Posts Tagged ‘Bible’
My beloved cat is in decline.
She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”
We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.
Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.
As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.
There’s very little control here.
And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.
Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?
What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.
But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”
And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.
Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.
Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.
Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.
Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.
Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.
This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017.
It takes a long time to turn a big ship.
This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.
It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.
The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.
Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.
The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old. Very old. More than two millennia old.
Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.
Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.
Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.
What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.
But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?
Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?
P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.
It was day four of a five-day retreat. We’d just finished another soul-baring breakout session, three of us practicing new interpersonal skills and getting critique from one of the retreat facilitators. The exercise would have been grueling on any day; on this particular day it came after hours of deep, intense lecture on many things dark and psychological.
I could say we were exhausted, but exhausted doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Right after the breakout, the facilitator left. The three of us retreatants were left on our own. And we started to compare notes: our opinions of x facilitator’s belief system, whether y facilitator had completely misunderstood us, the off-the-record thoughts each of us was harboring and are y’all thinking the same thing?
In other words, gossip.
OK, I am using a very specific (and somewhat edited) definition of the word, from the OED: “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people.” Yes, gossip often carries overtones of rumor mongering, malice, and other nasty stuff. I’m referring more to what church people sometimes call parking-lot conversation: the casual chat, often held in parking lots after a meeting, where folks linger to let their hair down and say what they think. Sometimes the conversation just involves ideas, but because ideas come from other people, we sometimes end up talking about other people too.
This kind of chat gets a bad rap. We refer to it darkly as “talking behind each other’s backs.” The Bible confronts “whispering” and “tale bearing” with a hearty dose of condemnation.
So, in true contrarian fashion, allow me to raise a few good points about gossip, at least as I’m defining it.
For one thing, this brand of gossip is an effective reality check. It can be useful when an event stirs something within us that resists what’s been said, and we can’t tell whether or not our opinion is abnormal. “Did you hear that? Did it seem weird to you? I couldn’t help hearing it and thinking _________; what about you?” This is especially important for adult children of alcoholics and others who struggle mightily to figure out what normal is.
Similarly, “parking-lot conversation” can help us ferret out the essential from the trivial. During contentious meetings, I’ve found myself speaking angrily about an issue without taking the time to determine whether this is the battle I want to pick. The “meeting after the meeting” provides a calmer place to re-examine what happened, whether I should have just let it go—or, conversely, whether it’s important enough to keep pursuing it.
Informal conversations also allow us to reflect openly on people who may be toxic. Such folks typically excel at manipulation, the use of language to conceal or mislead, crafty tactics to divide and conquer, etc. It can be nearly impossible to figure out their game—and then defuse it—without comparing notes with others.
Certainly we need to take great care with this kind of conversation. We must watch our own souls for signs of the aforementioned malice or the desire to spread rumors. Still, gossip (defined this way) does appear to have its good points. I’m sure there are others. Can you name a few?
This isn’t about aural listening per se, but I think the lesson still applies.
Today my church’s lectionary (a fixed order of sacred texts for each day of the year) prescribed the reading of Matthew 19:1-12, in which Jesus speaks out on divorce. In keeping with the monastic tradition that I’m associated with, Igive these lectionary passages a slow, contemplative reading, listening to how the passage speaks to my heart more than my head.
The first time through, the liturgy from weddings past echoed in my mind: “That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The second time through, I heard what I’ve always heard in this passage: Jesus holds marriage as sacred, regards divorce as a necessary evil, and has some tough words about remarrying—the sort of thing that does not go down well when your country’s divorce rate hovers around 40 percent.
Something, though, made me linger.
As I wandered through a third time, another insight emerged. Nearly every reference has to do with a man divorcing his wife—not the other way around. As noted in Breakthrough: The Bible for Young Catholics, “Women in Jesus’ culture had very few rights and were basically considered the property of their husbands.” A divorced woman would have been extremely vulnerable economically and socially.
Maybe this passage isn’t about divorce in general, then. Maybe it’s about men and the imperative for them to treat their partners with reverence—along with the implicit message that the women they thought were their property really are much more.
So which interpretation is correct? Both? Neither? I can’t tell you for sure—even the notes in my Bibles don’t agree. The point here, though, is this:
There’s a risk in thinking we’ve listened enough. Just when we think we “get it”—whether “it” is the meaning of a familiar sacred text, the situation of a friend in crisis, or the experience of historically oppressed groups—we may suddenly stumble upon a deeper perspective, or a whole new level of nuance, or a different side to the issue that has completely escaped us. Which calls us to listen first, last, and always.
