Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blessings Abound

as 2013 comes to an end, my thoughts turn to all the blessings in my life, and i am filled with a deep sense of gratitude.  in my morning meditation, i thought of my wife, of our children and their spouses, of our neighbors, of our many friends--especially of those in our church, of those whose blogs i follow, of local charities and international charities--of the Haiti Education, the Clinton, the Calvert Foundations, of Heifer International, of Solar Under the Sun and Living Waters of the World--of those who seek to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to give water to the thirsty as they serve in our government, of president obama and the good he has tried to do, of all those who seek to relieve suffering in the world.  there are so many who to do good in the world, and i am grateful to all of them.

how wonderful life is because of the efforts of those who live lives of lovingkindness and compassion.  as we begin 2014, may we all redouble our efforts to live so that others may look to us in gratitude, may we make it our goal to relieve suffering where we can and to assist others to lessen the burdens of others.  may we live each day gratefully for the air we breathe and for the oppotunity to enlarge our minds and hearts.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Joy to the World

though this will be posted to my blog on christmas eve, i'm writing one day earlier.  on christmas eve, my family will be together to celebrate our christmas together--perhaps the last time we'll be able to do this, as my 95-year-old father will be moving into an assisted living facility about 12 hours away so his wife can be closer to her family--and i will play for two christmas eve services.  all that activity will leave no time for writing.

today, as i sit in my office at the church, i look back on how life has changed for me during the past year.  i realize that i am much more at peace with myself and with those around me.  petty irritations still get under my skin, but i now see that they are exactly that: "petty."  i am more aware of my kinship with others, more cognizant of how much more we are all alike than we are different.  i am not as prone to be offended by the speech and actions of others or as demanding for recognition.  when someone treats me badly, i can feel the first surge of anger subsiding to be replaced by a vision of that person as a suffering child or as someone dear to me who could easily be my sibling, my parent, or my own child.  i often find myself saying, "if this person were my mother or my child, would i become angry so easily?"

this realization of our interconnectedness has changed my outlook on life, and i know that much of this change in my heart and mind has come about because of the time i've spent in meditation.  the ability to put things in perspective has helped me to be more appreciative of others, to feel a deep sense of calm, and to be more kind.  i can see, too, that my change in point-of-view has had an effect on the behavior of others.  i feel much more loved and appreciated by those nearest me, and i sense that they act more lovingly towards me.

my prayer for myself and for each of you this day and each day is that we all perceive a deep connection to those around us, treating them, even when they don't deserve it, as we want to be treated.  may the joy of this season of love bring you and me a happiness that transcends the momentary sufferings we experience and a calm that doesn't waste time classifying live's events as "good" or "bad," but simply as part of the natural fabric of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Go Thou and Do Likewise

while we've been traveling during the past couple of weeks, i've been unable to post to this blog.  i had every intention of keeping up my each-tuesday posts during our trip, but somehow this didn't happen--jet lag, internet availability, erratic schedules, and just plain fatigue all interfered with my good intentions.  now that we've returned to the states, i'll do my best to return to my weekly schedule.

there are many things i want to write about, but as i reflect back on our trip, one thing sticks in my mind:  the amazing kindnesses of strangers in other lands.  this has been true on every trip we've taken outside the united states, and this trip was no exception.  as we traveled on a local train outside salzburg on our way to oberndorf to visit the "stille nacht" church, a kind austrian lady picked up on our uncertainty about where to disembark and where to go once we did get off the train.  in flawless english she answered every question.  with her help, we left the train at the proper stop, and, as we stepped down, another austrian couple introduced themselves and offered to escort us to the church, as they were making their annual pilgrimage there.

as we walked along, they explained that they live near vienna and come to salzburg every december for the christmas markets and concerts.  they always make a trip out to oberndorf to visit this little chapel built to commemorate the creation of the world's best-loved christmas song, and it was our good fortune to choose to make our pilgrimage on the day they had chosen.  we had a wonderful time visiting with them and learned through them that we could cross a bridge over the salzach river into the town of laufen, germany, and cross another bridge back into austria on the other side of laufen.  we four made this long trek together, and this time with these former strangers, now friends, is one of our fondest memories of our trip to germany, austria, and switzerland.

there are many other instances of such kindnesses that i could tell, but this one serves to illustrate how much we are all the same and how there are always others along our paths that are ready to help us.  my prayer today is that you and i can be one of those who find ourselves on the side of the path
 when another needs our help.  may we be the "good samaritan" for another this day.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When the Question Is More Important that the Answer

i'm writing this on a saturday evening because my wife and i should be landing in germany on tuesday morning.  i say "should" since we may have some messy winter weather in our part of the country sunday afternoon into monday.  our flight is scheduled to depart on monday afternoon, and, if the predicted weather arrives, we may not be able to make it to the airport.  if we do, our flight may be delayed or cancelled.  on top of this uncertainty, my wife has come down with a cold--sniffles, cough, sore throat, but fortunately no fever--and is sleeping now after having taking something to help ease her symptoms.

ordinarily, i would feel quite stressed by this turn of events, but tonight i'm experiencing a deep peace.  i'm ok with whatever happens, because i know that it is simply a part of life.  weather and colds happen; they are neither good nor bad; they just "are."  if our flight is cancelled, there will be another.  somehow, we'll be able to reach the airport.  sooner or later, the cold will ease and the medicine will relieve the runny nose and cough.  we might miss a day in germany, but we may see some beautiful snow around here in its place.

in this quiet time, i've been catching up on some other blogs, and several of them have addressed what happens when an individual life comes to an end.  i've never been too concerned about heaven or the "afterlife."  spending eternity in a huge city where there are golden streets and gem-encrusted city walls, where the elect spend all their time singing in a celestial choir, has little appeal to me.  the idea that i might be reborn and have another go at trying to do better sounds much more attractive.  i have no way of knowing if that's any more likely than the traditional christian view of what happens after death, and i'm in no hurry to find out.  it's enough to try and figure out this current lifetime.

i spent much of my morning meditation contemplating the possibility that every person i encounter is related to me through some previous life.  could the next person i see have been at some time my mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter?  wouldn't it be wonderful if we are all the same--neither male nor female, jew nor greek?  how does the possibility of such kinship change how i view those others who are not really "others?"

my prayers for each of us tonight are that we experience the even-minded peace and calm that allow us to accept and appreciate life as it comes to us, that we open our minds to the possibilities that flow from not having all the answers.  may freedom from stress in the face of uncertainty and the joy of exploring many alternatives to the meaning of life excite our minds and enliven us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Through All the Changing Scenes of Life

my dad is facing a tough decision concerning his living situation, and my heart is aching for him.  today is his 95th birthday, and he may have to separate from his wife, my step-mother, because of her deteriorating mental condition.  it is not a choice he wants to make, but her care and her own family's abiity to care for her may force him to live apart from her.  he is in excellent health for a person his age; his mind is keen and is able to care for himself and live independently.  he still believes that he can provide care for his wife, but her worsening condition makes that impossible, and he is unable to accept what is happening.

soon i must call my brother and sister to advise them of what is happening and to solicit their help in coming to a decision on how best to help our dad.  then, we must find a way to approach him so that he sees that what he wants to happen is not going to happen and to provide whatever support we can to help him decide on his own future.  he is strong but i know that his heart will break if his wife must go to live near her family.  such an event will mean that he will probably never see her again, and, if he does, she may no longer recognize him.   already, she has periods when she does not know him, and the doctors say that these periods will become more frequent and long-lasting.

it's tough when someone you love will be put in a situation where you are powerless to prevent them being hurt and there is little you can do to ease their suffering.  i suppose in my dad's case, the best we can do for him is to let him know we hurt with him and for him, and that we will try to find a new home for him that will enable him to live securely near one of us.

my prayer today is that all those who are going through changes in their lives that they wish could be avoided will find the inner strength to deal with those changes.  may they think clearly and choose the best path, and may those of us who love them support and care for them in whatever ways we can.  shalom.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Follow with Reverent Steps the Great Example

this week's post is a day late, and there are many things i'd like to say in it.  i'll try to focus on just one theme, though.  a few days ago as i rode my bike through the park, i thought of the meaning of worship and how often the words "worship" and "service" are tied together in the christian religion; christians often speak of a "worship service," meaning the gathering together for the purpose of worship.

