Archive for the ‘God’ Category

If You Ever Wished You Could Quit the Human Race…

…join the crowd.

I’d be happy to take a long hiatus from the current version of homo sapiens, because we’re a hot mess. The rage and hatred in the public square are becoming unbearable. As if that weren’t bad enough, I see this same spirit infecting other parts of our life together. Even in my beloved hobby, whose members are family to me, the charges and countercharges, white-hot social media fury, choosing up sides and fighting are on full display.

Now, with the news of the past couple of weeks—pipe bombs in the mail, lives lost at a Pittsburgh synagogue—all of this has shaded into a new level of violence. As it had to. Spew enough words, create enough rage, and weapons often follow.

Bottom line, we’ve done a lot of damage in the past two years. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. The damage will take time and space and work to heal. And until we heal, we’ll be very vulnerable to further pain. No wonder people are hiding out, keeping to themselves, refusing to converse, bowling alone.

With all my heart I want to join them. Two things give me pause, and they both came up in silent prayer recently–where so many things come up, courtesy (I believe) of the Spirit.

Thing 1: notice the pronouns two paragraphs above. We’ve done a lot of damage. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. Like it or not, I’m one of them—one of us—which means I have to own my own inner dross. It’s true that I make a point of not spewing rage and drama. But the seeds of it live in my heart too, just like they live in most everyone’s heart.

In short, I’m stuck with us. We’re stuck with us.

Thing 2 comes from my orientation as a Christian. Just by our species’ status as still alive and walking around, it’s evident to me that God has not given up on the human race. Quite the opposite when you consider Christianity’s central story: that God, in the person of Jesus, became every bit as human as you and me. That he drank the human experience to its dregs, right down to a humiliating public execution. God is quoted as saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and the Christ story proves it.

If God’s sticking with us, and I have to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1 from the Christian scriptures), that obliges me to stick with us too.

Do I have enthusiasm for this? Oh hell no. Sometimes, though—especially in the chaos that rage and hatred inevitably cause—it’s good to throw a stake in the ground and say, “I have to stand here. I cannot do otherwise.” Then, with that stake keeping me tethered to the good and true, I can do the inner work to figure out how on earth I’m going to follow God’s call with a whole heart.

 

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

Summertime, and the Livin’ Ain’t Easy

Every single summer I do this.

Most summers in my part of the world, the heat and humidity build up sometime in June and then just hang in the air until early September. Soon after the onset, I am journaling about my sense of lethargy, of drift, of wondering what I’m missing and where my life took a wrong turn.

I know I do this because I ran a search through my journal today, looking for summer and then humidity. You could almost cut and paste my complaints from 2007 into today’s entry. I am drop-dead consistent in my (relative) summer indolence.

If you’re a better person than I, you’re probably thinking, so what? Let it go. Summer was made for kicking back. You can’t be productive all the time.

You’d be right about that. In fact, it’s the punchline for this article. But I have a problem getting there, and so do we—especially we Americans.

I don’t have to tell you it’s become a 24/7 world. So many Americans, at least, run through their days at a frenzied pace. As a client of mine once admitted to me 30 years ago—in a relatively slower era—“I’m trying to stuff in as much as I can.”

Why do we do this? I can only speak for myself with any authority. Like many Americans, I’ve inhaled a culture that puts the highest priority on productivity at every step. Stay busy, the culture says, make every moment count.

And when I fall prey to that, I lose sight of some things.

I lose sight of the millions of Earth’s inhabitants who don’t live that way. They take siestas because it’s stiflingly hot at midday and working in stifling heat (when you don’t have to, and you’re not built for it) is stupid. They cherish work-life balance with an emphasis on life. If they can be OK with sluggishness and downtime, so can I.

I also lose sight of what I’ve learned from faith and spirit. My Christian tradition tells me that even God rested after creating the world. That’s not the sort of example you want to ignore. A key insight from the same faith tells me that whoever I am is good enough, owing to God’s extravagant and boundless love. My zazen practice has opened my eyes to an immense, impermanent cosmos that will continue to expand and change whatever I do.

