Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Give Me That Old-Timed Religion

as i was driving home the other day listening to the radio, an advertisement for a hospice care service came on.  i was struck by the phrase "care with a christian perspective."  i wondered, "what does that mean?  how would care from a christian perspective differ from care from a jewish or a buddhist perspective?  is care refused to non-christians?  are attempts made to convert non-christians receiving hospice care so that in those last days of life those being cared for can go to heaven?"  a "christian perspective" can mean so many things, and my experience is that it is often a very narrow perspective when an enterprise advertises their adherence to christianity.

a few days later, i read an ad for a hair salon in our local newspaper.  the ad touted the christian-based service the salon provides.  again, a warning light began flashing in my mind.  are christians more adept at styling hair than non-christians?  are muslim stylists less skillful or less honest than christian stylists?  should one avoid a hair stylist who's an atheist?

i remember many years ago when my wife had major surgery.  when an acquaintance learned who the surgeon was, she said, "you're so fortunate.  he's such a fine christian."  my wife and i both had the same reaction: what does his religion have to do with his skill as a surgeon.  the surgery was successful, and the surgeon was a kind person who provided excellent follow-up care after the surgery.  however, the woman in his office that took care of billing was anything but caring.  as we tried to work out a plan to pay for the care not covered by insurance, she was rude and insensitive to my wife during a time when my wife was dealing with a serious health crisis, suggesting that we were trying to avoid paying for the services provided because we were unable to pay the entire bill in one lump sum.  My wife left the doctor's office in tears, saying that the doctor might be a fine christian, but he didn't expect his staff to act as one would expect a christian to act.

the wearing of one's religion on one's sleeve, the use of one's religion to promote one's business, is an arrogant sort of self-promotion that suggests that somehow "my religion is superior to all others."  if it is necessary to advertise the "christian-ness" of one's business, i wonder whether the services provided are very good.  i know of nothing in any religion that causes one to be a better care-giver to those in the end stages of life, or a better hair stylist, or a better physician.

may we all let go of the idea that our religion somehow makes us better than others.  may we accept the fact that there are highly skilled service providers who are followers of other religions and of no religion.  may we ask first how proficient the service provider is, rather than questioning the person's religious beliefs.  may we turn from the arrogance of believing that being an adherent of this religion or that religion (or no religion) makes us better in any way that another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Forgive Us Our Debts

we have been watching a series of video lectures about st. paul's letter to the ephesians in our wednesday night family bible studies.  last wednesday night, as my wife and i talked about our reactions to this series while driving home, we were both struck by how often we are told, not only in these videos but also in so much of the rhetoric in church, how inadequate we are, how we need to try harder, to do more, to strive more.  we both wondered what effect all this constant nagging had on our perception of ourselves and of humankind in general.

this idea that God is perfect and we constantly fail in the face of God's perfection is at the core of much of what we think of as christianity.  every sunday, we read a corporate prayer of confession where we enumerate some aspects of our inability to live as God wishes us to live and ask for forgiveness.  after the prayer, we are assured of God's forgiveness and sing a short response.  i find it increasingly difficult to participate in these acts of contrition.  my evolving understanding of God is quite different from what my long-held faith once led me to believe.

if God is indeed all-knowing, if God is the essence of unconditional love, if God is the creator of all that is, and if we are created in God's image, how can we be so imperfect?  why would God create us to constantly fail?  God surely understands our imperfections and loves us anyway without the need to constantly grovel and beg for forgiveness in order to escape God's wrath.  instead, God must expect us to be kinder to ourselves in the same way that we believe God is kind to us.  God must expect that we will work to become kinder, more compassionate beings and to accept the fact that we will stumble and have to pick ourselves up again, rather than constantly wallowing in our inadequacy and beating ourselves up over our missteps.  perhaps it is ourselves we need to forgive rather than seeking God's forgiveness, which is surely inherent in God's nature without our asking for it.

may we resolve not to allow ourselves the luxury of wasting time feeling guilty for our imperfections, but may we instead learn from our mistakes.  may we accept the fact that we are imperfect, that we're all in this life together, and then be as compassionate towards ourselves as we are towards others.  may each of us be gentle with our failings and not cling to them.  shalom

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

May I Not Get Angry or Think Bad Thoughts about Another

this corollary to "may i think kindly of others" reminds me each morning that i cannot think kindly of others and be angry with them at the same time.  to think kindly means that i try to understand the underlying motivation of others rather than wasting time being angry with them.  there is a reason for harmful actions directed at me by others that has little to do with me and everything to do with their motives and intentions, and it is my responsibility to discern the why behind those actions objectively, without anger or thoughts of retaliation.  i must think, "how do i defuse the anger this person feels now," without becoming a doormat for another's anger and frustration.