as i rode along, i recalled a poem by john greenleaf whittier that was at one time included in most every american hymnal.  these lines ended the first stanza: "to worship rightly is to love each other, each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer."  that hymn has fallen into disuse because of the exclusionary opening line ("o brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother"), but it contains so much of the essence of true religion (not just the christian expression of such religion) that i wish we could sing the hymn frequently.

a central teaching of any true religion (and the foundation of any moral code for those who reject religion altogether) is the abandonment of "me" as the starting point.  in christianity that concept is expressed in the teachings that "whoever would be great among you, must become a servant" (mark 10:43) and "in order to save one's life, one must lose it" (mark 8:35).  jesus taught that in serving others, one serves God, that worship and loving service are inseparable, that they are, in fact, the same thing.

one of our ministers recently wrote a blog about our motives when we pray.  so often our prayers are centered on ourselves, whereas the right intention should be to make mindfulness of God the reason for prayer.  right mindfulness in prayer isn't about how one benefits from having prayed; it is about being so mindful of the presence of God in our lives that one must pray in order to allow God to speak to us, to spend time concentrating on the Divine to the exclusion of all other concerns.

my prayer for each of us today is that we allow our needs to become so enmeshed with the needs of others that we become one with them.  may we fill our lives with love for one another, with smiles for one another, with kindly deeds for one another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sufficient to the Day

the past several weeks have been filled with tons of work.  i serve as our local symphony's librarian, which means that, in addition to maintaining our library of music, i must see that music is ready for rehearsals for each performance.  this entails ordering any music not already in our library and distributing the music for the upcoming concert to the principal string players to have bowing marked in it.  once that is done, i must then get copies of the music to all the string players so they have time to prepare before the first rehearsal.  parts have to be distributed to all the wind and percussion players, and folders made up for every stand before the first rehearsal.  because we are a regional orchestra, players come from a wide geographic area, so lots of music must be mailed which requires many envelopes being addressed and many trips to the post office.  once a concert is completed, all the music must be collected, sorted, and filed away or returned to the company from which it was rented, since some music is not available for purchase to add to our library.   because we've expanded our season, doubling the number of concerts from past seasons, this work has increased exponentially.

in addition to my job as the symphony librarian, i am serving as the interim music director in my church.  this means i am responsible for playing for all services, preparing the choir for each service, planning the music for all services, and working with other staff members to coordinate the church's ministries.  i find myself at the church most every day for several hours practicing and planning.

i often tell people that i'm ready to "retire from retirement."  the work load has been daunting at times, though it is all work i love and believe is important.  one of the things i try to guard against is trying to cram too much into each day.  as i begin each day, i remind myself that there are only so many hours in the day and that i must focus on each task as it comes to me without worrying about those things that are going undone.  i must set priorities and do what is most necessary first without worrying about the work that can come later, and, perhaps most importantly, i must not fill every waking hour with work; i must reserve some time that is relaxation time, like the time i'm spending now.

when i'm able to order my work in this way, i find that the time available is sufficient.  it is only when i allow the volume of work ahead to overwhelm me that i moan and fret about how much there is to be done that i want to throw up my hands and walk away from it all.  as i look ahead, i see that many of the responsibilities that i have in addition to the work i've discussed above (like serving on our church board, chairing committees, and the like) will soon come to an end as my term expires, and that will ease my work load enormously.  i try to recall that there will be ample time to accomplish those things that are important and that everything can't be done at once.

my prayer for myself and for you is that we each rejoice in the work we're given, learning to appreciate the joy that we find in doing work that is important and fulfilling.  may we each relish each moment we spend in tasks that contribute to the well-being and happiness of others and make our work a joyful offering of service.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Forgive Us Our Debts . . .

what does it mean to "forgive?"  the dictionary definition i read just before i began writing this morning--"stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake"--seems inadequate.  forgiveness, it seems to me, is more than a simple "stop" of an angry or resentful feeling.  in the christian religion with its emphasis on sins against God, there is much talk about forgiveness.  on most Sunday mornings we hear the phrase, "if we confess our sins, God is quick to forgive." and, in the lord's prayer, we pray "forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us)."

in some christian traditions, there are acts of contrition that are a precondition to forgiveness, such as saying a certain number of "hail marys," but in our calvinist tradition, the act of confession assumes God's immediate forgiveness.  both of these traditions, i believe, make forgiveness too easy to achieve.  for christians like me, God's forgiveness comes so painlessly that it is far too simple to be absolved of failings without any analysis of the underlying causes of those offenses, flaws, or mistakes that are part of the definition.

the difficulty is in forgiving oneself.  i think this is the atonement, the act of contrition, that is necessary.  in last week's post, i recounted my failing to act in love in a certain situation and the persistent punishing myself that i engaged in before i was able to forgive myself.  i'm not suggesting that this reaction is the correct one.  instead, i'm trying to get at the way i finally was able to forgive myself for my behavior.  it was in the reasonable analysis of the whys and wherefores of my feelings that i was ultimately able to let go of my anger and resentment toward myself, and in so doing, to forgive the wrong others had done me.

we don't have to take the easy path of forgiveness of confessing to God and then telling ourselves that it's ok because God forgives us, nor do we have to keep beating ourselves up when we fail to act with love and compassion.  what is essential is that we step back from our angry selves and look on ourselves with the same compassion we work to have for others.  we must seek the root causes of our failings.  once we have understanding, we must make it our intention to put forth the effort to act in lovingkindness and compassion when similar situations arise in the future.  only in so doing can we find the forgiveness we seek.

my prayer today is that each of us will develop the skill of treating ourselves with the love and compassion with which we seek to treat others, forgiving ourselves for our mistakes through the act of contrition that is true understanding.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Greatest of These . . .

patient . . . kind . . . not rude . . . not irritable . . . those are some of the qualities of love about which i try to remind myself each day.  a few days ago, i forgot all of those.  i had gone to a store to return something for my wife, and i ran into difficulties getting the correct amount credited back to my credit card.  the item had been purchased in another store that was a part of this large chain, and the original purchase had been made in another state that has a different sales tax rate.  when the clerk rang up the credit, there was a discrepancy of a few cents, and i explained that it would be impossible for me to pay my credit card bill when the remaining balance on the account was less than a dollar.  my bank wouldn't allow me to issue a check for such a small amount, and the credit card company wouldn't accept a payment in pennies.

the clerk didn't know how to adjust the amount so that i would get my full refund and had to call for a manager to come assist her.  other customers appeared at her station, and i suggested that she help them while we waited for the manager to come.  after she had taken care of all the other customers and considerable time had passed, no other employee had shown up to help with my problem, and the clerk left her station to look for assistance.  more time passed.  my wife was waiting for me outside, thinking that my errand would take only a few minutes.

i grew impatient.  finally, i went to another counter and asked the clerk there to page a manager to the station where i had been waiting.  i returned, but no one came.  i went back to the next counter and requested another page, explaining that i had been waiting now for quite some time and needed to get on with other errands.  still, no one came.  i went to a clerk at one of the check-out stations and asked how i could get a manager over to resolve my problem.  she said that she had heard several pages for a manager to come help me, and that was all that could be done.

in exasperation, i returned to my spot and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited some more.  finally, three managers and the original clerk returned at about the same time my wife came into the store, having feared i had run into some problem in returning the item she had purchased.  by this time, i wasn't patient, i wasn't kind, i was irritable, i was rude, and the fact that not one of the three managers seemed to think that i was owed an apology or that the situation in which i found myself was anything out of the ordinary made me even angrier.

the matter was ultimately resolved after several more minutes of the three managers punching many buttons on the cash register, and i received my full credit plus a few cents more.  (now i have a surplus balance on my credit card!).  i left the store frustrated and mad at the world.  i was mad at the incompetence of the store management, though at least i kept my cool with regard to the clerk who had originally waited on me.  she was courteous throughout the whole ordeal, and i realized that she was at the mercy of her managers just as i was.  i was mad at myself because i had allowed myself to forget all those qualities i worked at so long and so often.

