Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Love Came Down at Christmas

christmas day has just passed, and we continue in the season of christmas.  we have sung the familiar words about shepherds and angels, about wise men, about a young man and woman traveling with a host of others to the village of bethlehem, of the birth of a baby in a manger.  we have contemplated the emotions of mary, an unwed mother, and of joseph, the man who is to become her husband.  for many of us, this is a beautiful story that reawakens the childhood joys that christmas brought and continues to bring but one that is not literally true.

on a much deeper level, the story of these events is quite real.  christmas is a reminder of transcendent love that permeates all of creation.  christmas is a reminder that in the darkest time of the year, there is a light shining through the darkness.  there is a promise of the awakening of that which is dormant.  there is the prospect of warm ground that nourishes new life, of crops that will be planted and grow, of flowers that will bloom, of the greening of the earth.  the most important of those crops and flowers and green grass is the renewal of love in our hearts.

it is not that christmas is a once-a-year occurrence.  rather christmas reminds us that our hearts can be filled with love every day, that each day can become a christmas if our hearts and minds will allow it.  every moment is new and can be filled with love if we make the right effort and have the right mindfulness.  love is there for the taking and the giving, and that is the real meaning of christmas.

may we embrace the love that is the message of the tiny baby in bethlehem.  may we remember that when we sing "o come to us, abide with us, our lord emmanuel" we are asking the love the baby embodies to be present in our hearts.  may every day renew the promise of christmas.  shalom

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

American Values?

much has been written about the senate report on torture at the hands of the american government's intelligence apparatus.  i doubt that i have anything to add to what others have written, but i feel compelled to have my say.  the account of what we have done is disturbing.  how can the united states have any credibility in the world if we are guilty of such heinous crimes?  how can we now condemn other regimes for human rights abuses when we have shown such disdain for the rights of others?  why aren't those who were involved being prosecuted?

equally troubling is the attitude of the american public to the actions described in the senate report.  almost half the population believe that torture is justified in the fight against terrorism.  this position is held despite learning from the report that many innocent people were subjected to torture and that little to no useful information was gained.  we discovered that some of those subjected to these horrible "enhanced interrogation techniques" implicated innocents in order to escape further "questioning."  where is the moral outrage among us that ought to accompany publication of the senate report?

the attorney general of the united states, alberto gonzales, who presided over the development of the legal doctrines used to justify the disqualification of these detainees from the provisions of international law and treaty, such as the geneva convention, is now the dean of the law school at belmont university, one of the most prestigious christian universities in the nation.  how can such a person attain such a position?  what does his employment at belmont say about the vaunted christian credentials of belmont?  why should one of those most involved in this sordid business be so honored?

are we so arrogant as a people that we actually believe that we have the right to engage in the most grievous abuses of human rights in order to combat terrorism?  where will such a belief lead us?  we are on very shaky moral ground when we permit such actions to be taken in the mistaken belief that these practices will keep us from harm.  may we disavow any future use of torture for any reason.  may we repent of our past actions, seek to make amends, and prosecute those who engaged in them.  may we decry in the strongest possible language what has been done under the guise of national security.  may we practice what we preach to the rest of the world.   shalom

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

May We Walk Hand in Hand

my thoughts keep returning to the great divisions in american society, to our inability to look at life through the eyes of another.  during the past week, i listened on public radio to a review of a book about the horrors of the slave trade.  i thought of how many americans defended the institution of slavery by citing passages from the bible.  i thought of recent comments by conservatives and neo-confederates suggesting that american slavery was a benign practice that actually benefited those who were enslaved.  i thought of how easy it is to assign those who are different from us into a category of "others," thereby relieving us of the necessity of viewing those "others" as completely human since they are unlike us.

i wonder, too, if it isn't too simplistic to see the police who have been involved in the slaying of unarmed african-americans and, by extension, all police as being a class of "others."  can we have compassion for those who commit acts that we view as immoral and try to see life through their eyes?  should we try to understand what motivated them to kill before trying others avenues to resolve the situations in which they found themselves?  i think we should.  how did we allow our society to become so fearful that we see persons whose skin is a different color from ours as being dangerous.  we must find out why we have become a "shoot-first-ask-questions-later" people.

we are so separated by economic status, by region, by ethnicity, by religion, by sexual orientation that we no longer see ourselves as "one country indivisible."  these thoughts about our alienation from one another caused me to think of jesus' words in the the seventeenth chapter of john's gospel.  in this prayer just before his arrest, jesus repeatedly refers to "oneness."  first jesus prays that the disciples would be one just as jesus and the Father are one.  next he prays that all those who become followers of jesus would also become one: "the glory that you have given me i have given them; so that they may be one, as we are one.  i in them and you in me, that they may become completely one."  finally jesus prays that "the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and i in them."

the only solution to our divisions is to see that we are all the same.  there is no jew or greek, no male or female, no black or yellow or white or brown, no straight or gay.  there are only sentient beings, and we are one.  may we change our thinking so that we will become not just one nation indivisible, but one world indivisible.  may we let go of the fear we have of one another.  may we stop condemning each other to categories that exist only in our wrong-thinking minds.  may we all be well, may we all be happy, may we all be at peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Just Imagine

the protests against the killing of unarmed african-american men in the united states continue, becoming more widespread each day, it seems.  white americans often seem baffled by the strong emotions these killings have aroused in the african-american community.  no white person can claim to share the experiences of african-americans that lead to such a response.  regardless of how sensitive some of us wish to be, we white americans have not shared the years, the generations, of repression that has been the reality of our black brothers and sisters.  it seems that many anglos go out of their way to diminish the angst that those most affected by these senseless killings are feeling; this insensitivity seeks excuses, justifications for what amounts to legal murder.

