Monday, February 19, 2018

LIFE, DEATH AND BABIES – Part I

Go With Life i

Valentine’s Day was tough. Three years ago our son was found dead in his apartment. We don't know the exact date of his death. The cause was abuse of alcohol combined with drugs prescribed for chronic health issues. Valentines's day is no longer a time of hearts, flowers and little Cupids. It is a time of love tinged with sadness.

It is also a time of regret as I belatedly acknowledge that I wasn't the nurturing father I could have been. What if I had been a better parent? Would that have kept my son from dying?

I am painfully aware of the many times that I put my job ahead of family. I believed that I was “Called by God” to serve the poor and oppressed. I still remember saying, “If I have to choose between God and my family, I will choose God.” Only now do I realize that my “Call from God” was not a message from beyond. It was work-o-holism, an addictive compulsion to obtain love and acceptance through personal achievement. This addiction spawned a host of other addictive patterns destructive to me and my family.

What can I do? I can't change the past. My son died. I am a work-o-holic, recovering, but still a work-o-holic. It seems that death is the victor.

Furthermore, I'm aging.

I recently dreamed that I was a student at a large university I had one free semester to take elective courses. I chose courses in philosophy, theology and psychology instead of math and physics. I was considering a career transition. As I scheduled these courses, the young registrar looked at me in amazement. She couldn't believe that an old man was considering a career transition.

I awoke from the dream sad and depressed. I am nearing the end of my life. There are many things I will never explore or experience. Death looms over me.

I have been a social activist most of my life. When I survey the divisiveness and violence in our world, I wonder, “What difference did I make.” The shadow of death darkens every corner of my existence.

This is the kind of thinking that fueled my addictive work-o-holism. I believed that I had to earn love and respect. I had to be successful so people would love and respect me.

BUT WAIT A MINUTE

My pastorii recently preached a sermon that helped me immensely. She walks with a limp because she contracted polio when she was two years old. Her mother placed her on the floor on a blanket so she could be with her brother and sister as they played near her. One day she dragged herself to the wall and tried to push herself up. Time and again she pushed against that wall until finally, she was standing. She doesn't remember this because she was too young. She didn't will herself to stand because she was precognitive. Some Life-force had surged through her little body, pushing her to rise.

Now that I am more conscious, I see this Life-force surging all around me. I notice a daisy pushing its way through a cracks in the sidewalk. I see clouds of Monarch butterflies migrating thousands of miles to a sanctuary where they reproduce. I remember the documentary, “March of the Penguins,” that depicts the yearly journey of Antarctic Emperor Penguins to their breeding grounds. There they mate and take turns huddled together, enduring winter blasts, balancing eggs on their feet holding them in the warm furry embrace of their bodies until they hatch in the spring.

There seems to be an innate dynamic in the cosmos that wills itself to life even in the face of extinction.

Psychologist, Carl Jung, observed similar patterns (archetypesiii) in humans. Certain images appear in stories, art, myths, religions and dreams across different cultures and in different millennia We all have a deep sense of “mother,” “battle,” “journey,” “lover,” etc. These images evoke powerful emotions when we experience them personally as our mothers, our battles, our journeys or our lovers. They function like the psychic counterpart of instinct. They resonate as true at a deep emotional level.

Two of these patterns involve the Life-force that my pastor describe in her personal story. These are the “death/rebirth” archetype and the “birth from the virginal” archetype.

Through the millennia and across cultures, humans have experienced the fact that whenever something dies, a new potential for life (a new birth) appears. Furthermore, humans have experienced the fact that in dark times, new “out of the box” potentials arise. These are only potentials however. They are like defenseless babies. They must be actualized by humans who are willing to risk engaging them.

If I am conscious of the function of these archetypal patterns, I can be assured that every time I experience a death in my life, some new thing is trying to be born. My challenge is to search for this new birth and to nurture it. Similarly, when things are dark in my life, I can be assured that many “outside the box” opportunities are arising. Once again, I am challenged to seek these out and risk acting on them.

Returning to my personal story, I continue to experience sadness and regret concerning the death of my son. Yet, I am also experiencing opportunities for new beginnings. I can't undo my past behaviors, but I can act on these present opportunities.

For example, I am being given new opportunities to act as a caring “parent.” I spend time with my grandson who loves and respects me. Young men are asking my advice, much as they might from a father.

My wife and I are experiencing new possibilities in our relationship. When we get caught in negative dynamics, we are now able to say to one another, “Is this worth it? What if one of us dies tomorrow?” This has changed our relationship. We are learning to cherish one another during the time we have left.

Life is emerging in me, even as I age; and my energy wanes. This isn't a matter of increased willpower or resolve. As with my pastor's story, Life just springs forth when I am open to it.

I still regret that I was not available to my son when he was a child. This may never change. Even so, I hear him urging me on. “Hey Pops. You can do it. Go for it, man.”

When I trust the dynamic of Life surging through the cosmos, I am less likely to spend my energy nurturing hatred and anger, or in seeking revenge. I can spend my energy looking for the new Life emerging from death and for those vulnerable “out of the box” potentials that are always present in times of darkness and despair.

Yes, a Life-force surges through the cosmos, pushing us to reach for the light. Death is not the end because death is always followed by rebirth. The darkness of despair is never final. Tiny shoots appear in the forest. Life springs forth regardless of the circumstances.

