Friday, May 31, 2013

Everyday Life

an outdoor market in the town near my retreat house

Like most everyone else, I lead a remarkably ordinary, routine life. I start with some quiet time, then after breakfast, it's off to the marketplace of everyday life. My everyday marketplace is usually my desk and my computer, and then there is the grocery shopping, sometimes (begrudgingly) the gym, doing errands, watering the plants, and today I will be moving furniture around so that they can come and clean the floor tiles. I spend most of my day in the ordinary marketplace of everyday life.

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about everyday, routine life, and I wonder where God fits into it all? Somehow, I can see where God fits into my prayer time or quiet time, but most of my time is spent in the daily grind of the everyday routine, and where does God fit into that?

I am on my second reading of Christian Wiman's wonderful new book, "My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer." Yesterday, I read something he wrote in his book that really struck me:

God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him - to find him - does not require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

What an incredible insight this provided me.  God may be in my prayers and quiet time, but more importantly, God abides and is abundantly present at the core of where I spend most of my time - in my everyday living. Only, I live in a self-enclosed sleep, and so I'm not awake to the abundant grace of everyday life.

In his book, Christian Wiman goes on to say (and this is the part that really got to me):

What I crave - and what I have known, in fugitive instants - is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it, some ultimate insight that is still sight. 

This passage sends chills up and down my spine. Imagine -  the wildly uncontrolled, fiercely passionate Holy Presence  that cannot be contained, "utterly inhabiting" reality. Every aspect of everyday living, "utterly inhabited"  by that Divine Presence for which we have no words.

So it's off into the marketplace. The tile cleaners will soon be here. 

Today I will try to "let grace wake love from my intense, self-enclosed sleep."




Thursday, May 30, 2013

Radical Buddhism

A Buddha Statue in My Meditation Garden

There was an article in yesterday's paper about a new outbreak of religious violence in Myanmar. The article featured a picture of a mob of "radical Buddhists" - mostly young men, some of them monks in their saffron robes, all carrying clubs and cudgels as they roamed the streets of Bangkok burning mosques and destroying Muslim schools and shops. Apparently this strain of radical Buddhism is a growing phenomenon in Myanmar.

As I read that article yesterday, and looked at that picture, I literally laughed out loud at the ludicrous incongruity conjured up in me when I see a mob of so-called "radical Buddhists," armed, angry and destructive.  For me, these violent and dangerous Buddhists are a living icon of how people can so distort and destroy what a religion is really all about,  making it unrecognizable from it's original intent and purpose. 

After all, of all the major world religions, Buddhism is known for its emphasis upon a gentle respect for  the harmony of all living creatures. The Buddha taught, "Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating but by love. Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good."

Nowadays we think of a "radical" as someone who is an extremist - someone at the "far-left" or "far- right" of a religious or social movement, often violent and outspoken. But this is not what the word "radical" originally meant.

The word "radical" comes from the latin, "radix," meaning "root." Something or someone who is "radical" grows out of the base, or stem, or root. So, when it comes to religion, a "radical" is someone who comprehends the "core" idea of a religious path and acts accordingly.

I believe that there is a common "core" in every one of the major world religions - practicing compassion and showing mercy are at the fundamental center of all the many diverse spiritual paths.  

So I think all religious people ought to be "radicals" and "fundamentalists."

The Buddha taught: In compassion lies the world's true strength - 

Jesus taught: Love one another...judge not lest you be judged..love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.

Muslims begin every prayer in the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful, and the Prophet teaches that faithful followers of Islam should be compassionate and merciful as God is compassionate and merciful.

So yes, I'd like to see more radicals in this world - radical Christians, radical Buddhists, radical Muslims, radical Jews and Hindus - all practitioners of unbounded hospitality,  always merciful, and deeply compassionate.



  



Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Proof

a full moon glowing over the desert mountains at sunrise

Throughout the history of Christianity, philosophers and theologians of the Western world have regularly attempted to "prove" the existence of God - Aquinas and Anselm, Descartes and Kant, inductive arguments, empirical arguments, deductive arguments. It's enough to make your head hurt just thinking about it.

More recently a new generation of "Neo-Atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking have developed similar arguments aimed at "disproving" the existence of God.

In my daily perusal of social media,  I have discovered that, while many people are indeed on a journey to find God,  the web is also abundantly sprinkled with a renewed spirit of atheism. The social media is replete with claims about how you can't prove the existence of God.

At some level I think the atheists are probably right. I actually don't think it is possible to present logical scientific-like arguments that give proof that God exists. At best, the many so-called proofs offered over the ages do little more for me than make me think it is "not unreasonable" to believe in God.

But here's the thing: I don't want to prove that God exists or doesn't exist. The arguments are unimportant to me, and I am uninterested in debating the logic, because I don't think you can think your way to God.

A few days ago, at sunrise,  I awoke and went outdoors for my morning coffee. I usually sit so I can face the eastern mountains and greet the rising sun,  but on that day I sat and watched the rays of the rising sun reflected on the western desert. 

As I looked up toward the mountains,  I saw it. The full moon was still gloriously abiding in the morning sky. It was an awesome God-filled moment.

Some might say that such beauty is a proof of God's existence. I don't think it has anything to do with proof. I looked up at the glowing full moon presiding over desert mountains drenched in the rays of the rising sun, and for a flicker of a moment I was looking into the face of God. How can you prove that? Why would you want to?

The 20th century Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, puts it so beautifully:

O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me
In a web of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beach.
Feed the gaping need of my senses. Give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honored with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven 













Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Holy Hunger

a tiny desert flower blooming in the sand in front of my retreat house

When I search around the various social media on the web nowadays, I am amazed at how often I see postings, tweets, blogs, videos - all under the category "spirituality." Many people today are on a spiritual quest of some sort or another.

