Sunday, June 30, 2013

Letting Go

A Buddhist Monastery in Seoul, Korea

This weekend we did a lot of housecleaning. Over the years we had accumulated boxes and boxes of old photographs and various memorabilia of our life together over these many years. We  went through the boxes and cleaned out the closets. As I was placing some of the discarded boxes into the trash bin, I reflected upon the virtue of "letting go" in this very impermanent life we live as human beings. 

As I placed those boxes of memories in the trash bin, I recalled my last day at the church I served in Los Angeles. I had been the parish priest for eight years. It was my life's work- all encompassing. I did my best, worked hard, loved what I was doing, but then one day it was all over. We had a party. I turned in my keys, and we moved away into the next chapter of life.

While there was sadness in leaving it all, there was also freedom in it. Nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever - so don't cling onto anything or anyone too tightly.

I have probably learned most about  "letting go"" through my study of Buddhism. A principle tenet of Buddhism is that everything in this life is impermanent, so don't hold on too tightly. This includes our relationships with other people -  don't hold onto people too tightly - even people we love, our children, spouses, parents.

The Dalai Lama once said:

Remember that the best relationship is one in which
your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.

Love demands that we fully embrace the other without holding the other in a vice-like grip. The sure way to kill a relationship is to smother and try to control the ones we love.

So I joyfully place all the old photographs into the trash bin. I let it all go. I live and love now in the present with an open heart and with open arms. And there is perfect freedom in a love that gives all to the other, but never holds on too tightly in this impermanent life. 












Saturday, June 29, 2013

Strong Faith

desert mountains as seen from the front of my retreat house

Whenever weekends come around, I think about all the "religious" people who will be going to a mosque or a temple or a church over these days.  

Generally speaking, religious people think that it is a virtue to have a strong faith- a solid belief in God and the various doctrines surrounding "God" that accompany one's particular brand of religion.  But, I'm not so sure that having a "strong faith" is such a good idea. In fact, I don't have a "strong faith" and I want to keep it that way.

In my experience, people who live their lives based upon a rock-solid set of ideas about God and what God expects of us can be quite brittle and often judgmental of others who haven't yet "seen the light."

But religious people aren't the only ones who are absolutely sure that what they believe is the "truth." 

Every day I try to spend some time looking at the various social media web sites - Google, Facebook, Twitter.  In particular I try to tune in to web conversations about God and religion (there are hundreds of such conversations every day), and I am always amazed at the unbending stridency exhibited whenever the topic of religion is raised. 

Atheists are absolutely certain about their position. Theists (believers) are just as rock-solid sure about what they have to say. Evangelical Christians are positive they have the truth about Jesus, but those who are on the more liberal side are also just as sure that they are right and the other guys are wrong, and the insults hurled at the opposition are often quite brutal. 

Today as I was thinking about the perils of having a "strong faith," I looked out from the front of my retreat house and I thought about something Saint Paul had to say about faith and mountains in his famous epistle on love (1 Corinthians: 13): "If I have faith strong enough to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

Today, I looked up what Paul had to say about "love" and I decided that this is the kind of strong faith I want to have:


No matter what I say, what I believe, what I do, I'm bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me-first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
(translation: The Message)








Friday, June 28, 2013

Kindness

120 degrees in the desert

It appears as if most of the country will be in the grip of a heat wave over the next few days. Here in the desert, the forecast is for temperatures to hover around 120 degrees - now, that's a heat wave.

Some of my friends (especially those living back East) ask me how we can possibly survive in the harshness of the summer desert heat.  Actually, I sort of like it when the temperatures get this hot. I relish all the ways in which we are able to find coolness and refreshment in the heat of the day.

I love to come out of the blistering temperatures into the coolness of an air-conditoned restaurant or store. And then there are the many fountains and misters bubbling out cool water and refreshing spray in every corner of the town. When it gets this hot, the pace seems to slow down and people are careful not to do anything too strenuous - most people sip water, lay low, gather together for an iced-tea at the local coffee house. I like it when it gets this hot. 

I have learned a great deal about life by living out here in the desert (especially in the summer heat).

Today as the temperatures soar, I am thinking about those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers- those little communities of Christ-followers who left church and society and fled out to the deserts to lead a simple, gentle life together by following the example of Jesus. They treated one another with compassion and deep respect. 

Today as temperatures soar out here in the desert, I think about my spiritual desert ancestors, living in the harshness of the heat. They treated one another with supreme kindness - and this kindness was like cool, refreshing, living water poured upon each other's thirsty spirits - gentle coolness in the heat.

One little story about these early desert Christians pretty much summarizes their lives together:

When the leader of the community (the Abba) was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied, "I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest."

In our own time, everyday life can often be pretty harsh and heated. We get consumed by the hectic pace. We live in a climate of performance, always expected to perform and produce according to what others expect of us; and we can be pretty harsh and judgmental when others don't perform in accordance with what we expect. Judgement and bickering are often themes underlying the course of our everyday living.

Today I learn a lesson from living in the desert heat. Today I learn a lesson from my early desert-dwelling monastic ancestors: in the midst of the  harshness and chaos of life, slow down, sip some water, be kind to one another, be gentle - be living water poured upon thirsty spirits. 

The temperature is soaring.

 Today I will relish the coolness in the midst of the heat. Today I will also try to "be" coolness in the midst of heat.  


Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Man as a Mommy?

the dawning of a new day

Yesterday, when the Supreme Court issued its two "marriage equality" rulings,  you could almost hear the roar of cheerful approval rising up from the people of this land -especially here in California where same-sex marriages will now be possible again. 

I watched the social media explode with joyful cries of victory. I spent hours listening to NPR as every program was devoted to the court rulings. It seemed as if this country had taken a giant leap for the cause of justice and the promotion of equal dignity for all its citizens.