This is the good news. When we engage the Life-force within us, death and violence cannot prevail.


iI hope to write my next reflection on how we can creatively engage these dynamics personally and collectively.
iiI want to thank Pastor Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang for insights that contributed to this reflection.
iiihttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jungian_archetypes

Monday, January 22, 2018

LISTEN – A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We just celebrated Dr. MLK Jr.'s birthday. His efforts affected the situations, not only of African Americans, but of all oppressed people.
Marting Luther King likened his journey to that of Moses, leading his people to the promised land. Both Moses and Martin seemed destined to lift humankind above its baser tendencies as they followed a divine calling.
Moses' encounter occurred in the wilderness when Yahweh appeared in the form of a burning bush.i Dr. King's, occurred one night early in the Montgomery Bus boycottii He had come home from a meeting after Coretta and the kids had gone to bed. The phone rang, and an anonymous caller threatened his life. He went to bed but couldn't sleep. The path before him seemed impossible. Then, while praying aloud, he felt the presence of God as he never had before.iii
I used to question my commitment because I never had a profound religious experience. Then, I learned that the beginning of Dr. King's career was also unremarkable. He wrote:iv
My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.
Martin was the son of a prominent parents, his mother a musician and his father the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was here where he was nurtured spiritually, intellectually and in his concern for racial justice. It was here that his urge to serve God and humanity was cultivated. This urge was further enhanced by like-minded people in seminary, in graduate school and in the civil rights movement. In this context Martin's epiphany in Montgomery, was not a new beginning as much as it was powerful affirmation on his journey.
I now realize that some of us are blessed with profound life experiences, but these alone will not keep us going. Jesus had a religious experience in his baptism, but even he had to go into the wilderness from time-to-time to pray. It's the less dramatic experiences that keep us going. This is why it's so important for each of us to listen for that inner urge that moves in our lives.
My inner urge was conditioned by my early life experiences in a small town in rural Minnesota. I was raised in a family that emphasized caring for one another. Because of this, I was acutely aware of people who suffered through no fault of their own.

I remember a family who lived near us. Their shabby house was set back among some trees in a weedy lot. Broken toys littered the yard. Little kids, in worn clothes, came in and out of the house. One day, I learned their mother had died in her sleep, probably from asthma. I anguished for these children. Imagine the horror. A little child wakes in the morning and discovers her mom dead in her bed. The image still haunts me.

There was grown man in our town who pushed himself around in a red wagon. His face was covered with stubble. He wore work overhauls and drooled. He smiled, waving his hands aimlessly, if people greeted him. What must it have been like to be trapped in his body?

A Downs Syndrome kid lived in our neighborhood. His mom was a hair dresser who operated a small business out of her home. I was impressed by the way his parents normalized his living, treating him, as much as possible, like all the other kids his age. He would never be able to live independently. What would happen when his parents were too old to care for him?

These people of my youth continue to live in my inner world. They motivate me as I engage others who are suffering through no fault of their own. I felt an urge to minimize their suffering.
When I was in high school, I read, “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis. I resonated with the life and values of the Jesus described by Kazantzakis. He was no longer just a figure on the church altar. He was a flesh and blood man who had the same struggles as I had. This enhanced my urge to get involved.
While in college, I visited the Taize monastery in France.v While eating and working with the monks and enjoying the beautiful land, I was overcome with a sense of peace and harmony.
When I directed the Madison Urban Ministry, I encountered committed people of many races, religions and economic conditions. These folks motivated me, and the urge grew stronger.
Now, love for my daughter and grandson has brought my wife and me to the Boston area. Here we are connecting with wonderful people, some at a local coffee shop, others at a little United Methodist Church and still others in local social justice groups. All the while I continue to be nurtured by past friends and family members.
Something in me continues to press onward. This is the same thing that motivated Martin Luther King Jr. and all those people who sacrificed their lives in the Civil Rights Movement. It continues to move through unnamed people in unknown places throughout the world. It manifests in little reports of courage and goodness that will not be drowned out by the negative news that floods over us daily.
The Spirit moves relentlessly like the wind blowing across the ocean. It produces swells that grow to become waves, with foaming crests, that crash against the shore. People like Dr. MLK Jr. are the magnificent leading edge of these waves.
Still, these heroes and heroines are just markers in a larger social movement. As with the crashing wave, we only notice the foaming waters at the crest. But without the millions of droplets making up the waves, there would be no crests.
The giant wave of the Civil Rights movement crashed against the shore and is receding. Unfortunately, the words of Dr. King in his Beyond Vietnam Speechvi are as true today as they were fifty years ago. He said:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers (and social networks), profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism (prejudice), extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 
It is time for a renewal of a civil rights movement for the 21st century. The winds of the Spirit continue to blow. The ground swells are obvious as environmental groups, scientists, local governments and faith communities begin to respond to the efforts of new groups; #MeToo; Black Lives Matter; The Poor Peoples' March; The Standing Rock Sioux, opposing a pipeline over Native lands; Immigrants Rights groups; LGBTQ groups; and others.
It is time for each of us do our little part. We are called to respond even though our efforts will probably go unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. I yearn for a future where each of us will listen for and respond to the inner urge to commit our lives to a future of justice, peace and compassion. Then we can say with Dr. King:
I have a dream that (our) little children will one day live in a (world) where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. …. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every (nation), we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black, (brown, yellow, red) and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, (Buddhists, Moslems and others) will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
iExodus 3:1-17
iihttp://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_montgomery_bus_boycott_1955_1956/
iiihttp://www.sparknotes.com/biography/mlk/section3/page/2/
ivhttp://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/my_call_to_the_ministry/index.html
vhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taizé_Community
vihttp://www.famous-speeches-and-speech-topics.info/martin-luther-king-speeches/martin-luther-king-speech-beyond-vietnam.htm

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

WHEN WE DON'T BELIEVE

I have a young friend. Let's call him James. One night James narrowly missed hitting a dog that charged across the road in front of his car. The wounded animal was trying to escape a pack of coyotes that had attacked it. James pulled over, jumped out of his vehicle and chased the crazed animal into the woods. He found it crouching in the bushes, growling. The dog, sensing that James was friendly, calmed down as he approached. James picked up the bleeding animal and carried it to his car, where he wrapped it in a blanket in his back seat. He tended to the animal's wounds, checked the tag around its neck and brought it to its owners who took it to a vet for emergency care.