As I've thought about my own spiritual journey out here in the desert, I sometimes wonder if I have it all backwards.  I think that I am seeking God, but it's probably the other way around. The spiritual quest is really more about God searching for me.

I have been reading a just-pubished and tenderly poignant book by the author and poet, Christian Wiman, titled: "My Bright Abyss" (recently reviewed in the New York Times and featured on Krista Tippett's radio broadcast, "On Being.")

In his book, Mr. Wiman tells of how he had grown up as a believing Christian, but had long ago abandoned his faith. Then, he was diagnosed with cancer,  and something woke up in him. He realized that, even though he had abandoned God, God had never let him go.

He puts it this way:

It seemed as if I happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert,  and even though I was just discovering it, it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief."

And now, Christian Wiman is on a spiritual quest - a quest that is tender,  and poignant,  and painful:

Lord, I can only approach you by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not.
I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world - direct, immediately - yet I want nothing more.
Indeed so great is my hunger for you - or is this the evidence of your hunger for me?

Yes many people are hungry for God nowadays, many are on a spiritual quest. But, I have come to believe that the spiritual quest is not so much about what we are doing, but about what God is doing - God deeply desiring us, God relentlessly seeking out the human soul.  

Our hunger for God is really God's holy hunger for us.






Monday, May 27, 2013

The Common Good

a hardly visible and rarely used desert trail near my retreat house 

Several years ago Yale Law Professor, Stephen Carter, wrote a book in which he raised a question about what makes a nation "civilized." He concluded that "civilization" is characterized by the sum of sacrifices made for the common good. 

In  a civilized nation, citizens do more than look inward with the goal of meeting their own personal needs.  In a civilized nation, citizens look beyond themselves and work together to assure the common welfare of everyone. To the degree that this doesn't happen, the nation is barbarian and not civilized. 

In his book, Professor Carter draws upon the lesson from history and concludes that a barbaric nation has never survived the test of time. 

On this Memorial Day as I reflect upon my own country and nation, I wonder about how civilized we are and reflect upon whether or not we are on that slippery slope of becoming more and more barbaric.

Today we remember those men and women who have sacrificed their lives for the welfare of the common good in our country's wars.  But for the average citizen of this land, I worry sometimes that ideas like "sacrifice" and the "common good" are foreign concepts in our everyday living. Words like "sacrifice" and "common good " are rarely used nowadays.

We are immersed in a culture of consumerism and self gratification. Many people today are guided by the ethic that the ultimate purpose in life is to get to the top of the heap no matter who you have to step on in order to get there. 

Happiness is promised to those who have the most; and those who have the most often times care very little about those who have the least. 

How civilized are we?

Memorial Day is a day to reflect on our "civilization" - to make personal and national commitment to follow the path of sacrifice and to make the common good more important than individual gratification. 

The Dalai Lama once said:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

...........a good path for a civilized nation to follow.

Happy Memorial Day!




Sunday, May 26, 2013

Relationships



night approaches and the moon appears in the desert skies

While I love mornings in the desert, I think I am more drawn to the night time.

I look up at the moon and stars in the crystal clear night sky and everything is so vast, so boundless.  As I look to the heavens, I always feel like I am being  drawn out of my "self." Gazing up at the vast cosmic night sky, I let go of the illusion that I am an isolated, separate individual, and I experience the deeper realty that I am part of it "all".  I am a relationship with everything that is.

On this day, many Christian churches throughout the world celebrate "Trinity Sunday," professing  a belief that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

I think most people (including many, if not most Christians) have very little idea as to what it means to say that God is a Trinity.  After all, how can there be three persons and one God? It's just too confusing to even bother with, and what difference does it make after all. 

For me, although the theological jargon explaining what the "trinity" means is complex and obtuse, the basic concept of God as Trinity is actually quite profound, and thinking of God as a Trinity makes a big difference. 

Simply put, if God is a Trinity, God IS a dynamic relationship. The "one" God is a dynamic relationship of love and this relationship permeates the entire creation. 

This provides a very different lens for imagining and thinking about God.

Everything that has being springs up from God and reflects God, and so everything that has being is a relationship - nothing is  isolated, nothing is separated. 

So I look up into the night sky and I see the Trinity - everything dancing and swirling around together,  all the peoples of the earth, the moon and the stars in the sky, palm trees and towering mountains, and I experience one dynamic relationship reflecting the nature of the God who creates and sustains it all. 

I look up in awe and wonder because I am right in the middle of the dance. 

On this Christian festival of Trinity Sunday, I draw upon the words of an Islamic mystical poet. I also turn to the words of a Buddhist monk to hep me in my Trinitarian reflection:

By day I sang with you, at night we sleep together -
night or day, I was not sure.
I thought I knew who I was,
but I was you.
(Rumi)

You are me, and I am you.
Isn't it obvious that we "inter-are?"
(Thich Nhat Hanh)

Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

In the Marketplace

a fountain in the center of the marketplace near my retreat house

Several years ago,  a huge "immigration rights" march and rally was held in Los Angeles. At the time I was a priest at a church in the city, and when we learned that hundreds of thousands of people would be marching past our building,  we thought this would be a tremendous opportunity for us to show off the church to the city.

So we decided we would have little mini-services every 15 minutes,  We would invite the passing-by marchers to come into the church, say a few prayers, sing a hymn. The visitors would then see how beautiful the church building was with its magnificent organ and stunning stained glass windows. Hopefully this might even convince some people to come back again, maybe join the church. 

