Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

If You’re Concerned About Listening, and You Want to See Dublin…

I just wrote this for an email list I participate in, and I thought some of you might want to know about it too:

If you’re concerned about the future of listening in today’s noisy world, think about joining me at the 2018 International Listening Association Convention, June 20-23 in Dublin, Ireland.

Travel to Dublin may be more affordable than you’d think. I’ve found airfares in my area (via Norwegian Air) around $400 round trip.

If you’d like to know more, by all means email me.

 

*ILA members come from academia, business, education, healthcare, spirituality, even music, and live in 19 countries around the globe. I’ve also found them to be remarkably warm and welcoming to new folks.

Our Manifold Sins and Wickedness, Reconsidered

There’s this old prayer of confession in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that feels, well, out of step with today’s world. In older versions, we “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Even in today’s Book of Common Prayer, “we do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

By and large, postmodern folks don’t think this way anymore. We regard it as shaming, twisting ourselves into a pretzel of self-flagellating guilt. As children of the psychotherapeutic age, we’ve seen—and often felt firsthand—the corrosive damage shame can cause, so we naturally recoil from prayers like this. I think that’s a good instinct.

But what do we do with our dark side? Many of us still feel shame for our failures, though perhaps in a more generic, secular way. Because of that shame, we often suppress our shortcomings in any way possible.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we ignore them. We choose not to think about the way we use people, or the times we compromised our values and shouldn’t have, or the lies we’ve told. Instead, we present a pleasant façade to the world.

Over time, we may even come to believe the façade ourselves. We bury what Carl Jung famously called our shadow.

I think there’s a better way, and it came up in silent prayer recently. It goes like this:

It’s OK to look at our own failings and shortcomings and simply accept them as part of ourselves—at least as part of ourselves for now. It’s an acknowledgment of the hot mess within us that makes us human.

So when I say, “I often keep quiet to avoid conflict when I should speak up,” I’m not speaking from low self-esteem, or looking for comfort. Rather, I’m acknowledging a painful truth about myself—honestly, with sadness, but without shame. Do I wish I didn’t avoid conflict in this way? Absolutely. Do I hope to be better? Yes. But is this me, right now? Yes, it is.

This is the kind of thing that Holy Cross Monastery (the place where I’m an associate) talks about when it describes the virtue of humility: “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”

When we do this, we are closer to our true selves—all of our true selves.

We are also closer and more compassionate to one another. When I see myself honestly, with clarity, without shame, I realize the deep truth of that wonderful bumper sticker (based on a quote allegedly from Margaret Mead): always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everybody else. We see our humanity in all its aspects, which enables us to see one another’s humanity in all its aspects. The more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize—and love.

And God knows we need more love in the world.

Change Making for Introverts, or, Is There Only One Way to Address Injustice?

I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.

He’s also a racist.

His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”

In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.

All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.

At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

It’s like she designed it just for me.

OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.

In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”

I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.

What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.

What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?

Silent Prayer Made Easy (Sort Of)

Quick: what does contemplation mean? (No fair peeking at this post.)

If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. It took me forever to understand it even a little—and I’m trying to live it. Contemplation doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. But as the focus of this blog, it’s worth trying to describe.

Today, let’s look at a central practice of the contemplative life: silent prayer.

Silent prayer may sound like an oxymoron to some folks, who think of prayer as talking to God. That’s one form of prayer, but there are many others. In silent prayer, we make a wordless connection to God.* How, exactly? Whole books have been written on the topic, but I think it comes down to this:

You sit and gaze at God.

God sits and gazes at you.

That’s it.

Allow me to unpack that a little. The word gaze is intentional: not look, not glance, but gaze—“to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder,” says dictionary.com. It implies a sustained, relaxed attention. Ever just stare at a breathtaking sunset, or vista, or painting, for minutes on end? It’s like that.

I could have added some elements to the “instructions” above: God and you gaze at each other with hearts wide open, or with boundless love. But for one thing, God’s heart is always open, and God’s love is always boundless. For another, if you gaze at God long enough, your heart will open too. It comes with the territory.

