Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Doing and Be-ing

One good thing about living alone (well, almost alone, counting my four housemates) is that if I really want to take a day off and do nothing, I can do it without anybody bugging me about it (except for the sacred hour of cat-feeding twice a day).  I can have breakfast at 6am or not until noon, dinner at 1pm or not until 6. I can skip a meal or cook up something particularly luscious, I can mow the floors today or let it wait until tomorrow, unless the dust kittens are too obvious in their plumping themselves in the middle of the floor as if to say "Neener neener neener, come and get me!"

I love my little refuge. Other than bills that demand my attention periodically and the fur-kids who likewise demand my attention periodically (and usually a lot more often), when and how I respond to the things needing to be done are up to me. After working during the week, which usually includes having lots of people tell me what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, it's lovely to come home, shut the door and allow myself to be rather than to do.

Jesus took time to just be rather than do.  After his baptism he went into the desert for a retreat. Yes, he had to face the temptations that can arise for any of us on similar retreat (only we won't be asked usually to do things as tough as the ones he was presented with), but I am sure that much of his time and attention was focused on being -- being away from pressure to do this or that, away to get the batteries recharged, away to be with God.  Periodically he would withdraw from the crowds to get that recharge, to be rather than to do the things a public ministry like his required:away from making decisions as to where to go, who to heal or see or talk with, how to appeal to those he wanted to reach. In order to truly know himself and his ministry, he had to know himself and the way to do that was to take time to be rather than to always be doing.

I've been reading a book on ministry and the laity. It's an anthology collected and added to by Verna Dozier, whom I admire greatly.  Reading the essays, articles and interviews in the book, a comment by William Diehl jumped out at me: "To suggest that one's occupation validates or denies one's Christian status is to define Christianity on the basis of what we do rather than who we are."*
"...[D]efine Christianity on the basis of what we do rather than who we are."  Now there's something to consider. 

Is the job I do a defining characteristic that makes me Christian or not, or is it how I do that job?  Are the beliefs I profess the things that make me Christian or is it how I live out those beliefs?  Is how I worship a definer or is it that I involve my whole self in whatever worshipful activity that connects me to God in the closest, most intimate way? 

What does my life and how I live it demonstrate my be-ing and not just my do-ing? Have I taken the time to really find out for myself what that be-ing really means?  Have I used my time in my hermitage to do what I fancy or to get in touch with what is inside me?  Do I just sit and wait for God or do I have to be actively thinking or enunciating words to fill the void?  Can I just sit and be without doing something?

Can I be considered a Christian if I just do?  God made me a being --- and it's up to me to cultivate that be-ing. 

* Dozier, Verna, The Calling of the Laity: Verna Dozier's Anthology. (1988) New York: The Alban Institute, Inc. (68).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


TRUTH: the quality or state of being true;  that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality; a fact or belief that is accepted as true (Oxford Dictionary Online)

To tell you the truth, I've been thinking about this topic in correlation with our EfM lessons about the world of the ancient peoples of the Bible and even further back to the origin of the world itself. It's probably one of the most divisive stories in  Bible history, when it comes to faith, belief and the perception of truth. Funny thing, to be so divisive when it comes to a story that is traditional and common to all sides.

The basic facts of the Genesis stories of creation are the same -- God created the world and everything in it, including human beings. The stories differ in the order of creation, the method and that's about it. I think that's probably agreed-upon by people of the Judeo-Christian faith. Most of the time the stories are somewhat conflated so that parts of the two are told as if they were all one story. It's not an uncommon Biblical thing; Noah's ark, even the birth of Jesus have two tellings that have the same basic facts but are somewhat different.

Truth is about fact and reality. The sun shining is a fact; it's observable. We even believe that the sun will come up tomorrow (sounds like a Broadway show tune, doesn't it?) even though we don't have definite proof that it will. It always has so we assume it always will, prophets and doomsayers to the contrary, but who believes prophets these days?  Science tells us that one day it won't happen, but that's at some remote point in time and so we can cheerfully ignore it for the present. Doesn't make it less true, just less applicable to our everyday life. And it keeps the doomsayers in business.