we waste so much energy on anger.  how much more productive it is to use that energy to develop compassion for those who anger us or who direct their anger at us.  once i am able to see that those with whom i could become angry are like me and that their anger often stems from a hurt deep inside it is not so difficult to end bad thoughts about them.  when i forget that another is allowing his impulses to direct his actions rather than thinking through a situation and responding to it in a rational way, i may act with the same impulsiveness and respond to his anger thoughtlessly.  on the other hand, if i stop the bad thoughts which are propelling me headlong toward an angry response or when i refuse to allow my frustrations to cause me to act in anger toward another, i have saved myself much wasted energy, harmful emotions, and hurtful words directed at another.

anger and the bad thoughts that flow from anger are responses that have no productive value.  they poison the mind and cause our bodies great harm.  may we think before we act in anger.  may we remember how much others are like us and remind ourselves that thinking bad thoughts about others are the same as thinking bad thoughts about ourselves.  shalom

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

May I Think Kindly of Others

[my life has been harried over the last several days, with more tasks than i have time to complete.  my apologies for not getting this post completed by my self-imposed deadline.]

the title phrase of this post has become less difficult for me over the past couple of years.  as i've aged, it is not as hard for me to see that each of us often becomes so involved with the artificial construct of "self" that we look for others to blame when things don't go right in our lives.  we fail to recognize that life just happens, that mistakes are made by us and by those around us, that we're all in this life together.  once we are aware of how everyone fails sometimes and accept that this is part of living, it becomes more natural to think kindly of others, to forgive their faults, just as we must learn to forgive our own faults.

it's not nearly as important to figure who's to blame when things go wrong as to figure out why things go wrong.  i have a friend who is always saying "someone put this in the wrong place" or "someone" didn't do this or that correctly.  the friend knows full well when he blames "someone" who that someone is, yet he can't bring himself to say that "you" failed, and I want you to know that you failed.  it's easier for him just to correct whatever was done wrong without letting the guilty party know that things are not as he wants them to be, but in the process he must assign blame.  we're all like that, but as we come to realize that each of us is less than perfect, determining where blame lies is not important; fixing what's wrong is the significant action.

this clinging to the need to look to others to find fault and the craving for revenge for those faults, even if that revenge is nothing more than giving voice to our disappointment in the failures of others, wastes our time and energy; it keeps us from accepting our own limitations and embracing our shared humanity.  may we make the effort to think kindly of others so that we may think kindly of ourselves.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

To Seek Enlightenment

what is enlightenment?  i can't speak to enlightenment from a buddhist perspective, and this is the association that seems most important to me as i think my adaptation of the words of the dalai lama each morning.  i read about enlightenment, but, in order to approach an understanding of the concept, i'd need much more study and the guidance of a skilled teacher.  so, how can i seek an enlightenment that seems beyond my ken?

i remember in my college days that there were many christians who sought a charismatic awakening.  these seekers would go from church to church, yearning for the holy spirit to engender a mystical experience in them that would allow them to "speak in tongues."  i was curious about this phenomenon and had friends who had the experience of "holy ghost baptism" that resulted in their speaking in tongues, or at least that's what they believed.  i was always skeptical of the charismatic movement, though it provoked my curiosity.  those who had the experience seemed confident that it made a profound difference in their lives, though the difference wasn't apparent to me in their actions towards others.

when i think of seeking enlightenment, i have much the same view as i did toward the tongue-speaking experience.  enlightenment is something that i believe may come to me, not through my own pursuit of it an the expense of all else in my life, but rather, if it comes, it will be the result of seeking the other part of the phrase in the affirmation: "for the benefit of all beings."  right now, i believe the remainder of the affirmation is the key to enlightenment.  i may not become an "enlightened one" in this lifetime; i may never be enlightened.  all i can do is to seek enlightenment by walking the path, working for greater understanding, and making lovingkindness and compassion the focus of my life.  perhaps the dalai lama's original phrase "to achieve enlightenement" is better that my own idea of seeking enlightenment; i'm not quite ready to speak with the confidence of the dalai lama with regard to enlightenment.

may each of us follow the path as best we know how.  may we give and receive love.  may we see and understand our own suffering and seek to have compassion for our own suffering and that of others.  may we seek enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