how had i permitted myself to become so caught up in this story of an invented need to get on with my business?  how had i given in to so many negative emotions?  how had i allowed myself to feel such animosity towards the store management?  why hadn't i considered that there might be many circumstances that prevented these managers to attend to my needs in a timely fashion?  certainly, the store managers were in the wrong by never offering a convincing explanation or for failing to apologize for my inconvenience, but that doesn't excuse my failure to live according to my most deeply held code of conduct.

it took me several days of beating myself up to forgive myself and to accept that i won't always be the person i strive to be.  i spent much time retelling the story of this event and suffering because of my reaction to it.  now, as i look back my anger is not rekindled.  i can accept my failing and resolve to let it instruct me in the future.  my anger and the subsequent going over and over the events and my reactions to them punished me multiple times, and i was stung by many arrows.  i am grateful that rational thinking has taken over, and i've been able to move past my anger.

my prayer today is that we can all let go of those negative emotions that lead to repeated suffering, that we can forgive our own shortcomings and make the right effort to be instructed by our failings.  may we accept our own imperfections and show love to ourselves by working to overcome them.  shalom

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Pat on the Back?

the church to which i belong is engaged in a number of mission projects, and, as i've thought about the good that we do in our community and the world, i've begun to ask myself about our motivation for these projects.  are we doing them to make ourselves feel better or are we truly helping those we purport to be helping?  do all of these missions help to bring about fundamental changes in the systems that contribute to suffering?

for some of our projects, the answer is obvious.  as we support a number of missions in rural haiti, including funding schools and providing assistance so that children can attend them, and drilling water wells and installing solar-powered pumps to make safe water available where none would be present otherwise, we are  enabling children in these areas to acquire the education that will help lift them from poverty, and our actions are improving the health of families.  these missions will certainly effect fundamental changes in impoverished rural villages.

in others projects, where we're providing food and clothing in our community, i'm not so sure that we're providing any long-term benefit.  certainly, it is right to feed the hungry and to provide clothes for those who need them.  but if that's as far as we go, we haven't addressed the underlying causes of food insecurity or lack of adequate clothing.  if we do nothing more than handout fresh produce from our community garden or distribute clothes from our clothes closet, are we doing enough?

i'm not suggesting that we ought to quit feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, but that's only a first step.  we must ask, "why are those we help hungry, inadequately clothed, and impoverished?"  how can we insure that we're not perpetuating the very suffering we seek to alleviate if this is all we do?  certainly, there are some who are hungry because they know that others will feed them, and some take advantage of the free clothing we distribute by taking clothing they don't need and selling what we've given them.  i'm convinced, though, from my experience in talking with those in need that few want to be in this position.  most want to work and to support themselves and their families.

when we look at the plight of the millions of working poor in our country, we see the desperate position in which they find themselves.  their meager wages will not support them and their families.  yet they are derided if they accept government assistance and called "lazy" by those who refuse to consider raising the minimum wage to a level that allows them to live without government "handouts."  we are told that they are "takers" who diminish the ability of the "producers" that some claim are the engine of the economy.

i'm not so sure that, while we're providing food and clothing assistance as part of our mission to those in need, we shouldn't also be participating in, or at least supporting those who participate in, the "occupy movement."  when i look at what some like these on the "buddha on strike" site are doing, i question whether some of what my group is doing isn't simply done to make ourselves feel better while not really providing much systemic help to those we purport to assist.

my prayer for myself, for all of us, is that we search for the true causes of inequity in our society and make the hard choices necessary to rid our economic system of those inequities.  may we understand that every person desires to live with dignity and fundamental self-worth.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Two Arrows

a new post by tara branch appeared on the wildmind blog on practice yesterday.  the post dealt with our unkind, harsh treatment of ourselves, and it struck a chord with me.  as i've worked to let go of negative emotions, i've found myself more mindful of what's going on in my head.  so often these days, i'll realize that i'm experiencing anger or frustration or that i'm silently complaining that life is not as i want it to be.  when these thoughts and emotions arise, i am surprised to find another voice speaking to me like a kind friend who says, "i understand how you feel.  it's ok to feel that way, but those feelings are arising because life isn't going as you expect it to.  this situation isn't permanent; you can deal with it and move on."

what a joy it is to accept those negative feelings that come to us all, to be able to forgive ourselves for feeling them, and to recognize that those feelings aren't "me" or "you."  they're just temporary stories we're telling ourselves about how life "should" be.  but life happens, and it is possible to deal with its vagaries without allowing our minds to become embroiled in negative feelings about our inability to control the things that life throws at us.  how nice it is to have that kind friend that is really our detached, reasonable mind reminding us that we're ok and that we don't have to suffer twice when things don't go our way.

my prayer for each of us is that we will treat ourselves kindly, understanding that the arising of negative feelings are a part of our nature.  we can accept them and then let them go, seeing them for what they are:  stories that we tell ourselves about impermanent situations that are part of the fabric of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Out of Control

the myth of "control" is something we all deal with.  how often do i find myself thinking, "if only [some loved one or acquaintance] would act in the way i want, that person's, and my, life would be so much better (or easier or any number of pleasant adjectives)."  yet, others don't exist to make my life, or yours, more pleasant in some way.  another person's life is not ours to control as much as we wish that we had that power.

what, then, do we do about these "controlling" thoughts.  we all have them.  just yesterday, i listened as a friend went on at length about the bad habits of a mutual friend, saying several times, "why can't he see that he needs to [substitute any desirable action].  then all our lives would be so much better."  there are, i think, several things we need to do with such thoughts.

first, we have to accept that we have them; we all wish that the world would conform to our ideal and that everyone else would fall into line.  there's nothing wrong with such thoughts, so long as we recognize that we only imagine that in a perfect world what we desire is best for all concerned, that such a point-of-view is a fiction that can never, nor should never, come to pass.  once we've admitted that we can't and shouldn't control the behavior of others, we can move on to learning to appreciate others for what they are.  what we see as their faults, others may see as strengths, and appreciating the whole person rather than dwelling on perceived shortcomings makes life so much more satisfactory for all of us.

here's where being mindful is helpful.  when we step aside and view our controlling thoughts in a reasonable, detached way, we see them for what they are: fictions, stories we're telling ourselves.  there's nothing "wrong" about these make-believe tales about "improving" our friends, loved ones, bosses, employees, peers, or human-kind in general, but it's not our job.  Our job is to develop a joyful appreciation of each person, warts and all.

my prayer today is that each of us (me especially) will learn to stop yearning for the fiction that we call "control."  instead, may we accept life and those we encounter each day.  may we relish our interactions with every person, loving them just as they are.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I'd Hammer Out Warning

this past week, the united states house of representative voted to cut funding for the affordable care act, commonly called "obamacare" here, and to drastically cut the food program for the poor, which is popularly referred to as "food stamps."  both votes were passed pretty much along party lines, with almost all republicans voting in favor of the cuts and almost all democrats voting against them.  the state health care exchanges that are the central feature of the affordable care act are set to begin enrolling people on october 1, and republicans are desperate to see that the law is gutted, even though the only way to do so is to threaten to shut down the federal government and even though they have no proposals to enable the millions of uninsured americans to have access to health care.

the vilifying of the poor by suggesting  that the food assistance program is riddled with fraud and waste, a suggestion that is demonstrably false, ignores the widening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest americans.  even as income disparity grows, welfare for prosperous farmers in the form of subsidies is maintained at the expense of millions of the hungry in our country.  as republicans become increasingly out of touch with the lives of so many in the usa, they look for scapegoats for the problems of the country, and those who are least able to defend themselves are convenient for their purposes.