Now, to get at the essence of silent prayer, I’ve made it sound simple. In one way it is. Practicing it is not.

One big thing: distractions. Our active, annoying minds glom onto whatever thought happens to pass by. It takes a while to learn not to suppress the thoughts, not to feel guilty and promise God you’ll do better, but simply to notice the thoughts and let them pass. It helps me to know that God will make something fruitful of our time together no matter what, even if my mind is focused on the pie in the refrigerator the whole time.

Over the years, people have developed techniques to support silent prayer, and they’re both fruitful and beautiful. Centering prayer. Gazing at icons. I’ve found that silently saying the Rosary gives one part of my brain something to occupy itself—the words of the prayers, the feel of the beads—while the rest of my head enters into contemplative silence. Zazen hones the mind’s ability to focus while approaching the Ultimate from an entirely different path.

These days, more often than not, I just sit in my favorite spot and gaze out a high window at the maples beyond. Over the years I’ve watched those maples sprout leaves and lose them again, explode in color and stand stark against the brilliant winter sun. The cycle of the seasons seems to fit well with silent prayer.

If this intrigues you, give it a whirl. Try different practices, icons, what have you. Or sit in your favorite spot and gaze at God.

When you sense God gazing back—well, that is a moment like no other.

*An aside: the one I call God you may call Reality, the One, the Ultimate, Brahman, even (kind of) Buddha-nature. They are all names for what, or who, is behind and beyond all things. I use the word God here for simplicity’s sake, and because it’s part of my home tradition. But feel free to insert your preferred term as you read.

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

Hurricanes, Prayer, and Gazing at Barbuda

Before Irma, I had never heard of Barbuda. How could I have known it would alter the way I pray?

The hurricane had sent my wife and me scurrying to Google Maps for a crash course on Caribbean geography. For whatever reason, I had never got round to figuring out the names of all those islands and exactly where they were. I had heard of Antigua but never knew it was part of something called Antigua and Barbuda.

Like millions of others, I learned more about both islands, and their many neighbors, as Irma thrashed its way across them. I heard the reports of total devastation on Barbuda and other islands.

At one point, wearied by the wall-to-wall TV coverage, I switched from Google Maps to Google Earth and zeroed in on Barbuda. The view was not up to the minute, so no effects of the storm were visible. But it did show what had once existed and now, presumably, was devastated: low, flat buildings with metal roofs, dirt roads, churches with names like Living Faith, a marina, a small airport, acres of forest.

For a while I simply gazed at the view—clicking around to look at the island, take it all in, and absorb what it was.

Eventually it dawned on me that what I was doing was prayer.

One thing I learned in my training program to become a spiritual director: pretty much anything can be prayer. Asking God for help, giving thanks, liturgy, yes, but also sitting in silence, journaling, drawing—anything done while sitting in, and paying attention to, the presence of God.

That’s what this felt like. Me, sitting on my sofa, gazing at Barbuda before the storm, holding the island and its people in my heart, all while connected with the God who was there with me, closer than my own breath.

Some might call this a useless first-world response to a catastrophe. That criticism is worth pondering in many contexts, but I don’t think it applies here. Far from being “self-absorbed navel gazing,” my experience illustrates how many contemplatives approach the world.

Here’s what I mean. My experience of prayer that day connected me, in a deep part of myself, to a place I’d never heard of. That connection seems lasting: when the news cycle moved on to Cuba and Florida and then to the next hurricane, I could not get Barbuda out of my mind. Just now I returned to the view from Google Earth, expecting the same view of Barbuda, only to be sickened by new views of the decimated landscape.

Right now, as a result, I’m seeking out organizations through which I can support Barbuda recovery. My wife and I have talked about going there in a year or so; we are not first-responder or disaster-recovery material, but maybe our tourist dollars can help in some tiny way. (Apparently, this is a legitimate form of tourism if done ethically.)

So we take someone, something—like an island, or its people, or its natural resources—into our hearts, and that “taking in” fuels compassion. And action born of compassion. That’s one way contemplatives act in the world to make it better. And sometimes it starts with praying by looking at a map.

