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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

We Are One

each year since 1952, the usa has observed a national day of prayer (ndop). this year's observance took place a few days ago on may 2.   the day was mandated by congress, and the president issues a proclamation on that day calling americans of all faiths to pray for the nation.  the intention was that this would be a non-sectarian observance, but, over the past several years, the day has been taken over by an organization called "the national day of prayer task force," an organization comprised of fundamentalist christians based in colorado springs, colorado.  this group and local organizers associated with it refuse to allow non-christians to participate in its ndop functions.  in many cases, even christians of the "wrong" kind are excluded.

during the administration of president george w. bush, this task force was the official white house organizer of the ndop, but neither presidents clinton nor obama endorsed this group or participated in its ndop activities.  it goes without saying, that this group and its allies have roundly criticized both democratic presidents for their "shortcomings."  the task force believes that the usa is rife with moral decay, and its goal is to turn the nation "back to God," so that the usa will once more be God's favored nation.

in our area, as in many across the country, local observances are dominated by those who think as the ndop task force does.  one minister quoted in the local paper said, "the moral decline is everywhere, even on our economic and spiritual levels.  poverty, sin, divorce, all these things are on the rise.  churches are on the decline, the families are on the decline, the rate of marriage is going down, but the divorce rate is going up."  true, poverty is on the rise, due to our national economic policies, and the rate of marriage is going down, but the divorce rate has been declining for the past several years.  most of the rest of his statement is subjective, and his intention is to preach national decline that only prayer by a certain kind of christians and election of those who think as they do can reverse.  The idea is to pray away and legislate away all those "others" who disagree with the religious right so that all will be well in the usa and in the world.

the american humanist association has been sponsoring a "national day of reason" since 2003 in response to the religiosity of the ndop and particularly to the overtly fundamentalist christian tone that the day has taken.  the organizers of the national day of reason are sponsoring a petition urging the president to issue a proclamation calling for such a day, as is done for the ndop.  it is difficult to fathom why a "national day of prayer" should be needed.  those who wish to pray may do so any day of the year, and those who believe in the power of prayer should be praying for the welfare of the nation and its citizens every day.  for many, this requirement of congress to observe such a day infringes on the religious freedom of all, and the way in which it has come to be observed smacks of the establishment of one religion as the "official" religion, particularly when sectarian prayer services are held in the white house and other government buildings.

my prayer today is that we will see that we are all the same--north, central, and south americans, europeans, asians, africans, polynesians, buddhists, followers of islam, christians, jews, hindus, humanists, people of every race, language, and religion, as well as those who subscribe to no religion--all of us hurting some of the time, rejoicing some of the time, needing to break down the barriers that separate us and come together to care for one another, rather than looking for an "other" to make the scapegoat for the suffering in the world.  shalom.