Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Feeling Blue

"Darkness and Light Dancing Together"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

The other day I saw a Facebook post announcing that, in addition to their regular services, a local church would be offering A Blue Christmas Service this year. There will be will be joyful celebrations of candle-lighting and festive carols and there will be another “Blue” service for folks who may be feeling particularly sad, lonely or depressed at this time of year.

I guess that it’s not so surprising that some (maybe many) people might be feeling “blue” as the hours of daylight wane and the night grows long.  The more I think about it, it’s probably a really good idea to offer some sort of Blue Service during this supposedly “festive” time of year because this is not only a season of heightened joy but it is also a season of pronounced sadness.

In this holiday season we watch tender movies about people who find new love as the snow falls and the lights on a tree twinkle. We also see pictures of families gathered, sharing gifts, eating a great feast and raising a glass of “good cheer.”  We turn on a radio or go into a church or a mall and hear the music of the season, songs of comfort and joy, songs of a child sweetly sleeping in a “silent night” where all is calm and all is bright, and we may imagine that this is what Christmas is supposed to be.

This is supposed to be a time of love, peace, joy, tenderness and togetherness, but plenty of people don’t feel this way and so it leaves them wondering why they aren’t experiencing the holidays as they are supposed to be.

The truth is that lots of folks do not have big families with whom they will gather and even if they do, their time together won’t necessarily be all that joyful or convivial. This holiday season is also a time when the sting of a lost relationship or memories of a loved ones who may have died or live far away can be exceptionally painful. On top of it all, this past year has been pretty tough for many people in America as we sink deeper and deeper into the muck of political battles and culture wars.  

As I see it, no matter what people may imagine this holiday season is supposed to be, it is never a season of perfect bliss and ever-calm peace; but then again, this isn’t what life has to offer for any of us because life is a beautiful struggle.  As human beings we know tenderness and compassion, we share joy and we all have our moments of peace and serenity. As human beings we also feel "blue" from time to time, disappointed or frustrated, sad and gloomy, lost, lonely and confused.

I am very fond of the homespun wisdom of Anne Lamott who once made this wonderful observation about our common humanity:

Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared,
even people who seem to have it more or less together -
they are much more like you than you would believe.
So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.

As I see it, healing only happens we get to the point where we can admit our own “woundedness” and share our common weakness. Our wounds and our suffering are opportunities for us to be vulnerable, to let down the protective walls of our ego and reach out to one another - and when that happens love is finally possible.

Regardless of what you may believe or what path you walk, we might all be feeling a bit “blue” this time of year – that’s because darkness and light always dance together as we make our way through the wilderness we call life.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Believers

"Transcendence"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

As we decorated our Christmas Tree yesterday, I thought about a friend of mine from graduate school who proudly boasts that he is a “non-believer.”  In fact, he refers to himself as a “committed atheist.” Although he grew up in the Christian tradition, he came to dismiss it all as fantasy; and yet, he loves celebrating Christmas. Every year, my friend and his wife (who also calls herself a “non-believer) decorate a tree, exchange presents, listen to Christmas Carols and look forward to a festive dinner on Christmas Day. Oddly enough, even though the Christmas holiday is so important to him, my graduate school friend remains adamant about the fact that he has rejected the God of his childhood and no longer thinks of himself as a Christian believer.  

As I think about it, my friend probably calls himself a “non-believer” because he is unwilling and unable to assent to doctrines and teachings about “God" and he is unwilling to participate in the institutional practices of any organized church; and yet in a very real sense he is a “believer.”

Interestingly enough, the way in which we understand “beliefs” and “believers” in our contemporary society is far different from how the word was used in ancient times. We identify “belief” as an act of the mind, an assent to propositions; but in ancient times, “belief” was viewed as an affair of the heart. When a husband tells a spouse “I believe in you,” he doesn’t mean, “I believe ideas about you,” rather he means “I give my heart to you.” In ancient times, “belief” was understood to be a commitment of the heart.  

My friend from graduate school may not believe the stuff he leaned about “God” in his childhood; but he is drawn to Christmas because by celebrating Christmas with all its beauty, tenderness, pageantry and poetry, his “heart” is moved, he encounters Mystery and Transcendence.  He is a “believer.”