But you could also hear another rumbling yesterday. The voices of those who strongly oppose same-sex marriage as a symptom of societal decay, and condemn homosexuality as a sinful aberration were also loudly clamoring to be heard. 

Unfortunately, the most strident of these voices came from "religious" people claiming that the Bible opposes homosexuality and prohibits any marriage other than one man-one woman (actually the Bible has little or nothing to say either about marriage or homosexuaity-but I'll save that point for another day).

I listened carefully to those voices of opposition. I heard the same old arguments over and over again; and I was hardly paying attention until one prominent Southern California pastor said something that got me to stop and listen. 

After adamantly proclaiming that no same-sex couple would ever be allowed to be members of his church, he pleaded on behalf of the children of same-sex couples: "How could a man possibly be a mommy to his child, or how could a woman possibly be a daddy?"

At that point I found myself talking to the radio (I do that often): "You obviously don't know too many same-sex couples, Pastor. If you would welcome them to your church and spend some time with them, you'd have an answer to your question."

Over the years, I have come to know, love and respect many same-sex couples, faithfully committed to one another, raising beautiful children.  They have been members of my church and their children attended the parish school. In virtually every case,  the quality of the unconditional love in those same-sex families has served as a  model for us all to celebrate and emulate. They mother their children with tender affection and protect them with a fierce love. They are mentors and guides, confidantes and confessors.  

Can a man be a mommy or a woman a daddy? You bet, and then some.

You can offer  legal and theological arguments for accepting same-sex marriage until you are "blue in the face," but these arguments will essentially be ignored by those who believe they occupy some sort of moral or religious "high ground" by opposing same-sex marriage or condemning homosexuality. 

The only way to change minds here is through personal relationships with one another.

When gay people and straight people sit next to one another in church, when same-sex couples and straight couples attend parents' meetings together or live next to each other, suddenly those different "others" no longer seem so different - strangers become friends, opponents become allies, demons become angels. 

There is a great Zen saying that I want to claim for this new day:

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that
I am here and you are out there.

















Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ambition

blue skies, palm trees, mountains
-a desert delight-

Monthly meetings with fellow neighboring clergy were a regular feature of my life as a parish priest. Local clergy would meet for these regular gatherings, supposedly to share information and support one another; however those meetings often turned out to be a far cry from an opportunity for mutual support. 

I attended hundreds of these clergy meetings,  and they always had a similar theme running through them -  each of us boasting about how great or how special or how innovative our own programs were. 

Someone would announce that they were having a summer program for neighborhood kids- arts, crafts, games. Sometimes there would be a nod of support,  but more often than not the others in the group would try to "one up" each other:  "We are going to do the same thing this summer, but we managed to get some local celebrities to come and speak to the kids." 

The thing is that I was just as guilty (if not more so) of perpetrating this boasting fest at these clergy meetings, and by the time the meeting was over I would inevitably be exhausted - it's hard work trying to prove how important you are. 

In my retirement, I have looked back at my years as a parish priest and reflected on what worked and what didn't. I must honesty say that the thing I regret most about my days in the ministry was my overly ambitious spirit.

The dictionary defines "ambition" as, "an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power." I regret how ardently I desired rank, fame and power - a better program, a bigger congregation, a bigger budget, a more prestigious title.

I regret how ardent I was in my desire, because my ambition was always a stumbling block for me on my spiritual journey.

Thomas Merton once said:

When ambition ends, happiness begins.

Ambition is a pure act of the ego. The ardent desire for power inevitably cuts a person off from others. It's lonely when you live isolated in that ego shell. Relationships with others are indeed the only way to find happiness in this life, and in relationship with others we encounter the living presence of an abiding God. 

I may regret my ambition, but I am not wallowing in my regret. In fact, I now rejoice that I am far less ambitious now that I am retired. I no longer have to prove myself with titles or bigger and better programs or parishes.  So, while I can't take the past back, I can live differently in the present. 

St Paul gives some good advice:
Love each other with genuine affection,
and take delight in honoring each other.

The end of ambition is indeed the beginning of happiness. 

I am much happier.







Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Coffee House Revelation

coffee house where the "locals" gather

It's hot in the desert this time of year. Most of the tourists and the "snowbirds" have gone home, leaving only us hardy locals to bear the burden of the triple digit temperatures, and I love it. The pace is gentler,  the atmosphere less hectic. For me, summer in the desert is a great time of the year. 

Almost every day I find myself sitting with the locals in a favorite little Coffee House in town.  I go there for way more than a mid-morning caffeine fix. I go to that Coffee House so I that I can quietly sit among the people, and bask in the ebb and flow of everyday life.

Yesterday,  I experienced a Coffee House revelation. 

The poet/author, Christian Wiman once made a poignant distinction between "compassion" and "pity":

Compassion is someone else's suffering flaring in your own nerves.
Pity is a projection of, a lament for the self.

When I first read this, I actually thought I understood this distinction. Yesterday, during my mid-morning coffee break, I really got the message.

As I sipped my green iced-tea at the Old Town Coffee Company, a very elderly man hobbled over to a nearby table and plopped into a chair. Our eyes briefly met as he quickly looked away and slumped over, stirring the liquid in his paper cup. He looked so alone, so forlorn. 

Then I heard him sob - just a few little sounds, but so filled with such a deep sorrow. I looked a bit closer and I saw he was weeping, a stream of tears running down his cheeks - and something stirred in my own spirit.

I also found myself quietly sobbing, tears on my face.

I wasn't trying to figure out what was bothering the man. I wasn't developing scenarios about what could have brought him to tears - maybe he is remembering his dead wife, lamenting over growing old and living alone? 

I simply wept along with him. 

And at that moment I had a revelation: This is what it means to be compassionate - the suffering of that elderly man was "flaring in my own nerves." 

I've been thinking about my revelation yesterday. I feel sorry for people all the time (I have pity on them).  I have pity on victims of bombings and school shootings. I have pity on those poor people in Colorado who have lost their homes in the wildfires. But pity really is a product of the ego. 

