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.