Well it didn't work out that way at all. We had signs everywhere. We even had ushers at the doorways inviting the marchers to stop and come in. No one showed. Every 15 minutes, it was only the clergy and the organist.

So we decided to go outside the doors and take the church to the people. We stood on the steps,  rang the bell, and joyfully waved in support of those passing by. We got cases of bottled water and went into the crowds passing out refreshments - no hymns, no prayers, no ritual, no sermons or proseletyzing, just lots of expressions of compassion and support. 

The result was exhilarating. The marching crowds roared their approval and cheered their thanks as they passed by enthusiastically waving back at us. I can still remember that day as being one of the most exciting days I ever spent as a parish priest.  The church was with the people out in the marketplace of everyday life, and this is where we were supposed to be.

On this Saturday,  I was thinking that weekends are when religious people around the world go inside buildings to worship God.  Mosques, temples, synagogues, meeting halls, churches - they all open their doors for the faithful to come inside, say their prayers, and engage in their religious observances.

Today I have this fantasy about a different kind of weekend. 

What would happen if, just for this one weekend, all the religious buildings closed their doors to the faithful, sending them "out" rather than inviting them to come in - out into the marketplace of everyday life, out onto the streets - not to preach their brand of religion, but to practice compassion among everyday people in their everyday lives.

Some might go and bring food to the homeless sleeping in the stairwells of the city, maybe others would set up a sidewalk booth and offer job assistance for the unemployed,  maybe the choir would go into the local park and offer a concert - there are hundreds of ways in which compassion could be practiced outside the doors and in the marketplace. 

Yes I wonder what would happen if my wild fantasy actually became a reality this weekend? 

Maybe religion would become more credible in a growing secular world so suspicious of what religion has to offer.






Friday, May 24, 2013

Infused With Life

The Western Mountains Reflect the Morning Sun

Many years ago my family and I paid our first visit to the Palm Springs area. I remember how amazed I was driving from L.A. into the Coachella Valley. The desert floor of the valley was so vast, completely surrounded by mountains. 

But these were not the kind of mountains I was used to growing up back east- green, covered with oaks, maples and evergreens.  These mountains were towering mounds of rock reaching up high into the heavens.

I remember being strangely attracted to those mountains back those many years ago. Little did I know what a big part those mountains would play in my life over the years to come.

Our home in La Quinta (my retreat house) is literally surrounded by those towering stone mountains. My front yard looks onto the western mountains where the sun sets. In the backyard I see the sun rise over the eastern mountains.

Today as I sit and look to the west, basking in the glow of the rising sun's reflective rays, I think about how much the mountains teach me. I sit in silence and I can almost see them glow with divine life. I sit in silence and I  can hear the mountains pulse with life. Imagine, inert mounds of giant rock- alive with Holy Presence.

As I look around me,  I realize that everything that has "being" is holy - all "being" is infused with divine life. 

All the people in the world going about their daily business are holy, the humming bird sipping nectar from the flowers on my patio is holy, the dragonfly buzzing around the pool is holy, the palm trees waving in the breeze are holy. And yes, the mountains are holy.

An Imam friend of mine once told me Muslims believe that anywhere you stand is a mosque; because everywhere you stand is a holy place. As I sit and look to the western mountains,  I am in a holy place. 

I am reminded of a beautiful and powerful poem once written by the priest/poet/philosopher/scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, and I sing a hymn to the mountains:

A Hymn to Matter

Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: You who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards and measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

I bless you, matter, and I acclaim you:not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured - a mass of brute forces and base appetites - but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.

I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Exorcism

dark clouds encircle the wilderness in front of my retreat house

There was a bit of a buzz recently as to whether or not Pope Francis performed an exorcism on a man in Saint Peter's Square a few days ago. Some say the pope was casting out the devil in the man, others say Francs was just saying a prayer for healing. 

For me, it doesn't really matter whether or not the pope was performing an exorcism,  because I think exorcism has little to do with a priest or a pope reading ritualized prayers or sprinkling holy water on  someone supposedly possessed by an evil spirit. I think exorcism is the daily struggle against evil which involves all of us.

Jesus was an exorcist. He lived his life standing against the powers of empire and temple which would tear people apart rather than bring them together. Those who were sick and suffering, those who were marginalized and outcast by society found a ready place of welcome in the arms of Jesus.

Yes, Jesus fought a constant battle against the evil powers of oppression, violence and human degradation. He was an exorcist. And since I am a follower of Jesus, I also believe I am called to be an exorcist in my own place and my own time.

The world today is enshrouded in thick clouds of darkness - economic injustice, sexual exploitation,  widespread prejudice. Sometimes the evil surrounding us is blatant - sometimes subtle. But anyone who walks a life-path of compassion (Christian or not) is called to stand against the darkness. 

Martin Luther King Jr. (also a powerful exorcist) once said:

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it
as he who helps to perpetrate it.
He who accepts evil without protesting against it
is really cooperating with it.

I recently came across a story about a Catholic High School teacher who was fired from her job. 

For 19 years Carla Hale taught at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus Ohio. A few months ago Ms.Hales's 80 year old mother died and Carla wrote an obituary for her. In the obituary there was a one line reference to Carla's female life-partner. A parent noticed the reference and called the Bishop. Ms. Hale was subsequently fired because her lifestyle was inconsistent with the teaching of the church. 

Ms.Hale had been a teacher all her life. She loved what she did and was beloved by her students. She is devastated and she has no recourse to protest her firing. 

It seems to me that if the pope wants to perform an exorcism, he should make a call to Columbus Ohio and have Carla re-instated.




Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Suffering

stunning blossoms along the dry desert trail near my retreat house

Once again we have been bombarded with images of death and destruction as the tragic story of the Oklahoma tornado has unfolded over the past few days. 