When I pity someone I am often saying, "I'm sorry this happened to you (but I'm glad it didn't happen to me)."  When I pity someone I am always in the superior position. I feel sorry for someone who isn't as lucky as me: "I haven't lost a child in a shooting, suffered in a bombing, or lost my house in a fire - I'm sorry you did." 

Compassion is something very different. Compassion involves suffering along with the other. Compassion involves becoming the other so that their pain is your pain "flaring in your own nerves." 

Yesterday as I sat and sobbed in a local Coffee House. I was compassionate. 

It was a grand revelation. 











Monday, June 24, 2013

Time

a hummingbird in my meditation garden

I came across a box of "memories" yesterday - the kindergarten drawings of our now-grown sons, programs from school plays and graduation ceremonies, photographs of our many family vacations, the cruise to the Greek Islands that my wife and I took for our 25th wedding anniversary. 

They say that when you die, your life flashes before you. I sort of had that experience yesterday when I opened up that box of memories. It seemed as if all those many years had all happened in a flash. 

There is a Zen saying: 

To what shall I compare this life of ours?
Even before I can say
it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop.
It is no more.

I have been thinking about the flash of "time."

I could open up that box and bask in happy memories of days gone by- time frozen in a child's drawing or a photograph on a cruise ship. I could also open up the box of the past and think about what I could have done with my life but failed to accomplish.

Perhaps, realizing how quickly time passes by, I could also get out pen and paper and start making my "bucket list" -  those 10 or 20 places I want see or those things I yet want to do before I die.

But, the more I think about it, nostalgically dwelling in the past or longingly looking toward what yet may be, can be a foolish use of time - doing these things actually squanders the gift of time.

The monk, Tomas Merton, once wrote in his diary:

The one thing that has grown most noticeably in my spiritual life
is the grip the "present" has on me.
I am getting older:
the reality of now- the unreality of all the rest.

I so very much identify with what Merton says.  I am getting older and in my later years I have received a gift: the awareness that there is no reality other than this moment here and now. 

So, I open a memory box and realize that you can't freeze time in a photograph, nor can you control time by making a bucket list or devising a strategic plan.

The only thing "real" is here and now. 

So, in the flash of time, I savor the moment. 

It's summer in the desert - triple digits. I sit at my office desk and the air conditioner gently cools our retreat house. I look out my window and the hummingbirds are swirling around the feeder in the meditation garden, the fountain is bubbling, the morning doves are cooing,  and a little yellow butterfly is perched on a branch of a lemon tree.







Sunday, June 23, 2013

Churches Without God

Holy, Holy Holy, Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
(the desert skies outside my retreat house)

This Sunday, about 100 people will gather in a community center near Harvard University.  They will hear a sermon, listen to inspirational music, an offering plate will be passed, and the children in the congregation will be invited to attend a "Sunday School" class - sounds like what will be happening in any church across America today, except for one very significant difference.   The members of this church say that they do not believe in God; and in the service, God is never mentioned nor worshipped.

According to a report in a recent CNN blog, the "Humanist Community at Harvard University" meets every Sunday. It is largely composed of people (usually younger, well-educated) who, when asked about their religious affiliation, respond: "none." And, even though they say they do not believe in God, they don't want to be labelled with the more strident term, "atheist." 

Every Sunday they show up with their fellow "nones," and listen to a message about "compassion" or "gratitude." Their kids attend a "Sunday School class"  taught by a biologist from MIT. ( His topic this week is: "Evolution and DNA cells.")  Inspiring music is played and silence is observed.  Afterwards, they have coffee together when the hour-long service is over.

For the members of these newly emerging humanist churches, their community is a family. Their "Godless church" is a place where they can name their babies, celebrate a wedding, gather for a funeral - all done in the presence of their fellow community members.

The "Humanist Community at Harvard University" is but one of many such communities growing throughout the country, a palpable alternative to organized religion and traditional belief in God.

Recently I shared this story with an acquaintance of mine who is a long-time member of a traditional church, and sees himself as very religious. He found the idea of a "Godless church" to be ludicrous and insulting to believers.

On the other hand, I find the emergence of these humanist churches to be one of the first signs of hope I have seen in years that there may be a way for religion to become relevant again for that ever growing population of  "nones." - those people who have no use for "religion" in their lives.

I would love to sit in that community center near Harvard today and listen to what is going on.

Moreover, I would love to have a dialogue with those folks who say they do not believe in God. My guess is that the God they do not believe in is the same God I do not believe in - the "man" upstairs, distant, aloof, judgmental. My guess also is that if we were to sit together and see the rising sun over the desert mountains, we would be moved similarly by a sense of awe that there is something bigger than us in the world. This is the God I believe in, the awesome, abiding, uncontrollable, all embracing  Holy Presence. 

So maybe there is a way to have a dialogue with those people who do not believe in God but don't want to be called "atheist." Maybe the way to have such a dialogue is for religious people to re-imagine what they mean when they think about "God" and re-frame the traditional religious language they use when they talk about "God." 

Furthermore, I am very encouraged by the need for "community" which these gatherings of the "nones" are displaying.  Every day all of us find ourselves in all sorts of relationships, at work, at school, in the neighborhood; but that's not the same as gathering in "community."  When we're in community with others, we struggle with the deeper, more ultimate questions. In community with others, we share life's milestones. In community with others, we experience something bigger than ourselves.

Dare I say it, in community with others, you experience "God," even when you don't believe in God.

I think every bishop, priest,  rabbi,  minister, and "very religious" person in this country should take a day off, get out of the vestments and go sit among the folks in one of these "Godless communities."  Observe, listen, and dialogue. 

With a bold new vision and a willingness to do some serious re-imaging, there may yet be hope for religion in our day.



Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Supermoon 2013"

a supermoon appears in the desert skies 
(photo credit: Douglas Cobb)

Yesterday was the first day of summer, a celebration of the solstice.  

This year, the beginning of summer will be marked by an awesome and mystical cosmic event. Late tonight a "supermoon" will appear in the skies.

Tonight the moon will be closer to the earth than usual- in fact, at the closest point for all of 2013.  So, tonight the moon will appear much larger and far brighter than usual; and if you get to see it as it comes over the horizon, it will even glow a bright orange color.  It will indeed be a supermoon. 

Scientists say that the deserts of the Southwest will be the very best place to take in the full splendor of tonight's event. So I guess I am living in the right place, at the right time; and I can't wait to see it out here in my desert retreat house. 

Like many people, I find cosmic events like the appearance of a supermoon to be mystical and spiritual; but if you live in the desert, every night is a cosmic event- mystical and spiritual. I love to walk at night  on the trail just outside my home - the moon and the stars so bright that it seems as if it is daylight. 

I always feel a sense of connection in those moonlight rays. I think about the moon pulling at the ocean tides (even greater tonight with the appearance of a supermoon). I think about the vast array of galaxies, all buzzing and swirling around together in one great cosmic dance.  I think about the fact that we, human beings, are made out of stardust; and so I look at my feet as I walk,  and I see swirling particles of cosmic planets flowing in me and in all human beings everywhere.

I walk along the desert trail at night and the veil between me and the abiding Holy Presence is so very, very thin.

The desert at night is always a mystical and spiritual place, even more so when there is a supermoon.

The Buddha said:

I saw stars within me, sun rising, sunset, full-moon nights - everything within me, not without me. It was my boundary that had been keeping them out. Now the boundary is no more; everything has fallen in. Now I am the whole.

So all day long today I will think about the "whole."  I am "the whole."  I am a harmonious relationship with everyone and everything. Today I will reflect on the reality that that there is no "other." 

I anticipate the night, waiting to be drawn into the mystical magnetism of a supermoon. 





  











Friday, June 21, 2013

A "Francis Effect"

An Image of Saint Francis in my Meditation Garden

A recent article in the new CNN Belief Blog features a story about the effect that Pope Francis is having on the church and the world.  The author of the blog asks,  "Can Pope Francis rescue the Catholic church?"  

Francis is a pope who refuses to dress like a king, won't live in a palace, walks among the common people, cares for the poor and marginal, touches the sick, and "tweets"out messages like:

The world tells us to seek success, power and money;
God tells us to seek humility, service and love.

In the few short months since he has been pope, Francis has been widely acclaimed as a breath of fresh air and a source of hope among Catholics and other Christians. His growing popularity has also extended to people of good will everywhere - Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, even atheists and non- believers.

In that recent CNN blog, the world -wide impact of the ministry of Pope Francis was referred to as "The Francis Effect."

I am encouraged by Pope Francis and I do believe that his words and deeds can have a major impact on the world-wide community. What surprises me is that what Francis is doing is, in a sense, is not all that heroic. He is simply acting as an authentic Christian following in the path of Jesus. 

But what Francis does and teaches is such a stunning contrast to what the world expects of the hierarchy and the religious institutions of our day, that it makes people stop and pay attention.

In the late 12th century, religion had veered off the path and the church had lost it's way, when Francis from the town of Assisi came onto the scene. He rejected his old life of wealth and privilege, and devoted himself to being a faithful disciple of Jesus. He gave himself over to following the Jesus' path. 

So, like Jesus, he walked among the outcasts, touched the sick, and spent his life building a better world in which the dignity of every human being would be respected. If they had tweets back then, he certainly would have said.
The world tells us to seek success, power and money;
God tells us to seek humility, service and love.

Seven centuries ago, the life of Francis stood as a bold contradiction to the prevailing culture of church and society of his day. His life pointed the powerful institution of the church back to the Jesus' way. The "Francis Effect" in the 12th century was astonishing. His simple little life, devoted to following the path of Jesus, literally changed the world.

I'm not sure if Pope Francis can rescue the Catholic church today.  But I do know that the life of any one of us can make a difference, maybe a significant difference.

If Christians would actually follow Jesus' way, if people of the Torah would live according to the law of love, if the followers of Islam and the disciples of the Buddha would live according to the core principles of compassion inherent in these traditions; and if non-believers would adopt a worldview that cherished compassion for others over self-gratification, then the world would change, little by little,  one life at a time.


More than ever, people in the world today hunger and thirst to live in a world of compassion and respect. 
The world tells us to seek success, power and money;
God tells us to seek humility, service and love.

Each and every one of us, human beings, on this little planet called earth are called to lead a life that will have a "Francis Effect."



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Boredom

the blazing stillness of a desert sunset

The other day I was having coffee with a fellow retired priest living out here in the desert. Like me, he had been ordained for many years, and like me, when the time came for him to retire, he eagerly embraced the opportunity.

I have been thinking about the reason why the prospect of retirement was so appealing to me. After all, I had been a professional "churchman" for 40 years - church every Sunday, teaching, preaching, baptisms, funerals, meetings, counseling, fund-raising, working on those long-range strategic plans.  I was living a very busy, hectic, and extremely full life. But, to be totally honest, after 40 years I was starting to get bored with it all. 

I now realize that something was stirring up in me, and my boredom with my life was the symptom of it. 

In her beautiful book, "Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis," Lauren Winner talks about a time in her life when she became bored with it all - bored with her job, bored with the church, bored with her faith.  

She reflects on the word "boredom." 

Even to my own ear, my complaint of boredom sounds tinny and childish. The complaint seems to partake of the very banality boredom tries to name. Boredom sounds petulant: a demand to be entertained, to be amused.

Ms. Winner goes on to say that she gradually realized that her boredom was more of a "stirring in her spirit" than a desire to move on to something different-bigger, better and more exciting. 