This is not an isolated incident for James. I call him “the animal whisperer” because he is so concerned about the plight of animals. He is also bothered about the way humans are destroying our plant species and how we are killing ourselves by our unhealthy eating and life-styles.

“Why are they so stupid?” he shouts. "Can't they see we are damaging ourselves and the earth by the way we live?”

“I respond,” James, in your own way, you are a prophet. Those of us on the cutting edge will always be frustrated because others don't get it.”

“Yeah,” he replies. “What good did they ever accomplish? Nothing changed. Many of them got killed. Kill or be killed. That's the way the world operates. The Italian Mafia had it right. Take care of your own because no one else will do it for us. This talk about loving everyone sounds good, but it doesn't work in the real world.”

James was raised in a Catholic family. He still wears a religious medal that belonged to his grandmother. Yet he has little time for churches and other religious groups.

“There are some good things about them,” he says, “but they are basically political organizations. Look at the sexual abuse of kids by priests and ministers. Churches are mainly interested in self preservation. Their talk about God doesn't do much for me. I'm thinking about moving to Hawaii where things are simpler and where people appreciate nature and one another.”

I respond, “James, you continue to promote good living and eating habits and advocate compassion for plants and animals. Something is keeping you going even though your efforts seem useless. You are caught by something that won't let go. Remember James, this is more than an intellectual exercise. Stay in touch with your heart as well as your head.”

James nods, and grudgingly admits this is true.

I have an Indian friend. Call him Nandha. His parents are devout Hindus. He attended a college run by an Augustinian order of monks. Following college, Nandha volunteered with this order and worked a couple years with disadvantaged high school kids. He is now employed by a tech firm. Nandha is still close to his family and joins them for meals on a regular basis. He tells me that people his age, raised in the Hindu faith, are also less involved in the religious practices of their families.

Nandha, like my Catholic friend, James, continues to live in ways that promote compassion and justice, as he was taught in his Hindu household. Although he is not as involved in the religious practices of his parents, he is still engaged and motivated by some unnamed source that his parents would call Brahman, the Supreme Being.

In a way, I am not too different from James and Nandha. I had difficulty accepting the teachings and practices of my Lutheran tradition. In fact, my God was not a God of love. He was a punishing father. It was not until my late 50's that I discovered God as a friend. I imagined having conversations with him while sitting by a campfire near a lake. Several years later, this image dissolved. I no longer have a specific image of God. I, like my young friends, experience something that keeps me going, even in the midst of the world's violence.

Some of us were fortunate and did not have to anguish over such things. My sister lived with cancer for fifteen years. Her church and faith were powerful sources of comfort in her living and her dying. Bonnie, a life-time member of the little church I attend, is another of those people. Several months ago, we celebrated her hundredth birthday at a Sunday service. She was radiant when our little choir serenaded her with hymns she has enjoyed all her life.

We each have beliefs about what gives life meaning. But our specific religious/moral beliefs aren't the main point. These are times when powerful men and women corrupt our democracy for personal gain. What matters is that we who are moved to work for peace, compassion and justice, join together and dedicate our lives to these efforts.

We in our faith communities, need to rethink our roles. We need to pay closer attention to the practices and professions of the founders of our religious traditions. It does little good to judge others by their belief systems or whether they participate in formal religious organizations.

As a follower of Jesus, I need to remember that he never put himself first. He always acknowledged a loving presence greater than himself, whom he knew as a parent. He did not aspire to being a social/political leader even when people urged him to do so. He always put himself on the line when promoting the cause of compassion and justice. In strategizing, he was wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. By living wisely, with love and compassion, he hoped and yearned to be part of a dawning new order. He believed this order was more powerful than the systems of death and destruction that surrounded him.

This raises important questions for faith communities. Do we need to alter our strategies as we work for justice and compassion?

The civil rights movements of the '60's and '70's were led by religious leaders. They marched at the head of parades, organized nonviolent protests and provided their buildings for meetings and prayer services. These days faith communities no longer exercise this degree of political and moral influence. Their influence is further reduced as crafty politicians manipulate them for personal gain.

It is easy to bemoan the decline in faith organizations. Maybe things aren't as grim as they seem. We need to be more aware of people like my friends James and Nandha. Perhaps that energy we have identified only with faith communities is once more loose on the land, moving where it wills.

A parable about the action of the Holy Spirit may be relevant here:

After Jesus died, the Holy Spirit burst free from the grave. The church chased after It and stuffed It in a box of dogma and ritual. Once again It burst free. Time and again the church caught It and stuffed It back in the box. Time and again the Holy Spirit burst free. This reminds me of the old Road Runner cartoons. They feature Wylie Coyote who chases the Road Runner in episode after episode. He always fails to catch him, often with disastrous and humorous results.