Every year I get twitchy about my “indolence” during summer. Every year I have to remind myself that it’s OK—OK in the context of summer’s heat, OK in many parts of the world, OK with God. Do you have to do this too? If so, how do you get yourself to a place of OKness with it all?

Walking in the Spirit, Not the Letter

The teaching is merely a vehicle to describe the truth. Don’t mistake it for the truth itself. A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.    –Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I am wild about the works of James Joyce. I’ve read Ulysses four times. I got halfway through Finnegans Wake. If that doesn’t qualify me as a fan, I don’t know what does.

You may have heard that Ulysses—all 783 pages of it in my edition—takes place in a single day in Dublin. The protagonist, Leopold Bloom, walks the city’s streets from about 8:00 in the morning to maybe 2:00 the next morning, and the pages of Ulysses are stuffed with what happens around him and within his mind. Besides the dozens of colorful characters and the often baffling prose, Ulysses is (from where I sit, anyway) a paean to the everydayness of being human, warts and all.

For many years, devotees have traveled to Dublin to walk Bloom’s circuitous path and mark the events of that day. Having to attend a convention there recently, I departed with my head full of doing the same. I would visit the pubs he visited, track the funeral procession in which he took part, etc. It would be, without question, the climax of my trip.

I never really did it.

Instead, I couldn’t stop making my own wanderings. The walk between City Centre and my room at a Ringsend guesthouse was filled with charms and eccentricities: the serenity of the Grand Canal, the grin of Mattress Mick on his store’s sign, the stone bridges, the Padraig Pearse pub (named for a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence), the hardscrabble apartments that lined the way, the stone church that fronted the cobblestone street—one block long with two barber shops—where I slept each night.

Yes, I visited (and thoroughly enjoyed) the James Joyce Centre. I did pop in on a couple of pubs mentioned in Ulysses. But most of the rest never happened.

Was I missing out?

At first I thought I was. But then it occurred to me: I wasn’t walking where Bloom walked, I was walking as Bloom walked. I was wandering and wondering through the streets of Dublin. Different streets, same kind of wander. The spirit of Ulysses but not the letter.

It got me thinking about the journey of faith.

Amid its rollicking bawdiness, exhilarating final soliloquy, and profound depth, Ulysses has become a kind of sacred text for me—not in the sense of telling me about God, but in the sense of (like the Bible) helping me grasp what it means to be human. My walks taught me that the book, though brilliant, is a touchstone. I use its wisdom to find my own path.

This, to me, is the way the spiritual life works. We read the texts, we draw out the wisdom contained therein (helped by the Spirit behind all things), and we let it guide us as we find our own way. We live our own lives, not the lives that came before.

Perhaps that’s why many sacred texts are so bewildering. The Bible is rife with cross-currents, many of which clash with one another. The Tao Te Ching and Sayings of the Desert Sages are often cryptic though unutterably deep. Mystics speak in image and metaphor. A Buddhist text cautions against excessive attachment to anything in life—including one’s conception of the Buddha himself—by saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”

Perhaps these texts shock and baffle to point the way—sort of—and then let us find our specific path. Maybe by treading this way, we learn to hold the texts and ourselves lightly. We look where the finger directs us, and walk toward the moon.

 

Why Didn’t God Make Us More Significant?

Last year I turned 60. That’s two-thirds of the way through my natural lifespan, if my genetics are any indication. The milestone led me to an insight that likely hits most people at some point:

When all is said and done, my contribution to the world will be tiny. Very, very tiny.

That’s true for all of us, or nearly so, when we look at ourselves through the vast arc of human history and the ever-expanding universe. A select few have altered the course of humanity: Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the wheel. Even our most brilliant scientists—Einstein and Newton, for instance—have revealed to us what has always been true.