She found that her boredom was a holy invitation to do some soul searching: 

Thomas Merton, the twentieth-century Trappist monk, wrote that what we are attempting to escape when we try to flee boredom is only ourselves. Perhaps boredom is not unlike loneliness: the best response may be not to run from it, but to give yourself to it, to see it as an invitation to attend more carefully to the very thing that seems boring. 

Gradually, a sense of order overtakes the wretchedness of boredom, there is a movement toward stillness, and in the stillness we find God, and in God, our true identity.

Since I retired, my life has changed drastically. I was living in a whirlwind of almost constant daily activity, and now I have little or nothing that I "must" do -  no more plans, no more crazy Sundays, no more thinking about career advancement.  

One would think I would now be really "bored," but I find the opposite to be true. Now, more and more I find myself simply being "present," open and available to whatever comes my way. I have discovered the joy of being present. I relish the luxury of simply being present. 

In the blazing stillness of the present, I find a deep peace. 














Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beyond Religion

At a Buddhist Monastery in Seoul

Yesterday the New York Times published an article about the startling decline of religion in Western Europe (in particular the decline of Christianity).  A recent survey showed that less than 50% of the population in Europe say they believe in God. In fact, more people believe in the existence of extraterrestrials than they believe in God.

I think it is only a matter of time before this wave of anti-relgious sentiment hits the United States. 

I find all this rather troubling because I think it has some serious cultural implications. 

In the past, religious belief has provided the foundation for a basic societal ethic in Western cultures. In general, the culture has been governed by an ethic of "concern for others." The Judaeo-Christian worldview (as well as that of other major religions) is based on a belief that selfishness is destructive-  human beings need to take good care of one another.  This worldview has served as the basis for our common understanding of how we should live together in a civilized society.

So what happens to a society when religion is abandoned by more and more people?

A few years ago the Dalai Lama wrote a fascinating book:  "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World." In the book, he suggests that our culture is at a critical stage because the ethic of "concern for others" is being replaced by a rugged "me-first" individualism. This is a sure path to destruction.

He suggests that, instead of bemoaning the decline of religion, and instead of believers and non-believers battling one another about who is right and who is wrong, we must move "beyond religion," and find some other common ground for establishing an ethic of how to treat one another in society.

In the book, the Dalai Lama (who is himself a respected scientist) says:

There is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and other fields suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are not only in our interests, but also, in a sense, innate to our biological nature.

Human beings thrive only in an environment of concern, affection, and warmheartedness - or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the sufferings of others and to promote their well-being.

What the Dalai Lama says makes great sense to me. I think religion has the potential to foster an ethic of compassion but that hasn't always been the case. Furthermore, since religion is being taken much less seriously today in our culture, we need to find some other common ground for establishing an ethic of compassion. 

We may indeed need to move beyond religion for us to figure out how we should treat one another. 

Maybe science can be that new common ground. 

A culture without compassion is a culture in decline. 








Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Heaven

a new day dawns in the desert

A recent post on the "CNN Belief Blog" featured a discussion about "heaven." A blogger made the observation that churches today hardly ever (or never) talk about heaven any more. I actually think the blogger is probably correct.  There isn't a lot of emphasis given to "heaven" in churches today - far different from earlier times. 

When I was a boy growing up and attending parochial school, the underlying theme of my religious education was "How to get into heaven." We were taught that everything we did in this life was a preparation for the life to come. 

Heaven was portrayed as an idyllic place in the sky, a beautiful place with green pastures, flowing water and angelic harmonies. Jesus and all the saints (including our dead relatives) were living up there. If you wanted to go there when you died,  you had to earn your entrance ticket while still down here. 

So, when you follow the rules (or at least confess your faults when you stray), when you say your prayers, or attend church, your "go to heaven" card is punched, until you turn it in for the big reward when you die.

I do think it's true that many churches no longer talk about heaven in this way, and to be honest, I'm glad they don't. 

I don't believe that heaven is an idyllic resort you get to attend after you die (if you have enough reward points.)  I think this view of heaven is basically a fairy tale supported by a medieval theology which was useful for the church in maintaining control (do what the church says if you want to get to heaven.)

I also don't believe that the idyllic resort image of heaven is very scriptural. Jesus never talks about heaven as a future destination. In fact, he teaches his disciples, "The Kingdom of Heaven is among you." - we are already in heaven, but our own self-centeredness keeps us from that awareness. 

The Christian monk, Thomas Merton (who was highly influenced by Buddhist teaching)  suggests that most of the time we are asleep in our everyday life.  Every human being is dynamically connected in one harmonious relationship of love fueled by the Holy Presence, but we usually live in what he calls, "an illusion of separateness," focusing on our individual selves as separate from others. When we wake up from that illusion of separateness, we experience our "true self"  - a harmonious relationship.

Heaven is a state of awareness -  a dynamic experience of the harmony of all creation bound together in the energy of Holy Abiding Divine Presence. 

We can be in heaven "now." The fullness of this experience is what awaits us when we die.

Eckhart Tolle puts it this way:

Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to "die before you die"-
and find there is no death





Monday, June 17, 2013

Superman

a pathway in the desert outside my retreat house

It seems as if Hollywood has developed an innovative marketing strategy for the just-released Superman movie. Pastors of Christian churches (mostly evangelical churches) are being invited to  come to a free screening of Superman because Superman is a perfect model of Jesus. In fact, the Hollywood strategists have even prepared sermon notes and lecture materials for pastors to use in their sermons, comparing Superman to Jesus. Obviously the strategists hope that the pastors will then suggest that their flocks go out and buy tickets for the "Superman as Jesus" movie.  

After all, Superman is always there to save the day. People are in trouble and he swoops down and makes it all better.  In the new movie, Superman sacrifices his life to save the world and is 33 years old when he does this. In their sermon notes for pastors, the Hollywood strategists point out that Jesus was also 33 when he sacrifices his life to save the world.  So come to the new Superman movie.  It's a perfect way to learn about, and then talk about about Jesus, right?