The Christmas/Hanukkah season occurs near the winter solstice; a time celebrated by many religious and secular movements.i It is a time when light begins to shine in the darkness – when life and hope are born in the midst of despair.

This year is particularly dark for me as divisiveness, hatred, fear and violence dominate our national and international attention. I am desperate for images of light and hope. This is why I'm so delighted to know people like James and Nandha, as well as people like my sister and Bonnie. They all nourish me in these dark times.

I also find a glimmer of hope in the writings of theologian, Karen Armstrong. ii She states that humanity is in the midst of major reawakening,iii similar to that which occurred during the period from 800—200 BCE.iv

Armstrong writes:

(This earlier reawakening called the first axial age) is the time when all the great world religions came into being. And in every single case, the spiritualities that emerged during the Axial Age—Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Greek rationalism in Europe—began with a recoil from violence, with looking into the heart to find the sources of violence in the human psyche. The conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to these spiritualities. One of the things that is very striking is that all the great sages were living in a time like our own—a time full of fear, violence, and horror. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their beings.

I live in the hope that the energy of the cosmos, like Wiley Coyote, continues to roam free, creating and innovating in spite of humanity's desperate attempts to control it. As I imagine this energy breaking out all over the place, I am less concerned about the decline in participation in faith communities. I am willing to commit myself to this emergence rather than to institutional preservation. I am willing to join with all people who are compelled to promote compassion and justice.

This effort is important as there is a real danger facing our species. Men and women in positions of power are, knowingly or unknowingly, promoting fear, divisiveness, destruction and death as they attempt to maintain the old order. Since this transition will occur over many life-times, it is imperative that we who are moved by this energy, develop and maintain practices that deepen our discernment of the new thing that is arising. It is also imperative that we explore new ways of engaging this emerging reality.

Those of us in faith communities need to emulate the lives of the founders of our traditions, depending less on the dogmas produced by these traditions. This means risking our very institutions as we engage our communities as servants. One congregation of aging members described this as “Living Like You're Dying.”v

Those of you who are motivated to work for justice and compassion, but do not profess any religion, need to acknowledge that the mysterious dynamic that motivates you also motivates those in faith communities. This will enable you to engage with people from faith communities, without getting caught in old hurts and in the rejection of outmoded definitions of God and Faith.

Together, will we be able to trust this mysterious dynamic that is more life giving than the old order that is passing away.

I will close with a piece written by Mary Luti.vi

(Some of you may wish to substitute another word for “God” in what follows.)

AH TIM”

Since childhood a man I know has been attracted to Something. He didn't know what It was back then, but he felt pulled in Its direction. It was like a strong undertow. He went with it.

In college, a friend took him to church. There he was lucky to discover that It was God. The God Jesus talked about, and talked to, at night, alone in the hills.

He started talking to God, too, saying, "Ah, God, you…" That's how he prayed, with that sigh. He heard God sigh back, "Ah, Tim, you…" Always a sigh, and a stirring.

Until a day when there was neither. No sigh. No stirring. Not in church where he prayed. Not under the stars where he pleaded. Not even in the shelter where he worked, which was disquieting, for he'd often heard God sigh there.

He'd been returned to the beginning, he thought, before there were sighs. He was bereft, but by now sighing was his habit, second nature, oxygen. He kept it up.

Sometimes he felt stupid, like a crazed unrequited lover, lobbing his longing into a void. He got over even that after a while.

He hasn't heard God sigh, "Ah, Tim, you..." for years. He knows he may never hear his name that way again. But recently he told me he's content. He has what he's always wanted.

For he's come to know that God isn't a prize at the end of his sighs, but lives entire within them, end to beginning, beginning to end. Desire is all there is, and all the way to God is God.

iihttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Armstrong
iiihttp://www.adishakti.org/_/a_new_axial_age_by_karen_armstrong.htm
ivhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_Age
vhttp://m.startribune.com/struggling-maplewood-finds-new-life-by-living-like-you-are-dying/451860703/

vihttp://www.ucc.org/devotionals_by_mary_luti

Saturday, September 23, 2017

INVISIBLE STRINGS

My grandson started kindergarten this fall. He is going out on his own without his mom and dad. It's a scary experience. He's worried and irritable. I want to protect him from the fears, sorrows and disappointments he will face in his life. I try to assure him that it will be OK.

My daughter, who is much wiser than I, tells me that it does little good to explain things to him. She says that, even though my grandson has a good mind, the behavior of a five-year-old is governed more by feelings than by rational thought.

“Dad,” she says, “His meltdowns are understandable. Don't try to calm him by reasoning with him. Go with his feelings. Say, 'I see that your hard feelings are coming out.' Then hold him or just be there with him. This will reassure him that his feelings are OK and that he is OK.”

She is reading a book to him titled, “The Invisible String.”i It's a story of a mother who comforts her children who are frightened at night by a storm. She assures them that even though she is in the next room, she is connected to them by invisible strings. These same strings connect them to all of the people and animals they love. They don't have to be afraid because they are never alone.

My daughter urges my grandson to imagine these invisible strings when he is worried. She tells him that these invisible strings attach him to her, to his dad, to his grandparents, friends and even Georgia, his dog. He responds, “These strings are stronger than the bad strings.” He gets it.

He still has some meltdowns, but now he has a way to comfort himself. My grandson can imagine invisible strings of love connecting him to all those who love him. These strings are stronger than the bad strings of fear.