this state of affairs must not continue.  we must not continue to imprison, discriminate against, and kill unarmed men of color.  we dare not perpetuate a predisposition to assume a person is dangerous or criminal because of the color of his skin and his gender.  conservative white americans in general, and the republican party in particular, have pandered to the racism that is endemic in our society.  it's time that we stop standing by and treating this thinly veiled racist political posturing as a legitimate expression of american values that should be treated as a reasonable point-of-view. 

every white american harbors some racist attitudes.  we are all guilty of failing to try to imagine what it must be like to be an african-american, no matter how liberal our politics.  white america needs to be quiet and to listen to the outpouring of rage that is coming from the african-american communities in feguson, in new york, in cleveland, and across the nation.  we must hear the angry voices and all of us must work together to end these attacks on black americans, especially on young black men.  It is time to face up to our shortcomings as a society.

may we have to courage to speak out against those who try to justify police who shoot first and ask questions later.  may we have the compassion to hear the cries of mothers whose sons are killed before a police officer looked for other alternatives to diffuse a situation.  may we understand that some of us assume guilt based on ethnicity and that whites in similar circumstances to the black men who have been killed would have been treated very differntly.  may we imagine what walking in the shoes of another is like.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

With Liberty and Justice for All?

one evening during the recent american thanksgiving holiday we sat with several relatives around our kitchen table.  somehow the conversation turned to the issue of prayers before high school football games.  one person said, "just because one atheist complains, all the rest of us have to give up pre-game prayers in the name of political correctness."  others agreed.  when my wife asked why there should be prayers before any athletic competition, another relative said, "we should pray that the players would escape injury."  i pointed out that these prayers didn't seem to work, since high school football players were always being injured, prayer or no prayer.  one couple felt that this "discrimination against christians" that is exemplified in banning public prayers at school athletic events was just an example of a societal prejudice against christians.  when my wife and i persisted in our position that the purpose of such prayers can only be to impose one religion's beliefs on everyone in attendance and should therefore not take place at a clearly secular activity, a tense silence prevailed for a few moments before someone introduced another topic.

as i reflect on this conversation, i am pained that the couple who played the "christian discrimination" card sincerely believe that the majority religion ought to be able to impose its will on the minority that follow other religions or no religion.  here in our part of the country, it's difficult for members of a religious minority to speak out against such a point-of-view, lest those who protest be ostracized or ridiculed.  the "one atheist" remark is typical of the attitude of many christians here; inherent in such a remark is the belief that non-believers are rare, and that the followers of religions other than christianity are not much different from those who follow no religion.  how must adherents of judaism, hinduism, buddhism, or islam feel when forced to be participants in christian prayers at activities where public prayer is inappropriate?  why do some christians believe that they have the right to turn secular events into opportunities to impose their religion on others against the will of those others?

may we embrace the multi-cultural, multi-religious society in which we live, a society that developed because children of the enlightenment struggled to create a system that prevents minorities from being tyrannized by the majority.  may we espouse tolerance and mutual respect for followers of all religions and for those who follow no religion, and may we acknowledge that none of us has the right to impose our beliefs on another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Give Me That Old-Timed Religion

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Forgive Us Our Debts

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

May I Not Get Angry or Think Bad Thoughts about Another

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

May I Think Kindly of Others

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

To Seek Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

To Expand My Heart Out to Others

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

May I Use All My Energies . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

May I Not Waste [My Precious Human Life]

in hebrew there is a phrase, tikkum olam, which i'm told means "to heal the world."  i don't pretend to understand the history of this phrase or the full range of its meanings.  just reading the wikipedia article about tikkum olam sends my head reeling, but i think i can understand some of its practical implications and applications.  as i think of my responsibilities this day, i can see many opportunities to perform acts of healing.  i can think of many who have hurts that might be healed, at least in part, by my actions.  i can see how the care that i give others contributes to increased well being in the world.  if i am able to be more mindful this day, i will understand this healing concept in my encounters with others in the course of the day, and if i can live mindfully each day, the effects of my actions will further contribute to the healing of the world.

there are those who see jesus' statement that "the poor you always have with you" (matthew 26:11) as suggesting that those who follow him have no responsibility for the poor, that poverty is an intractable problem resulting from the actions of those who are impoverished and therefore not a problem for those who are not poor.  yet when we look at the life of jesus, his actions suggest otherwise.  he spent his entire ministry among the poor and the outcasts of society.  his most scathing words of condemnation are directed at those who would use religion as an excuse for ignoring the needs of those who are least able to care for themselves.  everything we know of jesus from the gospel accounts of his life teach us that jesus saw his own role and that of the jewish people as one of inclusion, of reaching out to those who were excluded by their nationality, their social status, their gender, their profession.  healing the world was at the heart of jesus' teaching.