In any isolated instance, of course, we may have to wrap up our listening for reasons of time or schedule. But we’re on thin ice in thinking we’ve “arrived” at enlightenment on any given issue and therefore need listen no more.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been away from this page for a couple of months. One reason for that involves a difficult experience that I’m starting to think—and write—my way through; you’ll see more on that in cyberspace over the next weeks and months. Another reason has to do with the strategic planning I’ve been doing with regard to The Dialogue Venture. As a result of that planning, you will probably see more of me in places like HuffPost Religion and, I hope, the Christian Century blog (my first post for them—yay!—is here) and the Doing Dialogue blog for the Public Conversations Project and various other places. Because I’m only one person, though, that means I’ll be blogging here on an occasional basis rather than the weekly or biweekly articles I’ve posted till now. Please feel welcome to stay in touch, watch this page, and check my screed elsewhere on the web too.
The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil. —Proverbs 15:28
One marvelous aspect of lectio divina (the slow, reflective, contemplative reading of sacred texts) is that it allows “weak signals” to come to the surface—connections between words, ideas, and glimpses of wisdom we might otherwise miss. I’m currently wading through the Book of Proverbs in lectio-like fashion, and it brought me to the verse above.
What emerged for me was the contrast between pour and ponder.
Pour, at least in this sentence, has an urgency, a volume, even a violence to it. Think of the Gatorade that gets dumped on the head of a winning football coach: it comes out fast, it drenches everything in its wake, one pour and it’s over.
Now think of ponder. It is slow, quiet. When pondering, we turn over ideas leisurely and examine them thoughtfully. The movement is precisely opposite that of pour. The outcome of ponder emerges more slowly, but it may make a deeper impact.
As I reflected on this verse, I couldn’t help but go back to my earlier post on the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Think of the pouring that took place soon after the tragedy: certainly an outpouring of shock and grief, but then a veritable tidal wave of opinion on every issue that could possibly relate.
Unlike the verse from Proverbs, I’m not thinking in terms of righteous or wicked here. In fact, not all the pouring was unhelpful; some of it, on the contrary, is required reading for the dialogue we must have in the wake of tragedies like this. (I’m thinking particularly of the haunting and honest “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”) But I could not avoid the notion that all this pouring crowded out any space for pondering.
So it is with U.S. culture. We are “always on,” with advertising in every conceivable space, 24/7 news, instant access to the chatter of social media on demand. So many public places (doctor’s waiting rooms, bank branches) now come equipped with TVs, which are inevitably on. Everything seems to require background music.
In other words, we are an always-pour culture. We could use more pondering. Many of our personal and social ills can only come to resolution through pondering. Issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff to raising a difficult teenager cannot be solved when the pouring absorbs all our time and attention. They are simply too complex for that.
How can we make space for pondering? The only way I know is on an individual basis. Facebook and CNN aren’t going away just because we need a little space. That calls on us to listen carefully to our inner compass—to sense when we need to enter the fray and when we need to “come away and refresh ourselves.”
What do you think?
It’s hard for me to compose a blog post on Good Friday and not write about Jesus. He is, after all, the central figure of the Christian faith, and his execution on a Roman cross is a key part of the central event. In Christian theology, the Crucifixion speaks volumes—innumerable volumes—about the love of God.
Does it have anything to do with dialogue? I think it does speak to dialogue, and the message is strikingly nuanced.
On the one hand, the Jesus of the Gospels waxes eloquent about the ideals behind dialogue. He blesses the peacemakers, commands us to love our enemies, calls for unity among believers, and identifies all these imperatives as a reflection of God’s very heart. We cannot love people most effectively without knowing them, and we cannot know them without listening: deeply, extensively, in the spirit of dialogue.
Then there is the example of Jesus himself. His mission, of course, involved delivering a message, so in the Gospels he does a great deal of talking. But he also listens and, I would submit, is changed by the listening. He listens in amazement to a Roman centurion and says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:1-9). He listens to a Gentile woman who deftly argues that she too is worthy of his attention (Mark 7:23b-30). He asks his disciples who they think he is (Mark 8:27-30)—and I don’t believe it’s a rhetorical question.
That is the one hand.
The other hand brings us much closer to Good Friday itself. It is the end of a life lived not in dialogue with the religious authorities, but in conflict with them. His penetrating and sometimes caustic remarks offend them deeply. They see him as a troublemaker in a time and place where troublemaking could lead to Roman crackdown. And then, one Passover season—with thousands of pilgrims turning Jerusalem into a security tinderbox—this Jesus goes into the temple and creates havoc, overthrowing tables and chasing out moneylenders.
