“Who?”

I saw a distasteful cartoon posted Facebook yesterday, which was followed by some pretty vitriolic comments. It prompted me to write this blog.

The cartoon:

Moses thanks G*d for the 10 Commandments, among other things, and then asks: “What should we do about the Palestinians?”

 G*d replies: “Who?”

The original poster of the cartoon editorialized: “Exactly.”

As if to say: “Even God acknowledges that the Palestinians don’t exist. End of discussion. Enough of their egregious claims. Case closed.”

It made me shudder.

Although it was, I think, primarily meant as condemnatory, I took this cartoon a bit differently. For me, God’s response is about the absurdity of differences. Because, for me,  God doesn’t abide by such distinctions. While Moses sees “them” as the problem, God sees only “us”. And, hence, the question of what to do about “them” is irrelevant.

Perhaps I am too idealistic. Yet, I have come to see that distinctions such as “us” and “them” are troublesome. Divisive. Life-threatening.

I have been one of “them” ….as a young gay man in the RC Church, for example.  And, many of us who are LGBTQ still feel as outsiders – denied universal rights; bullied and beaten; living as homeless youth in NYC.

And, I have also been an exclusive “us”. I have, at times, decided who is not worthy of my love or attention or forgiveness. I have decided who is beneath me.

Of course, once you’ve been one of “them” it’s tempting to be part of “us”.  It’s insidious. Until I realized that my attempts to create and maintain separateness and superiority were about propping up my fragile ego and compensating for past resentments, it was difficult to become willing to move out of my “us”.  As I did my “inside” work, the outsides of others mattered less. It remains a challenge for me, but it’s about progress, not perfection.

There is great allure in using God to forward personal, or corporate, beliefs and agendas. It puts Right next to Might in one’s arsenal. It’s done all the time, all over the world, and much closer to home. We have only to look at our own political/religious wars around universal rights, freedom of choice, et al, to see this in action.

We have seen many institutions, religious and secular, claiming exceptionalism (the corporate form of “us”) and inebriated with power and self-righteousness, wreaking havoc in the lives of others, then exposed as diseased and corrupt.

And, yet, have not our time’s great spiritual teachers – like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi and Mandela – all proclaimed the oneness of humanity? All forgiven those who have done unimaginable harm? All practiced non-violence toward their respective “them’s”? These modern-day saints share a spiritual lineage with wisdom teachers from various traditions who also proclaimed the Oneness of creation.

I am not a politician, historian, scholar, or theologian. I have no answers to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I cannot imagine how to live in that world – what it means for those who do, day by day.

But, I do know, from my own experience, that I have the power to make distinctions that divide, minimize, dehumanize.

I also have the ability to reflect on the costs, to myself and others, of those harmful distinctions.

And, I can make the choice to move toward unity.

Pray for me, that I may choose well.

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”* Gandhi

 

* From: Falser Words Were Never Spoken, by Brian Morton, Published in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times, 8/29/11

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html

Gandhi

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Dislocation

There is something about my fire escape that beckons city wildlife.

Over the last 6 months I have dismantled 3 pigeon nests, in various stages of completion.

I am usually not one to put creatures out of their homes. In fact, when they are in mine, upstate, I carry them outside (the one notable exception being the snake…I still regret ending its life).

And, although it’s true that modern cities have fostered perfect environments for pigeons (or rock doves, as they are also called), it is also unsanitary for us humans to live in proximity to these birds. Having read about pigeon mites, not to mention the droppings, it was clear they had to go.

So, now that I have made an overly long attempt to expiate my guilt….

Over the course of a weekend away, a new nest appeared. Fully furnished, so to speak, with twigs, and leaves. Leaves? Do pigeons use leaves?

No. Squirrels do.

This I learned as I watched the nest’s builder return, more leaves in mouth, to look, over and over again, at the spot, that I had just swept clean, where his nest should have been.

Over and over, the squirrel came back.

Up and down the fire escape.

Back to the nesting site. Over and over.

Then, gone.

I am grateful, that, today, after my lay-off on Wednesday, I am not “revisiting” the office, over and over.