It seems as if there have been many horror stories of late - bombings, shootings, and now an entire town virtually leveled, an elementary school reduced to rubble, and children die once more.

When I see the images and hear the reports coming out of Oklahoma, my first response is deep sorrow,  but the sense of sorrow is also accompanied by "bittersweet" feelings tinged with hope and promise,  because I know that suffering can also be an occasion for profound healing and deep peace.

The Buddha taught that we human beings suffer most when we turn inward. We suffer when we are self-consumed, indulgent and isolated from others. 

When disasters happen (like the Oklahoma tornado), some people respond by turning inward. They shake their fists at a God who they think caused or at the very least allowed the event to occur. People who suffer pain and loss may also isolate themselves from one another, retreating into a shell of depression and gloom. In this case, their anger and isolation is the true cause of even deeper suffering.

But, in my experience, more often than not, suffering offers us opportunities to reach outward, to be in relationship with God and to value and foster relationship with others. 

In my life I have stood beside countless people who suffered loss who, instead of blaming God, felt the comfort of the abiding Holy Presence with them in the mist of all the mess. In my experience I have also seen example after example where suffering provided an occasion for people to reach out to one another with the arms of compassion. 

When suffering and loss leads to deeper trust and richer relationships, suffering becomes a doorway to life and peace.

In a news report yesterday, a firefighter stood in the rubble of what was once an elementary school and pronounced, "As tragic as it was, this has brought out the best in us." I think he was right.  

As the Oklahoma rubble is cleared, we hear of teachers who gave life and limb to protect their students,  sprawling their own bodies over their young charges to save them from certain death when the tornado hit. 

As the rubble is cleared, we see stories of how the entire community (the entire country) has come together in solidarity to help the victims of the disaster.  

And then there are those touching images of families who have lost all they had, standing outside the debris and holding on to one another with greater tenderness and deeper intimacy because they still have one another--knowing that what really counts in life is that we have one another above all else.

Brilliant and exotic flowers bloom along the desert trails outside my retreat house. The brightest and the most beautiful flowers only bloom when the temperatures rise into the triple digits and the ground is as dry as it can get. 

Today I pray for the people of Oklahoma, and for people who suffer everywhere, "May your lives blossom and bloom even in the driest of places, when the heat is unbearable."

It's all so bittersweet.



Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rush Hour

"Rush Hour" 
Traffic on Highway 101 in L.A.

My rather serene and tranquil desert life gave way to chaos and frustration yesterday as I drove into Los Angeles on our famous Southern California freeways. 

Driving into L.A. is always an event, especially at "Rush Hour." Actually it's almost always "Rush Hour" on the L.A. freeways, regardless of the time of day. 

Speeding along at 75 or 80 mph in six lanes of traffic, hordes of powerful semi-trailer trucks hogging the lanes, maverick drivers recklessly cutting in front of you, everyone in a hurry to get to their destination - it's always "Rush Hour." 

Before getting onto the highways here, most people check the internet or listen to the radio or TV to see where (not "if") the latest crashes have happened, so that you can plot an alternative route, avoiding travel on that particular freeway.

My drive from the desert into the city takes about two hours, and when I finally get into L.A. I am tired and wired, and I want to sell my car.

In some ways, navigating through ordinary, everyday life is not all that different from driving in the L.A. "Rush Hour."  -  everyone insulated from one another, moving at breakneck speed, focusing on getting to the destination as fast as possible, getting cut off by bullies, those who are more powerful pushing away the weaker and marginal.  Yes, life is a "Rush Hour," and when we navigate this way, we can never enjoy the "now," the "moment," where we find that deep peace at the core of our being.

Marie Howe, one of my new favorite poets, writes about her experiences of everyday ordinary life. I love her little poem, "Hurry."

We stop at the gas station and the grocery store and the green market,
and hurry up honey, I say, hurry, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? To mine?
Where one day she might stand all grown?


 Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, also offers gentle wisdom about rushing along through life.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle.
But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air,
but to walk on earth.
Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize:
a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, 
the black curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes.
All is a miracle.
Smile, breathe, and go slowly

What a blessing that I don't have to drive in "Rush Hour" today. Today I will smile, breathe, and go slowly.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Thin Places

A Joshua Tree
-in the high desert above the coachella valley-

The ancient pagan Celts, and later, Christians believed that there were some particular areas in the geography of the land of Ireland, Scotland and Wales which were especially mystical. Places like the pristine Isle of Iona (Northern Scotland) or the rocky cliffs overlooking the Irish Sea were (and still are) considered to be "thin places"-  places where the distance between humanity and divinity is so thin that the energy of God literally seeps through into human awareness. 

Living out here in the Southern California desert, I have truly come to understand what those ancient Celtic peoples were talking about.

I travel up to the High Desert, above the Coachella Valley where I live,  and walk out onto the desert floor, surrounded by exotic Joshua Trees,  snow-capped mountains in the horizon, and I am indeed in a very "thin place." I can literally feel the energy of God seeping into my body, mind and soul. 

I wake up in the morning, sit in the serenity of my meditation garden,  or walk the dry desert trails dotted with flowering cacti, blooming trees glistening with radiant colors along the pathway, and I am in a "thin place" - the veil between humanity and divinity is porous and "paper-thin." 

But I have also come to realize that I don't have to be in a particular physical location for me to be in a "thin place." We all live and dwell and have our being in God. The experience of the HolyPresence is always and everywhere available to anyone who is willing to live in the moment with hearts and minds open to allow the abiding presence of God to "seep"into our awareness. 

Driving in my car, sitting at the computer, washing the floor, shopping for groceries - these are all potential "thin places."