when we affirm that we do not wish to waste the precious life that we've been given, we obligate ourselves to do what we can to heal the world.  hurt, poverty, persecution, oppression, violence, and all the other ills of existence will always be with us, but, if we are to avoid wasting this precious life, we must do what we can to alleviate suffering where we find it.  each act of lovingkindness moves the world closer to its ultimate healing.  may each of us perform mindful acts of healing this day and each day.  may we recognize that we each have a precious life and may we not waste it.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Am Alive

last week i began my post with a title that was borrowed from the dalai lama.  this quotation is part of a longer affirmation that begins my daily meditation. this week i want to write about the next phrase in that affirmation: "i am alive; i have a precious human life."  as i grow older the preciousness of my life becomes both more and less important.  i know that the majority of my life is behind me, so each experience is all the more significant.  i have come to the realization that my life may end at any moment and so each moment is valuable.  when my father died a few weeks ago, it suddenly struck me that, just as both my parents' lives eneded, mine would also come to an end, perhaps sooner rather than later.

facing the prospect of the end of life, there is much i still want to experience.  there are places i want to see, foods i want to eat, grandchildren i want to hold, gifts i want to give.  in this way, i am not ready for my life to come to an end.  yet, i have had a wonderful life.  i am surrounded my loving children, a partner who is my best friend, beautiful objects, and dear friends.  i live a life of privilege in a country where even the poorest of us is better off that most of the world's population as regards the physical necessities of life.  in this sense, i look toward death without fear or craving for more years.  yesterday my wife and i jokingly looked forward to the year 2050.  my wife was certain that neither of us would be alive, and i reminded her of a recent newspaper article about a man in our town who had just celebrated his 105th birthday.  while such a long life is rare, it is becoming less rare, and it is possible that we, too, might live that long, which would take us to the year 2051.

so, when i mindfully breathe, i am aware that this is one more breath of life, and that this breath could be my last.  this present breath is precious, as is the next if i am here to take it in.  the next phrase in the dalai lama's (and my) affirmation is, "may i not waste it," a subject for another post.  i am alive to new breaths, new experiences, new opportunities, and, as my life moves toward the magic year of 2050, life is precious.  may i, and you if you're so moved, relish life, living in such a way that when that last breath is taken we will take it with hearts full of joy and peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I Am Fortunate to Have Woken Up

a few days ago, i went for a bike ride.  i'd just gotten my bike out of the shop the preceding day and hadn't been on a ride for some time.  after several weeks off the bike, i loved the experience of riding again.  i pedaled along, enjoying the feel of the muscles and joints in my legs working together to propel the bike forward.  it was a cool morning, and the refreshing breeze that blew across me as i rode was a welcome friend, one that hadn't brushed across me for awhile.  sailing down the hills, letting the bike be pulled along by gravity and inertia, thrilled me.  the ride was both relaxing and exhilarating--relaxing because i had no deadlines, no appointments, no goal; exhilarating because it felt so good to use those muscles again, to experience the effort of pedaling uphill in order to fly back down as fast as i dared with others also using the path.

as i sat down to write, i wondered why all of life can't be like that bike ride:  simply existing on its own, being just "to be," without measuring its worth against some arbitrary standard, not wondering whether fast was fast enough or effort expended was maximal.  ideally, i suppose that's what one should allow life to be, but i, and i expect most of us, aren't content to live our lives that way.  the little compartments of our minds busily churn out rules, goals, judgements.  after all, that's the way we've been programmed from an early age.  "you've got to swing that bat with the right form;" "watch that follow-through;" "come on, you can do better than that;" "pay attention, stop daydreaming."  how many times do we hear those expressions or something like them as we develop?  how many times have we said the same things to young people in our charge?  we think we always have to improve--"don't just rest on your laurels, get back out there and do even better."

can we let all that go?  i'm going to continue to try.  may i (and you, too, if you're so inclined) let life be on its own terms, accepting what it brings with gratitude.  may there be joy just in the fact that "i am alive.  i have a precious human life," as the dalai lama said.  may i make space for lovingkindness and compassion, not allowing those little mind gremlins to steal that space from me.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

We Pray That All Unity May One Day Be Restored

as we live our lives, we often wonder what purpose there is in living.  is there an underlying motivation for our actions?  why do we do the things that we do?  is there something larger than our day-to-day routine?  when i awakened this morning, i was surprised to find myself thinking of the idea that all we do, all we think, all we are expresses our underlying motivation.  we may live as if this concept we call "self" is the most important reason for being, leading to a life of selfishness that revolves around distractions that are intended to make us happy and yet never seem to do so.  or one may live as though service to others is the supreme purpose for life, always placing the needs of others ahead of one's own needs, and this purpose in the end seems to lead to frustration and unhappiness.

rather, it seems that the idea of living one's life as an expression of worship so that each action and each thought expresses a desire to participate in the love that flows through all of creation is the highest purpose for life.  this embrace of that which is larger than oneself, that includes all that is, leads one to see that we are all a part of one another, we are each part of the stuff of the universe, we vibrate with the energy of something eternal.  we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves, and sacrifice which denies oneself is ultimately unfulfilling.  rather, serving others is a way of serving onself, not a denial of onself but an expression of the force that binds us all together.

we are not doctors, lawyers, teachers, or whatever our vocation is, but we are beings who make our living through our work.  the work is not who we are.  we are human beings that are bound together by the same longings for peace, for happiness, and for connection to others.  we can express our humanity, our need to give and receive love, through our work, but the work must flow from our basic human longings rather than the work being our reason for existence.