I feel gone – physically, mentally, emotionally.

Gone, and not in a resentful way.

This feels like grace to me.

And it is due, in part, to the sense that it was inevitable. I had lived with this possibility for months. And, too, it is no small thing not to have to panic about finances and scurry about for immediate re-employment.

Of course, I miss my colleagues. They are bright and hard-working and dear to me. We will stay in contact. But I am “gone” in that I am not trying, in any way, to recreate what is clearly over. To rethink what I could have done differently. To recapture some lost identity.

Today, I am grateful for the opportunity to slow down. I am willing to surrender to the situation. I pray to remain open in the face of uncertainty.

And, I see, that today, all my needs are met.

Ame

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Namaste

Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man?

As my dear friend, E, and I made our way into the Innisfree Gardens, we turned onto the trail by the pond. The path led under an arching wisteria. The vines hung just low enough that we had to bow our heads.

You may have had this experience – that a simple physical act calls forth a deeper response. It struck me, just after we passed through to the other side of the vines, how rarely do we bow, to or for, anything.

Bowing can be an act of reverence. It is a physical manifestation of an inward attitude – that of respect. And, as some definitions hold, it is a respect that is tinged with awe.

Bowing is common in some cultures and contexts. For those who practice yoga, the gesture, with a spoken “Namaste”, may be a familiar one. In an article from the Yoga Journal, by Aadil Palkhivala (http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/822), two quotes stand out for me.

In the opening sentence, the author explains that the gesture “…represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us.”

Later in this article, he writes, “…Bowing the head and closing the eyes helps the mind surrender to the Divine in the heart.” 

As E and I ambled along, we spoke about reverence – it’s meaning and presence (and, more frequently, absence) in daily life. We spoke about nature as a thin place; of having a transcendent experience, facilitated by reverent presence, in a garden such as this.

I recalled my 14-year-old self, sitting in the Vermont woods, and realizing, “this is God.” It was not something I concluded after a long examination of evidence. It just arrived.

I know, now, that the woods, beautiful as they are, are not “God”. I do not worship the trees. However, I do see the natural world as godly – meaning, imbued with the “divine spark” of which Aadil Palkhivala writes.

Thanks to the string theory of physics, there may be a scientific way to express this concept – that there are common vibrating elements, or “strings”, that all things share. If this is true, then how wise the yogis are to bow. They are acknowledging what science is now stating, though perhaps in different terms. We all share a common essence.

Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.” – Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

The practice of bowing. How might it be to bow, physically, or at least in our minds or hearts…

…To a loved one?

…A stranger?

…To a tree or to the sky?

To bow, outwardly or inwardly, as a way to say:

“We share the same essence. I revere, and surrender to, the life force which is greater than I”.

Practicing reverence, by bowing or other means, might bring the world into balance. Perhaps it would ease our demands that people, circumstances, and nature bow to us.

Namaste.

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Dying Before You Die

Over the weekend, I had the unexpected pleasure of being in the company of two people whom I first met 20 years ago, when my life was very different.

I met each of them, initially, during the course of weekends spent in upstate New York. I can’t say that I was especially close to either one. Our lives intersected in the normal routines of living – shopping, dining out, hanging out.

Interestingly, their presence seems more significant now, because they have marked time for me. So much has happened in the intervening years, and much to be grateful for. And the broader view can be especially helpful at times. Especially when the recent past, and the present, are filled with ambiguity.

There is nothing like a merger to turn the work world upside down. And, this is the world I now inhabit.

As I was describing the last 9 months of my experience, a friend likened it to coping with the serious illness of a loved one….the decline, and the progress; the exhilaration of good news and positive change; the dashed hopes when the odds are, in the end, too high; the adrenaline rushes, and the inevitable lows that follow.

We have had a number of layoffs, all of which have prompted me to wonder, “Will I be next, or will I be spared?”. When the angel of death passes over my house without collecting his due, my relief is tempered by knowing that it is someone else’s time.

These days, it seems, there is no joy without sadness. No excitement without anxiety. No change that is completely beneficent.