In his book,  Beauty,  John O'Donohue puts it this way: "Sometimes the urgency of our hunger blinds us to the fact that we are always at the feast. To accept this can change everything; we are always home, never exiled. Although our minds constantly insist on seeing walls of separation, in reality most of the walls are mere veils. In every moment, everywhere, we are not even inches away from the divine presence."

I found a poem/prayer written by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, a Jewish mystic. I made a copy of this prayer and I am carrying it around with me wherever I go this day.

Where I wander - You! Where I ponder - You!
Only You everywhere You, always, You.
When I am gladdened - You! And when I am saddened - You!
Only You everywhere You, You, always You!
Sky is You! Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, everywhere You!



Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Finger Pointing at the Moon

the moon glows in the desert skies

Today is Pentecost Sunday on the Christian calendar. 

In the story of Pentecost, Jesus' earthly mission is over. His disciples are "gathered together," wondering what to do now that Jesus is gone. Suddenly they hear a howling wind and the room glows with tongues of fire resting over the heads of the disciples. 

They are on fire with the experience of God's spirit and enflamed with a glowing love for one another. Then they rush out into the marketplace to share the love they have experienced, and embrace the "whole world" with the arms of unbridled compassion.

This is the picture the "church" holds up today as an icon of its core identity and primary mission: The church is the gathered-together followers of Jesus, filled with a sense of God's untamed spirit, on fire with love for one another, rushing out into the market place of everyday life in order to embrace the whole world with limitless compassion. 

I have been part of the church for my whole life. In my reflection on this Pentecost Sunday,  I am aware that I have "sometimes" experienced the church as it is defined in the Pentecost story, but more often than not,  my experiences of church have fallen short of the church as imagined in the "Pentecost Picture" of this day.

Yes,  there have been times when I have "gathered together" in a church and, through music, or the word of the scriptures, through the taste of bread and or the sip of wine, I have felt the burning presence of God's mysterious holy spirit. 

In my experiences of church, there have also been many times when I have enjoyed tender relationships with my fellow believers, bound together with them by the tender chord of fellowship.

And there have been times, in my experiences of church, when we have rushed out into the marketplace to embrace the poor and needy, to welcome the stranger and invite the castaway to sit at a place of dignity.

But in my experience with the "church," the opposite has also been true.  

The gathering together has often been dull and boring. Many people come to church in order to "put in their time" (and it better not be more than an hour). They come to church to visit the man upstairs, hoping to get favors answered, trusting that coming to church will earn them an eventual place in heaven. 

I have also experienced "church" as a place of political intrigue, a hothouse of gossip and infighting, a place that keeps people "out" more than welcoming people "in."

There is a well-known Zen saying that helps me get a handle on the "church" on this Pentecost Sunday

Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case can be likened to a finger. A finger can point to the moon's location. However, a finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"

I think that the "church" (or the mosque, or the temple) is like a finger. It is supposed to point us to the moon. It is a doorway to help gathered believers experience the fiery Holy Presence. It is a vehicle for tender fellowship and an opportunity for leading a more generous and compassionate everyday life.

On this Pentecost Sunday I think the finger of the church must ask if it is indeed pointing at the moon and to also be mindful that the finger is not the moon.  




Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Faults of Others

many paths lead to the desert oasis near my retreat house


Yesterday, I sat outdoors at a local coffee shop. The two people who sat next to me were apparently co-workers since they were having a very animated (and easily overheard) conversation about the people they worked with. They obviously found little merit in anyone else but themselves.

Their boss showed too little respect. Someone else in their office didn't work fast enough so he made everyone else less efficient. Someone else was judged as being too lazy, another too stupid,  and then there was that girl who dressed too provocatively and was too much of a flirt. This stream of nasty judgement and attack went on for the entire time I sat there - all done in plain sight for everyone else to hear.

As I sat and over heard this conversation, I felt my stomach churn. I didn't even know these people next to me or the people who were being skewered,  but it all felt wrong to me. I felt as if I were swimming in a pool of chaos, and I felt like some part of me was being torn apart.

The teaching of the great world religions all have something to say about judging the faults of others:

- The faults of others are easier to see than one's own faults; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one's own faults are hard to see. (Buddha)

-Glad tidings to the person more concerned about his own faults than bothering about the faults of others.  (The Prophet, Muhammed)

-Why do you see the speck in our neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye," when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite,  first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye. (Jesus)

I have reflected long and hard about my coffee house experience yesterday. I truly do believe that every  fault I have ever found in another person is almost always something I dislike about myself, but am afraid or unwilling to admit it.

When I judge others for their faults,  I am always operating out of my own self-centered ego. It somehow makes "me" feel better if I can talk about the faults of others - talking about others protects "me" from facing my own "self." 

My stomach churned yesterday while listening to that coffee house conversation. I felt as if something was being torn apart  - and it was.   

The great wisdom teachers of the ages have always pointed us to walk down paths of compassion. They have always pointed us toward the building up of harmonious relationships as a way to finding deep peace.  

As I sat outdoors at a coffee shop yesterday, the harmonious fabric of our common humanity was being shredded, and I found myself swimming in an ocean of chaos.  

I don't want to swim in those waters.



Friday, May 17, 2013

Before They are Sorry

-In the Galapagos Islands-
a perched eagle prepares to fly

While I can understand the pain and anger that has emerged in the wake of last month's Boston Marathon bombings, I find it very disquieting that so many people are still so filled with a need for brutal revenge against the brothers who committed these acts. The unrestrained outcry that the younger brother be put to death for his deeds, and the fact that, until recently, the dead body of the older brother could not even be be buried, is very significant to me.