We adults are a lot like my grandson. We are more sophisticated in understanding ourselves and the world, but our lives are still conditioned by our emotions. Consider, for example, our response to the Global Warming crisis. Ninety-seven percent of scientists acknowledge that global warming is a fact and is caused by humankind.ii Public advocates have been warning of the affects of global warming for years. These well documented arguments have been successfully countered with emotional appeals not based in fact. As a result, a sizable portion of Americans do not consider global warming an issue for concern.

Recently, two monster hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, slammed into Texas and Florida. News networks and social media beamed daily pictures into our homes of these unfolding tragedies. We saw the pain and suffering of American citizens. Our response was visceral and emotional. The statistics didn't grab our attention, but our emotions did.

We grownups, just like my grandson, need assurance that the world is not as scary and dangerous as we imagine. Without this assurance, we too react emotionally out of fear. Unlike my grandson, we have no adult figure to assure us that the invisible strings of love are stronger than the bad strings of fear. In fact, people in positions of power have been manipulating our fear for their own ends. As a result, our nation is riven by divisions. We distrust those who differ from ourselves. This distrust is reflected in our social structures and disables the very democratic processes that have made our nation great.

This atmosphere of distrust even infects those of us who seek to reform our society. We tend to view the society in terms of them and us. We struggle to defeat those who promote and benefit from a culture of domination and control. Once the issue is stated in these terms, we too are caught in and promoting the very cultural attitudes we abhor.

My daughter's admonition applies here as it does with my grandson:


Even though we have a comprehensive scientific understanding of human psychology, group dynamics and social systems, our behaviors are still governed more by feelings than we care to admit. Our social dysfunctions (meltdowns) are understandable. Reason alone won't calm us.

We need to express and acknowledge these fearful feelings. We need reassurance that these feelings are OK, and that we are OK for experiencing them. We need ways to engage the invisible strings of love that are more powerful than our fear.


The question is, “How can we access those invisible strings of love.” My grandson has his mom. She assures him that he is connected to her and others. Who or what is that “mother” that can assure us?

In the past, the rituals and practices of religious and spiritual traditions provided this assurance. For many, these traditions no longer appeal. Others, who still self identify as “religious” or “spiritual,” no longer engage in the disciplines of worship, prayer and meditation. Religious groups still provide a supportive community of friends and acquaintances, but they often provide little else. This may explain while the Saturday and Sunday youth soccer leagues attract as many people as do religious gatherings.

If we are to counter the death producing culture of fear and domination, we need to seriously engage in practices that allow us to be gripped by the invisible strings of love. Only then, will a culture of compassion challenge the culture of fear and domination.

The outpouring of compassion and support for the victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, is a demonstration that we are concerned and connected as human beings. For a brief time, the bad strings of fear and distrust were overwhelmed by strings of love made visible.

Our challenge is to intentionally engage practices that promote compassion for one another in all situations, not only at times of great tragedy. This requires as much commitment and discipline as that required in the struggle for control and domination. The practice of engaging love and compassion is not a passive act. It is more than a series of emotionally charged moments. It is a practice that transforms us; one in which we are gripped by an empathy for others; one that compels us to reach out to others even in the face of fear and violence.

This practice requires that we use all of our rational abilities, as we analyze and strategize to counter the destructive systems of domination and violence. It also requires that we attend to the dreams and visions prompted by our compassion. Motivated by the invisible strings of love, we can then work to implement our dreams to create a world very different from that which presently constrains billions of our brothers and sisters to live in situations of poverty, war, disease and violence.

If you are a religious or spiritual person, make it a priority in your life to engage in the worship, meditation and actions of your tradition. If you are not a religious or spiritual person, explore what motivates you to acts of love and compassion. Then develop or engage in a practice, either alone or with others, that enhances this commitment.

The culture of domination and violence is literally killing us. It threatens the extinction of human, animal and plant life on our planet. At a deeper level, it threatens the core of what we are as humans. This is the core of evolving consciousness that allows us to understand ourselves as more than just individuals or even a species. We are participants in the ever expanding and creating flow of the cosmos.
iThe Invisible String by Patrice Karst <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVp9ZBmPu8o>

iihttp://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002

Sunday, August 13, 2017

IT DOESN'T WORK! WE NEED ANOTHER WAY!

In earlier times, Congressional debate was combative but civil. This is no longer the case. Congress is so polarized that debate is shaped almost exclusively by partisan alliances. This was epitomized by the recent battle to replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Each party played to their constituencies. It seemed like a bizarre sporting event where the scoreboard registered only future campaign totals.

Senator John McCain returned to the Senate to make an impassioned plea for cooperation. He warned that polarization threatens our democratic institutions. The speech was more poignant because two days earlier he underwent surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor. It is unclear whether or not his colleagues will heed Senator McCain's advise.

Struggle for control and domination is the accepted norm. This is true, not only in politics, but in most aspects of life. Cooperative and compassionate processes are considered weak and ineffective. We believe that only the strong will prevail.

An ancient Hebrew story about the patriarch, Abraham, i seems relevant. Abraham lived around 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia (present day Turkey and Syria). Like other nomads, he traveled with his family and flocks in the arid back country, far from major cities. There was an unspoken commitment among these nomadic families. If strangers approached their camp, they offered them food and lodging. This was done because no one knew when they would also be in need. When hospitality was offered and accepted, a bond was formed, even if the strangers were formally enemies.

According to the story, God promised Abraham that he and Sarah would give birth to a son; making them the parents of nations. No son had been born to them. Assuming she was barren, Sarah told Abraham to take Hagar, her servant, as a wife. He did, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. ii Even though Abraham assumed he would never impregnate Sarah, he remained true to his commitment to Yahweh.