And, yes, this is a reflection of how life is anyway. Though in these specific circumstances, time is both accelerated and compressed. Everything seems more intense.

Yet, at the core, I am well.

Although, I have certainly had my moments. Fear is a familiar companion. Vulnerability has startled me with its exquisite fragility.

At the same time, I have begun and finished new projects, so I could learn a new skill or have a new experience, and build my portfolio. I have reached out to others in the company, to build new professional relationships. I am living fully in this brave new world.

I would not have had this perspective, or taken this approach, 20 years ago. My coping skills were few. My inner life was twisted, not grounded in truth. My anxiety was out-sized; so were my ego needs.

Beyond that, I would not have had the lived experience to bring equanimity to my current situation. Other significant changes – some of my own making, some not – have swept through during the intervening years. Some have disturbed old certainties, or shown them to be fallacious. Some left me wondering about the most basic questions – where will I live? How shall I live?

This strikes me as congruent with what Richard Rohr speaks of in his wonderful series, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis”:  that those who die before they die can allow themselves to be transformed.

I have died to other things – some small; others not so, like false notions of myself. Buried them, mourned them and then gone on.

I have found that there is always “more” after the dying, although it may not be the “more” I expect.

Sometimes it is far better, richer and more desirable.

More will be revealed in this particular case…

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“Behold what you are…”

This morning, right before communion, the priest held up the bread and wine, and said:

“Behold what you are; become what you receive.”

This exhortation was authored by St. Augustine and is now occasionally used at the Episcopal Eucharist.

Today, the statement struck me and won’t let go.

I am not a theologian. I do know, however, that there is disagreement between the RC church and other Christian denominations over doctrinal matters regarding communion. The former maintains “transubstantiation” takes place – the changing of the substance of bread and water into Christ. Martin Luther held, and various Christian denominations still do, that it is “consubstantiation” – the existence, simultaneously, of both natures.

I have recently learned of a third possibility. In The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault explores what might have happened at the Last Supper. Quoting from Gurdjieff, she says that Jesus “… opened up a classic “subtle body” channel between himself and them (the disciples), using bread and wine as the specific vehicles of his presence… the bread and wine became an instantiation, “a specific instance,” of his own resurrection body. Through their intentional participation in this spiritual practice, the disciples could continue to “ingest” his energetic presence, and he could continue to teach them from “inside their own skins,” at a subtle energetic level.”

I find all of these challenging. And, greater minds than mine will be willing to dive in deeper here. Though I resonate most with the third assertion, found in Cynthia’s book.

What flows, for me, from St. Augustine’s statement, “Behold what you are; become what you receive”:

  • We are urged to identify the Godly as part of our nature;
  • We are encouraged to continue our transformation into the fullness of our Godly nature
  • We acknowledge that God is both “out there” and “in here”

What I begin to ask myself, as I ponder these, is what do I receive (or refuse) on a given day, and what that does to me/for me? Does it help me identify the Godly part of my nature? Does it help me fully live into that nature?

If there is a great possibility, on the energetic and physical levels, that I will “become what I receive”, then there are great implications for my choices in his area.

I know someone who stopped watching the news, concerned that she would be consumed by so many the negative happenings in the world, all of which were beyond her control. I understand that.

I am not suggesting that we turn a deaf ear, however, to the suffering of the world – however we define world. But, I am wondering about the quality of intake, so to speak, and choices around that.

In the world of recovery, it is said that addictions are a low-level search for God. Some have used drink, needles, sex, shopping, and fixing others, as ways to either transcend this world and find communion, or to play God and re-arrange the world more to their liking. If the concept of God embodies truth and love and light and creativity, then we know that addictions lead directly in the opposite directions.

Addictions are often about intake, though of the most unmeasured kind. If we “become what we receive”, we have indeed seen addictions turn many people into ungodly versions of themselves.

I am not sure what I hold to be true about the Eucharist – what is happening, what is “really” happening, etc. I don’t know if I am receiving God in that piece of bread. But, what I decided to do, today, is pray to be open to the working of God within me, toward whatever end that may be.