I fear that, in our contemporary age of terrorism, this nation has been infected with a nasty and bitter spirit of rage-filled retribution against those who would bring us harm.  Beside infecting us as a nation, this spirit seems to permeate the lives of individuals. The spirit of rage and revenge always yields bitter fruits.

The Buddha taught,

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal 
with the intent of throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.

Anger is a natural human response that emerges when we are wronged by another.  But, if I hold onto my anger and allow it to fester within me, it will overflow with a desire for vengeance. When I cling to my anger, it leads me to want to hurt those who hurt me; and when this happens, I find myself churning in the chaos. 

Clinging to anger and seeking revenge is a product of my self-centered ego. Doing this keeps me "in chains," preventing me from finding the deep peace within myself. 

Many people think that the best way to release your anger against an offender is to forgive the other. I think this is absolutely correct; however sometimes "forgiving" someone is not real forgiveness at all.

Oftentimes, forgiveness of another takes on the form of a negotiated deal. "If" you say you are sorry, "if" you make retribution and amends, "If" you come groveling back to me, "then" I will forgive you. In other words,  if you meet my conditions, I will relent and forgive.

I'm not so sure that this type of forgiveness really allows us to let go of the anger against an offender. In a way it fosters a sense of smug righteousness - "you did me wrong and you have paid for it." It all still smacks of vengeance to me.

The 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers have a beautiful and wise "saying" about genuine "forgiveness ." For me, the one little sentence captures the essence of the kind of forgiveness that truly allows us to let our anger go.

Forgive those who wrong you before they are sorry.

This is the way to deep peace and perfect freedom. This is the way to soar like an eagle.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Taming God

the splendor of sunrise over the desert

The word "splendor" is hardly ever used nowadays. It means "great brightness," or "luster." As usual,  this morning I sat in my meditation garden,  and at the moment when the sun made it's first appearance over the eastern mountains, I was filled with a sense of "splendor."

As the first rays of the sun hit the earth, it was as if something wild, passionate, untamed and uncontrollable was unleashed.  Just as the sun appeared,  the winds rustled and the earth stirred to the promptings of a new day,  filled with the promise of renewed life.

It was a wonderful, mystical moment that I had never expected, over which I had no control. All I could do was enjoy it. 

As I sat basking in the overwhelming beauty of those first rays of the rising sun, I knew I was also experiencing something of the Holy Presence flowing through it all. God, the Divine Presence, wild, untamed, passionate, uncontrollable, energizing, life-giving. 

In my reflection this morning I also thought about how I have tried to tame and control God for most of my life. After all, over the span of my career, I  have been an ordained official of the organized religious institution of the church.

It seems to me that,  quite often,  the role organized religion plays is to tame and control the uncontrollable. 

Actually it's all quite mechanistic. The church, the temple, the mosque often function as channels for access to God. If you follow the prescribed law and ritual, you are granted admission to God, you are given a "piece" of God. The closer you follow the prescriptions, the more access you get.  

This keeps God well under control and nicely tamed.

But God isn't a machine to be manipulated or "doled out" by our human machinations.  God is the Divine Presence freely flowing in and through everything and every one. God - wildly unleashed, filling it all with wonderful, mysterious "splendor,"  always surprising us in new and unexpected ways.

Back in the 4th century, Saint Augustine wrote a poem about his encounter with the Divine Presence. I am often not very fond of Augustine's theology, but I do love his passionate poem:

You called; You cried;
and You broke through my deafness.
You flashed; You shone;
and You chased away my darkness;
You became fragrant; and I inhaled and sighed for You.
I tasted,
and now I hunger and thirst for You.
You touched me;
and I burn for Your embrace.













Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Dark of Doubt

 nightfall in the desert

As I sat and watched the approach of night in the desert skies, I reflected upon a very lively conversation I read on someone's "blog" as people were expressing their concern over the fact that, as they got older, so much doubt was creeping into their long-held beliefs.

As I read that blog conversation I thought,  "Actually, you may now be on the road to a deeper and more vibrant faith." 

There is a line from a very popular hymn in the Christian tradition, "Drive the dark of doubt away." It's a nice hymn,  but I could never bring myself to sing that line.

 I welcome doubt. My doubting is the door to lively faith.

I grew up in a faith tradition and went to school for many years to study theology.  When I was young, I felt as if I had the whole "God thing" pretty well figured out. But as I got older, a greater wisdom dawned upon me. God is pure, unexplainable, dynamically changing "mystery." All the doctrine, all the teaching, all the volumes of books about God are simply feeble attempts to somehow get some insight into the vast mystery - a  mystery that can never be explained, but  only "somewhat and sometimes" experienced at a deep level of awareness.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a young student:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves as if they were
locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.
Don't search for answers, which could not be given to you now, 
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far into the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.

I sit in the desert and welcome the darkness as it falls. The darkness is frightening in some ways. We seem to have less control in the darkness than we do in the day.  The darkness is also mysteriously wonderful. 

I welcome the darkness of doubt. It helps me to love the questions, to live the questions, and maybe some day to live my way into the answers. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Streams of Living Water

a flowing fountain in the desert near my retreat house

The temperature has hovered around 107 degrees out here for the past several days. It gets hot in the desert and that's probably why there are so many fountains around the area in which I live. Yesterday, as  I sat, looked at and listened to a fountain,  it made me feel cooler in the hot, dry, oppressive desert heat. 

As I sat at the desert fountain, one of my favorite stories in the Christian Scriptures came to mind -  the story of the "woman at the well" found in the Gospel of John.

As the story goes, Jesus comes across a Samaritan woman who sits alone at a well in the heat of the noonday desert sun.  According to Jewish law, Jesus should have had no contact at all with this woman. She was "unclean."

