with suspicion by many of my Christian friends. But I think that God, or the Divine, or the Universe, or whatever you choose to call That Which is Truth in your life, speaks through him as readily as He/She/It speaks through the Bible, or the Torah, or the Koran; through you, through me, through our children; through all of creation.

And what Tolle says, that I was reminded of again this morning, by those photos and by my friends, is that "the purpose of all art is to be a portal to the Sacred."


Friday, February 1, 2008

The wisdom of trees

The Episcopal Diocesan office in Topeka, Kansas, has apparently been struggling a bit in the news since last May, when they decided to tear down some trees in a historic district to put up a parking lot "so the elderly can go to church."

Their diocesan spokesperson is unfortunately quoted as saying, "We're here to save souls, not trees" -- as if a parking lot, or access to a church, could save a soul. Whatever saving souls means.

In response to this unfortunate remark, which to me typifies the worst of righteous Christianity, I would like to offer a quotation sent by a dear friend and fellow former Episcopal communications exec:

The late poet/philosopher John O'Donohue had this to say about his beloved trees:

"In our age of rapid, shallow, horizontal travel, trees can teach us how to journey another, slower, deeper way. Frequently, our own journeys have no depth--because we have left our deeper selves behind... and lack rootage. But the wisdom of the tree balances the path inwards with the path outwards."

This seems to me to be a rather zen statement, to which I am drawn because that seems to be my task at this point in life: to work on building the connection between root and sky; between the God of my childhood and the awareness of Godness within me. And thinking about that, I realize that a lot of what happens in this blog is fueled by my parallel readings in Buddhism and Christianity.

What's challenging about that is that I always feel like I'm walking on tiptoe in this blog. I loved my former mother-in-law (now deceased) but I am nonetheless aware that, as a born-again Christian, she was always horrified by my "flirtation" with Buddhism. And I know that back when I was on the preaching rotation at the Shaw Island Community Church, there were folks who chose not to come on the Sundays I preached because I would occasionally reference the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

I also know that there are Christians who definitely view the Gospel of Thomas (which I read every morning) as heretical.

And I know I have friends who read this blog who are very comfortable with my spiritual side but have a lot of negative associations with Christianity, and so are put off by the words "Gospel" and "Jesus," which appear with some frequency.

So I find myself editing my thoughts, toning things down a bit; a natural outgrowth of my upbringing. I am the only child of a rather stoic Swedish engineer father and an extremely emotional artist mother, so peacemaking and appeasement became a strongly ingrained survival technique for me. Time after time I end up standing on the bridge between warring factions, trying to help each side understand the other -- which, I suspect, is why communications became my profession.

Perhaps, then, it might be time to take off the ballet shoes and stop tiptoeing around Buddhism and Christianity; time to be blunt about the pull of each, and to explore exactly what works for me and what doesn't in each. Because I do have lots of thoughts on that. But I'll save those for another post.