No, not right!

In fact, as I see it, beside being a shameless money-making ploy, this new Hollywood strategy paints a picture of Jesus that is insulting and injurious to authentic Christian teaching.

I am a Christian. This means I am a "follower of Jesus." When I read the Gospels, I never (not ever) see Jesus asking that his disciples worship him.  What he does say is,  "follow me." Jesus sets the example. He charts a path of open-hearted compassion, embracing everyone who comes his way- especially those on the margins of life, and then he invites any who would call themselves disciples to walk along the same path. Follow me!

He sacrifices his life for the common good,  and teaches that all who would be his disciples to also take up their cross and lay down their lives for the welfare of others. Follow me.

If Jesus is Superman, endowed with super human powers, swooping down out of the sky to solve my problems, how can I possibly follow in his way? 

If Jesus is Superman, then I can't really follow him, all I can do is worship him.  I can go to church and praise Jesus and worship Jesus, and ask Jesus for all sorts of favors to make my life better, and then I can walk out of church and into everyday life, gossiping about my neighbors, ignoring the plight of the poor, attacking those who are different from me, and walking all over others to get to the top - hardly doing what Jesus demands of his disciples, when he says: Follow me!

In an age where religion has become more and more suspect, rejected as childish nonsense,  I think Hollywood has done a great disservice to the Christian "Way" by peddling their Jesus as Superman nonsense. 

The new "Belief Blog" on CNN.com recently featured an article about "Superman" as a new movie about Jesus.  In response,  there were hundreds of blog comments ridiculing the silly fairy-tale story of  Christianity- a religion that believes in a super hero flying in the sky, swooping down to save the day. 

I think Hollywood owes the  "Followers of Jesus" an apology. They should find a new way to sell tickets.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Father's Reflection

a holy moment

Last October my eldest son, Jason, married his beautiful new bride Katie. I had the privilege of presiding at their wedding ceremony. It was a moment I will never forget.

There was one moment in particular that is seared into my memory. Jay and Katie were holding hands and taking their vows - pledging their unending love for one another.   My younger son Joel stood behind his brother as his best man. At that moment I was struck with the fact that I was their "Dad." I wasn't just "related" to them; I was them and they were me. At that one brief holy moment, my own ego fell away and I sensed my true self. 

In that holy moment, I experienced the Divine Presence so powerfully, so tenderly, so intimately that I wanted to stay there forever on that mountaintop. 

There is a Hindu wisdom saying:

If you hold up a cloth before me,
you will not see me any more,
though I shall be as near you as before.
So, alas, God is nearer to you than anything else,
yet because of the screen of your ego,
you cannot see him.

Yes, that was exactly what happened at that holy moment on that wedding day a few months ago. I looked out at now my "three" children, and the veil was lifted. I saw the face of God and felt the Holy Presence flowing through us, binding us all together us all together.  

Fathers' Day is often an occasion to gather together with the people we love. On this day, many families will gather together for barbecues and brunches and picnics in the park with friends and loved-ones.  

Today also offers us all an opportunity that should not be squandered. 

I wonder if perhaps today another  holy moment is waiting to happen for me. If I only let down the screen of ego, I will find my true "self" flowing in and through the lives of the people I love. 

Today we are all afforded a holy opportunity for the veil to be lifted that we might see the face of God.

Happy Fathers' Day!






Saturday, June 15, 2013

You are Accepted.

stairs leading to a desert trail

The Coachella Valley (where I live) is dotted with lavish "gated communities." Beautiful Spanish-style haciendas and sleek modern condos are built on lush golf courses, sporting man-made lakes and flowing fountains, all  behind walls and gates high enough that people on the outside can't see in. 

Recently, my wife and I were driving by one of these communities near us. It appeared to be particularly attractive, and so we thought we would see if we could get inside the gates and take a look around, but the guard would have none of it. We were unceremoniously directed to turn the car around and go on our way - the community was for "residents only."

At one level I could understand why we weren't let in beyond those walls, but the feeling of standing on the outside and not being allowed in was aggravating, and even a bit depressing.

Several social commentators have suggested that the "gated community"is a new icon for life in America nowadays. People climb the ladder of success, and when they have reached some degree of achievement, they surround themselves with similar others, and build walls and gates to keep out those on the lower rungs and those who are different. 

I think plenty of people today live enclosed within a "virtual" gated community of life;  and there are also plenty of people who find themselves locked outside the gates of life, feeling like they don't belong. 

I wonder if the images of a "gated community" may also be an icon of how people think about God. 

I wonder if people think that they have to earn admission into God's good graces - come to church, follow the rules, say your prayers.  Do all this, and the guard lets you in. 

Thinking about God in this way fosters a sense of self-righteousness for those who have earned their way in, and makes outcasts of those on the other side of the walls - sinners, slackers, doubters, agnostics, atheists.

But I don't think this is how it works. God doesn't live behind walls and there is no secret password or price of admission to get in. God is the Holy Presence abiding among us, gently embracing all human beings and every part of our humanity with a love that has no conditions.

I was recently reminded of something Paul Tillich once wrote about "grace." In essence, he suggests that the voice of God speaks only one message to every human being, "You are accepted." This message is especially directed to those who feel like they are on the outside looking in. 

You are accepted. You are accepted...
Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.
Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.

So when I drive by that gated community today. I will imagine those walls torn down and those gates wide open, and I will listen for the voice of God, "you are accepted." And, today when I drive by that gated community,  I will also tear down my own walls, open my own locked gates and throw open my arms embracing all who come my way, saying to them:  "You are accepted." 












Friday, June 14, 2013

Most Christians

"Welcome"
the entrance to my desert retreat house

Yesterday I was browsing through a "religious discussion" forum on the web, and I came across a ludicrous posting of a video in which a young man (more like a boy) is featured. He is vehemently judging and condemning atheists, warning that they will burn forever in hell unless they accept Jesus Christ. The two minute video was one of the most perfect examples of "hate speech" I have ever seen.