Truth is also about belief. I believe God exists, even though I can't empirically prove it. I keep reading the weather forecasts and planning activities around them even though I understand the potential for their being wrong a good part of the time (as in prognosticating the possibility and percentage of chance of rain in my specific area of Arizona in on Tuesday, September 21st, in the evening -- 70% predicted, amount actually hitting the ground as rain, 0). 

When it comes to the stories of creation, I believe the stories are true but I don't necessarily believe they are factual.  That puts me at odds with a lot of people, my own relatives included. The stories are, for me, inexplicably true despite their apparent lack of provable fact. I can't explain how the creation was accomplished or by what means. I can't accept a six-day creation as described in the Bible or in any other stories of creation other cultures and religions have as their tradition.  I can accept as true that the creation happened; I can see the world around me and know that a some point in time it had to begin somehow, somewhere, somewhen. I can listen to the science that puts the age of the universe in billions and billions of years and I can hear the Bible's six-day creation. I find truth in each of them - truth in what science tells me, the fossil record, the evolution of writing and art and even science itself, and in what the Bible describes as a progression of events culminating in a populated world that functions by natural laws and sometimes inexplicable events.  I hold the two beliefs in tension because of their truth.

Truth is about more than just demonstrable facts or what people accept as facts regardless of whether or not they are literally true. Yeats said, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."  Beauty is subjective -- everybody has an idea of what's beautiful and what isn't and people don't always agree on what is or isn't beautiful. Same with truth; my truth isn't necessarily yours. In a way it's a kind of diversity. I accept that your truth is true for you and I would hope you would accept that mine is for me. Oh, we might talk about it, discuss it, even heatedly, and perhaps one or both of us will try to convince the other that we are, in fact, right and you are, in fact, wrong. It would be lovely if we could stand up, shake hands, and leave the table as friends who can't agree on something but respecting the truth the other so firmly believes in.

For me, ambiguity is truth because it gives me the opportunity to hold two divergent beliefs in tension and not pin all my hopes -- and faith-- on either one. Did creation happen in a week or billions of years?  Did Noah actually save his family and some animals in a universal flood? were there two of each or two of some and seven pairs of another? Did shepherds and wise men show up in a stable in Bethlehem, or did one group come at one time and in one place while the other group come at a different time and place?  Did the resurrection entail a spiritual reawakening or a physical reanimation --- or both? those are all questions I don't have factual answers for. All I have is belief that regardless of the facts, the truth lies deeper down and is much more precious than just facts.

The truth that lies beneath it is the truth on which my faith is based. Something happened, I don't know how, when, where or by what agency, but I know something happened. That something is the experience that draws me in, encloses me and tells me that I don't need to try to understand the paradoxes. Something happened, I experience something that informs and encourages my faith because of it and that's enough.

And that's the truth.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Spiritual Autobiography Using Items

One of the possible presentations for our spiritual autobiography is to pick two items , one of which represents what brings me closer to God and the other that which separates me from God. It's probably one of the more painless ways of doing a short SA but one that requires just as much thought as a stepping stone, a time line or any other form, at least, in my very humble opinion.

I chose my iPod as an item that brings me closer to God. I have a pretty sizeable collection of music on it. I generally listen to it at work (hence the earphones) to help me block out noise like the press boys' loud radio next door, but a lot of times I listen to it just because it helps calm me when things get frantic and I feel like I'm drowning. While there is orchestral music on it ("Lark Ascending" and "Terpsichorean Dances" are favorites), most of it is religious music of some kind: hymns, chants, TaizĂ© and oratorio but my favorites are generally masses and liturgical music by Palestrina, Gabrielli, Byrd, Tallis, Bach – and Rutter.

There's a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of having prayer wheels that are kept turning, whether small hand-held ones that are kept in motion by flicks of the wrist or gigantic ones that are kept in motion by passers-by pushing on a rod, or sometimes a having a water wheel to keep the wheel in motion. The prayer is written on the outside of the wheel and also the inside and is a traditional Buddhist mantra, "Om mani padme hom." Buddhists believe that turning the prayer wheels are as effective as physically reciting the mantra again and again, a practice similar to our use of repeated prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the Hail, Mary.