republicans suggest that the unemployed should not get extended benefits, as this only encourages them not to seek employment according to the republicans; republicans refuse to address the problem of an inadequate minimum wage, using the prospect of employers hiring fewer workers if the minimum wage is increased as an excuse; republicans insist that cutting taxes for the wealthiest among us will increase prosperity, though every time such a tactic is tried the poor are hit once more and the national debt increases exponentially; republicans are more concerned with thwarting the agenda of president obama than in caring for the american people.  the constant ploy of the "party of no" is to create an enemy in the form of what they would have us believe is the lazy, unproductive poor at the bottom of the economic ladder, while extolling the virtues of the "producers," those who have the wealth and power in our economy.

my prayer today is that the american people will awaken to the deceptions being foisted on us by those who are so filled with greed that they are willing to take food from the mouths of the hungry and to deny health care to those who can least afford it.  may we "do unto the least of these," our brothers and sisters, and enable those who labor to produce the wealth of the united states to participate in its prosperity.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Joy Comes in the Morning (If We Let It!)

each morning, part of my morning time of prayer and meditation includes a phrase reminding me that suffering can come from craving a perfect future that will never be.  i've always been one to plan each day with the intention of accomplishing tasks, of realizing certain outcomes.  when life interferes with those plans, i can become irritable.  this frustration with life is something i've been making an effort to change, and i've been pretty successful--but monday i had a relapse!

monday happened, as it often does.  by late morning, i had not gotten away from home to begin the tasks i had planned for the day, and interruptions in getting on with the day continued to pile up.  by the time i left to "begin my day," i had many errands to run, and when i finally got to the desk work i intended to do at the church music office, i was angry with life.  needless to say, little was accomplished, and in the stories i was telling myself, my day was a flop.

on the way home, i decided that instead of running the one remaining errand, i would come home and sit down to write.  as i wrote the story of my "failed" day, the anger disappeared, and i realized that my day was unsuccessful, not because it didn't go as planned, but because i kept telling myself that in order for it to be successful it had to go as planned.

had i "gone with the flow" of the day from the start and simply allowed the day to happen the way it needed to happen instead of trying to force it into the mold i had created in my mind, an idea of a "perfect" monday, how much more i would have accomplished.  maybe what i accomplished wouldn't have been what i intended to accomplish, but the day up to this point would have been far more rewarding and much less stressful.

so, today was another of those learning experiences, and i'm grateful now that it didn't go as i intended.  i've been reminded that the suffering i experienced was self-inflicted and needless, and i've forgiven myself for not being mindful of what was happening.  the rest of the day will go better, because i have no expectations of what it will bring--it will happen as it needs to happen.

my prayer for myself and for others who may have difficulty because we crave an ideal and unattainable future is that we will learn to let go of the need to control our futures and allow life to unfold as it was intended.  may we rejoice in what life offers and stop demanding that life give us what we think we must have.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wars and Rumors of Wars

a military strike against the syrian government?  my first impulse is to support the president on this issue.  how can we stand by while a brutal dictatorship murders people in syria with poison gas?  but--what would we accomplish by a "precision" air strike or a series of them?  would the people of syria be better off after military intervention?  would the world be safer if we intervene in syria?  are those fighting the syrian regime any better for the people of syria than assad's government?  if assad falls, who would protect the religious minorities in syria from the sunni majority?  what other countries will participate in military intervention in syria?

too many difficult questions, too few authoritative answers.  i believe the president is right to seek congressional support before taking action.  buying time to investigate and find thoughtful answers to difficult questions is better than rushing off to war.  have we accomplished any good by our recent interventions in the islamic world?  have our actions helped the people of afghanistan and iraq?  were they better off before our interventions?  some things appear to have been accomplished: the brutal taliban government has been ended and a measure of freedom has come to afghanistan, the ruthless regime of saddam has been brought to an end in iraq.  both of these have been brought about, but an uneasy instability reigns in both countries, and an enormous toll in the loss of human life, both native civilian and american (and allied) soldiers has been the price of change in iraq and afghanistan.

indecision is painful, and it may be costly for thousands of innocents in syria.  but no government should rush into the  taking of human life, especially unintended "collateral" lives.  thank you, mr president, for giving all of us time to reflect on the consequences of military action in syria.  may we use the time you've given us wisely.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Red and Yellow? Black and White?

in a recent post, james ford wrote of "institutional racism," the racist attitudes that are ingrained in our culture.  much as we would wish it otherwise, as a society here in the united states we white americans think of those who are not part of the dominant white culture as monolithic groups with certain characteristics that make them "others."  even as the members of that dominant culture are steadily becoming a members of a minority group, we cling to the stereotypes which make it impossible to see that there is no "other," that we are all the same, all human beings with more similarities than differences.

as i read ford's post, i thought of how often i exhibit this cultural racism.  i remembered that, as i wrote last week's post for this blog, i had to go back and edit it several times to remove the adjective, "russian," when i had used it to describe the evils of the soviet system.  it was as if my subconcious mind equated russian ethnicity with the most vile aspects of soviet authority.  i had to remind myself that these evils were not inherently russian, but rather were the expressions of a political system that ruled by fear and intimidation, and these are qualities of all authoritarian regimes.  there was nothing inherently "russian" about the tyranny of the soviet system.

i thought, too, of how often i insert the word, "black," into conversations when it is irrelevant.  for instance, i was complaining to a friend about some problems in our neighborhood, problems which seem to be growing more widespread.  as i talked, i described one particular home, making certain that the person with whom i was talking knew that those who lived there were black.  now, that fact had nothing to do with the problem i was railing against.  in fact, all of the other homes where there is this problem are occupied by whites, but i never described any of those homes by referring to the race of their occupants.  the institutional racism of the culture and my own participation in it came to the surface in that conversation, and i realized my own racism as i thought of that conversation after reading james ford's post.

my prayer for myself and all of us who may unwittingly place members of other cultures and races in a group of "others" is that we will see our inculturated racism for what it is, that we will make it our intention to change our thinking, and that we will make the effort to rid ourselves of the habit of seeing others as something beside what they are; we are all members of the same race, the human race.  shalom

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We're Marching to Zion

a few days ago, my wife and i watched the way back, a movie inspired by the book,  the long walk, by slavomir rawicz.  since i haven't read the book, i can't say how faithful the movie is to rawicz's account of his journey of escape from the siberian labor camp where he was imprisoned.  i found the movie inspiring, and i'm sure the book is no less so.  in this story, which begins during the second world war, a group of men of various nationalities find themselves bound together in their desire to escape the hell in which they are imprisoned.

once they have managed to flee into the bitter siberian winter, the camp authorities have little interest in capturing them, believing that the freezing weather will end their lives, and one of the escapees soon becomes separated from the others and dies from exposure within sight of their campfire.  along the way, a polish woman who has escaped from a soviet collective farm joins them.

ultimately the group makes it way to the mongolian border, where one of the men, a russian criminal, turns back, unable to bring himself to leave his homeland, preferring prison there to freedom somewhere else.  the rest begin a difficult trek across the gobi desert.  the polish woman and one of the men die in the desert.  the rest of the group continue, crossing the himalayas with the assistance of tibetans who befriend them.  finally, they reach india and are able to return to the west.

the man who i admired most was a polish soldier.  i'm sure his character is based on the book's author.  he was sent to the gulag from communist-occupied poland because his wife was tortured until she went along with the stalinist authorities by testifying that her husband was a saboteur and a spy.  he is driven onward throughout his long journey by the desire to be reunited with his wife so that he can let her know that he understands why she condemned him to imprisonment.  his heart is so full of love and forgiveness that he must free her from the prison of guilt in which he knows she is suffering.

at the end of the movie, the two are finally reunited, but not until the end of communist dominance in poland many years after the end of the war.  we see them as an elderly couple, the man taking the woman's hand in his to convey the compassion he has for her.  this man could have given in to hatred and bitterness, blaming his wife for the hardships that were inflicted on him, but from the start of his ordeal, his first concern is his wife.  when he is interrogated in his wife's presence, his interrogator taunts him with her testimony, but he doesn't lash out at her.  instead he asks his interrogator, "what have you done to her to cause her to give this false testimony?"  he carries his compassion for her throughout his long struggle, always encouraging his fellow escapees to move forward, refusing to let them give in to discouragement.