with each breath, may we sense our common bonds.  may we give and receive love and forgiveness.  may we see ourselves in others, remembering that inside even the most seemingly cruel person beats a heart full of hurt and the desire to love and be loved.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Love Your Enemies

how does one confront the violence in the world?  as we look at the evil that is prepetrated by an organization like isis, can we defeat such an army without resorting to the use of force?  were we wrong to confront the murderous regime of hitler by going to war against germany and its allies?  had we followed the teaching of jesus and adopted a policy of non-violence, what would have been the result?  should we have refused to intervene during the war in the balkans as the serbian army massacred muslims in bosnia?

i search for answers but do not find them.  as i reflect on the life of jesus, especially on his final hours as he surrendered to the power of the religious authorities and the romans, walking without protest to his agonizing death, i see a man who faced that death with quiet dignity, supreme bravery, and unflinching confidence that something noble would arise from his crucifixion.  even as he was arrested, he taught that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and healed an injury caused by one of his followers.  was it only his own belief in his resurrection that propelled him on the path of surrender to his enemies, or did he have confidence that his martyrdom would inspire his followers to spread his teachings of peace, good will to all, and love for one's enemies throughout the known world?

if we live by his teachings as we face the violence of armies of zealots who are so convinced of the rightness of their causes that they murder all those who refuse to yield to them and to embrace their ideology, can such ideologies be defeated by the power of love?  when ethnic and religious minorities are executed by those with whom they disagree, can non-violence ultimately triumph?  there are those who point to the proliferation of christianity in the roman world as evidence that pacifism can overcome, but one wonders if chrisitanity would ultimately have been replaced by some other religion if it had not been adopted as the state religion of the roman empire, thus transforming what had been a peaceful religion to the religion under whose banner the armies of constantine marched.

i want to believe that turning the other cheek would work on a global scale, but i'm not so sure that arms in the hands of organized groups of fanatics can be overcome by the power of a loving pacifism.  or can love conquer all?  may we look in our hearts for the answer to the question of how to confront movements like isis and al-qaeda.  may we not use force thoughtlessly.  may we live as people of peace in a world that turns to violence all too easily.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men

the events unfolding in the world--the killing of a young black man in a suburb of st. louis and the ensuing turbulence, the fighting in syria, iraq, and ukraine, the war between the israeli government and hamas, the civil unrest in thailand--have amazed and troubled me of late.  it is easy to sit in my comfortable chair, smugly congratulating myself like the pharisee in jesus' story that i am not like other men: i am rational and compassionate, i would never embrace a religion and lifestyle of intolerance that participates in the execution of those who disagree with me, i would never shoot an unarmed teenager.  or would i?

how much does the culture in which we were brought up and continue to live influence us?  when i am honest with myself i know that i am a christian because i was born a christian and live in a society in which christianity is the dominant religion.  that i am a "progressive" christian rather than a partisan of the religious right probably has as much to do with my upbringing and education as it does with convictions arrived at through thought and inquiry.  had i been born in most parts of the middle east, chances are i would have been a muslim and, had i been exposed from an early age to radical expressions of islam, chances are i would have been as radical as the fighters of isis.  had i been born in thailand or burma, i would be a buddhist most likely.  had i been born in india, i probably would be hindu.

so i wonder if the way to end senseless violence and racism is to convince others that my religion is the true one, as many christians suggest.  is my version of christianity or some other's version the solution to all the world's problems?  is believing that the religion of another is the source of evil and clinging to our own as the true or favored way a valid path out of the quagmire?   or is the answer to work together to eliminate the poverty and lack of education that provide a fertile ground for hate to flourish?  should we not meet those who look and believe differently from us with respect and tolerance, rather than seeking to impose our own culture and beliefs on them?  would we be as concerned for those under the control of the islamic state in syria and iraq if only shiite muslims were being persecuted, rather than all religious minorities including christians?

i can't know what is in the heart of another, but i can know what is in my own heart.  i must ask myself if i am harboring racism and intolerance within me and confront the prejudices i find.  as i think about how to view the world and the actions of others, i must be honest about the cultural biases that filter my view and use my intellect to push aside those biases.  may each of us see the humanity in every person, including the policeman who shot an unarmed young man in ferguson, the fighters who kill those with whom they disagree, the religious zealots who would have us persecute others because of their sexual orientation, the hamas fighters who bomb innocent israelis, and the israeli soldiers that kill hundreds of innocent palestians in gaza.  may each of us learn to see past the influences of background, culture, and education that makes us appear different and see the suffering person that is not so different from us.  shalom

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Eschew Evil and Do Good

i love to go to church on sundays.  i love the organ voluntaries (even when i'm the one playing them).  i love the hymns.  i love the scripture lessons.  i love the sung and spoken responses.  i love the sermon.  i love saying the creed, the call to worship, and lord's prayer in unison with the congregation.  i love the choir's anthem during the offertory.  i love the pastoral prayer.

one thing i don't love is the prayer of confession.  in our tradition, this prayer contrasts our human failings with the goodness of God, and i don't deny that this is a valid comparison.  what bothers me about this prayer is that there is never any recognition of human goodness.  if we are created in God's image, the goodness of God is a part of who we are, and we ought to recognize that in the confession also.  God is in us, and our failure to recognize and cultivate the presence of God in us is the cause of the bad that is also in us.