I am reminded of an op-ed piece I once read in the New York Times:

When I hear people say they have no religious impulses whatsoever,
I want to respond: really?
You have never felt something in yourself
staking a claim beyond yourself,
some wordless mystery straining to reach you,
never?
Belief is this longing of every human heart.

Yesterday as I decorated our tree, I thought about my “atheist” friend decorating his own Christmas tree and it struck me that any time any of us feel Mystery and Beauty “tugging at our hearts,” any time we feel the desire to “stake a claim beyond ourselves” we are all believers.

I am reminded of a line from the Islamic poet, Rumi:

Move beyond any attachment to names.
Every war and every conflict between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.
It’s such unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there is a long table of companionship set and waiting for us all to sit down

Christmas is a time for all people of goodwill to move beyond the names they have put upon themselves and others. It’s a season for Christians and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, atheists, agnostics and humanists to put aside the names and sit at the table together.

Christmas is a festival that celebrates the longings of every human heart and you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas – everyone is welcome to the feast!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Lighting a Candle of Hope

"Hope Springs Eternal"

Over the past few days devastating wildfires have been sweeping through the mountains near Los Angeles – hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated, communities have been leveled, homes have been destroyed and lives lost. Yesterday’s evening news featured an incredibly sad story about a family who had lost their home and all their possessions in the fire. Their family had lived in that place for generations and then the winds swept the fire in and destroyed it all in a furious flash   Standing in the midst of all the charred rubble of what was once their beautiful home, a mother held her young son weeping as she said: “I cant think of a time when I’ve felt so hopeless.”

As I heard that poor woman’s lament, it struck me that maybe lots of people living in today’s contemporary society might have similar feelings. Their homes and possessions may not have been destroyed by a devastating fire but they may indeed be thinking that they “can’t remember a time when they felt so hopeless.”

I remember something the social critic and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, said a little while back as he observed that more and more people in this country nowadays are dying of prolonged hopelessness. More and more people have lost all hope of living out an “American Dream.” They are working harder and getting paid less and they feel abandoned by their government, their politicians, even by their churches and other institutions. Chomsky suggested that many Americans today feel as if there is no place for them in contemporary society and have lost a sense of self worth, turning to opioids and other drugs to help numb the pain of living, abandoning all hope for a better future.

In Dante’s famous poem, The Divine Comedy, there is an inscription over the gates of hell that reads:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!

I don’t think “hell” is a place you go after you die, I think “hell” is where you live in this life when you have abandoned all hope.

The Dalai Lama puts it this way:

No matter what sort of difficulties or how painful our experiences,
if we lose hope, that’s the disaster.

As I think about a growing sense of “hopelessness” nowadays, I wonder what it is that everyone is hoping for? What does it mean to live into the so-called “American Dream”?  A big bank account, a great job, nice house, a fast car, an exotic vacation? I also wonder, even if a fire did not destroy one’s home and possessions, would life’s problems go away and everything be fine?

Personally, I think that “hoping” for a better tomorrow has little or anything to do with what genuine hope is really all about.

I am reminded of something Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said:

In everyday life we are always looking for the right conditions
 that we don’t yet have to make us all happy
and we ignore what is happening right in front of us.
We wait and hope for the magical future moment
when everything will be as we want it to be
forgetting that life is available only in the present moment.

As I see it, hope is that ability to see that all is well even when life may seem to be not so well.

Life is messy, chaotic and difficult – terrorists attack, fires destroy, people get sick and struggle financially, they lose jobs, and sometimes feel abandoned and when these things happen we often hope for that better magical future moment when everything will be as we want it to be. But genuine hope is the ability to stay grounded in the midst of chaos, to keep focused in the present moment where we can discover that in the midst of all the mess and muck of life, Love abides and we are never alone. “God” abides and we have one another – to know this is to hope.

According to the Christian calendar, we are now in the season of Advent. Many Christians take this opportunity to light candles on an Advent wreath as they proclaim that even in the darkness, there is light. Whether or not we celebrate “Advent,” it seems to me that this is a perfect season for all of us to light a candle of hope in our lives and remember that all is well even when life may seem to be not so well.