my prayer for each of us today is that we look beyond the suffering that we endure, seeing that our suffering is not inflicted by others, but rather by our own clinging to a false vision of what ought to be.  may our compassion for the suffering of others propel us forward, just as the polish officer was motivated in his journey by compassion for his wife's suffering.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Song Called "Lovely"

we're taught in calvinist churches that human kind's most basic tendency is to be sinful, that, in fact, we are by our very nature “sinners.” we look back to the story of adam and eve and recall their “fall."  there is an old lutheran chorale that pretty much sums this idea up in its first line: “through adam's fall the human race was doomed to condemnation.”  i think this is a very unhealthy, dangerous point-of-view, and i'm not sure that is what the story is intended to teach.

if we insist that the adam-eve story is literally true, we're presented with some serious limitations and contradictions.  we are shown a god who wishes human beings to be unable to distinguish between good and evil, a god who desires that this first couple should remain innocent and incapable of reason.  this god is unable to prevent the force of evil that is embodied in the serpent from persuading eve to eat of the forbidden fruit or to reach adam so that he does not eat the fruit.  a literal reading suggests that god is ignorant of the events unfolding in the primeval garden and only learns of them during a walk through the garden looking for adam and eve.

we know from the evidence of science that this story can't be factual, and those who insist that it must be read as literal truth miss the point of the story altogether and are led to what i believe is a mistaken interpretation.  we each relive this story in our own lives; we are adam/eve.  god does walk among us.  we see god when we engage with nature, when we admire the beauty that is creation, when we feel the tug of love in our hearts, when we use our minds to reason, when we are touched by the lives of others.

every day we make choices.  some are the wrong choices, some are right.  discerning which is which is difficult.  the knowledge of good and evil is not as simple as checking off our adherence to a list of rules.  the complexity of reasoning out what is right and what is wrong demands that we listen to both our hearts and our minds.  the forbidden fruit that gives us the absolute knowledge of good and evil is the wrong-headed notion that there is a code that applies in every situation, that we can easily determine the right course of action as we switch off our brains and allow some external system of morality to be imposed on us.

females are not evil because eve allowed the serpent to persuade her to disobey god.  males are not evil because adam allowed eve to persuade him to eat of the fruit.  the lesson that the first sin was commited by eve, thus condemning all females to lives of subservience to males, is perhaps the second most dangerous lesson that literalists take away from this story, the first being that human beings are innately evil.  this ancient story has so much more to teach us than a literal reading can ever discover.

my prayer for us today is that we will sense the presence of love in everything around us, that our lives will resonate with the hum of the powerful love that vibrates in every molecule of creation.  may we use our powers of reason to discern what is good and beautiful and to reject what is evil and unlovely.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More Than the Simple Words I Try to Say

my wife and i love the bbc comedy, "keeping up appearances," and watch an episode most every evening on netflix.  the leading character in the show, a woman named "hyacinth," is the epitome of self-absorption:  every encounter with another person is about her and never the other person.  she loves to entertain in order to impress her guests with the elegance of her home and her abilities as a hostess.  she connives to create situations that will enable her to have her own way when others don't seem to giving in on their own.  she sends christmas cards to herself on the pretext that others would have sent them if they hadn't lost her address.  she believes her husband, family, and neighbors exist only to bask in the glory of her presence and to satisfy her needs.  tradesmen and acquaintances avoid her, and the milkman and postman try to make their deliveries in such a way that they avoid encountering her.  she is embarrassed by her married surname, "bucket," insisting that it is properly pronounced as if it were spelled, "bouquet."  i suppose the joy of watching hyacinth's machinations comes from seeing how horribly wrong things go, as her schemes and pretensions backfire, and in the end she is put in her place.

of course, hyacinth is amusing because she is such an exaggeration of people who do actually exist.  in the real world, such people are not fun to watch or be around.  they never express interest in the lives of others.  they talk but fail to listen.  they seek to control every encounter.  offers to help are not about a genuine desire to serve, but are instead about creating an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.   one wonders how such people can be so totally oblivious to how others are affected by their behavior.  what sort of upbringing creates such complete selfishness?  what inner needs for love do they have that cause them to view others as objects to satisfy their quest for recognition?

the hyacinths of the world do us a great service.  they challenge us to give love to those who are difficult to love.  they provide an opportunity for us to move beyond our initial impulse to avoid them and look for ways to address their suffering.  certainly there are times when we must refuse to give in to their need to control situations in order to protect them and others, and there are times when we must avoid being around them to protect ourselves.  even in those circumstances, we can still wish them happiness and a release from the motivations that cause their selfish behavior.

my prayer today is that we will look beyond the faults of others to see the person inside who longs to be loved.  may we understand that love doesn't mean giving in to the whims and schemes of others, but is the genuine desire for true happiness that eliminates the need to scheme.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Wrong Will Fail, The Right Prevail

during the past few days, i've been confronted with several situations in which i've had to make decisions that i know are the right ones but, in so doing, i know that others will experience suffering because of my decisions.  when i look at a situation with the knowledge that i must be the one who weighs the options and who chooses the option that is most fair and reasonable, it is difficult to make that choice, knowing that others will disagree and that someone will experience suffering because of my choice.

am i responsible for the suffering of those who prefer to let wrong continue because failing to take action is the easier path?  have i done a service to others when i permit wrong actions which in the long term will be injurious to continue unchallenged?  doing the right thing is not always easy, especially when one must confront the wrong actions of others in order to do the right thing.  it is easier to avoid the moment when a decision must be carried out and wrong actions must be confronted, but in the end no one is well served if that decision is never made, wrong actions are never confronted.

as i've faced these hard choices, i've tried to look at the ways in which my decisions will be helpful to those who must be confronted, even though suffering will be the immediate result.  i've tried to explore ways to help those who will suffer look at the ultimate benefits of the change of course that must be made in order to do what's right.  we are confronted with these moral dilemmas every day.  sometimes, there are choices we must make about our own actions, and we know in choosing the right path we will experience pain in the present as we move toward the better outcome.

my prayer for each of us this day is that we will not shirk our responsibility to do what is right, that we will make wise choices even when those choices are painful, and that our choices will be made with fairness, reasonableness, and love.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

You Hold the Key to Love and Fear

this past sunday, my wife was away visiting a sister, and i was unable to go with her.  in her absence, i did something that is most unusual for me--i stayed home from church.  i felt a tinge of guilt.  what if the choir needed me?  why would i miss an opportunity to see friends i only see on sunday?  what if God checks roll today?  i felt a great peace, too, because i knew that it might be good for the choir and my friends to miss me (and for me to have a quiet retreat of my own), and i can't really have faith in a god who would check attendance.

instead, i spent some time thinking about how much suffering we cause ourselves by harboring thoughts about supposed offenses.  one of my male friends has built up an antagonism toward a married couple who are also my friends.  he can't speak of them without listing all the ways they've harmed him, and the more he speaks the angrier he becomes.  i hurt for him, and i know the couple at whom he's angry would hurt, too, if only they knew the depth of his hurt.

in talking to my angry friend recently, i asked if he could go talk to the couple at whom he's angry without becoming angry as he talks with them.  he wasn't sure that he could.  i told him that they need to know how he feels and why he feels that way, and the only way they'll know is if he talks to them.  "express your feelings honestly but without blaming them for the way you feel," i said to him.  i explained to him that he couldn't deny his feelings or his reasons for feeling them, but he couldn't resolve this problem by approaching the objects of his anger, accusing them of causing his feelings.  instead, he had to open his heart to them and say, "here's how i feel and why.  i don't want to feel this way.  i want to heal my angry feelings.  can you help me?"

after our talk he tried to do this with little success.  i've talked with the couple with whom he's angry, and they've told me that he has made an attempt to talk with them but apparently he can't get past his anger enough for them to understand his feelings toward them.  my hope is that time and the continued support of this couple who truly value his friendship will heal the hurt he's feeling right now.

i remember a time when a couple with whom my wife and i had been best friends suddenly turned a cold shoulder to us.  this was especially true of the female member of the couple.  her husband and i continued to be friends, though not with the same closeness.  both my wife and i tried to talk to her, asking her to let us know what one or both of us had done to cause the breach, begging her to allow us the opportunity to set things right.  she would never discuss the matter with us, and the friendship came to an end.  my wife and i still bear the hurt of this loss, but we did what we could to set it right.