this God-in-us ought to be recognized along with our shortcomings, and, instead of a consistently negative view of human nature, we should also be confessing the good that we do and giving thanks to God for being present with us as we perform acts of kindness and mercy that are also part of our nature.  the prayer of confession as it is used in the  tradition of my branch of christianity teaches that each person's life is always full of sin, always failing God and others, never growing or changing; it implies that there is no transformative process in living as a christian or as a compassionate human being.  i can no longer accept that view.  the more we recognize the goodness inherent in us, the less we allow evil to control us--we grow and are transformed.  we're never perfect, but we aren't "totally depraved" either.

may we forgive ourselves and others for the wrong we do.  may we not allow guilt over our shortcomings to cause us to forget the goodness that is also a part of us.  may we cultivate that goodness, embracing the lovingkindness and compassion that are a part of who we are.  may we encourage ourselves and others to do good and turn from evil.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stop and Smell the Roses?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Do Good to Them That Hate You

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Until We Know By Heart the Table of Forgiveness

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

And Afterward I Knew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Suffer the Little Children

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All Things within This Fading World Hath End

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

An Establishment of Religion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Let It Begin With Me

a few days ago, as i read johan maurer's "can you believe" blog, his review of to end all wars by adam hochschild caused me to think of some of the wars now raging around the world: of syria, iraq, sudan/southern sudan, somalia. afghanistan--of the tensions in thailand, pakistan, and ukraine/russia--of the "war on terror"--of all the violence we commit against each other--of the futility of trying to control how others act, think, dress, believe, love.  what is it about our species that motivates us to engage in so many futile actions aimed at taking control, when ultimately the control we seek to impose is impossible?

as we look back in horror at the first world war and the preciptating event that occurred 100  years plus a few days ago, we can see the horrendous loss of life, the disruption of the lives of millions who were affected by the war, and the end of the war that planted the seeds that led to the second world war.  in hindsight, it is easy to ask how we could have become embroiled in conflict on such a huge scale, but those who marched most of the western world off to that awful quagmire didn't have the luxury of hindsight.  the only movement that could have kept the world from involvement in the slaughter was the peace movement, those who cried unheeded.

now we hear the drumbeat of war again: voices urging us to return to iraq, to intervene in syria, to do something to protect ukraine (though what that "something" is, no one can say).  what do we say to those who are suffering in these places so far removed from our experience?  how do we ease their suffering?  will sending more of our young men and women off to die make their lives better?  the only thing that makes sense is for wars to end, for human beings to finally stop fighting one another in the futile effort to control one another.

is absolute pacifism the answer?  God only knows, but right now it seems a better answer that what we've tried as a species since the first weapon was used to take another's life.  may we choose peace over war, tolerance over the desire to impose control, and love over hate.  may there be peace on earth.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

I Did It My Way

a post appeared on the patrolmag blog a few days ago commenting on a post that was written for thefederalist blog.  the patrolmag post stimulated me to think about the american obsession with individualism, a topic that is called to my attention more and more these days.  this type of individualism is an exclusionary individualism that ignores any obligation to society in general, that refuses to respect divergent points-of-view, and insists that one's own beliefs are the only ones that can possibly be true.  an emphasis on the individual is not something new in the american psyche, but i fear that our present interpretation of a sort of exclusionary individualism is a dangerous and destructive force in our society and particularly in our political life.

the type of individualism that is presented to us at present is a me-against-them sort of philosophy.  it is a negative expression that allows those who adopt it to conveniently exclude the messy business of dealing with reality.  if one denies the existence of climate change and the human role in it, one doesn't have to address the problems climate change presents.  if one denies the forces of nature as seen in scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, then one can adopt the solution to the origin of life that "God spoke, and it was.".  if one denies that sexual orientation is determined before we are born, it is easy to condemn those who are not heterosexual and simply believe that gay people choose to be gay.

for believers in this type of individualism, the government is a convenient enemy, though collectively we are all the "government," a fact that these individualists deny.  once the government is seen as an evil monolithic institution beyond the control of the electorate, then one can cherry-pick which laws should be obeyed and which should be ignored; those laws which conform to what is convenient for each individual then become "just," and those that are inconvenient are "unjust."  since the government is inherently evil, the individual is justified in taking up arms and killing those who represent forces the individual sees as the enemy.  when such individualists band together and feed off each other's fantasies of evil conspiracies that are embodied in the government, small armies are created to defend "individual liberty" against the tyranny of the rest of society.

these victimized individualists see themselves as part of a persecuted class, refusing to admit that diversity is the lifeblood of democracy.  those who are different--minorities, those who hold other political points-of-view, members of other religious groups, secularists and humanists--are seen as a danger that must be opposed at all costs.   the children of the rugged individualists must be kept away from the corrupting influence of different people and ideas that they might encounter in public schools; purity of thought can only be maintained through home schooling.  the individualist's family must band with other right-thinkers in churches that exclude all those who dare to question their narrow beliefs.  the larger society is secular and evil, and this larger society, with its confusing array of philosophies and beliefs, is an enemy that insists that freedom to be diverse is a necessary expression of a democratic society, thus encroaching on the individualist philosophy and thereby persecuting those who subscribe to it.

the thinking of those thus victimized plays into the hands of power brokers like the koch brothers who use this idea that government and society at large is evil to achieve their own ends.  the government-is-evil belief means all regulation is wrong, and business entities should be free to do whatever is needed to reap the rewards to which they are entitled.  laws that rein in the power of business persecute these enterprises, just as "unjust" government laws persecute the individualist.  labor unions are seen as evil because they thwart the ambitions of business leaders and take away the individual's "right to work."