Here is what I take from all this. Dialogue is a good, to be sure. More specifically, it is a good to be used when it makes sense—and in service to something else. In Jesus’ case, that “something else” involved two higher goods that he practiced throughout his ministry: truth regardless of consequences and love that crosses taboos.
You would think that “speaking the truth in love,” as St. Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:15), would be uncontroversial. Not everyone, however, wants the truth to be proclaimed. At times, none of us want the truth to be proclaimed. Similarly, not everyone wants the unlovable to be loved (and we all have our own “unlovables”). The simple action of upholding truth and compassion, then, can get you in trouble.
Perhaps that is one good message among many to take from Good Friday. Pursue truth relentlessly. Spread compassion extravagantly. Use dialogue where appropriate to pursue these higher goods and others. Together with the other gifts that the Jesus of the Gospels has given us, this legacy deserves our commitment and our praise.
We Christians are notorious for fighting. We fight among ourselves over subtleties of doctrine. We fight with other faith traditions over what constitutes Truth. The Crusades, an extreme example of fighting if there ever was one, are a horrible stain on our history.
Fortunately, some Christians have made good progress in dialogue over the past few decades, especially in the field of interfaith dialogue. That is a very good thing indeed. It puts us in line with a Savior who, I think, would heartily approve.
It is true that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life make no mention of dialogue. But Jesus in these accounts waxes eloquent about the ideals and objectives behind dialogue. In the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his most sweeping single statement of his approach to faith—he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). A bit later in the same sermon, he exhorts his followers to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).
This label, “children of God,” fascinates me. It speaks, I think, not of mere familial relations but rather of affinity: people who, out of their deep connection with the Divine, reflect God’s orientation toward the world. People who reflect God are peacemakers. People who reflect God are committed to love.
What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, how can I love you most effectively—how can I act in your best interests, for your greatest good—unless I know you? And how can I know you unless I listen to you?
Listening also reflects what we read about Jesus. Among the numerous accounts of him preaching, challenging, probing, and delivering his message, several stories show him listening as well. He heard—and was amazed by—the faith of the centurion who asked for his servant’s healing (Matthew 6:5-13). He listened to the woman who cleverly parried his understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations (15:21-28). One might argue that he posed his famous question—“who do people say that I am?”—not as some test of his disciples’ understanding but honestly to seek their insight.
This same Jesus also prayed for another fruit of dialogue: unity. “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).
That’s what I hear when I read the Bible. What does your faith—Christian or from another faith tradition—tell you about the need for dialogue? I would love to hear your thoughts.
How do you engage in dialogue when your tongue is “set on fire by hell”?
The biblical letter of James says quite a bit about the power of speech, none of it good. With the tongue we bless and curse. In our speech is “a world of iniquity.” The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Worst of all, according to the passage, no one can tame it.
Hyperbole? To an extent—though anyone who has suffered from the destructive power of gossip, slander, or insult can attest to the truth of these words. The question is, once we know how destructive our speech can be, what do we do about it?
After 35 years of studying the Bible, I thought I had the answer nailed. Our job as people of faith was to vet our speech carefully, think before we speak, remain silent when in doubt. It’s hard to argue with that advice: we do want to be precise in our language, so that we communicate our insights clearly and accurately and discuss sensitive issues with care.
But this solution, if it is the only solution, has serious flaws. Most notably, it is too easy to slide from careful speech to an attitude of fear. Aware of the issues our speech can raise, we begin to fear that we can’t get our words right, or that people will misinterpret them, or that they will inflame sensitivities on certain issues. As we distrust our tongue, we distrust ourselves. We might choose to hide ourselves within the bounds of “nice speech,” the kind that doesn’t bring up “politics and religion.”
That may get us through difficult situations without taking flak. But it prevents us from sharing our uniqueness—that one-of-a-kind perspective that just might change someone’s mind or shed new light on a problem.
I think the author of James had something else in mind. Early in the passage, he or she asserts that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect” while freely admitting that “all of us make many mistakes.” In other words, it would be lovely if we could conquer our tongues—but it ain’t going to happen.
So what will work? The author waits till the end to offer this hint: “Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” Translated: “out of the mouth the heart speaks.” We can only say what we are.
The challenge, then, is to change who we are.
This is why I believe our preparation for dialogue must start long before we get to the dialogue table. We need time to change from the inside out: to reorient our heart to openness and compassion, our mindsets toward curiosity, our awareness to the fact that we don’t have all the answers. If we do that, we can approach others with an orientation toward dialogue—with a clear mind and an open heart.
