Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stop and Smell the Roses?

as i looked at the name of my blog, "mindfulness and transformation," this morning, i began to think about the connection of those words and to wonder if i truly have become more mindful and, if so, in what ways has that mindfulness changed me.  i'm not as mindful as i'd like to be. i still find myself fretting over the future, spending time regretting some things in the past, multitasking at the expense of what is happening  in the present moment.  i imagine perfect scenarios for the immediate future and long for them to come into being, but i find myself being called back to a present that, while imperfect, is full of joy and is far happier than i would have believed possible a few years ago.

i find that i am much more content with things as they are and am less inclined to rail against life's failure to turn out just as i had hoped.  when i am called from what i've told myself i should be doing to attend to the needs of someone else, i've discovered that i am not so irritated that what i had planned is not happening.  i understand that another person's needs are more important that attending to my own tasks at exactly the time i'd planned, and i am able to focus more fully on paying attention to that person in need.

the effort to live more mindfully has been transforming, though my progress along the eightfold path is halting.  i stumble, but following the path is worth the effort.  to be able to simply sit in my den, experiencing what is going on around me--the sound of the floor clock ticking, the pleasure of the gentle breeze of the fan behind me, the feel of the fabric of my chair against my legs and arms, the hum of the always-on sound system, the glow of the kitchen lights in the corner of my eyes, the warmth of the laptop computer on my upper legs--is something that would have gone unnoticed a few years ago.  to close my eyes and find my mind at rest, not racing from topic to topic to solve every problem or to organize my day is a wonderful new phenomenon.

so, am i mindful?  well, sometimes.  has that sometime mindfulness been transformative.  emphatically, yes, and that emphatic "yes" encourages me to continue to increase the time i spend living mindfully.  may we all find the time to just be in the present moment.  may we find that the most basic tasks of life are enjoyable if we are mindful as we do those tasks, rather than mindlessly racing through them as we think about what may never come to pass.  may we be at peace within our own minds and skins so that we may be at peace with others.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Do Good to Them That Hate You

ancient hatreds seem to die hard.  it is difficult to understand how this can be.  as i watch and read about the strife between the israelis and the palestinians of the gaza strip, i am horrified.  i can't pretend to understand this conflict, but it appears that thousands of palestinians are crowded into this tiny sliver of land, living in deplorable conditions.  on the one side is the sea with an israli blockade, on the other, the powerful israeli armed forces.  above are israeli war planes.  the palestinians fire rockets into israel, causing indiscriminate damage that provokes retaliation by israel.  bombers cross the border into israel, killing israeli civilians, and the israelis respond with more violence.  in the conflict, the government and armed forces of israel appear to be conquerors, using overwhelming force at will against the population of gaza, killing far more innocents than hamas combatants and creating even more enemies who will continue the cycle of brutality.  why can't one side simply end the fighting by refusing to continue?

as i ponder this in my own ignorant and simplistic way, it suddenly dawns on me that the origins of all such conflict is personal.  as i smugly condemn the israelis for their brutal role in using force to try and keep the lid on this simmering cauldron of hatred, i am reminded of my own anger toward the relatives of my father's wife and toward one particular relative that i see as taking hurtful and insulting action against me and my family in the wake of my father's death.  it is only because i live so far away and the only means of convenient communication with this man and other of his relatives are telephone or email that i am able to keep my silence rather than venting my frustration in words that are hurtful and that would cause further escalation of our differences, but the hurt and anger, the longing to say those cruel words, are still there.

how can i condemn the anger of israelis and palestinians with one another while this anger eats at me?  when a palestian father joins the struggle against israel and takes revenge for the killing of his child by stealing into israel to set off a bomb in a crowded market, his anger is personal, and his longing for revenge grows from his powerlessness in the face of an enemy that seems large and impersonal.  but this enemy is made up of individuals like him.  how many israelis have been touched by violence perpetrated by palestinians?  in the end, all such anger and the violence that grows from it are personal, having a deep root in a single act that is multiplied by the cycle of retaliation.

may each of us examine our own hearts for the source of enmity with our "enemies."  may we see that there are no enemies, only those who may "despitefully use" us (luke 6:28, KJV), that ill use perhaps stemming from a perceived offense by us that might have been thoughtless or unintended.  may we see that we are the same and that the only way to end the cycle of hatred is for one or both parties to say, "enough," for one to break off the conflict by refusing to participate in it.  may anger be replaced by peace, may hatred be replaced by love. shalom.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Until We Know By Heart the Table of Forgiveness

as part of my meditation each morning i pray my own version of the lord's prayer.  the central part of that prayer has to do with our relationships with one another.  in my prayer, i think of all those who suffer because they are without life's necessities; they may lack shelter, food, the comfort of loving connections to others, or adequate clothing.  i think then of our responsibility to address these needs that so many have.  i think of the suffering that is caused by our clinging to ancient hatreds and prejudices and by seeking to impose control over others through the use of force, and i pray that we can forgive one another and be forgiven by them for the wrongs we have done so that the cycle of violence can end.