it is in the extension of the individualist philosophy into the sphere of politics and the ability of greedy business leaders, like those who make up the club for growth, to harness the adherents of this way of thinking at the ballot box that is so dangerous for american society.  without the alliance between those who espouse the individualist philosophy and the less scrupulous members of the business community, these sort of individualists would be a group that is largely ignored by the rest of society.

may we return to a healthy respect for the individual that recognizes divergent beliefs and points-of-view.  may we honor the idea that all of us have an obligation to work together for the common good, realizing that all should have an opportunity to realize their full potential regardless of background, ethnicity, or social status.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Make Me a Channel of Your Peace

we watch in amazement, fear, anger, consternation, disgust, and dread as groups in our region parade around, openly carrying firearms ranging from hunting rifles to assault weapons.  we see pictures of them in restaurants and stores.  we watch videos of them, guns in hand, pursuing those who film their "open carry" demonstrations.  in our community a local group made much of the city council's refusal to permit these "patriots" to stage a parade through the city, a parade intended to demonstrate the group's interpretation of a state law that they believed allowed them to openly carry firearms wherever and whenever they wanted.

as this is going on, we regularly read of senseless killings across the country.  these have become so commonplace that we may view them as part of the routine of life in the united states.  when reasonable measures are proposed that might curb gun violence, various "gun rights" groups protest loudly and at length about attempts to limit their "second ammendment" freedoms.  recently there was a report of a controversy in a nearby southern state regarding that state's new gun law, with some holding that the law gave citizens of the state the right to openly carry firearms into polling places.  when will this madness stop?

imagine going into a fast food restaurant or (even more frigtening) into a bar where one is surrounded by gun-toting diners or drinkers!  imagine shopping with your children for the week's supply of groceries as bearded armed men parade through the store wearing t-shirts with threatening slogans on them!  perhaps we need to watch an old western movie each day so that we can see the heroic sheriff confiscating the guns of cowboys in from the trail ride, as mandated by city ordinance.  if folks in the american west had the sense to realize that guns ought to be checked at the city limits, why can't 21st-century americans see how senseless the proliferation of these weapons is?

may we wake up to the need to refrain from causing needless fear in the hearts of our neighbors.  may we see that there is a connection between the ease of acquiring and carrying lethal weapons and the increase in killings by crazed gun-carrying individuals and groups.  may we realize that it is us, not the government or its laws, that is the root cause of these horrific shooting sprees.  may we promote peace, not killing.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Him No South or North

the branch of christianity to which i belong is wrestling with the church's response to the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the united states.  our denomination now permits the ordination of gay clergy but does not recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriage in our book of order, the official "rules" of the church.  this places our ministers in a difficult position, particularly in states where gay marriage is now legal.  a move is afoot to change the church's policy during our next general assembly, when delegates from across the country will gather.

some of our congregations left the denomination after the policy to ordain gay clergy was adopted, and others are already making plans to leave in anticipation of the acceptance of same-sex marriage within the church.  their departure will make the national church much more liberal in its makeup, and for those of us who are in the less conservative camp that is a good thing.  it places those who feel a deep loyalty to the denomination and yet disagree with its stance on gay rights in a difficult position, though.  this is particularly true of ministers who continue to wrestle with their consciences on this issue.  how ministers who are not yet convinced that acceptance of gay marriage is consistent with christian teaching address the issue with their congregations largely determines the position the individual congregations take with regard to remaining a part of the national church.  those congregations that have withdrawn did so largely because their ministers led them in that direction, and these departures have been painful for many members of the congregations that have chosen this path, forcing the minority that opposed leaving the national church within these congregations to leave congregations of which they had been a part for many years to find a new congregation or to remain and take part in an action they felt was wrong.

my congregation's ministers find themselves in the position of feeling torn about this issue.  on the one hand they disagree with the church's policy and on the other they feel a responsibility to guide our congregation to remain a part of the church as we know it.  exactly what policy change, if any, is put forward for consideration as a proposal from the general assembly is an open question, and i hope that any such policy will allow for individual ministers and congregations to act as they believe right in their interpretation of christian teaching.

yet, when i think of the discrimination gay men and women have suffered over the years, i wonder how a commited gay couple would feel towards our congregation and our ministers if they asked permission to be married in the church and were refused.  we have gay couples in our congregation who have been active in the life of the church and who are beloved by others in the church.   there has never been a problem of accepting them and calling them to positions of leadership in the congregation.  right now, gay marriage is prohibited in our state, though the state supreme court is considering whether the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage should be allowed to stand.  if the ban is struck down, this may be a situation our congregation is forced to face, and i can't predict what position our ministers and lay leaders will take.

i am inclined to say that these leaders should be free to follow their consciences in making this decision.  yet, i keep coming back to the pain that gays have suffered.  how difficult it must be to feel you must refrain from holding the hand of the person you love in public or to resist the urge to kiss your partner at the stroke of midnight at a new year's eve party, to be unable to ask permission to celebrate your anniversary in the church fellowship hall or to have your anniversary announced at the weekly church dinner along with heterosexual couples, to watch as a straight couple walks down the aisle to celebrate their commitment in front of the congregation while you and your partner are unable to celebrate your love with your fellow christians.  can we allow this pain to continue to be inflicted on those we love and who are our brothers and sisters if they are God's creations?