Please note that I said tiny. Not zero. I’ve come to believe that every last one of us, from prophets and monarchs to the destitute to the unborn, have some kind of effect. Most of the time we never know what effect we’ve had; half the time we don’t even know we’ve had an effect. And yet even the random smile at the right moment may accomplish more than we can imagine.

For me, St. Monica is the role model of this. Her main achievement in life was to pray for and shadow her wayward son. She took this humble mission and made a life out of it. We might never have heard of Monica were it not for the writings of that son: Augustine, one of Christendom’s greatest theologians.

This does leave us with a question, though. Assuming the existence of a God who created the world and all that is in it—including human beings—why didn’t God make everyone like Augustine? Why isn’t everyone significant? Can you imagine how much more progress we would have made by now as a species?

Several answers come to mind. You can take the atheist’s approach and say this is one more bit of evidence against the existence of God. You can wonder whether God did this to instill humility in the very fabric of our existence. Given how essential humility is to our survival—it fosters cooperation, empathy, love, and other good things—this argument may have legs.

But what haunts me is another explanation altogether: God is just not that into efficiency.

This strikes me as liberating. If God is not efficient, we don’t have to be efficient either, not with the general course of our lives. We do not have to climb a ladder to achievement or success. In fact, maybe nothing much “of substance” has to happen at all. What we are called to—as I’ve been learning, oh so slowly, for years now—is not results, but faithfulness; not the achieving, but the doing.

This gives us the freedom to screw up, to explore, to follow God where we hear God leading, to not worry whether it’s “going anywhere” or “moving forward.” It aligns us with the larger reality of our tininess: because our impact will be small, our boldness in taking initiative can be great. We don’t have to hesitate at a big change or decision as though the course of history depends on it—because it probably doesn’t.

Yes, there are things we must attend to: matters of justice and mercy and the everyday stuff of getting through another day. This too is part of our tiny place in the universe. If we can embrace that tiny place, we’re looking at a life that is far more joyful.

Discomfort with Easter

I have never liked Easter.

Deep down I’ve known this for years but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. After all, Easter is when we Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead and all it implies: new hope of a new life, God’s victory over death and evil. We sing hymns with words like exult and joy and especially alleluia. What’s not to like?

I never had a good answer to that question. For decades I went through the motions, hoping for some real joy to emerge. I attended church on Easter and sang like everyone else. I meditated on the resurrection to glean what meaning I could. Nothing really took hold.

This past Sunday, while driving to church, the reason for my discomfort with Easter suddenly hit me:

It’s all too tidy.

Total victory for the forces of good. The devil loses, God wins. The details are still playing out centuries later, but a joyous ending is assured.

I’ve seen movies with endings like this, and they make me crazy, because life doesn’t work that way.

From everything I’ve seen, life is messy. Good people do stupid things, sometimes with catastrophic results. Nasty people do heroic things out of the blue. We strive to get along with co-workers and neighbors and relatives who stir up ambivalence in our hearts. We compromise in so many places to get through our days. The most tragic events of our lives can bear fruit in our souls—but they’re tragic nonetheless.

The Easter story is not like this. So I don’t trust it.

But here’s the rub: I am devoted to a faith that declares the resurrection to be true—one of the foundational truths of the whole tradition. If I want to align with my home faith tradition, and I do, I can’t just toss the story out. I have to stare it in the face, to hold the tension between the centuries-old truth and my decades-old discomfort—not trying to resolve it, but seeing what emerges, even letting the story change me.

I have no idea how this will come out, or how long it will take. In the meantime, I’m riveted by the resurrection story in the gospel of Mark (16:1-8)—the original text, without the satisfying ending glommed on. Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in this passage. We simply read of a young man in a tomb telling three women that Jesus has risen from the dead. And how did they react? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Fear. Amazement. Questions, undoubtedly. That’s one hot stew of emotions. Like my own.

The solidarity I feel with these women and their reactions gives me a shard of hope. Maybe my response to Easter is not abnormal or abhorrent, but simply human. That’s what the Christian story does so well: it reminds us of our humanity in all its lovely tangled mess—including the joy that, every now and then, rises to the surface.