First of all she was a Samaritan (Samaritans were sworn enemies of the Jewish people).  She was also a woman who had been divorced and remarried seven times, and thus she was a social outcast even among her own people. 

This woman was the epitome of what it meant to be a castaway, an unwanted reject- and so she sits alone, drying up in the baking sun.

But instead of following the law and passing her by, Jesus does the unthinkable. He sits next to the woman at the well, and he even asks if he she would give him a sip of water from her very own cup. 

This one simple act of generous acceptance was life changing for the woman. After years of being thrown onto the trash heap of life, someone actually lifts her up and takes the time to embrace her.

Jesus then tells her that he is a "stream of living water." And indeed, that's exactly what he has been to her. Jesus pours out the water of his life upon this dried-up,  aching soul -  her spirit "blooms" again.

As I sat  in the noonday heat and looked at the desert fountain yesterday. the thought came to me that, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to imitate him in my own life. There is a "woman at the well" sitting alone in the noonday heat;  and I am called to sit next to her and be a stream of living water.

Throughout my life, that "woman at the well" has shown herself to me disguised as many faces - the gay student thrown out of his home by his overbearing father, the abandoned wife with a cheating husband, the man dying of cancer alone in his bed at home, the homeless woman sleeping on the street asking for spare change - almost every day of my life I have encountered a "woman at the well."

Like Jesus, sometimes I have taken the time to embrace her as she sits alone in the noonday heat; and when I have done so, I have been a refreshing stream of living water.

At other times I have avoided contact with that woman sitting alone at the well; because I have been too busy, or she was too scary or too dangerous, or I just didn't want to get involved-- so many missed opportunities for amazing grace to flow.

It's supposed to be 107 again today.  I know that a woman is sitting alone at the well in the noonday heat today - a good day for us all to find that woman, stop and sit with her, and be a stream of living water. 







Monday, May 13, 2013

Demonizing the Other

the vast expanse of the wilderness outside my retreat house

Yesterday the Pope canonized 800 Italian Catholics who were killed by Muslim Turks back in the 15th century for refusing to convert to Islam. In our own age, when the tension between Christianity and Islam is at a fever pitch, I think this canonization was a mistake and can only contribute to the already existing alienation.

I am certainly not saying that it was right for 15th century Muslim rulers to force Christians to convert. However, when I look at the historical record, "forced conversion" is something that has clearly been been a widespread Christian practice as well. 

During the Crusades, hordes of Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. During the Inquisition, Jews either converted to Christianity or they faced torture and death. Christian missionaries invaded the countries of the New World and decimated the native cultures in their zeal to make new converts to Christianity.

Yesterday's  canonization of these new saints turns a blind eye to the blatant record of Christian imperialism and domination and paints a picture of Islamic barbarism. It fosters a perception that Islam is a religion of terrorists whose only goal is to make everyone Muslim.

But the primary reason I think yesterday's canonization was a mistake is because it is one more example of how religious institutions "demonize the other." The message yesterday was "We honor these saints because,  even under the threat of death, they held onto the one true religion."

As I see it, religious institutions of every stripe - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever-  are prone to this demonization of the other: "Our side contains the truth, we have God in our box- the other side has no truth (or has less truth). So, if you want the truth come on over into our camp."

Out here in the desert I look out into the vast wilderness landscape and I think about how impossible it is to put the vast expansive mystery we call "God" into a nice, neat little container. The idea that any one religion could "possess" the truth as opposed to some other religion seems ludicrous and even preposterous to me.

Every human heart seeks the truth. The journey of faith is followed along many different paths but we are all fellow pilgrims seeking the truth.  Instead of demonizing the other, we should be learning from and helping one another along the way. 

Rumi, the Islamic mystic poet put it this way:

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 an unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there's a long table of companionship set and
waiting for us to sit down.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

God My Mother

My Wife, Karen, in Our Meditation Garden

On this "Mothers Day" I have been thinking about about the images of God that we carry around in our heads. 

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God is generally depicted as a male. Bible stories, doctrine and theology, art, literature, hymns - all replete with multiple pictures of God that almost exclusively rely upon male imagery.

I suppose this shouldn't be too surprising considering the fact that most of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and doctrine were written by men and controlled by a male hierarchy.

As long as one realizes that our images of God are simply ways to help us think about the great and unexplainable mystery of who God IS,  I suppose there is nothing wrong with depicting God using male  imagery - thinking about God as "father." However, male imagery often carries a lot of fairly unhelpful connotations with it.

Men - fathers  are often thought to be stern, sometimes aloof, strict disciplinarians. Perhaps why so many people imagine God as aloof, distant and demanding is because the picture of God in their heads is an image of God as a "man" up in the sky.

On this Mothers Day, I reflected upon what would have happened if women wrote the Bible and if mothers were the primary developers of the doctrine of both the Hebrew and the Christian traditions. 

I wonder what kind of imagery about God we would carry around in our heads if our "God pictures" were primarily feminine.

My wife , Karen, and I have raised two sons who are now grown. Over the years I have deeply admired the great tenderness and affection with which  my wife has "mothered" our boys. Lots of stereotypes about "mothers" inevitably come out on a "Mothers Day." But, as I see it, some of the stereotypes are pretty accurate.

We think of mothers as gentle, intimate, affectionate, and tender.  Mothers also have a protective, even "fierce love," for their children - shielding them from harm, defending them when they are in trouble, never abandoning them regardless of what they have done. 

As I think about it, the primary image of God that I carry around in my head (not just today but always)  is the picture of God as my mother. 

God, my Mother, a Holy tender Presence in my life, gently abiding, intimately caring for me,  passionately guarding, never abandoning me regardless of what i have done.