My iPod and the music it contains is, in a sense, my prayer wheel. It keeps my soul in touch with God through the offered music and prayer even as I am busy working at the computer, sorting things or even sometimes unloading a truck with a forklift. It keeps my connection open. At times my soul sings along with the music, much of which is familiar now through frequent playing or even from memory of use in many church services while at other times I am quiet as the prayer/song/aria/mass goes on around me. Whether I am actively singing or passively hearing, the prayer goes on around me and keeping me calm, focused and open..

On the negative side, several things separate me from God.

The television is a major distraction, often catching my attention on a program or snippet that can educate me (which is a good thing) but which often, as in the picture, either just entertainment or, quite often, just noise. So much I see on TV now is recitations of disasters, historical and anticipated, that fill me with discomfort and anxiety. I have had to stop watching many things like news programs because they too fill me with anxiety and fear for what is happening around me. I figure I have enough anxiety just dealing with daily life but the television is like an auto accident on the freeway: everybody has to slow down as they drive past to see what damage has been done.

The computer is both a distraction and a blessing. It is a blessing in that it is how I connect to EfM, friends and blogsites that encourage my fascination with and search for knowledge and connection with those who have similar interests and who often give me great insights and trails to follow productively. On the other hand, the computer is a distraction in that it is very easy to spend hours playing games or shopping for things which I sometimes can't afford. I also get news through the computer and many times I have had to stop reading blogs and comments because of how they made me feel --- anxious, angry, disgusted, sick and disheartened. It is very easy to forget God in the wonder of how people can be so cruel and so negative, even when it comes to religion. I try to avoid that kind of thing, but like the wreck on the freeway, I keep looking, hoping perhaps to see something different.

The cat (Sama) is a distraction but is also something God gave me, knowing how much I would need him, his brothers and his cousin eventually. They look to me for food, companionship and a clean litterbox and I look to them as companions, reasons to get out of bed in the morning and also to keep working so that I can keep them in their necessities of life.

Clutter around my desk is also a separation. I try to keep it tidy but it always seems to get ahead of me, one piece of paper, one book at a time. It represents my life as I live it, never quite measuring up to what I want to be or do, holding on to things because those things make me feel alive and connected.

So there is my spiritual autobiography in short, using things that separate me from and connect me to God.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Climate of... , A Hope for...

Comparing notes with a friend and co-worker some time ago and found that both of us are plagued by uncertainty, insecurity, frustration and feeling things are out of control and neither of us is really sure what to do to change it, if indeed change is possible.

Reading or listening to newscasts is depressing. Stories on the blogs or websites may offer a bit of brightness but then reading the comments that people offer often destroys any slight feeling of budding optimism or even comfort. People who are just names or nicknames offer comments on not only the story or idea being presented but on the comments of others, often with a viciousness that borders on mental violence. They don't know the one they are slashing and stabbing, they often don't even read the story (or so it seems) but rather use a sound-byte or title to fuel a frenzy of expletives, name-calling and challenges as to the intelligence, national loyalty and even religious practice of the other. It's as if the anonymity of the medium encourages the baser side to emerge unchecked. Even in the little local rag the letters to the editor can be vicious even though each letter must be signed with a person's actual name, no anonymity allowed. What is WRONG with this picture?

What strikes me as ironic is that many who stab and slash the hardest are the ones proudly claiming to be Christian while casting doubts and aspersions on the religious beliefs of others whose words and letters they criticize so vocally.

Churches themselves are not guiltless. Sure, there are churches and congregations that try to focus on the message of Christ but what those messages are are quite often perceived in very different ways, as different as the Hebrew view of the cosmos vs. the views we have from Hubbel telescope and Voyager. The congregations sing of "... in the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore," but the focus is on a heavenly shore not the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, Bering Sea, or any of the oceans.  All will be sweetness, light and glory but in keeping the eyes on heaven one can very easily lose sight of things on this earth that could stand some attention --- like hope, comfort, help, compassion, civility and concern for the earth and its peoples here and now. No, folks would rather throw verbal bombs and slashes denigrating the personhood, character and faith of someone with whom they disagree on some level. As long as they have what they feel they deserve, "given by God" like some Cracker-Jack prize deserved because they bought the box, that's God's will. If someone else doesn't, then it must be God's will and their own fault.