And, then, of course, I was fearful that I really meant it.

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Intimacy

Intimacy.

How would you define it? What is it for you?

Lately, in conversation with others, I have been saying that intimacy is a practice. And, apparently, according to one friend, I said something to the effect that real relationships can change us.

When I looked online, I found these two definitions for “intimacy”:

a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.

a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, period of history, etc.: an intimacy with Japan.

I think the two definitions are complementary; they belong together. Or, at least they seem to, when I consider my relationship with myself, with others and with God. Then I can’t see them as separate.

If I am close with another person, there is not only affection; there is also knowledge and understanding. In fact, there is a desire to know them; to understand them in a “detailed” or “deep” way. Not an analytical way, mind you. That’s for their therapist or perhaps their spiritual director. Alongside that desire, is my desire to be known by them; to be understood.

Or, at least, to be accepted, even if not understood.

Or, at the very least, to be heard.

In “The Flight From Conversation” (New York Times, April 21, 2012), Sherry Turkle writes:

“During the years I have spent researching people and their relationships with technology, I have often heard the sentiment “No one is listening to me.”

How often, when listening to another, am I silently preparing my response? Or, evaluating what they say, or how they say it? Or, wondering how I will make it to my next (fill in the blank) on time if I stay here?

I heard a wonderful recounting this morning. A friend shared that she was asked to witness on another’s behalf. As it turned out, she was not required to say anything. She recalled, however, that her physical presence alone was significant.

As John Milton wrote, “They also serve, who only stand and wait.” Or, in my book, who only stand and listen. Really listen. Which, I think, is another form of witnessing.

Later in that same article, Turkle writes:

“In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it’s derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.”

I love her choice of words – “we tend to one another”.

It evokes gardening.

A sense of nurture.

Not to mention “tendency”, which can be described as…

a gradual, but steady progress, development, or shift (of opinion) in a particular direction”

We literally lean toward each other to show we are listening. And, that gesture can echo outside what the inner self is doing – having a more intimate encounter. As I listen to you, I can indeed “tend” to you – both in the sense of nurturing, and in the sense of an inward shifting toward you.

How often am I afraid that this shift will mean a real change for me?

A change of heart or mind…

A softening of self-righteousness…

A willingness to apologize.

Later on in the same article, Turkle writes…

“We think constant connection (via technology) will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”

Intimacy with ourselves, which I think is foundational for all our relationships, is no easy task. If Turkle is right, we now have technology to lean on in our solitary unease, lest we experience ourselves for who we are in those moments.

Oh, the world is full of distractions to salve my solitary unease. And how well do mindfulness and acceptance and non-attachment serve me when I am willing to practice them. They are much more formative than plugging in and updating my FB status.

I recalled, as I was just staring out the window today (while taking a break from my own technology) that as a child I did a lot of “useless” staring. Not, I hope, the socially awkward kind. I remember staring at ants. At trees. Clouds. Flowers. I recall (and, as we know, memory is treacherous) being quite enthralled at those times.

I have also experienced this while gardening, and during particular activities at work. Some would call it “flow” – when we are immersed and un-self-conscious, such that there is no sense of ordinary time.

Then, we are in a time beyond time. Which, for me, seems rather a bit like eternity. Where God dwells.

“I (Allah) was a hidden treasure, and I wished to be known, so I created a creation (mankind), then made Myself known to them.”

From the Hadith Qudsi

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Another Trinity: Sin, Repentance, Forgiveness

Preached on 4/22/2012 at St. Andrew’s, New Paltz, NY

When I consider our readings for today, I see questions around perception and identity.

In the first reading, witnesses to a miraculous healing by Peter believe that Peter alone was responsible for the event. Or, as is said in the Buddhist tradition, they confuse the finger that points to the moon for the moon itself. Hence, Peter needs to correct their perception.