here for me is the heart of true religion: seeking to alleviate the physical and emotional needs of others by our actions and seeing that we are all the same despite our predispositions to stereotype those who appear to be different from us because of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or religion.  the idea that we are reborn in another body after our death is helpful, i think, in that it does away with these barriers that seperate us from one another.  when we think that another person may have been our mother, our father, our child, our sibling in another life, we see that we are all related and that superficial differences are unimportant.

by seeing others as connected to us and the universality of the desire for loving connections with one another, we break down the walls of hatred and prejudice that artificially keep us from awareness of the humanity and suffering in others; we understand that all suffer and we understand that, by easing the suffering of another, we lessen our own suffering.  may we see ourselves in each person we encounter.  may we pray that each one's suffering may be lessened.  may our actions result from hearts filled with lovingkindness and compassion, hearts that respect each person  shalom.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

And Afterward I Knew

a few days ago family and friends gathered to bury my father.  he had requested that we hold only a graveside service before his cremated remains were interred with my mother's in the cemetery where several other family members are buried.  at the same time, we held a committal service for my aunt, the wife of my mother's brother, who had died two years ago at her daughter's home about an eight-hour-drive away.  her daughter brought the urn containing my aunt's remains with her.  relatives came from near and far to what was a surprisingly joyous occasion--joyous because we see each other so seldom, and we were able to recall so much happiness from our years growing up near each other and to catch up on what was happening in each of our lives.

as i reflect back on this wonderful, yet tiring, reunion, my mind is drawn to where i am on my journey through life.  it seems a good time to take stock of what i believe and why and to think about some of the unanswered questions that still await resolution.

first, i remain convinced that there is a God whose Intelligence is the first cause of all that is.  my understanding of the Creator-of-Everything is very different than what it was a few years ago, but the existence of God is not dependent on my perception.  i believe that God is the very essence of love, a love that is unconditional, a love that flows through and permeates every thing that exists, a love that is so complete that it is beyond full understanding.  this Divine Love is present in every sentient being, though it is only complete in God.  the Love that is God is with us every moment, suffering with us, rejoicing with us, comforting us, seeking to bring out whatever is good and positive within us, calling us away from whatever is evil or negative.

second, i believe that God has no plan for our individual lives, except to desire us to give and receive love.  this is why we were created, and it is our calling as human beings.  since we have been given the free will to choose how we live our lives, we have the ability to live lives that make the world a better or a worse place for others and for ourselves.  this is the price we pay for living beyond the control of God, and only a God who truly loves what God creates would give such freedom, a freedom that brings to the creatures with consciousness a profound responsibility.

third, i believe that evil and the suffering caused by evil exist because of our choices, not because God stands by, indifferent to the suffering that abounds in this world.  God allows suffering because to intervene in order to prevent suffering would remove our ability to choose.  to order the world so that suffering did not exist would make humans puppets with no choice about how life is lived.  God/Love calls us to live so that suffering is alleviated, but it we who must respond to that call; we can answer the call or ignore it, but the choice is ours.

beyond these three basic beliefs, i have only questions:  what happens when we breathe our last?  are we reborn to another chance to live lives more lovingly, do we simply surrender to the ultimate darkness, or do we live on in some eternity that rewards or punishes us for the choices we've made?  is any religion the "right" one, or is religion a delusion?  what is the best way to confront evil and to lessen suffering in ourselves and others?

perhaps the next time i take stock of where i am in my journey of faith and disbelief, some of those questions will have answers.  until then, may each of us choose good rather than evil, choose positive states of being over negative ones.  may we develop wisdom to know which choices to make.  may we develop lovingkindness that guides the choices we make.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Suffer the Little Children

jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
jesus love the little children of the world.
so goes the children's song so many of us learned in sunday school.  do those who scream hateful slogans at busloads of children from central america think of the words of that song during their protests?  do they think of the ordeal these children have gone through to reach the usa or the children's violence-filled lives in the countries they fled?

when jesus said, "when you do this to the least of these, my children, you do this to me," there was no exception for unaccompanied minors from central america.  refusing to treat these refugees humanely and to provide them sanctuary is ignoring the teachings of jesus.  when we say that what's happening in their home countries is not our problem, we are wrong.  injustice anywhere is our problem, it is the problem of every human being, especially those in a privileged society like ours.  when we say that we can't take care of all these children because we can't even take care of those in need in our country already, we are wrong.  the fact is that we choose not to use the abundant resources in our country to take care of those in need, but in this wealthy nation there are adequate resources to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.

may we see this crisis for what it is: a test of our national character and our humanity, a call to gain our lives by losing them in service.  may we abandon political expediency and the clamor for the easy solution of loading these children on planes and dumping them back in their home countries.  may we listen to the words of jesus, take up our cross, and follow him.  shalom