i say all this to say that, as i've grown older (and perhaps wiser), i've learned that it's always better to seek healing when we feel ill-treated, even when our attempts are unsuccessful.  sometimes that means a difficult discussion with another, where we have to bare our hearts to that person.  this has to be done without blame or accusation and with a genuine desire not to allow a passing disagreement or perceived slight to destroy a mutually beneficial relationship.  we must learn to say, "because i love you so much and our relationship means so much to me, i must let you know that this action you've taken or these words you've said have caused me hurt and here's why.  help me to understand why you did this, and try to understand why i'm reacting as i am.  let's move past this together."

my prayer today is that each of us will find the strength and compassion to permit love to overcome anger, bitterness, and hurt by reaching out to others.  may our clinging to destructive emotions be replaced by healing words and actions.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

That We May Behold Thee Walking Beside Us

as i was preparing for my morning time of meditation a few days ago, i read a blogpost which suggested that the meditator imagine the buddha sitting there as the meditation took place.  instead i imagined how having jesus sitting beside me would affect my practice.  it was easy to visualize jesus there with me.  i could see his dusty feet in his sandals and his clothing stained with the dirt of the road and sweat.  i could sense his tiredness as he rested from his daily travel.

i felt a great compassion for him and imagined that my first impulse would be to help him remove his sandals and to wash his feet, as he did for his friends just before his arrest.  next i would run a warm bath for him and invite him to have a restful soak, as i prepared clean clothes for him and washed the dirty clothing he had removed before his bath.

these acts of kindness awoke a deep feeling of warmth and love in me, and i thought of what kindnesses i might do for others to make their lives more pleasant.  i thought of my wife and how she plunges into work almost from the minute she awakens.  what would it be like if i invited her to sit and relax while i took care of all the morning chores: feeding our seven pets, taking out the trash, preparing breakfast?  would doing this help her to begin her day in a better way?  would she come to enjoy a few moments of reflection and peace if i were to relieve her of these daily jobs?

i wondered what other things i could do during the day that would be helpful to her.  opportunities popped into my mind.  suddenly i realized that this is the sort of attitude that jesus encouraged us to develop when he suggested that in order to save our lives we had to lose them.  we truly love ourselves when we put ourselves in another's place and imagine what their lives would be like if we considered it our job to serve them, to take up some of their burdens.

my prayer today is that we will take some time each day to reflect on how our actions can make life better for another, seeking their well-being as well as our own.  may we wash away the dust of care from as many people as we can.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Other Sheep I Have

a few days ago, i attended a showing of a short video called "the next christians."  it dealt with the shift in american culture towards what is sometimes referred to as "secularism."  the bulk of the video was taken up by interviews with two christian leaders who have written about this culture-shift extensively.  what struck me first in the video was the interviewer's opening statements explaining the embrace of secularism, the change from a culture where christianity was the dominant cultural force to our becoming a nation of "nones"(Q: what is your religion? A: none) .  the interviewer made a comment about our abandonment of christian morality in favor of "relativism."

alarms sounded in my brain, and i can't get this phrase, "christian morality," out of my head (so-called "relativism" is a subject for another post).  we christians have embraced a sort of moral imperialism which suggests that apart from christianity or judaism there can be no substantial moral foundation.  i believe that it is this very attitude that has enlarged the number of "nones" in our society.  to propose that adherents of others religions or those who embrace no religion cannot have a viable moral code is the height of arrogance.

my first question when i heard the interviewer's comment was, "who gets to define what christian moralty is?  is it those christians who defended slavery as a system condoned by the bible?  is it those who advocate the subjugation of women?  is it those who believe that the economic survival of the fittest is a basic tenet of christianity or that capital punishment delights God?"  we christians have allowed such people to define what christianity is, and for many of us who think of ourselves as "progressive christians" such teachings are far removed from genuine christianity.  yet we hear little from our pulpits in mainstream protestant churches about the harm these teachings are doing, at least where i live.

in the discussion following the showing of the video, i suggested that the emergence of secular humanist congregations was a positive trend from which the church could learn much.  in such congregations, people find friendship, acceptance, and support without the fear of being judged or belittled because of their beliefs or lack of belief.  if christians could allow people to come into our congregations with the freedom to honestly express themselves, if we could embrace tolerance so that we would warmly welcome those whose lifestyles or philosophies are different from our own, we would be in a much better position to share the love that is at the center of the teachings of jesus.

my prayer today is that we will recognize that many who reject christianity as a religion nevertheless practice its teachings as they seek to love and care for their neighbors and that those of us who are christians will learn to be accepting, forgiving, and loving as jesus taught.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

i spend much of my "thinking" time wondering about the nature of God and the relationship between God and jesus.  i hasten to say that the more i spend time in such contemplation, the less convinced i am of the christian teaching that jesus is God-made-man.  that is not to say that i don't believe that jesus is God-with-us, but there is a great difference between the two concepts of who jesus was/is.   "God-with-us" is the idea that the true nature of God is that God is completely present with each of us--in us, around us, a part of who we are, that God senses and participates with us in every aspect of our lives, that God feels our pains and  joys just as we do.  it is the concept of God-made-human that is important, not the literal embodiment of jesus-as-God.  The belief that the fundamental nature of God is love, not punishment or vengeance, is at the core of the life and teaching of jesus.

we want a god of tally marks, a person in the clouds with pen in hand making checks in the good and bad columns of each of our lives.  we want a god of rules who can easily measure each of us in light of whether we're following the rules or breaking them.  we want a god that sends destruction on those who break too many of the rules and blessings on those who do the best job of following them.  in short, we want a god that makes life easy for us in the sense that the way to live is clear-cut--either we are following the commandments or we are not.  i suppose that is why so many evangelicals are intent on displays of the ten commandments being thrown up everywhere.

the God we see in the teachings of jesus is quite different.  this God is one who says, "greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends" (john 15:13).  this God is one who, when asked, "who is my neighbor?" replies "all are your neighbors, even those who refuse to believe as you do, even 'illegal immigrants,' even those wish you harm" (luke 10:15-37).  this God is one who tells us to "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (matthew 5:44).

this is not a god of easy answers, a god of rules that make life's choices easy.  instead the God that jesus teaches us about is a God who says that the only law is that of love.  my prayer today is that each of us will make the hard choices that flow from living lives of radical, unconditional love, that we will sense the God that is part of our innermost being who calls us to love unreasonably and without the desire for reward.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

To Every Thing There Is A Season

lately, i've been grappling with the question of balance, of even-mindedness.  two sources have been informing my thinking: first, the art of happiness by his holiness the dalai lama and dr. howard cutler (new york: riverhead books, 1998) and bodhipaksa's blog "on practice."  while i'm not at all well-versed in buddhist teaching, it seems that balance and even-mindedness are not exactly the same thing, but i see (i hope not mistakenly) a relationship between the two ideas.

it is the concept of balance that i want to address in this post.  it seems that we often swing between extremes.  on the one hand, we often crave excitement, stimulation that gets our heart pounding.  on the other hand, when the excitement dies, there is usually a sense of disappointment, a longing to have this "rush" once more.  the craving for something that is exhilarating manifests itself in religious experience.  we have "mountaintop" experiences that leave us with a sense of "wow! at last i've found the secret to what it's all about," but these experiences don't last.  when we come down from the mountain, so to speak, we're in the real world once more.  the press of everyday responsibilities crowds out that brief period of religious ecstasy.

i worked in a church once where many of the members had participated in a retreat experience that left them craving a permanent feeling of what they had experienced during the retreat.  though those leading the retreats had cautioned the participants about expecting to re-create the retreat experience every sunday in worship, there was still a desire to do just that.  the push to take an exceptional experience and repeat it week after week tore the congregation apart.  many left to find other churches that had greater stability and less conflict.  ultimately the decimated congregation abandoned its efforts and returned to a more balanced approach that recognized the spiritual needs of all the congregation.