may we embrace all persons as they are, loving them because they are as God made them.  may our positions as individuals and collectively as members of the church be loving and accepting.  may we act towards all as we would act towards jesus.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Some Great Cause, Some Great Decision

the november election that determines the future of the united states for the next two years, and perhaps for much longer, promises to be a bitter one.  the political soothsayers currently give the edge to the "party of no," but there are a few rays of hope for those of us on the other side of the political divide.  a few days ago, i read an editorial by a democratic commentator concerning the food fight being waged in congress.  on the one side are those, including the first lady, who support providing healthy meals for children in public schools; on the other are those who suggest that we should give children what they want to eat, no matter how unhealthy.  what the latter really believe is that the commercial food lobby ought to determine what goes into children's school lunches, so that their bottom line is kept healthy through the sale of processed foods, despite much evidence that such fare leads to increased levels of obesity and diseases like diabetes.

we see such positions being taken over and over between those claiming that regulations that make people safer and healthier impinge on individual freedoms.  for instance, mandating that all citizens have health insurance is decried as the ruination of health care, but no alternative is proposed by the political right to give all our people access to health care.  the governor of texas vetoed legislation outlawing texting while driving as an invasion of personal liberty, despite the clear evidence that this practice is a leading cause of automobile accidents.  republicans are all for the right to choose except when that right is a woman's right to choose what happens to her body; these anti-choice politicos see no irony when proposing legislation that dictates what a doctor must say to a patient or mandating invasive procedures for women considering terminating a pregnancy.  yet, we hear lots of noise about the right to choose to carry instruments of violence without restrictions of any kind.  how two-faced it is to place onerous restrictions on women who are facing difficult decisions about their bodies while refusing to consider requiring background checks for sales of firearms at "private" sales such as gun shows.  were i a tourist considering a trip to the united states, the repeated mass killings and the push for unrestricted access to guns would convince me to find another vacation spot.

if we allow the extreme right to be in the majority in both houses of congress, we can blame no one except ourselves when only the president's veto has the power to block the abolition of social security and medicare as they now exist, to stop further shredding of the social safety net, and to prevent the abolition of regulations that protect workers' rights and safety.  may we americans wake up to the grave danger we are in when our apathy and our failure to stand up to the forces that put profit ahead of compassion allow religious zealots and foes of science to exercise control over our destinies.  may we use the power of the ballot to elect those who support human dignity and reason.  shalom

Monday, May 26, 2014

My Life Flows On

my wife and i have been traveling and, upon returning from our travels, playing catchup with responsibilities at home.  this has made it necessary for me to set aside my posts for the past couple of weeks and once more this week.  i miss writing for my blog and have ideas roaming around inside my head that i want to get into some organized format.  my plan is to resume posting on the first tuesday in june, so until then may any who read this brief apology be filled with lovingkindness, compassions, peace, and happiness.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard

the law recently passed in mississippi in the name of religious freedom is confounding.  this law purports to make it legal for owners of businesses to refuse service to potential customers whose sexual orientation is objectionable because of religious conviction.  the same law was considered in kansas and abandoned after an outcry from many citizens and business owners.  it was not so long ago that the same folks who supported this mississippi law (or their parents) used religion as an excuse for refusing service to people of color, and there are still those who subscribe to the belief that one race is superior according to "god's plan" while all others are inferior.

some business in mississippi have begun displaying signs in their windows to indicate that everyone is welcome as customers, regardless of sexual orientation.  at least one "christian" leader in the state has decried this practice on the grounds that it "discriminates" against his christians beliefs and the beliefs of others like him.  how amazing that a sign proclaiming the intention to refuse to discriminate against anyone is attacked as discrimination against the narrow-minded!

one alabama politician has come to the conclusion that the first amendment's free speech mandate applies only to christians.  his reasoning is that the pilgrims came to north america to seek the freedom to practice their christian beliefs according to their conscience and certain of the founding fathers spoke and wrote of our freedoms arising from a christian god, therefore when the first amendment was written and adopted it was never intended to apply to adherents of any religions other than judaism and christianity.  he specifically singles out buddhism and islam as religions that are not protected by the first amendment.

yesterday the supreme court ruled that prayers that exclusively favor the christian religion could be voiced in meetings by legislative bodies.  by this 5-4 vote, the majority justices made it permissible in the name of religious freedom to discriminate against the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of all who were non-christians.  this is a dangerous precedent and gives credence to views of many evangelicals that excluding those with whom they disagree is an acceptable practice in the united states.

may we see the need to honor the beliefs of others, recognizing that all of us have the right to speak and be treated with respect regardless of our political or religious positions.  may we understand that when we operate business that are open to the public we have no right to choose whom we serve or to refuse service to those with whom we disagree on religion, politics, or any other matter.  may we treat one another with lovingkindness.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

We're in the Money!

we recently watched district 13, and its american remake, brick mansions.  both were about the violent reactions of their heroes to the control the powerful have over the powerless.  one may argue that the plots are formulaic, that the solutions provided are too simplistic, and that the makers of these movies are more concerned with providing vehicles for their action-figure stars that they are with dealing with real problems in a realistic way.  yet, these are stories that cause us to think about the evil that we see being perpetrated in society.