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All Things within This Fading World Hath End

last tuesday afternoon i received a call that my dad was in the hospital and that i should come as soon as possible.  my dad had moved with his wife to an assisted living facility in a town about ten hours from where i live, so hopping in the car to see him required some preparation.  my wife and i packed and headed out as quickly as we could, stopping along the way to pick up my younger sister who lives about an hour away.

we drove through the remainder of the afternoon and evening through some terrible storms that slowed our speed down to around thirty miles per hour for much of the way.  we finally arrived at the hospital around one on wednesday morning to find my dad awake in anticipation of our arrival.  he was overjoyed to see us, and we were relieved that we made it while he was still alive and lucid, as we had been told that he might not make it until we got there.

he remained alert throughout the day wednesday, and we enjoyed our conversations with him.  all of us, including him, knew that these would be our last visits with each other.  he told both my sister and me how much he loved us, what good children we had been, and how glad he was that we were able to come see him.  by thursday, he had to be sedated with so much pain killer that he was no longer alert, and he slept through the day thursday and friday.  my sister insisted on staying with him each night while my wife and i went to a nearby motel to sleep.

on saturday morning about 5:15 my sister called to say that he was gone.  we rushed to the hospital to see him one last time and headed home by around 6:30, having made funeral arrangements and gathered his belongings from his apartment during the day on friday.  it was difficult sitting in the hospital room watching him inch towards death, even though we knew he was in no pain.  the attempts at comforting us by visitors and callers were little help.  i grew tired of hearing people tell us "he's in God's hands now," "we never know when God will take us," "God needs him now more than you do," and similar platitudes that were intended to ease our sorrow.

i wanted to say, "can't you see that his body is simply worn out and can no longer sustain his life?  the end of his life has nothing to do with what God needs or wants.  life has a beginning and an end, and dad has reached that end."  instead i thanked them for their well-intentioned words and kept my thoughts to myself.  dad lived for almost ninety-six years and had a full, rich life, and i am glad he was my dad.  i will miss him terribly, and his death reminds me that my life, too, will come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

may i come to my end in as dignified a fashion as my dad, surrounded my family who loves me.  may each of us live so that when we die people will say that our life was well-lived.  may we leave behind a legacy of lovingkindness, compassion, and generosity.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Establishment of Religion?

in the memorial and remonstrance, written in 1785, james madison said, "during almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of christianity been on trial. what have been its fruits? more or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."  the  memorial and remonstrance was written in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry to use government funds to support christian churches in virginia.

the principle of government neutrality in matters of religion continues to be a thorny problem in the united states, as the recent supreme court ruling in the hobby lobby case demonstrates.  subsequent to that ruling and president obama's announcement of his intention to issue an executive order banning discrimination in hiring by federal contractors, several religious leaders sent the president a letter asking for a religious exemption to that rule for religious organizations that receive funds under federal contracts.  this seems a reasonable request, even if one disagrees with the religious belief that lgbt citizens are violating christian teachings.   should a religious organization be forced to employ those that they believe are violating the religious principles of that organization?  should an lgbt person accept employment from an organization that condemns them as "sinful" because of the sexual orientation with which they were born?

the right questions, it seems to me, is: should government contracts be awarded to religious organizations?  there is little doubt that some religious organizations do much good, but should the government support "faith-based" organizations by employing them to fulfill government contracts?  should state governments furnish textbooks and other materials to religious schools because the parents of the students attending those schools have helped pay for those materials through the taxes they pay?  should public school districts be forced to supply specialized instructional personnel in certain areas, like special education, for students in religious schools?  these are all areas where we seem to have crossed the line separating church and state in the united states, and, in the case of school policy, the courts have often sided with religious organizations and against public schools.

as we, though government policy, become more entangled with religious organizations, the closer we move to establishing an official religion in the united states.  the persecution complex of the religious right and the push for control of government at all levels by the advocates of dominionism seek to move us closer to the establishment of christianity as the de facto, if not the de jure, official religion of the usa.

the tax-exempt status of religious groups is another way in which all citizens are forced to support religious organizations, even those with which they disagree.  why should an atheist have to pay more in taxes to make up the shortfall created by granting tax exemptions for the church, mosque, or temple down the street?  why should we be able to deduct our contributions to our church from our income for tax purposes, beyond the extent that those contributions actually support charitable endeavors such as homeless shelters?

as we look at the great harm the religious dominance of governments has created around the world, madison's words from 1785 are as true now as they were then.  one has only to look at religious states like iran and israel, governments identified with a particular religious groups like that of iraq or syria, and the persecution of one religious group by a more dominant group like the persecution of burmese muslims by burmese buddhists to see how right madison and jefferson were as they fought to build a wall of separation between church and state in the young united states.

may those of us who identify as members of a religious group use our influence to continue the struggle that was a part of the reason the united states came into being.  may we practice our religion without infringing on the rights of others to practice or not practice religion according to the dictates of their conscience.  shalom.