once we recognize that the longing to be "up" all the time results in a constant alternation between extremes of great pleasure and great suffering, we can begin to seek the balance--the middle way--that enables us to experience true happiness.  the mistaking of temporary excitement for happiness is a trap that is easy for us to fall into.  i think this relates to the sense of contentment about which i wrote last week.  when we remember that all is temporary, as the writer of ecclesiastes well knew, we can accept that viewing all experience through the lens of impermanence brings us to a deep happiness that transcends the highs and the lows, the goods and the bads, the riches and the poverty of our existence.

my prayer today is that we all find the balance that leads us to peace and happiness, a balance that avoids the extremes that lead to longing and clinging.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Two Roads Diverged

"contentment" is a word that has many different connotations.  when we are content, do we accept immoral, hurtful actions as being ok if we are not the perpetrators or victims of those actions?  do we believe that all persons must be content with their lives, even if they lack the basic necessities of life?  do we think that those who live under oppressive governments should be content with their lack of freedom?  certainly, contentment with such conditions would be a faulty way of thinking.

so, the question becomes, how do we address the mistreatment of others, abject poverty, and oppression while experiencing contentment?  perhaps, we should think of inner contentment as our goal, while cultivating the ability to see things as they are.  if we can see that those who injure others, those who cause others to lack the basic necessities, those who lust for power and for wealth beyond what is needed for sustaining life are living lives of great suffering, then we are able to have compassion for them, just as we do for those who are their victims.  as we work to alleviate the suffering of those victims, we are also working to alleviate the suffering of those we often think of as the perpetrators of evil.

the lack of contentment manifests itself in small ways, too.  for instance, last saturday my wife and i both had made plans to accomplish some tasks outside while the temperature was still cool.  we wanted to finish our work and retreat inside before the heat of the day arrived and to spend the rest of the day relaxing.  to that end, my wife began her work, which was more physically demanding than mine, while i prepared breakfast for us.  when i went out to call her to breakfast, i discovered a friend had seen her working outside and stopped to visit, interrupting her work.  he lingered, and the day didn't work out the way we planned it.

all during the remainder of the day we lamented how our plans had gone awry.  by the time we were able to return to our yard work, it was hot outside.  my project had to be abandoned altogether, as i helped my wife finish hers, since she was already in the middle of it.  nothing else for the rest of the day seemed to work out as we had hoped, and we arrived at the evening feeling anything but contentment.

as we reflected on our day and our frustrations, we realized that our feelings were natural, but if we wished to enjoy what little time remained before bedtime, we could accept our feelings of discontent with how the day had gone and then let go of those feelings as we relaxed into the few hours we had left.  as soon as we talked ourselves to that conclusion, we were content--though our ideal day did not happen, the problem was that we expected an ideal day.  now our plan was to accept the remainder of the day and enjoy what came our way as we relaxed in our den.

how often we allow ourselves to suffer, when all that is needed is to cultivate an accepting attitude about what the day brings us!  how much better it is to be content to enjoy each moment as it comes and to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about what should be.  my prayer for each of us is that true contentment will be our experience at least some of the time as we work to live skillfully!  shalom.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

we sometimes act and speak in anger before we realize it and then regret what we've done.  i know i fail to live skillfully in this way, perhaps less frequently now than i might have earlier in my life.  for example, a few days ago, i had a sharp exchange with one who is dear to me.  i was already experiencing irritation with this dear one because my friend kept reminding me of tasks not completed after i had worked very hard that day.  my desire was to let go of thinking of more work and to allow my mind and body to relax, to spend some time in quiet, abandoning all conscious thoughts.  my friend just wasn't going to allow that to happen.  finally my friend insisted on having my attention despite the fact that i kept saying, "just a moment, just a moment."  when i turned my attention to this loved one, it was too late--the anger was apparent in both of us.

as i reflected back on this exchange, i realized that i behaved in a way that failed to show lovingkindness to my friend who is not as far along on the path as i.  certainly there was fault in both of our thinking and actions, but i was so intent on my own needs that i forgot my early morning commitment to think kindly toward others, to refrain from anger, and not to think badly of others.  i had forgotten that love is not irritable or resentful, and i showed neither love for myself nor for my friend.

continuing to meditate on my feelings as i looked back, i accepted that my emotions were natural.  my shortcoming was not the emotions i felt, but rather my neglect of looking at them mindfully.  i did not allow myself to see the need in my friend, as i was so intent on what i perceived to be my own need.  so the question is, "do i continue to beat myself up for my errors?"  my conclusion is that i should not, but i should discipline my mind to see things as they really are, to have an intention to act on thing as they really are, to speak only after analyzing what is really taking place, and to make the effort to mindfully act in lovingkindness.  in short, to walk along the path instead of clinging to my own thoughts.

my prayer for myself and you today is that we will allow our minds to focus on what is true, not on the stories our minds are telling us about our condition.  may our actions be based on rational analysis, accepting our emotions that run contrary to that analysis without allowing those emotions to cause us to act in anger and irritability.  may lovingkindness be our overriding desire.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I'll Be Satisfied As Long . . .

do you sometimes find yourself thinking, "i wish he (she) wouldn't behave in that way!  if only [this person] would do as i think best, life would be so much more pleasant," or something along those lines?  i know i do.  lately i've been catching myself as i think such thoughts and asking myself why i would wish someone i care about deeply to behave in a way that is not of their choosing but my own.  what does that say about my desire to control others, to have life on my own terms even if it means changing another's behavior in ways that are not in keeping with that person's own nature?

as i catch myself willing a friend to stop behaving or speaking in ways that are irritating to me, i realize that the thought is about me, not them.  instead, how much more loving it would be of me to accept my friend and realize that friendship is not a matter of control or expecting another to do as i wish.  if we (i) act in lovingkindness toward others, we let go of the need to control and to eliminate that which rubs us the wrong way and instead appreciate the overriding sense of joy found in being in the presence of one we dearly love.

maybe what is needed when we catch ourselves wanting to control another is to accept that we are feeling irritation and say to ourselves honestly that we are irritated and that's ok, but our irritation has nothing to do with the apparent source of the irritation.  instead, it has to do with what's going on in our own heads.  why should we allow the expression of someone else's personality to irritate us?  instead, let's celebrate our differences and realize that, if we were able to control others so that irritation at another's beavior were eliminated, the world would be a duller, less enjoyable place.

my prayer for myself and for others today is that we give ourselves permission to experience irritation and that we accept that our irritation is more about ourselves than it is about what we perceive to be the source of the irritation.  may we live lives that rejoice in ourselves and others as we are and give ourselves permission to experience life fully with lovingkindness and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

As We Forgive Our Debtors

i have a dear friend who grew up in a home where she and her sisters were abused by their father.  their abuse was both physcial and mental, though there was no sexual abuse.  their father beat them with leather belts, with water hoses, with automobile fan belts.  they were thrown to the ground and kicked.  one sister tells of being beaten for begging her father to quit spanking an infant sister because the baby was crying.  they lived in constant feat that a minor, or imagined, infraction would result in some horrific punishment.  this abuse affected each sister differently.  the oldest has deep resentments of the younger sisters, because as the oldest she believes she suffered most.  another sister refused to discipline her children in any way because she feared turning into an abuser like her father.  another sister harbored deep resentments toward her mother because the mother never tried to stop the abuse.  the fourth sister was able to forgive her father, though the hurting child inside her sometimes emerges, and she becomes a "control freak" to create an environment where she feels safe.

it is difficult to have compassion for such a father, but as i've listened to descriptions of this man, i can see a person who was hurting deeply while he was inflicting such pain on his children.  he grew up in a home ruled by a mother who was constantly on the lookout for "sinful" behavior, a home in which the father regarded his children as little more than farm laborers and who had deepseated hatred of anyone who was of a different religion or race.  one of the children in this home died of heat stroke working in the fields because she was not allowed to stop working until she had completed her assigned tasks.