in these movies, we see how those imprisoned in the ghetto that is district 13 have been made the scapegoats for all that is wrong in western culture.  the same demonization is playing out in modern society when we hear those who have come here to escape persecution and economic deprivation in their own countries labeled as "illegal aliens," when we hear that these "illegals" are taking jobs away from "real americans."  we hear this in the language of politicians and their supporters who refuse to help the employed when they call them "lazy," "slackers," or "takers."  we see this in bills brought forward in congress that claim to be fiscally responsible while cutting gaping holes in the social safety net of the poor and disadvantaged.  the constant harping about "obamacare" by many of our leaders while they fail to propose a more satisfactory alternative boils down to a view that only those who can afford to pay for health care deserve it.

as the income gap between the rich and the rest of society--already far out-of-balance--becomes greater and greater, the power of the wealthiest americans over the lives of the rest of us increases.  recent supreme court rulings have all but turned our country into an oligarchy.  too many americans have been taken in by the rhetoric of scapegoating, and it is much easier to find powerless minorities to blame for the ills of society than it is to find cures for those ills.  we've seen where that sort of talk led in post-world-war-one germany.

may we see that there are real consequences for real people when the bottom line is made more important that worker safety and fair compensation.  may we understand that for our western democracies to succeed there must be a social compact that includes everyone in the prospering of our economies.  may we see that despite our differences in language, skin color, and economic position we are all the same, with the same desire to provide for ourselves and our families.  may we stop the madness that is tearing the fabric of our civilization apart.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

In Our Doubt There Is Believing

each easter i struggle with feelings that are anything but celebratory.  i resent the hymns about victory over death.  i dislike the martial strains of these songs, and i want them silenced.  i am don't like the brass ensembles and loud organ music.  this is not how i, a christian, am supposed to feel about easter, but i do.  just two days before easter, jesus suffered an agonizing death and was buried.  christians have been observing the season of lent, and its abrupt end on easter is too sudden for me.

in contrast, christians observe the much briefer advent period in preparation for christmas, climaxed by the quiet joy that epitomizes the celebratin of jesus' birth.  i want to be able to capture something of the easter joy that was tempered by fear like the early christians.  in yesterday's easter service we read matthew's resurrection account.  twice we are told that the women who discover jesus' empty tomb are afraid, despite their joy in learning that jesus has risen from the dead.  i find nothing like the noisy celebration that we call easter in any of the gospel accounts.  instead, i find uncertainty about what has happened, an uneasiness that jesus' body has disappeared from the tomb.  i find inconsistency in the accounts, with none of the gospels agreeing about the details of the resurrection.  i find a spurious ending to the oldest gospel, that of mark, that may have been added to include sightings of the risen jesus like those found in the other gospels.

never in an easter service or sermon have i heard this ambiguous reaction of the early followers of jesus or the inconsistencies in the gospel accounts addressed.  for me, to ignore the uncertainty of jesus' closest followers is dishonest; to fail to acknowledge that the biographers on whose accounts we rely are unclear about the details surrounding the resurrection as we boisterously proclaim the joy christians are supposed to feel leaves a bad taste in my mouth.   this is what bother me about the christian observance of easter.

may we admit that many of us do not feel unadulterated joy in our celebration of easter, seeing that even those early followers of jesus were fearful, and may we see the life of jesus in its wholeness, rather than making this one event (about which even the biographers on whose accounts we rely fail to agree) the overshadowing occurrence in his life.  may we celebrate this time of reawakening reverently while admitting our uncertainties about its meaning.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

All Along Life's Pilgrim Journey

when they reached the end of the day, she began reciting a long list of tasks that had been left undone, and, as she did, tears began to flow down her face.  he listened, resolving to dedicate the next day to her, so that together they could complete as many of those tasks as possible.  he gave her a hug and wished her a good night's sleep before falling asleep himself.

the next morning, he arose early and completed his work outside the home.  then he came home and completed the usual morning chore of feeding their six pets before preparing breakfast so that when she got out of bed they could eat and begin work.  he had already determined that she would make all the decisions that day; he would be the helper who followed her directions.

as they ate breakfast, he said, "what job would you like to tackle first?"  still overwhelmed by all that there was to do, she looked at him sadly and replied, "we'll never get everything done."  he encouraged her to name the most important task for her, and when she did, he told her that he'd clear away the breakfast dishes as she got dressed, and then they'd start.

soon they began work on that task.  when she chose to do something in a way that he thought he had a better idea for, he bit his lip and went along with her way of doing things.  they worked hard all morning and by noon the end of the job was in sight.  exhausted, they took a break for lunch, and, after they had rested a bit, they went back to work, completing the task in short order.

she was excited by what they had accomplished and moved on to the next job on her list with enthusiasm.  he continued as her helper and soon this next chore was finished.  when she announced that she had to go inside to rest, he volunteered to move on to a task that only he could do and left to buy the materials he needed.  upon his return, he worked for several hours on his project.  she came and inspected it, then said, "why don't you go inside and rest for awhile now, and i'll put everything away.  then we'll clean up and go out for dinner."

as he rested and she worked, his heart was full of gratitude for his wonderful wife.  he wondered why he didn't express his joyful appreciation of her by dedicating more days to her and resolved that in the future he'd do just that.

may we all be filled with such appreciation of those we love.  may we find joy in setting aside our list of tasks to help another with the tasks that weigh heavily on them.  shalom.