I wonder what Jesus thinks about all this. When he said "The kingdom of heaven is near (or within) you" did he mean if one expires after having said a certain phrase one could expect immediate and joyous entry into a heavenly paradise where all was joy, light and glory or did he mean we should look around to find the paradise available in the here-and-now if we were willing to  look for and work for it?  I wonder what God thinks of the billions of tons of waste in landfills that render the land around them unsuitable for use as fields, homes or businesses?  I wonder what the Spirit thinks of the petty meannesses we perpetrate against our fellow human beings (and the rest of creation) with our careless words and wasteful habits?

WWJD?  I think he's already told us. Are we listening? What difference are we making if we are? If we aren't, why aren't we? 

Time to do some serious consideration --- and maybe change of direction.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Death and Pedestals

There's an old saying about "nothin's sure but death and taxes" and the older I get the more I recognize the truth in that short sentiment. About the only thing not taxed these days is breathing and I'm sure as soon as the government can figure out a way to collect a tax on that it'll be added to the list of taxable items. It's discouraging.

And then there's death. Another old saying that notes the transience of life is that "nobody gets out of this life alive." Well, so far as I know, that's the absolute truth. Everybody dies and only a couple of people have managed to leave this planet by translation rather than internment and resurrection (although one of them did get resurrected).

I can't count the number of funerals, memorial services, wakes and "visitations" I've attended over the course of my life. Even as a toddler, I remember going to Uncle This's or Aunt That's visitations and funerals. I've been to the funerals of parents, contemporaries, relatives of varying degrees of kinship, friends who have acted as mentors and guides and many who have had a major impact on my life. There have been so many, as they euphemistically say in the funeral business, "passed over" that I've lost count. At their funerals they've always been noted for their good points (even a few eulogies that really had to stretch to avoid the old shibboleth about not saying anything bad about the dead). I guess none of us want to be remembered as Cassius put it in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them, but the good is often interred with their bones."

Sitting at a funeral, a memorial service or even just in front of the computer screen contemplating all the deaths that have occurred during my lifetime, mainly of people I know since I hardly knew every single person who has died over the course of the last 64 years, I look for the common thread (other than they existed and were part of my life in some way). Many of them were people I knew, trusted, loved and sometimes adored. Sure, they were real people and, more or less, had their quirks, foibles and quite often hints (or outright mentions) of little things that probably not that many people were aware of, particularly if it was something less than stellar. I think of all the people I put on pedestals in my life only to find the feet of clay of many of them long before the formerly sainted one shuffled off the mortal coil.

I heard of another death a while ago of someone I knew, formerly admired greatly and who, I felt, did something I didn't agree with in the slightest and so the pedestal broke and the person was relegated to a nodding acquaintance. They had many good qualities but I couldn't really see them that well after that episode. Probably that's a bad thing and something I should work to overcome.

Pedestals are damn uncomfortable things, I imagine, unless you're a Stylite and retreat to your column for the sake of your soul. Even so I imagine the Stylites didn't see living on a pedestal (or a column) to be a comfortable thing, exposed to the wind and weather, totally visible at all times, no privacy, no creature comforts and probably living on the generosity of followers to whom you were supposed to guide and mentor into a more spiritual life through your words and examples. Certainly Stylites are no longer in fashion as they once were, and modern people tend to put people like rock or movie stars, sports figures, clerical people, teachers, and the like on pedestals only to be extremely willing to tear them down at the least sign of perceived weakness. Perhaps that is what I did to so many in my life -- put them on pedestals and loved them there only to find that they weren't perfect by a long shot. Still, there have been a few, a very few, who, even though I saw their feet of clay, still stayed on their pedestals in my heart until the day they died and even to this day. I hope they aren't too disappointed in how I turned out after all their love and care.

I guess what I have learned about pedestals and death is that I can love without idolizing, accept the humanity without looking for sainthood, and pray for the souls of the departed, even the ones who I felt fell off their columns and pedestals. I pray they rest in peace and rise in glory, just as I pray someone will do that for me when my turn comes, despite all my flaws and faults and gigantic mistakes. I honestly can say that of all the fallen pedestal-standers there really is only one about whom I can think of not a lot of good and so I guess I need to work on changing that.  I need to do it not because I have to in order to earn a gold star or even a gold crown but because I need to do it for me.

May all rest in peace and rise to thrones prepared for them with God. Thank you for the lessons you have taught me, even if I'm a very slow learner sometimes.