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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.

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.

E-Course on Interfaith Dialogue & Spirituality

If you like the topics we discuss here, you’ll probably love the announcement below.

My colleagues in spirituality and dialogue, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality & Practice, have just announced an e-course led by The Interfaith Amigos. These three guys–an imam, a rabbi, and a pastor–have been talking, working, and presenting together for a long time. They are often funny and regularly provide penetrating insights into reaching across divides. Among other things, the course involves reading and reflecting on emails in a virtual “Practice Circle,” so you’ll get to know some other spirit-and-dialogue folks as well. I’ve already signed up, so I’m hoping I’ll see you there. (Note: if the registration link below doesn’t work, use this one:



A New E-Course with

The Interfaith Amigos


Imam Jamal Rahman, Rabbi Ted Falcon, and Pastor Don Mackenzie, who have become known as the Interfaith Amigos, have been working together for over 14 years. The horrors of 9/11 brought them together to consider how truly effective interfaith dialogue could alleviate the demonization of any religion. They believe that all authentic spiritual traditions are sacred avenues to a shared Universal Reality from which true healing of personal and planetary problems flows.

Now in a new e-course developed for Spirituality & Practice, the Imam, the Rabbi, and the Pastor look at the specific issues we face in a pluralistic society and the spiritual practices that can help us transcend those roadblocks to effective collaboration on the critical issues of our time.

The e-course will run for four weeks from April 13 – May 8, 2015 and will focus on these themes:

Week 1: Spiritual Practices in General and Why We Need Them

Week 2: The Five Stages of Interfaith Dialogue

Week 3: The Major Ways Our Traditions Stray

Week 4: Beyond Polarization: Confronting Our Major Obstacle

This is a rare opportunity to learn from three distinguished spiritual teachers from the three Abrahamic faiths. Read more about it and register here:

We look forward to sharing this interfaith experience with you.


Salaam, Shalom, Shanti, Peace,


Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat


Co-Directors, Spirituality & Practice

Hard Questions from the Dialogue Trenches: When the Other Side Is Wrong

I cherish the difficult questions that readers and listeners raise. Occasionally, though, a question goes from difficult to cringeworthy, and it takes me to places I don’t want to go.

A listener to my New Dimensions radio interview posed one of these queries:

What if the two different opinions [in a dialogue] are at such intense odds with each other that there can be no middle ground to achieve any sort of mutual progress? For instance if I were speaking to an individual who was a member of NAMBLA, there would be zero desire to understand his position more deeply. It’s wrong, whatever his position is…period.

I had never heard of NAMBLA, so I did an online search and found myself face-to-face with the North American Man-Boy Love Association. That’s when I cringed. YIKES. Talk about pushing the point.

Truth be told, I’m not ready for a dialogue on this topic. For one thing, a central practice related to this organization is illegal throughout the U.S. For another, the whole topic strikes a lot of raw nerves for me, including some from my faith tradition. My book includes a couple of chapters on when dialogue fails—or, perhaps better, when we fail at dialogue—and for me, this may be an example of failure.

So is the questioner right? Is zero dialogue on this topic the way to go here? Is zero dialogue with such a person the way to go? At all times, in all places, for all people? I’m still not sure. Here’s the gist of my response:

Yes, particularly from the vantage point of a worldview such as Christianity, some things are wrong. More broadly, there’s a general (if not universal) consensus about the evil of certain actions: murder comes to mind. With that baseline, I still see value in dialogue even with people whose practices and opinions are noxious to us, for a few reasons:

  1. We can disagree vehemently on one issue and yet agree—and even work together—on other issues. If our NAMBLA member had a wealth of knowledge on providing services to the homeless, and I was passionate about homeless issues, would it not be worth exploring whether we could collaborate despite our differences over NAMBLA?
  2. Dialogue allows us to understand what we oppose in greater depth—and thus oppose it more persuasively and more effectively. However, that leads us to the next point (and hear me correctly here):
  3. Truth isn’t always what we think it is. Remember when faithful Christians thought the holy words of Scripture approved the practice of slavery, or the subjugation of women? Now, I don’t ever want to come out of a dialogue with, say, Bashir Assad thinking that the use of chemical weapons is a good thing. But there are many other instances in which authentic dialogue, where we listen to the other person openheartedly, can move us closer to a greater understanding of the truth—whether or not that truth is what the other person is saying.
  4. We dialogue with other people because, no matter how noxious their opinions, we share at least one common bond with them: we are all human beings, worthy of being valued in our humanness as God’s creatures. Here the command of Jesus to “love [even] our enemies” is evident in all its implications—from the profound depth of its compassion to its equally profound capacity to make us squirm.