later in life, the father of my friend suffered a severe head injury while working in a manufacturing plant.  in those days, there were no laws to protect workers from unsafe conditions, and his employer felt no responsibility for the injury.  the attitude of the factory owner, who was known in the community as a devout christian man, was that a worker's carelessness must be the cause of any injury, and since the worker had caused his own injury, he was on his own--no medical care, no sick leave pay, no job.

by all accounts, my friend's father was never the same after this injury, and he took out his anger on whatever vulnerable creature was handy, be it a child or a farm animal.  the story is told of him beating the family dog to death in front of his daughters because the dog, on his orders, had attacked a cow at which the man had become angry when the cow became obstinate.  what a profound impact that must have had on the daughters as they witnessed what their father was capable of when he was provoked.

what is amazing to me is that while each of the daughter carries deep scars from their childhood, all have become successful adults.  they have treated their children with kindness, and the pattern of abuse that began at least two generations earlier stopped with them.  three of the daughters have great difficulty relating to their husbands, frequently berating and criticizing them, and such behavior is not surprising.  the fourth daughter, my friend, who has been able to reach a sort of forgiveness towards her abusing father and passive mother, has the most loving relationship with her spouse, who she describes as her best friend.

when i see how she conducts her life, i am convinced of the power of forgiveness and the need to understand how the behavior of others is often the result of how they were treated as children.  i stand amazed that, little by little over the passing years, my friend has worked to come to terms with the unspeakable horror of her childhood.  while there are times when the old hurts surface, they have become less and less frequent, and love has become stronger than the hatred she may never be able to rid herself of.

my prayer today is that each of us learns the power of forgiveness to heal, that we are able to be forgiving and kind toward ourselves and others, and that we will look beyond the cruel actions of others to try and understand the motivations that are at the root of such cruelty.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Come, Labor On

as my wife and i were eating breakfast a few mornings ago, the conversation turned to the work we had accomplished the day before.  we discussed how, no matter how much was done, there was always some work that remained unfinished.  one of us--i can't remember which--thought of an old song that goes, "we'll work till jesus comes and we'll be carried (or 'go marching' in some versions) home."

that got me thinking about the generations immediately before my parents' generation, those of my grand- and great-grand-parents.  i began to think of songs they sang that were still being sung when i was growing up, though we don't hear them much any more.  one that came to mind was, "there's a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar; for the master lies over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there." the refrain was "in the sweet by and by, we will meet on that beautiful shore."  others in the same vain that crossed my mind were "to the work," "i am a poor wayfaring stranger," and "on jordan's stormy banks i stand."

all of these promote a "if only . . ." kind of response to suffering in the lives of my ancestors.  the jist is, 'if only we can persevere to the end of this life, we are assured of a place in heaven where there is no more suffering.'  only the hope of a better life after death could make this earthly life bearable.  there is still a lot of that kind of thinking around.  still there are those who try to "put the fear of jesus" in people by teaching that if one does not have faith in jesus, an eternity of torment awaits the non-believer after death.  there are two billboards in our area which play on that fear.  one reads, "what part of 'eternity' do you not understand?"  another bluntly asks, "if you die today, where will you spend eternity?"

a life based on the hope that only in death can one escape suffering, and then only if one has "accepted jesus as personal savior," is a life more filled with suffering than is necessary, because one feels not only the suffering, but also the additional suffering of believing that only death can provide an escape.  isn't it better to accept that suffering is a normal part of life and to recognize that confronting suffering and dealing with it honestly and rationally is far healthier?  i can't imagine trying to get through life thinking that a fairy tale life in the "hereafter" is the way to deal with suffering.

those who go through life with a big smile on their faces and saying to those who are suffering, "i don't suffer any more because i have jesus in my heart, and i just turn all my problems over to him," are as unrealistic as those who wallow in suffering because death will bring an end to it.  perhaps these "smilers" are even more dangerous that the "if only . . ." folks.  there's nothing wrong with sharing a smile with others or smiling inside at ourselves, but the idea that the way to end suffering is to "lean on jesus" takes away any chance of dealing with life in a satisfactory way.  this way of thinking implies that those who continue to suffer are lacking in faith and have insufficient trust in jesus.

my prayer today is that we won't look to some far off heaven as the way to escape suffering or refuse to take responsibility for own lives in favor of blind faith that denigrates those who lack such a faith.  may we face the realities of life honestly, deal with life's problems rationally, and have compassion for one another as we seek to confront the suffering in the world. shalom.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Let All the Earth Keep Silence

the church of which i am a part has been holding a brief taizé service on sunday afternoons that includes simple songs, scripture lessons, spoken prayers, and periods of silence.  there is no sermon, and the central portion of the service consists of ten minutes of silence.  for most americans that is an interminable length of quiet time, and it is quite uncomfortable for many.  i remember the comment of a friend at the end of one of these services.  she said, "i can't be still and quiet for that long.  my mind is just too busy, and i have to be doing something to occupy myself."

when i was a teacher, during the last part of each school year, i asked my students to enter the classroom silently and to sit in silence for the first five minutes of class.  after each period of silence, i would ask them for their reactions.  some said that they were most uncomfortable, that it was all but impossible for them to be still and quiet for that long.  others said that they found the experience quite enjoyable, that this was the first time they ever remembered being still and quiet for that long with no written work to occupy their minds.  many commented on the noises around them from outside the room, noises they had never heard before.  some would talk about the noise from the students who were having lunch in the courtyard below our room, suggesting they were much too rowdy.  some commented on the singing of birds outside the window and how beautiful their songs were.  some commented on the voice of teachers in nearby rooms as they conducted their classes.  my students realized that these noises had been there all along and were amazed that pausing to listen would reveal so much going on around them.

when we began our taizé services, i was grateful, because i longed for more silence in worship.  our normal sunday morning worship, while reverent and beautiful, leaves no "dead" spaces; every moment is filled with something audible.  this past sunday, i was the leader for the taizé service, so it was my responsibility to be the time-keeper for the ten-minute silence.  as i sat, i began a loving-kindness meditation wishing an ever-widening circle of blessing and happiness.  i was amazed at how quickly the ten minutes passed; i would have been glad to have more time to continue enlarging my circle of loving-kindness.

my prayer today is that each of us will experience periods of undistracted silence each day and that those moments of silence will fill each of us with open hearts and wishes of blessing and happiness.  shalom.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Let All Things Now Living

a few days ago i was driving down the highway looking at the trees that lined the road.  as i surveyed the beauty all around me, beauty i am often oblivious to as i drive, i began to think about the inadequacy of the word "god" to refer to That which is the creator of all the beauty in the world.  i thought of a blog post by tara branch on the wildmind site i read a while back (i highly recommend this site and bodhipaksa's blog "on practice" at this site).  in her post, she told the story of a conversation that took place an an interfaith meeting in which the term "Great Mystery" was the name that the participants, including christians, wiccans, atheists, and native americans, agreed was an acceptable name for what we commonly refer to as "God."

there is much to be said for calling God the "Great Mystery."  as st. paul said, we are looking at the Infinite as through a cloudy mirror or a lens that distorts our perception.  i would suggest that other forms of address, such as "First Cause" or "Great Mind of Love," are other possibilities.  it is so difficult to conceive of a mind that created all that is, that set the natural laws in motion, and that continues to observe creation with a benevolent love and compassion.  

as humanists would suggest, we are, in a sense, on our own here.  the universe continues to function without any intervention on the part of a creator, and the forces of nature move along with sublime indifference to either joy or suffering.  chance is an important factor in our lives, and we have no real control of the events in our lives.  

yet, we are not passive players in some cruel play.  we have the faculty of mind to chose how we perceive the random happenings of life.  that, it seems to me, is one of the great joys of creation.  this Great Mind that has planted goodness, love, compassion in our hearts and minds is a part of each of us, making us all one with creation.  the pulse of a loving heart courses through everything that is, despite our frequent failure to act with love.  it is, in fact, our choice to ignore the heartbeat of love that brings about so much suffering and cruelty in the world.

my prayer today is that we embrace the Great Mystery, the Infinite, the First Cause, the Great Mind of Love that flows through creation and that is embedded in our deepest being.  may we bless one another and may we seek happiness for ourselves and all beings.  shalom.