Best of all, we don’t have to keep such a close watch on our speech. When we speak from a good heart, good words tend to come out.
Changing from the inside out is a long process, of course, and taking care with our language is a virtue. But inner transformation can liberate us to share freely, speak boldly, and listen intensely—to participate fully in dialogue and the potential it can bring our world. A powerful message from an ancient sage.
This morning, to prepare for the upcoming annual convention of our Episcopal Diocese, I am pondering two resolutions on which we will vote. Because I have to suffer through this, so do you. (N.B.: There’s an important point at the end, and it goes way beyond The Episcopal Church. Still, if you’re short on time, skip to the boldface paragraph below.)
The two resolutions deal with the church’s trial courts, which come into play whenever a complaint is lodged against a priest or bishop. Our national convention has instituted a new structure for the court process; some people think it runs against the Church’s constitution. So, I’ve been doing some research to figure out what’s happening here.
Stop me if the following sounds oddly familiar.
One key issue is whether the power to make this change resides with the national authorities or the local authorities. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the Church’s constitution. Look through the constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.
Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s a clue: Think U.S. Constitution. And the Bible.
U.S. Constitution first. One key issue is whether the power to make changes resides with the national authorities or the local authorities (i.e., the states). It is perhaps the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Look through the Constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.
That’s why we have these fierce debates over the separation of church and state, say, or the right to privacy. You won’t find these words in the Constitution itself. Instead, the Constitution left the interpretation up to us.
The Bible, I would submit, is the same way. We have a text that, mediated by the Spirit of God, guides us in the way we live our lives, individually and collectively. It too was written in specific times and places. The authors could not have foreseen, for instance, the scientific findings of the past half millennium, which provide new data to inform the debate over when life begins or whether being GLBT is genetic.
In a nutshell, then: In critical parts of our common life, we have a guiding text before us. It does not answer everything, so our charge is to interpret the text—as well as the interpretations that have come before us—to arrive as close to the truth as we can.
If we can at least agree on this, it could be huge. Why?
Because this perspective cuts us loose from certainty: in particular, the certainty that drives us to point to one clause and divisively proclaim that “the Constitution clearly says.” Our resulting lack of certainty—as well as its corollary, the fact that we need one another to sort out the truth in light of the text—drives us to work together, to listen to one another, in the humility that no one has a corner on The Truth. Out of such collaboration come better dialogue, better ideas, better decisions, and greater unity.
If this is true, my earnest hope is that we can adopt this perspective more fully: in our diocese, in the United States, and in our faith traditions.
A friend of mine is looking for a job. She has a wonderfully diverse background but, for various reasons, has spent years living around the poverty line. Recently she was asked to interview for a job in line with some of her prior education (law school). To me, it had all the earmarks of a calling.
I find vocation fascinating, because it’s such a wondrous process. Elements of your background fit together in a way no one could have predicted. Something triggers a yearning you never knew you had. A passing remark illumines a pathway for the next stage of your life. I think I see that happening with my friend, and I told her so.
She was having none of it.
In no uncertain terms, she expressed her impatience with talk of vocation. When you know poverty, she said, you’re not focused on some ethereal call; you’re looking for a job. Something that puts bread on the table and keeps body and soul together till the next paycheck. This friend of mine consistently seeks God’s will for her life, so the notion of calling is not foreign to her. But her concern here was more immediate.
See the key words in the previous paragraph? When you know poverty.
I don’t. I never really have. My one brush with poverty lasted only a year or two, and even then I always knew where my next meal was coming from. By bringing me up short, my friend shed light on an entire frame of mind that I had never even considered.
I need a mindshift. A big one, as I mentioned in our previous post.
This particular mindshift is essential for people of faith in general, and middle-class (and up) Christians in particular. The Bible is rife with evidence of God’s concern for the poor; some theologians call it the single most important message therein. The Magnificat, Mary’s glorious prayer in the Gospel of Luke, expresses this elegantly:
(God) has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.
Churches can serve poor people without knowing them intimately—through financial support, for example. But if we stop there, I think we fall short of God’s call to stand in solidarity with the poor. That requires something deeper: face-to-face encounters, together with the mindshift in which we set aside our preconceptions, our experiences, our whole ways of thinking, and listen intently to the experience of the other.
If we do that, our eyes will be opened and our perspective expanded. We will stop thinking of “the poor” as a monolithic group and see the diverse humanity therein. Our approach to social issues surrounding poor people will change. So, in essence, will we—toward a more open heart, hand, and mind. All due to a mindshift that prepares the soil of our soul for authentic dialogue.