Depression, the Dark Night, and Why We Should Pause Before Shouting

I’ve been away from this space awhile, and with good reason.

The good reason is hard to describe. It could have been an episode of severe depression, or a dark night of the soul, or both. My money’s on both but tilts more toward the dark night.

You’ve probably heard the phrase dark night of the soul, but maybe you don’t know how it’s been used through the centuries. St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, coined dark night (someone added of the soul later). It describes a period in which the Divine Spirit strips the soul of its dross—sins, imperfections, etc.—and brings it ever closer to God. Other sages have called it the desert or the wilderness. The worst part is that God appears to have left the building.

In my case, so did everything else, which makes the word stripping appropriate. All prayer and meditation ceased. I couldn’t write a word. There was no pleasure in anything (which characterizes both depression and the dark night).

It hurt like hell for months, and I hated the pain. My apathy about writing—which is like oxygen to me—scared me. I wondered if all the things I loved were going away permanently.

My spiritual director and therapist helped immensely. Both pointed out something terribly important: for me, the way I’m made, this is part of normal. It comes with going deeper into spirituality. It comes with being creative. As my therapist said, I should try to stop “awfulizing” it. Just live it.

So I am living it. As a result, things are still dark, but they are stable, and the pain is largely gone. As you can see, I’m just barely starting to write again. Same with prayer.

Why am I telling you this?

Before I answer that, allow me to issue the usual caveats. Mental illness is not to be messed with. If you experience depression, please get help. If you have suicidal thoughts, get help NOW. Medication and therapy can turn your life around.

But our culture teaches us to stop there, because that is the only proper response to darkness. When we are sick, we fight it. When we are sad, we work to get happy. We need to do something, to fix something.

We have lost the idea of staying with the darkness for a season—exploring it, if you will.

Good therapy can help us do this. So can good spiritual direction. So can journaling. Anything that helps us ask fundamental questions about the darkness: What is this all about? Why is it happening now? Does it hold any life lessons for me?

This is the stuff of that contemplative spirit mentioned on the very top of this page. For contemplatives—when we’re at our best—there is a pause between what happens and what we should do about it. In that pause, we observe what’s happening. We listen (to God, to the circumstances, to our own heart) for clues. We listen for the priceless wisdom that often comes out of dark nights. Most of all, we wait with a wide-open heart.

There are so many places in postmodern culture where this pause could help. Think of what would happen if angry Facebook posters paused between the latest outrage and their instinctive responses. Think of how critical this pause could be in the rhetorical buildup between the U.S. and North Korea. Hundreds of millions of lives could hang on the ability of our leaders to pause, observe, and then respond.

I know. That’s a long way from living with depression or the dark night. But what happens in our hearts gets played out on our planet. It’s worth tending the contemplative spirit for that reason. Let alone all the other reasons—like the lasting joy an ever-closer relationship with the Divine can bring.

Incarnation: Maybe It’s Not Just a Jesus Thing

Always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everyone else.   —bumper sticker

 

It’s a little weird when your profound life lesson for 2017 turns up on a bumper sticker.

For the past few years I’ve been getting painful reminders of how I’m just like everyone else. In my loftier moments I’m prone to thinking I’ve made progress in certain areas of my life—that I’ve moved beyond petty envies and dark prejudices and grudges and other schmutz of the soul.

And then something comes up and I realize it’s all still there. I am just like everybody else. Not really worse. But certainly not better.

Just. Ordinary. Average.

This has me thinking about incarnation.

If you’re familiar with Christian thought, you know the word well. The Incarnation is the name given to God’s becoming fully and utterly human in the person of Jesus. This isn’t about taking on a human shell or form: it’s becoming one of us. Which means a lot of schmutzy stuff: pooping his diapers, banging his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, possibly squabbling with his saintly parents, wandering off like a normal curious preteen in a big city like Jerusalem, having wild visions of his own destiny, making life choices that look scary and strange from the outside.

Dying.