About our second reading,  W. Hall Harris III writes that Christians in a community known to John “…were facing a threat from false teaching, a threat which was both serious and which appears to have arisen from within…

The purpose of John’s letter is to strengthen and encourage them. To remind them to be faithful to the apostolic teaching about Jesus and of significance of their identity as children of God, in the face of these false teachers. This letter both encourages and exhorts…”

Finally, in our gospel today, we see confusion and fright as the disciples attempt to make sense of what they see. Afterall, Jesus’ death was the end of the story, wasn’t it?

And, in these readings, we also hear themes of sin, repentance and forgiveness. Why?

In my view, it is because we forget ourselves – we forget who we really are. We lose ourselves in the heat of the moment. We also forget God, or we do not recognize God’s presence and power.

Hence, we are sinful. But we are sinful not in the hellfire-and-brimstone sort of way. I understand sinful to mean “missing the mark”. And we miss the mark because of our inescapable humanity. Thus, repentance and forgiveness are requirements on this spiritual path we call Christianity.

First, let’s look at repentance. The more I read, the more I come to see that it is a practice not a one-shot deal.

Repentance comes to us from the Greek “metanoia”. In the book, The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, we read that metanioa…

“… means a shift of mind. The word has a rich history. For the Greeks, it meant a fundamental shift or change, or more literally transcendence of mind. In the early Christian tradition, it took on a special meaning of awakening shared intuition and direct knowing of the highest, of God….eventually translated as “repent.”

One of my favorite authors, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that metanoia is going beyond the mind you have and into the larger mind. When we go beyond our normal way of seeing things, into a more God-like, unified view, we no longer focus on the typical bifurcations. We become more apt to see the ”both/and” and less likely to only see the “either/or” in any situation. Cynthia goes on to say that this is the way to understand some of the most confounding parables of Jesus.

We know that our tendency is to fall into habits of mind or behavior that reflect our needs for comfort, or safety, or control, which are often in response to fear. Habits that say “I am right, she is wrong”; ”We are good, they are bad”; “our church is the real way to worship; theirs is hocus-pocus”

These habits of mind and action become our default settings. They can be so powerful, that we may find ourselves reacting in “old” ways when faced with totally new situations.

We know, from brain science, that patterns are ingrained and powerful because our brains have literally grown specific neural connections to support them. They are like neural ruts. And, so, as we travel, our mental wagon wheels end up right back in them again.

So repentance is a constant process….meaning, we get into our ruts and then attempt to get out of them again. Every day. We strive to go from our “small mind” into the “big mind”. As St. Paul said, putting on the mind of Christ.

We also know, from the practice of cognitive behavioral therapies, and, from the application of the 12-step recovery methodology, that there are ways to re-route our thinking. To build new pathways in our brains that support new ways of thinking and support new ways of acting. In fact, in 12-step practice you will often hear people witness to a “power greater than themselves” that has accomplished for them what they could not accomplish on their own. Cynthia Bourgeault maintains that the Centering Prayer practice goes a long way toward rewiring our brains to be more Christ-like.

And what would repentance be without forgiveness?

Forgiveness is key because of our human condition. We are not always in the mind of Christ, are we? Nor are others in our lives. We all fall short. We all miss the mark.

None of us are able to accept Jesus’ invitation to cast the first stone, because none of us are exempt from the human condition. None of us are blameless.

We, like the disciples in the gospel, sometimes suffer from a deficit of vision. We are not always able to see God in our very midst.

We, like the witnesses to Peter’s miraculous healings, may misplace our focus. We may miss the moon because we’re distracted by the finger which points to the moon. For example, we may let Sunday worship stand in for a transformational relationship with God. Or, we are unable to remain humble as Peter was – meaning, we give ourselves credit for what we could not have accomplished without God’s grace.

Or, we, like the Christian community in John’s letter, may be split by different viewpoints, and unable to see through to the truth.

Forgiveness begins when we acknowledge the truth of our human condition and bring God into it. It allows us to gracefully acknowledge the times we miss the mark, and to set our relationships (with God and others) right again.

I have experienced some powerful forgiveness events, which have released me, and others, from the constricting bonds of resentment and anger that held us firmly in deadlock. Bonds that held us to a particular time and place and event, in the past. Bonds that also colored our dealings far into the future.