I can’t say that these points leave me in a comfortable space—not in this instance, anyway. But dialogue has never promised us comfort and ease. It does offer a way forward with our fellow human beings, however right, wrong, or otherwise they may be. It offers a way to practice the most fundamental imperative of nearly every wisdom tradition: compassion.

Rules and Rascals and the Dialogue Between Them

We all have our own “folk wisdom” about the way the world works. As we live out our lives, we observe things and create hypotheses from them. I suspect that most of this folk wisdom holds at least a grain of truth and a dollop of wisdom.

One of my folk wisdoms goes by the name of “rules and rascals.”

Here’s how it works. Many circumstances in the human condition—particularly the social, political, and religious dimensions—are subject to the interplay of two forces. The rules express the way things are, the conditions at the time, the “shoulds” of our life together. In some cases, the reasons are clear and the rules compelling. Thou shalt not kill is as relevant today as when God handed down the message to Moses millennia ago. In other cases, the rules were established in a completely different time and place, sometimes for reasons now lost to history.

Meanwhile, the rascals are those people who push against the rules, test their validity, and toss out directives that no longer apply or, worse, have destroyed people’s lives. The word rascal is often thought of as pejorative, but not here. Under this definition, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a rascal. So was Gandhi. The rules they confronted absolutely had to come down.

Alas, the “right” or “wrong” of any given rule or rascal is not always as clear as Thou shalt not kill or Dr. King’s mission. Some workplaces, for instance, might push the ideal of collaboration into every practice and procedure. A rascal might push back on that, not by rejecting collaboration utterly, but by pointing out the value of solo work and how the two ideals, working together, might produce a better result in the long run. In such cases, the action of the rascal might modify a good rule to make it better, rather than eliminate an evil practice like segregation.

Here’s the bottom line. Most of the time, in the grand interplay of rules and rascals, we need both.

It is so easy to lose sight of this. In my deepest self, I tend toward the rascal side of the spectrum (and it probably is a spectrum, rather than an either-or). I chafe against rules that seem to make no sense. But then, on occasion, a “rule person” will give me the context for a given rule, revealing to me the value in it. Then I get it. I may even become a defender of that rule.

The problem comes when I forget that we need both: when my mindfulness of this need gets overwhelmed by my frustration or defensiveness or fear. When those forces take over, they prevent me from remaining open to the person on “the other side”…the very person whose perspective I need to hear…the person whose wisdom I could tap in dialogue.

Of course, this lesson extends well beyond rules and rascals. It’s hard to fathom at this point in history—when people on both sides of whatever just want to throttle one another—but Democrats could benefit from perspectives that Republicans can provide. Conservatives can make use of insights that liberals have to offer. None of us has enough perspective on an issue that we can look at “the other side” and say, “I don’t need you.” If, however, we acknowledge that need and approach the other with curiosity and openness, we begin to discover more of the truth—or at least more about the other person—and to build a bond that stretches across divides.

A Break from the Routine

Breaks are good, no matter how much we love what we do. With that as inspiration, I’ll be taking some year-end vacation time, so this space will be on hiatus for the rest of 2009. We’ll restart the discussion in January. I wish you the most blessed of holidays.

Welcome…and a Bit More Introduction

Welcome to The Dialogue Venture. I’m so looking forward to hearing your insights on dialogue, sharing some of the things I’ve learned, and—I hope—build one more community in which people can talk with civility and compassion.

The About page tells my story in a nutshell, but I thought you might want to know how I became so intrigued with dialogue in the first place.

It all started during the Reagan presidency. As public officials argued about the economy and national defense and Nicaragua, I noticed that each side came to the “dialogue” with its own set of facts—the set that fit its agenda. Neither side would concede the accuracy of the other’s facts, let alone discuss interpretations or analyses.

Before I knew it, I saw the same pattern across the social spectrum: bitter exchanges over abortion and gay marriage, Republicans toward Democrats, liberals toward conservatives. Families, too, had their own problems with communication, putting up defenses and marshaling arguments and counterarguments. People were talking not with, or even to, but past one another.

How can we resolve anything that way?

At the same time, the questions that emerged from my relationship with Holy Cross Monastery led me to reconsider how we dialogue. When we discuss the issues of the day, why can’t we talk rather than shout?

That led me to consider a new approach to dialogue…which led to the book, and the blog, etc.

That’s it in a nutshell. What about you? What brings you here? I’d love to hear your story. Feel free to share here or, if you’re more reserved, contact me directly.