As the Bible says, Jesus suffered and was tempted and challenged in the same ways we are (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). For me, it’s a wonderful doctrine—maybe the best Christianity has to offer. What it says to me is that God, the One force and creator behind the entire Universe, gets us. Firsthand. From the inside out.

What if we’re called to the same thing?

That may seem silly at first. We don’t need to become human. We are human. We’re already “incarnate.”

Well, yes we are. But do we actually live it: mindfully, fully, aware of our ordinariness and therefore—all-important—our ordinariness in solidarity with all other human beings?

This is the lesson I’ve been learning. All kinds of jealousies rise in my heart when someone else steals my spotlight, and I see I’m envious and insecure just like everyone else. I’m suddenly confronted with a deep need or vulnerability—again—and I see I’m needy and vulnerable just like everyone else. Something I write uncovers an insight I didn’t even know I knew, and I see I have these wonderful gifts and talents to share, just like everyone else.

So when I go fulfill one of God’s two most basic commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” I can see my neighbor as myself. Because I’ve had practice in learning to love myself with all my schmutz, I can learn to love my neighbors with all their schmutz.

Suddenly that horrible thing about my friend X doesn’t seem so horrible because I’ve got it too. Suddenly I can look at the whole person and just embrace them all, beautiful and well short of beautiful. I am them, I can see myself in them, so I can love them as I love myself.

How is this not incarnation? Sure, we’re already human. This is about being fully, attentively human. What Jesus did. What we, just maybe, are called to do too.

Is Your Faith Life-Giving or Soul-Crushing?

Do you like some parts of your faith more than others?

I’m betting most people would say yes. Some beliefs and practices just sit well with us, and some, well, don’t. Christians may cherish Jesus’ call to “love one another” but cringe at the genocide stories in the Book of Joshua. If you’re a Buddhist, maybe meditation has made you more compassionate and awake, but reading sutras doesn’t do it for you.

This is normal, of course. Who on earth likes everything about anything? The bigger challenge, however, is not identifying what we like. It’s figuring out what’s true, and what’s good for us—and for the world.

Earlier this year, at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International, I heard author and pastor John Mabry speak on providing spiritual direction across faith traditions. When asked about helping clients address the “distortions” in their own belief systems, John made a useful distinction. He talked about life-giving beliefs and soul-crushing beliefs. Practices too can be life-giving or soul-crushing.

How do we figure out which is which?

It may seem easy at first glance. There’s a reason, for instance, why Christians like to quote 1 John 4:8, which tells us that “God is love,” and shy away from Psalm 58:10, “They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

What’s more, our sages and sacred texts point toward the life-giving. St. Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, etc. The God of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the Ten Commandments and the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).The Buddha pointed the way with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

That’s a great start, eh? Hew to these elements of faith and you’ll find life. Except there’s another thing. You could possibly read those elements—joy! oneness! right meditation!—and conclude that life-giving = what feels good.

Not so fast.

Take this saying attributed to Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is hardly a feel-good practice, yet many believers have found it life-giving: it makes more room in their deepest selves for intimacy with God. The Jesus of the gospels also admonished his followers to “enter through the narrow gate…. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to”—wait for it—“life” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Clearly, following this logic, not everything that gives life feels good, and vice versa. Moreover, what’s life-giving for one person may be soul-crushing for another. Have you ever tried praying in a certain way, or volunteering for a certain cause, or holding to a certain childhood belief, and the more you explored it the more grueling it became? Sure, maybe you just hit a rough patch, and a bit of pushing through it yielded great things. Or maybe that part of your faith—so life-giving to others—was soul-crushing to you, and you had to go in another direction.

How on earth do you make the distinction and find the life-giving? A deep connection with the Larger, however you define that Larger—God, One, Buddha-nature, etc.—can yield priceless wisdom and guidance. In this context, prayer and meditation, in whatever form gives life to you, are indispensable. Working with a clergyperson or spiritual director can help you sort out your experience in a safe place.

Ultimately, however you go, the journey is worth the effort. It draws us ever closer and closer to the Source of all life. Nothing is more life-giving, and more joyful, than that.