Blessings to you today - in the name of the Holy Mother.




Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hope

a dried-up tree along a desert trail

I was deeply moved by a news report I heard yesterday regarding the tragic collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh.  Seventeen days ago the many floors of this unsafe "sweatshop" caved in on itself, killing a thousand people in one of the poorest countries in the world.   It all seemed so dark.

Yesterday, soldiers had assembled to recover the bodies decaying in the rubble. Vultures were flying overhead, the smell of death was sickening, and in the middle of all this mess, one of the soldiers heard a noise and saw some movement under his feet. He removed some of the debris and, to his amazement, he found that someone was still alive.

A young woman named Reshna had survived seventeen days buried in the collapsed building. The entire country let out a yelp of joy. "It gives us hope in our sadness," said a bystander witnessing this remarkable event.

For me, the story of Reshna under the rubble is indeed a story about "hope." 

I sometimes think "hope" is a very misunderstood virtue.  Many people think you should have "hope" because, even when things get real bad, God can make them better. I actually don't think this is what "hope" is all about.

I believe that God is aways with us - with us in suffering, darkness, pain, loss and death.  I have hope, not because somehow God might take away all the death and pain.  No, I have hope because God abides with us even in the times of our greatest darkness and deepest loneliness.  I have hope because I know, come what may, I am never abandoned by the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The story of Reshna living and breathing under the rubble of decay with the vultures waiting to pounce and the acrid smell of death permeating the air,  is an icon of "hope." There is no place where God is "not."

Outside my retreat house, there is a half-dead tree along the trail. I think of it as my "hope" tree.  As I pass by it every day I whisper to it, "God is with you."

Isaiah: 41

When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst, 
I the Lord will answer them.
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
                          

              











Friday, May 10, 2013

Buddha Nature

A Buddhist Temple in China

I have had the opportunity to visit several Buddhist temples and monasteries in my visits to Asia, and I have discovered that in almost every temple there is not just one statue of the Buddha placed in some central position above the altar; but rather there are multiple Buddha images. I eventually came to understand the reason for this.

The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) became an "enlightened one." Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree for forty days and eventually woke up to his "true"nature.  Through this experience, Siddhartha became a Buddha.  He came to experience that the true self is "no self" or "inter being." The true self is not an isolated separated individual, rather the true self is a dynamic relationship with all creation.  

Having come to that experience, the Buddha's heart was filled with compassion for everything and everyone as he understood that everything and everyone was indeed his "true self."

The Buddha then went on to teach his followers that they too were called to wake up to the experience of their true self - the experience of self as "inter being."  He called his disciples to find their own "Buddha nature," that they too might be enlightened and live with compassion.

That's why there are multiple Buddha images in Buddhist temples throughout the world. The Buddha is not to be worshipped or even admired for what he did or who he was. Everyone is called to enlightenment- to experience their Buddha nature (their true self) .

So the many statues of the Buddha essentially represent anyone who comes to worship at a Buddhist temple. They serve as a reminder of the Buddha nature of all human beings. 

I think Jesus taught his disciples exactly the same thing.

Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, and he also woke up to the experience of his "true self." He shed his individual ego and, at the core of his being, experienced what he called "the Kingdom of God." He experienced himself as being "one with" all that is or was or would yet be. And so, like the Buddha, his heart was also filled with boundless compassion.

And then, also like the Buddha,  Jesus went out from the desert and taught his disciples to "follow" in his path. He taught that if you want to find your "self" you have to lose your "self." In other words, if you want to find your true self, you have to lose your isolated, self-centered ego nature. He also taught his disciples to live a life of compassion- loving others as your "self." 

In my meditation today, I had this fantasy of designing a Christian church to resemble those Buddhist temples. Instead of one central statue or crucifix above the altar (a Christ to be worshipped, adored and admired), the altar would be replete with many statues of the Christ - a reminder to any who come into the church that we are all called to experience our own "Christ nature."

We are all called to be enlightened, all called to the experience of our "true self"-  our "Buddha nature." 


Thursday, May 9, 2013

At a Distance

the desert mountains reaching up the the heavens


On the Christian calendar, today is Ascension Day - Jesus up on a high mountain where he rises above the earth into the heavens. He lived long ago and now he's up there,  far away and at a distance.

Many people like to believe that God (by whatever name God is called) dwells up there - at a distance. Somehow it seems safer that way -  God is less obtrusive and more controllable if God is at a distance. 

And so, people may go to church or temple or mosque and pay God the occasional visit. If they need God's help, they can file a petition; and one day when they die they hope to see God up there in paradise. But as for now, in the everyday affairs of everyday life, God is out of sight and out of mind in the routine of life.  

For me, the opposite is true. I don't think of God as some "other" human-like person living in the clouds on top of the mountain,  or taking up residence in a church or temple or mosque.  God is the Presence at the very core of all that "is." God is the Holy Abiding Presence at the very core of everything and everyone who was, who is and who is yet to come. 

And so, we can't be separated from God even if we want to be,  or even if we don't believe in God,  because humanity and divinity are perpetually joined as one.  

Saint Augustine, the famous third century Christian theologian put it this way: "God is more intimate to me than my most intimate thought." Or to put it another way, "God is more intimate to me than I am to my self." 

On this Ascension Day when I look to the mountains and the heaves, I reflect upon the intimate presence of the Holy One - not up there at a distance,  but more intimate to me than I am to myself.

I came across this wisdom saying from the writings  of Rumi, the Islamic mystic poet. It seems to be a perfect sentiment for the day:

By day I sang with you,
and at night we slept together -
night or day, I was not sure.
I thought I knew who I was,
but it was You!