Perhaps you have had similar forgiveness experiences. I hope so.

For me, then, the cycle of forgiveness and repentance is ongoing and necessary. It is our salvation.

Through it, we urge ourselves and others on to a higher plane of existence. Through it, we act as though we are children of God – brothers and sisters of the same Divine parentage. Through forgiveness and repentance, we continue to grow into the stature of Christ. Which is, after all, why we are here.

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Brilliant, Gorgeous, Talented

I was with a small group last week, and we were speaking about gifts – what was it we embodied and could bring into the world? So many of the responses sounded like this:

“I am a loving person, but not really.”

“I am inclusive and welcoming, but not always.”

“I am forgiving, but not that forgiving.”

In light of these honest and heartfelt ‘confessions’, I reconsidered what I was about to share, then said it anyway.

“Lately, I have had wisdom to share with a friend of mine, who is looking for an outside perspective. Since I am not ‘in the weeds’ with him, I am able to see things, and create ideas, that he is not.”

Of course, I am not wise in ALL situations. Nor am I always objective. Nor did I feel any less for that. For, in fact, I am not feeling less for being human. However, this doesn’t mean that I am not aware of my inconsistencies, or desirous of reducing them. But, how do I find that balance?

One of the most powerful correctives for me is the 12-step process. Being “right-sized” about one’s strengths and failings is a hallmark of the introspection and dialogue in this context. Being honest and accountable to others about my own inventory has been key.

The same is true for spiritual direction. Brother Ron, the open and loving witness to my own spiritual growth and struggles, has been instrumental in helping me “right-size” myself. So has the companionship of a few dear soul friends.

And, what is right-sized? It’s what I imagine “humility” means…an accurate sense of who I am and my place in the world. Not puffed up and overweening but neither totally bereft of the higher gifts.

In the world of business consulting, Zenger/Folkman has published an interesting study:

http://www.zengerfolkman.com/media/articles/ZFA-Turning-Feedback-Into-Change.pdf

It maintains that our own perceptions of ourselves are far less accurate than others’ perceptions of us. They say:

“Feedback is essential for development because everyone has blind spots. There are certain characteristics most individuals just don’t see. Sometimes these characteristics are weaknesses. Many people may see and know about them, but don’t think they make much difference. In fact, they don’t even realize that people notice them.

 Often, there are also strengths—things that they do incredibly well—but they just don’t realize the leverage and power they possess. Feedback is the most instructive tool to help individuals understand others’ perceptions of themselves— and there is significant power in that process.”

Now, the Zenger/Folkman group would recommend the 360 Review process in the workplace, to get feedback from your boss and your peers, about your performance.

Nonetheless, we can all do this in our own circles.

Because, frankly, if we are unable to see our gifts and bring them forward, then why are we here? At worst, we shrug it all off. Or we ‘leave it to Jesus.’ Who, by the way, was not here to say that he was the only one who could heal, speak truth and transform lives. He was here to show us the way by which WE could do the same. “The Kingdom of God is within you”, he declared. And, for more on this, I recommend “The Wisdom Jesus” by Cynthia Bourgeault, and “Putting on the Mind of Christ” by Jim Marion.

The next time you wonder about how loving you are; or, how much wisdom you possess; or, in general, what you can bring to the world…ask someone you trust for their opinion.

And, while you’re at it, ask them to help you be accountable for continuing to bring those gifts forward, and for their assistance when you feel less able to do so.

 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson

 

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Silent Service

 

I am preparing lunch early one weekday morning, as the new light slowly infuses the kitchen. I began this routine years ago, deciding it was far more economical to bring my lunch than buy it everyday.

The apartment is quiet. My partner sleeps on in the next room. I fill the containers, one by one, with chili. Some will be consumed this week; others will be consigned to the freezer to wait their turn.

And, then, I flash on an early image of my mother. She stands, in her bathrobe, in a dark winter kitchen, doing much the same as I am now – fixing lunches, but for 4 children, in advance of the school day.

It’s the late 60’s. I am up early, and, so, get a glimpse of how lunch really happens. As if I were spying on “Santa Claus” placing presents beneath the tree.