One day, strangers appeared at the camp. Abraham offered them extravagant hospitality. As they left, the strangers assured Sarah that she would conceive and bear a son. Hearing this, Sarah laughed. The prediction came true. Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Through Isaac, the tribe of Abraham eventually became the nation of Israel. This insignificant band of nomads influenced the powerful of their day and the history of our planet.

This story provides a metaphor for our contemporary situation. Many of us feel impotent in the face of global violence and cruelty. We laugh in disbelief when we consider that our efforts might affect future generations.

The centers of power appear to be strong and invincible. Not so. They are vulnerable because they attempt to control the immense power of the innovating and creating Flow of the cosmos. iii Anything that is unable to evolve will pass out of existence. Insignificant efforts like ours can have an impact, if we are able to evolve with the flow and adapt. This dynamic applies at many levels, physically, socially, and psychologically.

The Great Extinction that destroyed the dinosaurs is an example. Sixty-five million years ago, a 6-mile wide meteor struck near modern-day Mexico City, incinerating everything in its path. iv Underground burrows and aquatic environments protected small mammals from the brief but drastic rise in temperature. In contrast, the larger dinosaurs were completely exposed, and died instantly. Even if large herbivorous dinosaurs had managed to survive the initial meteor strike, they would have had nothing to eat. Most of the earth's above-ground plant material had been destroyed. Mammals, in contrast, were small and had a varied diet. They could eat insects and aquatic plants which remained abundant. The powerful dinosaurs that dominated that early environment were destroyed. The insignificant mammals sustained life on the planet.

I know the psychological dimension of this dynamic personally. I am intellectually competent. I was a leader in high school and in college served on many committees. I dominated others with my intellect. Even so, I felt inferior. I wasn't athletically competent. I couldn't make small talk at social gatherings, particularly with women. I didn't participate in horseplay with guys in the dorm or at local taverns.

When confronted with feelings of vulnerability, I escaped into my thinking in an attempt to bolster a false sense of superiority. I remember sitting in meetings silently criticizing those around me. “That was a stupid remark.” “Doesn't she realize she's making a fool of herself.” “I could run this meeting better than he.” I isolated myself in an intellectual fortress of my own making in an effort stay in control.

My fortress walls began to crumble as I encountered people who were orders of magnitude smarter and more capable than I. I then felt inferior intellectually as well. The more I denied these feelings, the less secure I felt. My fortress became a prison of inner isolation and vulnerability. I was extroverted on the outside, but I couldn't share my sense of vulnerability with anyone, including myself. I remember visiting a therapist who challenged me to stay with my feelings of grief and sadness for thirty seconds. I tried, and that thirty seconds was an eternity. I felt as though I would die.

We all know that flood waters can rupture a dam if it's not equipped with sluice gates. The same is true psychologically. The damming up of my feelings was nearly catastrophic. I experienced personal storms and floods. My sister died after a long struggle with cancer. My wife nearly divorced me. Our son died unexpectedly when he ingested alcohol with prescription drugs.

These crises wounded but didn't destroy me. I was fortunate. I began to realize that my dominant defense system was inadequate. I could no longer maintain my false sense of superiority. Life on earth had been sustained by the little mammals when the dinosaurs were destroyed. My life could be sustained only by engaging and sharing my feelings of vulnerability. I discovered that these feelings could be assets rather than liabilities. I began to accept myself, warts and all. Strangely, I grew more confident. I was closer to my wife, family and friends.

There is a social analogue to my personal story. Humankind evolved from hunter/gatherer tribes that struggled for survival in a hostile environment. The tribal bond was primary in the competition for control of hunting grounds. As social organizations grew larger and more complex, city-states replaced tribes. Then nation-states replaced city-states. Still the old survival instincts persisted. Kill, or be killed. Control those around you to keep them from controlling you. Tame a hostile environment, or it will destroy you.

Today, our survival is no longer conditioned by these external forces. The threat comes from within. The internet links us instantaneously. Economic systems are so intertwined that a catastrophe in one country sends shock waves throughout the globe. Armies have weapons systems capable of destroying whole civilizations. We are outstripping the available resources of the planet as we compete with one another to meet synthesized wants and needs.

Automobile manufacturers, in an attempt to gain an advantage over competitors, falsify records rather than building more expensive and less polluting cars. Political leaders intentionally block legislation that will improve the lives of people; fearing that cooperation with the other party will lessen their chances for reelection. Countries go to war, sacrificing millions of lives, rather than risking domination by neighboring nations. The list goes on and on. We stay the course because this seems to be the only affective way to do business.

We, as a species, need to discover what I discovered personally. The old patterns of domination and control, which isolate us in our prisons of insecurity and fear, no longer work.

Spiritual and Wisdom traditions have long taught that we should engage the Flow rather than bucking it. They advocate a path of compassion that acknowledges we are interdependent. In some strange sense, we are connected at a deep level. This is what I discovered when I began to share my vulnerable feelings with others. The issue is, “How can we promote this transformation corporately?”

This is where the story of Abraham and Sarah is relevant. They were impotent and powerless compared to the rulers of the city-states in Mesopotamia. They had long since given up the hope of bearing a child. Although disappointed, they remained true to their commitment to Yahweh. Strangers were welcomed to their camp. Then the impossible happened. Sarah gave birth to Isaac, from whom arose the tribes of Israel.

The lesson: Our seemingly ineffective efforts can have amazing results if we cooperate with the creative evolving dynamic of the Flow. As illustrated in my previous examples, creative options almost always evolve from the edges and not from the centers of power. We, like Abraham and Sarah, can participate in the Flow as it moves toward creativity and life.