To Expand My Heart Out to Others

part of my morning affirmation borrowed from the words of the dalai lama expresses the intention to expand my heart out to others.  when i pray this prayer, the heart i hope to expand is still my own heart.  this heart, the center of all that i experience and feel, is focused on me, and i am asking for the insight to include others in the concerns of my heart.  rather than wishing to lose my own core in the service of others, i am seeking to see all those i encounter as like myself and as worthy of consideration as my own self.  i am seeking to abandon an attitude that places my needs, my desires, my cravings at the forefront.  i am learning that the "others" i touch each day have needs, desires, and cravings that are essentially like my own and as significant as my own.

my goal is to put these others on an equal footing with myself in my hierarchy of needs.  i am seeking to grow so that i no longer see others as means to my own ends, as objects for me to use for my own gratification.  christians often interpret jesus' command to lose one's own life in order to save it as an imperative to abandon any concern for one's own well-being and to put the needs of others ahead of our own need.  yet, he also said that the second-most important commandment was to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself.

he goes on to illustrate his point with the parable of the good samaritan who cares for a man wounded on the side of the road after others have passed the injured man by.  the good samaritan interrupts his own journey to care for his neighbor, who is in fact a stranger, but the good man does not abandon his journey to stay and care for this stranger; the samaritan sees that the injured man is cared for and continues on, promising to return and take care of any costs that have been accrued during his absence.  this is the essence of expanding our hearts out to others: we see their needs and do what we can to address them while taking care of our needs as well.  it is not a case of "either-or."  what we lose when we lose our lives is the belief that our own needs supersede those of others, that others are less important than we are.

may we open our hearts to include others, seeing those we encounter along the path as neighbors whose needs are like our own.  may we help those others to the innkeeper and see that they are cared for as we move along the path, just as the samaritan in jesus' story did.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

May I Use All My Energies . . .

to develop myself.  how can i "develop myself?"  the phrase from the dalai lama's well-known affirmation suggests that we each have a responsibility for our own growth, our mental, our spiritual, and our physical development.  the task belongs to no one else, not God, our parents, our spouse, our friends, or our teachers--it is our own to do or to neglect.

so, how do i live up to this great work that is mine alone?  what are the ways in which i develop myself?  first, each day ought to begin with a refocusing on the need to live mindfully.  i must resolve at the beginning of each day to refuse to stumble blindly through the tasks of the day as if they are meaningless chores.  when i do a simple job like feeding our many pets (maybe too many, but that's another topic altogether), am i conscious of the benefit of my work to these lovely beings and to myself, or am i unaware of what i'm contributing to the good of the world?  when i prepare breakfast, am i mindful of the joy i bring to my partner and myself and the nourishment to our bodies that healthy food brings?  do i stop to realize the how and why of the onerous tasks that must be done?  so, living as mindfully as i can is a part of developing myself, and the act of awareness of how mindfulness contributes to my development is the start.

second, i need to seek the wisdom of others who are on the path of developing themselves.  their willingness to share what they learn is a way in which they develop themselves, reaching out in lovingkindness to others on the same path.  each day, i must read about what these explorers are discovering.  each day, i must spend time listening to what others are saying and learn from them.  we learn even from those who oppose us and put obstacles in our way.  again, mindfulness as i read and listen are essential.  so is a sense of gratitude for these others who give of themselves in the process of their own development.

third, it is part of my becoming to share what my journey along the path is teaching me.  that is the reason for this blog.  in the process of writing about my stumbling and bumbling, i grow and perhaps i help others to grow.  i am suspicious of those who communicate as if they have the answers, who write or speak with a self-assurance that suggests that theirs is the right way and others who deviate must be wrong.  i pray that i never come across that way.  we can't make it over the obstacles if we don't lean on each other, give each other a gentle push now and then, pull each other along.  the solution, perhaps, is to hike along together, rather than making our goal to find the end of the pathway.

finally, implicit in every facet of this use of our energies is a gratefulness that there are tasks to be done mindfully, there is learning to be explored, there is growth to be shared.  to be grateful that there are mundane jobs that must be done is a way of thanking the universe for our existence; in this gratitude we participate in the love that is a part of all creation.  to be grateful to those from whom we learn is a way of expressing joyful appreciation for their contributions to our own progress and to celebrate their progress.  to be grateful for our own movement along the path motivates us to share what we experience with others and to articulate a basis for comparison of what we have in common with others.

to develop oneself is not a lonely, self-centered process.  it requires mindful awareness to all around us: to the sounds, the sensation of touch, the voices of others.  it is a shared journey that enables us to experience our kinship with all sentient beings.  may we support each other along the path, learning from our own mistakes and discoveries and from those of others.  may we give of our own energies when others lag and lean on others when our own energy fails.  shalom.