The video was heinous enough, but the conversation about the video was what really drove me wild. In the online forum, a question was asked about that boy's message:   "Is this how most Christians feel? And, for the most part, the people in the discussion said, "yes."

In comment after comment, the opinion was that  "most Christians" are bigoted, intolerant, uninformed, and judgmental.  I tried to offer an antidote to the conversation by responding - "Jesus never condemned anyone, and Christians follow the path of Jesus." (I was basically ignored).

The whole incident left me feeling frustrated and upset. The thing that upset me most is that those harsh opinions about  "most Christians" are attitudes commonly held by many people in the general public today.  

After all, think about how "most Christians" are portrayed today in the public forum. Every day we hear stories about the bigotry of religious people. 

We recently heard about the Russian church condemning Gay people. The Catholic and Evangelical churches have been vehement in condemning same gender marriage. Whenever a disaster strikes,  you can be sure that some preacher in some pulpit somewhere will be sure to pronounce that this was God's judgment - "God sent planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 to punish a sinful nation,"(remember that one?).  

As I see it, the opinions about "most Christians" expressed in that online forum are the perceptions that many people have today (especially if you are not religious and have no church association) because the negative voices of condemnation are the only religious voices that many people ever hear.

I think an alternative voice needs to be heard today, and an alternative message proclaimed -  not only within the guarded walls of church buildings, but out in the everyday world. If churches and religious people want to be taken seriously, we must boldly stand up in the public forum, and over and over again announce a message of grace and compassion - all are welcome, no one condemned, a place at the table for everyone - THIS is what most Christians believe.  

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says,

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.  

I think it's time for religious people to go out into the world and show off their beautiful feet. 





Thursday, June 13, 2013

The "Nones"

a vast and open desert terrain

Yesterday a friend of mine posted a link to an online article that I found exceptionally interesting. The article was titled, "Actually Listening to Religious Nones." The word, "nones" has taken on a life of its own in recent months. It refers to those people who, when asked to indicate their religious affiliation, reply: "none." 

Several months ago, a Pew study was published. The study reported that one in five Americans are "nones," and perhaps more importantly, one in three Americans under 30 are "nones." So, 1/3 of the younger generation of Americans have no religious affiliation. They don't attend any house of worship (of any stripe),  nor do they ascribe to the tenets of any official religion. 

The prediction is that we will see more and more "nones" in the years to come. 

Personally, I think this is stunning information - critically important for religious institutions that are becoming more and more irrelevant to people in this country (especially younger people).

The article I read yesterday reported on a national meeting of American Lutherans. The meeting was attended by church leaders and "professional" religious people,  and a group of under 30 "nones" were also invited to attend. At the meeting, the professional religious people sat back and, instead of planning on how they would grow their churches or get new people in the future, they simply listened to what the "nones" had to say, and the "nones" were not at all afraid of speaking up. 

The young people at that meeting clearly and carefully articulated some of the reasons for their disinterest in organized religion, and they explained why they never go to church:

-They believe that church is an unsafe place for doubt and questioning.

-They reject a singular religious label, and are more interested in multiple spiritual traditions. (They don't want to be "put in a box.")

-They already have a fullness in their own life and they have a sense of their spirituality. They don't need religion or a church to make their life richer,  fuller or more spiritual (one panelist said, "I bristle at someone saying, 'I've got this thing you are missing,' as if I'm lacking.)

As I read and re-read yesterday's article, I thought to myself, "In some sense, I totally agree with the problems these 'nones'  have with the religious institutions of our day."

I  have been a professional church person all my life,  and I often got into trouble with church people  because I expressed my doubts. Far too often, church people want answers and avoid asking questions. 

I also think it's true that churches (religious institutions) can be far too myopic - thinking that the spiritual path they travel is the only way or the right way. A great common wisdom can be found  in multiple and diverse spiritual paths, but far too often other paths are never honored or explored inside the institution. 

And I think it's very true that people inside a religion think they have something more spiritually authentic than those who are outside.  Yet, I know many "nones" who are deeply spiritual, leading lives marked by compassion.  I want to celebrate their wisdom and honor their lives. 

If the religious institutions of our day have any hope for being viable and vibrant in this 21st century, a lot more listening needs to happen. Religious people of our own day need to take off the blinders and venture out into unchartered territory. 

Otherwise, "The last one out, turn off the lights."



Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Emergent and Organic

a bush grows wild on the desert floor

You can teach an old dog new tricks, just look at me.  For years, I resisted subscribing to Facebook, but more recently I decided to join in with the billion other users from around the world,  and do the Facebook thing. I have to say, I am really glad I did so. 

I sign onto Facebook every day, but to be honest, I don't really care that much about the content of what people post.  I am much more amazed at the process of how Facebook works. It teaches me a great deal about the nature of what we call "reality."

When I sign onto my Facebook page,  I see an endless flow of posts from a wide variety of people. If you didn't know better, you would think that this is the content that everybody is seeing everywhere. 

But that is hardly the case. The only posts I see are from people I have identified as friends. The only people who see my posts are my friends. Furthermore, every time I sign on, different configurations of  my "friends" are posting something.  This is what happens for each and every person who uses Facebook throughout the world. 

So, something new emerges in each and every Facebook  interaction - a billion people in every country throughout the world,  every minute of every day interacting on Facebook, and something new emerges and grows out of each interaction. Incredible!

Facebook is an icon. It teaches me something about the "reality" of everyday life - every human being interacting with one another everywhere, at every minute of every day,  and something new grows and emerges out of each and every interaction. 

We may think that we all see the same objective world. The opposite is the case. We create our own "realities." In a sense there is no outside objective world that can be seen by everyone in exactly the same way. Our realities emerge and grow out of every contact human beings have with one another.