It may be difficult to believe, but there are some hopeful signs of change. Nonviolent efforts such as those promoted by Gandhi and King, the 1989 nonviolent protests in China, v Arab Spring, vi and others vii were early indications of this change. Currently, a Kindness Movement seems to be emerging in our country. Relationship researcher, Shaunti Feldhahn, reports, “People are longing for kindness,” viii An article in the Religious News Service (RNS)ix states, “In recent months, Christian authors — as well as Parade Magazine — have highlighted step-by-step processes to help readers learn how to be kind. Organizations like the World Kindness Movement and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have encouraged altruism since the 1990s.” Movements, such as these, are responding in part to feelings of isolation and loneliness among our citizens. These feelings are so wide spread that they constitute a public health crisis.x Furthermore, engaging the Flow is exciting and life giving even though it is sometimes risky and frightening.

Yes, there are signs of hope. But the task before us is immense. The entrenched patterns of domination and control move unconsciously in our private lives and in our social structures. If we are to participate in this evolution, our efforts must include total commitment of mind, heart and soul.

I will speak more about this in my next post.

iGenesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 Abraham, with his wife, Sarah, is considered the father of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism-Christianity and Islam. https://www.thoughtco.com/archaeological-evidence-abraham-in-the-bible-116875
ii Abraham is also known as the Father of Islam because Mohammad is deemed the descendant of Abraham and Hagar
through Ishmael.
iiiI am using more contemporary language to state what older Jewish, Christian and Buddhist traditions might described as “obeying the will of God,” “living in the Spirit,” or “achieving enlightenment.”
ivhttps://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100131221348.htm
vhttp://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol2_1/True.htm
vihttps://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/01/arab-spring-five-years-on/
viihttp://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu
viii Shaunti Feldhahn, author of “The Kindness Challenge: Thirty Days to Improve Any Relationship.”
ixhttp://religionnews.com/2017/06/23/stemming-the-tide-of-hatred-with-kindness-and-finding-life-itself/
xhttps://cosmosmagazine.com/society/loneliness-epidemic-set-to-become-a-public-health-crisis

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

MOTHER WHERE ARE YOU?

Mothers' Day has come and gone. For a brief moment we honored those who loved and mothered us. Now we return to the real world and business as usual where domination and violence are normative. Like the Hallmark image of hearts and flowers, the Way of Love and Compassion is viewed as an ineffectual, sentimental approach to life that should be reserved for puppies and babies. In point of fact, real mothering is not always gentle and beautiful. Real mothers protect their little ones in times of danger, even sacrificing themselves in the effort. Real mothers challenge all of us, men and women, to this kind of living.

I have always known my mother was my major nurturing figure Only now am I realizing that my birth father also nurtured me, even in the final moments of his life.

I was four years old. It was dusk. My dad was driving. We were nearing Grand Forks North Dakota where he was to begin his new teaching job. Mom and I were sitting in the front seat. Baby sister, Jean, was sleeping in the back. Suddenly we swerved to miss a nearly stationary car that had no lights. There was a deafening crash as we collided head on with a car coming toward us. Mom and I were catapulted into the windshield. Dad was crushed behind the steering wheel. Little sister awoke, climbed over our bodies and ran screaming down the highway.

Dad, though mortally wounded, was still conscious. He said, “Take care of my family first.” I remember none of this. We were all hospitalized. Mom's face was terribly scarred. She suffered through several reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage. I was unconscious for forty-eight hours. My little sister, suffering only a broken arm, was the darling of the nursing staff, as she toddled around the hospital.

I can't imagine the pain mom endured following this tragedy. Many nights she cried herself to sleep. She screamed to God, “Give me strength. Stand with me. I can't do this without you.” Mom's niece joined us when we were released from the hospital. She helped mom sell our new house in North Dakota and to move back home to Minnesota.

Mom returned to teaching elementary school. With the help of her mother, brothers and sisters, she raised my sister and me as a single parent. Several years later, she married my second father, a gentle unassuming man who loved us as his own and who fathered another sister and brother.

It was during these times that I realized the power of a nurturing community. Mom was well known in her home town, as was the story of her personal tragedy. People stepped up to nurture and support us – neighbors, other school teachers, business people and members of our local Church. Yes, mom's anguished cries to God were answered through her community.

Each of us has stories about women and men who mothered us. These people equipped us with resources to live with love and compassion in a world that is inundated with the ancient messages of the gospel of “Redemptive Violence.” i This mothering dynamic has fueled a Way of Compassion that has challenged the Way of “Violence Saves” for centuries.

As Early as the 6th century BCE, Siddhartha Gautama experienced a transformation. He was born the son of a tribal King in Nepal. His father raised him in opulence, grooming him to become a prince and leader of the warrior class. One day he traveled outside the palace and, for the first time, observed poverty, suffering and death. He was so overwhelmed by his desire to alleviate the suffering of others that he renounced his princely station and wandered the country as an aesthetic, seeking enlightenment. Finally, near starvation, he meditated under a Bodhi tree. There a young woman offered him food. Nourished, he continued to meditate until he finally achieved enlightenment.