I don’t recall thanking her. In fact, I don’t recall much of that morning, aside from this image. This image may be what Cathy Smith Bowers, Poet Laureate of North Carolina, called an “abiding image”. In her wonderful, illuminating poetry workshops at the Haden Institute a few years back, Cathy spoke of images that are imbued with layers of personal significance. They can be thoughtfully, almost prayerfully, explored as the touchstones of poem-making.

Granted, this is not a poem. But it is one way to acknowledge the one, and therefore the multitude, of gestures of silent service that my mother performed.

Now, turning 91 this year, Mother depends on the service of many. Some are health care professionals who are with her day and night. And, then, her siblings and close relatives. And, we, her children.

Mom and I were talking recently about raising us 4. She said it was sometimes difficult, but always worthwhile. And, this, to me, marks something about our life together, growing up.

Mom was never the martyr: “You’d think that with all I’ve done for you kids…”.

She was never the attention seeker: “Look at all the wonderful things I do for you kids…”

She was a steady, willing, loving presence. May I be the same for her now.

 

“The place to which God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. ”

Frederick Buechner

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The Spiritual Swiffer: Centering Prayer

 

Since mid-December, I feel as if this life of mine has not stopped running. Trust me, I am not asking for it to stop, completely! But from the perspective of balance, it feels like it’s 9 parts action and 1 part contemplation.

The fact that I am noticing this at all is a major change. That I want balance between these poles is a great step forward. It also may mean that I’m just tuckered out, as my Mom would say.

In some respects, it makes sense. I spent the last two weeks of December prepping for a move, and then moving. Then, most of January unpacking, arranging, accommodating myself to a new space, a new ‘hood, a new commute.

Then, friends and family had major events befall them. And, the new iPhone was not delivering all it promised. And, the bank screwed up my new account. And, and, and.

And, these are luxury problems.

And, what if they never stop? Because life always throws stuff at us, doesn’t it? All of these events, big, small and in between have made me wonder all the more about how I engage with my own life. If the pace won’t change, then how might I? If the nature of life IS change, then how am I to respond?

Surrender control. Address what I can and then surrender control.

Do what is put before me. If others things cannot be done because of what’s in front of me, then perhaps that’s just fine. Can someone else do it? Can I do it later?

When I feel overwhelmed, as I have lately, I can remember to just do the next right thing.  Not the next 200 things. Just the next thing. When I am consumed about the next 200 things, I do not handle the next 1 thing well at all.

I can remember that planning and worrying are different. It is sensible to think through how I might tackle a project. And, having done that, I can choose to surrender the worry.

As in Matthew: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

For me, Centering Prayer has become a letting-go practice. As Cynthia Bourgeault explains it, the “action” of this prayer is release. In the course of 20 minutes, I become willing, again and again, to release whatever thoughts come into my head. I am not always successful. I am often attracted by my thoughts, especially the ones that involve worry and planning. No surprise.

But, I have a sneaking suspicion that this practice is leaching into my consciousness in a very wonderful way. My awareness of my mental “busy-ness” has increased, beyond the 20-minute prayer period. I now find myself catching myself worrying. And, I find myself more willing to put that energy elsewhere instead.

I find myself with a better understanding of what NOT being in the moment looks like for me. And, how often it happens.

And, now it’s interesting to me, as I write this, that I find myself repeating the phrase “I find myself”.

That intrigues me, no end.

Finding oneself. Being centered. Being at home, within.

I agree with Cynthia Bourgeault, Jim Marion, and others, that Jesus really meant it when he said that the Kingdom of God is within you. Not the place we go when we die, if we’re good. Bah. If we are, as humans, each a specific and unique intersection of the temporal and the Divine, then how do we get in touch with the Divine that dwells within? (And this is not to say that the Divine is ONLY within.) If, as many have said, that the work of this life, and the mark of true spirituality, is inner transformation – putting on the mind of Christ and not mindless conformity to correct behavior – then how do we transform?

For me, it starts with clearing out the cobwebs. Centering Prayer may be doing it for me.

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