This teaches me to be careful about my ideas about the "real" world. The world is a process of constant change, and my ideas are my ideas, which may be similar to other people's ideas, but never exactly the same. So, I don't cling onto my ideas too rigidly. 

This also teaches me to be careful with my ideas about God,  and It teaches me something about what it means to have faith in God.

I love the way Christian Wiman talks about faith in his book, "My Bright Abyss:"

Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures. Faith never grows harder. never so deviates from it's nature and becomes actually destructive, than in the person who refuses to admit that faith is change. 

Faith is folded into change,  it is the messy process of our lives rather than any fixed mental product. Those who cling to the latter are inevitably left with nothing to hold on to, or left holding on to some nothing into which they have poured the best part of themselves.

Just as all reality is emergent, organic and ever changing, so also my experience of God (my faith in God) is emergent, organic and ever changing - not as neat as a firm set of objective beliefs about God, held onto by everyone in the same way,  but way more exciting.

I think I'll sign onto Facebook now.






Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Sounds of Silence

a profound silence descends on the desert as the sun sets

When I was a parish priest, from time to time I would try to incorporate periods of reflective silence into the Sunday Service. After hearing a scripture lesson or after the sermon, I would invite the congregation to simply sit in silence and let the words they just heard "sink in." 

My attempts at including periods of silence were generally unsuccessful.

After about one minute of sitting in silence,  the coughing began, then came the fidgeting in the pews. After two minutes, people began to look at their watches.   The experience convinced me that, in our frenetic,  fast-moving culture,  most people have a real hard time sitting in silence.

I first encountered what it meant to be "profoundly silent" last year when I first moved out into the desert. 

I am the kind of person who always had to be doing something, or saying something, or listening to something.  I was used to waking up and turning on the TV. Then I'd read the paper and answer emails. All day long I'd be busy filling up the time with words and non-stop activity.

I'd say my prayers but, my prayers, like the rest of my life, were always filled with sounds and words. 

When I moved out here, it all changed.

When evening falls,  the desert doesn't simply become quiet, it becomes silent - profoundly silent. The first time I encountered this kind of silence, I was actually taken back by it - maybe even fearful of it because the silence was so pronounced. In fact the silence was "loud." 

Now, over the months since I have lived here, I have come to welcome and even relish those sounds of silence because, in the silence,  I can hear a voice that is not my own, and experience a power that is beyond me.

I have reflected a good deal about why people resist silence, and I have concluded that it is a "control" issue.  When I use my words and when I fill the time with my activity, I feel somehow that "I" am in control. I control what I want to hear by turning on the TV, or reading the paper,  or browsing the internet. I control everything that happens in every moment of my life when I busy myself all day long with my constant activity. 

When I pray, I also feel like I am in control if I can fill the time with my words. After all, I am the one doing all the talking and calling all the shots. So, there really isn't a lot of room for God to interfere - much safer and more comfortable that way. 

I went to my Yoga class last evening, and  my teacher said something that really struck me. He noticed that I was holding my breath when I got into a position. So, he stood behind me and said, "Let it go, surrender, breath into the position." 

I think that this is exactly what I need to do more and more when I encounter the silence. Every time I sit in the sounds of silence, I am given an opportunity to let go of my need to control. By breathing into the silence, and surrendering to it, I let go of my ego and melt  into a wild, passionate, mysterious presence. I melt into a power that cannot be contained.

The silence is so very loud - so filled with Holy Presence.




Monday, June 10, 2013

Celebrity

The Sunday Farmers' Market in Hollywood

We were in Los Angeles yesterday and we wandered around the Farmer's Market in the heart of Hollywood. Every Sunday morning, thousands of people stroll through the rows of booths teeming with fresh produce, gourmet food, spices, arts and crafts while being serenaded by musicians singing jazz and folk and bluegrass. It's quite an event.

While I have been to many farmers' markets in many different venues, the one in Hollywood has a bit of a different twist to it because it's in Hollywood. Many people (especially tourists) come to the Hollywood market hoping to catch a glimpse of a celebrity milling around in the crowd. And, in fact, many times, if you are out looking for celebrities, you won't be disappointed as you discover that the person walking next to you is Brad Pitt or Steven Spielberg buying fresh tomatoes for the evening meal, just like everyone else.

As I strolled through the Hollywood market yesterday, I thought about why someone would want to catch a glimpse of a celebrity.  Maybe if you find yourself standing next to Brad Pitt at the vegetable booth, you can go home and brag about it - some of the "celebrity" rubs off.

As I walked through the streets of Hollywood yesterday, I also realized that nowadays the cult of "celebrity" extends far beyond Hollywood.  More than stars of stage and screen, today we have celebrity football players and basketball stars, celebrity chefs, celebrity lawyers, celebrity preachers, celebrity gurus, and with the advent of reality TV, today we even have celebrity housewives and celebrity apprentices.

So where does all this leave the rest of us who get up in the morning and lead everyday ordinary lives but are not in the spotlight?  Does our cultural obsession with celebrity status leave ordinary people feeling even more ordinary and viewing their "not so famous" lives as paltry and insignificant? 

Every one of the spiritual teachings of all the major religions celebrate the value and importance of every single human being. When you walk a spiritual path, you must honor the dignity of every human being, for indeed, every human being is enflamed with a spark of divinity. 

Each and every one of us has our own unique gifts, and the lives of each and every one of us are valuable and significant -the farmer who has planted the tomato and the worker who has picked it are just as important as the "superstar" at the Hollywood booth buying the tomato. 

There is a wonderful wisdom saying from the Buddhist tradition:

Your own treasure house already contains everything you need.
Why don't you use it freely,
instead of chasing after something outside yourself.


Today ordinary people will get out of bed and lead ordinary lives; but there really is no such thing as an ordinary life. We are indeed all living "treasure houses."