As Buddha, the Enlightened one, he shared his insights with others. He taught that there was a way that one could escape the ongoing cycle of suffering and death and be at peace. This could be accomplished if a person became so conscious of and compassionate for the suffering of others that s/he was willing to devote her/his life to taking on this suffering for the sake of all sentient beings. This Way of Compassion (Buddhism) provided a powerful alternative to the practices of domination and control embodied in the religion of Redemptive Violence. ii

Five hundred years later, a young boy named Jesus, lived in Nazareth. It was located in the northern part of Israel; a country on the western edge of the Roman Empire. Near the time of his birth, a Roman legion crushed a rebellion in the city of Sepherous, only five miles from his home. The city was destroyed and thousands of people were crucified. As a result, Israel was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. These sentiments were heightened because the political/religious leaders in Jerusalem cooperated with the Romans in order to maintain their power.

At the age of 30, Jesus left his father's carpentry business and traveled some 70 miles south. He was baptized by John, as part of a movement to free Israel from Roman domination. As John lowered Jesus into the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus experienced a moment of insight that set him on a similar path to that of Siddhartha Gautama. iii Immediately, he returned to Galilee and began healing, preaching, teaching about the Way of Compassion. He called the Kingdom or Reign of God. Local dissidents deemed his tactics ineffective while national leaders were threatened by his popularity. Finally, in a last ditch attempt to convince the political/religious leaders that the Way of Compassion and love was the only way Israel could survive, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem knowing that this confrontation might cost him his life.

Approaching Jerusalem, Jesus looked down on the city and wept. He cried, “If you had only recognized this day and everything that was good for you! But now it’s too late. In the days ahead your enemies are going to bring up their heavy artillery and surround you, pressing in from every side. They’ll smash you and your babies on the pavement. Not one stone will be left intact.” iv Forty years later Jerusalem lay in ruins. The nation of ancient Israel was no more.
It was not until Gandhi that non-violent resistance was defined as a strategy for the Way of Compassion. v Gandhi organized a mass movement around a salt march to the sea. This march struck a decisive blow against British Imperialism and lead to the Independence of India. Others followed in Gandhi's footsteps. Martin Luther King Jr. used non-violent resistance which precipitated the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. This was followed by the 1989 nonviolent protests in China;vi and Arab Spring.vii Although there were many more such movements, only these few captured international attention.viii
The way of “Violence Saves” is constantly before us. CNN reports daily on violent confrontations in Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico, Venezuela, Syria, Burundi, ix Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia.x Warfare is the focus of much of our recorded history. School children are taught about the war legacy of our nation – the Civil War, World Wars I & II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq Wars. We celebrate and commemorate our military engagement with holidays – Vietnam Veterans Day (March), Armed Forces Day (May), Memorial Day (May), Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (July), VJ (Victory over Japan) Day (August), Marine Corps Birthday (November), Veterans Day (November), Pearl Harbor Day (December). Only the Marting Luther King holiday (January) celebrates non-violent resistance.
Meanwhile the Way of “Violence Saves” lurches from one lethal action to another, each one promising an instant solution, but few delivering on the promise. The common perception persists that this is the only effective way to proceed. A recent study indicates that non-violent resistance is more effective than violent confrontation in many situations. xi
The Way of Compassion continues slowly and steadily in the background. It validates the underlying truth that we each experienced from those who mothered us. The seeds of compassion have been sown deep in our hearts. They are waiting to sprout and grow. The process of love seldom results in spectacular, top down quick fixes. It is a slow process that grows from the bottom up and from the inside out as it changes attitudes and perspectives.
I remember talking with my mom late in her life. She said, “My life has been good.” I responded, “Mom! How can you say that? You were widowed twice, both times under tragic circumstances. You raised two sets of children as a single parent. You suffered a heart attack. How can you say, 'My life has been good?'” I didn't get it. Mom had expended herself in loving others and had suffered the consequences. Even though her life was laced with tragedy and loss, my courageous, compassionate mother was able to say, “My life has been good.” Now I understand. She new deep in her soul that her life was full and complete.

This is our challenge. Live with a mother's heart. Risk engaging all of life with compassion. Risk the pain. Weep over the dominating and violent actions of people and nations that produce little other than further domination and violence. Continue forward even when things feel hopeless. Shelter the vulnerable even as a mother hen shelters her chicks with her own body.

Only a few of us can live this way in isolation. As with my mother, most of us need a community of support. So, engage a community that values this kind of living. It may be an action group, a faith community, a neighborhood group, or a group of artists and story-tellers.

Together, we can participate in the cosmic flow that is present now and that continues after we are gone. Our efforts can be more than programs driven by greed and fear. They can be infused with our life energy and with an energy that extends beyond ourselves. Even though we are small, we can engage the massive global structures of domination and oppression that threaten our very existence.

We like the mothers we honored on Mothers' Day, can live for the children, the little ones, the vulnerable ones. We can be truly inclusive because we are part of that life giving force that courses through the cosmos.

i The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience- unto-death. This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today. <http://www2.goshen.edu/~joannab/women/wink99 Note: Theologian, Walter Wink, claimed in other parts of this article that this ancient myth first appeared in Babylon about 1250 BCE)
iihttp://www.biography.com/people/buddha-9230587
iiiMatthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:4-11; Luke 3:21-22;
ivMatthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44
vHttps://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/gandhi-win/
vihttp://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol2_1/True.htm
viihttps://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/01/arab-spring-five-years-on/
viiihttp://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu
ixhttps://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/world/africa/burundi-violence.html?action=click&contentCollection=Africa&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article
xhttp://www.americansecurityproject.org/critical-issues-facing-africa-terrorism-war-and-political-violence/
xihttps://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2014/07/24/the-proven-superiority-of-nonviolent-resistance/#46094c8c68f0

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