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Wednesday, January 28, 2015


January 28, 2015

Christmas is behind us. This year the holiday season was, for me, a time of waiting. I waited and watched my grandson as he anticipated Christmas and the presents that accompanied it. His family came to our house on Christmas Eve. His eyes sparkled as he danced around the room helping everyone open their presents. I thought of my own childhood Christmases as I watched him. My aunts and uncles came to our house on Christmas Eve. We children waited upstairs for Santa to come. There would be a knock at the door, and we would run to greet him. He carried a large bag filled with presents. We stood back a little, fearful, as he handed each of us our gift. To this day, I can feel the knot in my stomach, part fear and part excitement, as I reached for my gift from this strange bearded man.

We spend much of our lives waiting, sometimes in hope and sometimes in fear. I remember waiting as a teenager, wondering if the girl of my dreams would accept my invitation to a dance. I also remember waiting when I searched for my first job. Pregnancy and birth involve a lot of waiting. The same is true of adoption. Young people wait to grow up and old people wait to die. Hungry people wait for a meal. Athletes wait anticipating the competition.

This days I watch news reports, waiting with a mixture of hope and fear. Will the tactics of ISIS result in further suffering and death? Will terrorist cells kill people here like they did in the Paris attacks? Does the recent killing of African Americans by police indicate that racism is on the rise? Is our political system being sold to the highest bidder as wealthy politicians restrict advantages to middle and low income people while lining their own pockets? Is it even possible to build a society where trust and good will are the norm rather than fear and domination? Does the spirit of Christmas and the delight of little children have any affect? Or are these images merely the hopes of dreamers who are not in touch with reality?

Underlying all of this is the question: How can I live with hope and expectation in these chaotic times?  This question isn't new. It has haunted humankind for ages.

The Old Testament book of Habakkuk records the prophet's anguished dialogue with God:2 Habakkuk screamed, “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, 'Help! Murder! Police!' before you come to the rescue? “ And then God answered: “Write this. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It will come right on time.”

Habakkuk's anguished cry was joined by Ellie Wiesel and two other rabbis who put God on trial in a Jewish concentration camp.3 Wiesel states, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty.' It means ‘He owes us something.' Then we went to pray." These rabbis trusted God even when they believed God owed them something for their suffering.

Hindu activist, Mahatma Gandhi4, lived in hope and expectation as he led the fight for Indian liberation from Britain. Although he was assassinated as he tried to stop the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bengal, his strategy of resistance through mass non-violent civil disobedience, changed the world.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Gandhi's strategy as he campaigned for civil rights in America. He was gunned down as his “Poor People's March on Washington” faltered and failed to achieve its goal. Yet he lived in the belief that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”5

Although there are times when I am able to feel compassion for my enemies, there are other times when I am beside myself with frustration. I want to destroy those who oppress the powerless and flaunt justice. At these times King's words ring in my ears. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. . . . Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So what is this life-giving love that can drive out hate? In my less cynical moments, I catch glimpses of it.

My sister Sue died of cancer nearly four years ago. She was a school counselor, played horn in a brass choir and was active in her local church. She was quiet, well-liked and had a wicked sense of humor. She was not known as a mover and shaker in the community. People at her funeral told story after story of how Sue had affected their lives. One young man said, “Thirty years ago, I was headed for trouble. But Sue believed in me, and that made all the difference.” With stories, laughter and tears people gave witness to the life-giving love that flowed through Sue into the community.

Ed Steichen, was a priest and papal volunteer in South America. There he met Helder Camera, Brazil's archbishop of the poor.6  Ed was deeply impressed when archbishop Camera attended a convocation of bishops dressed in peasant's garb rather than the traditional royal robes. Later in life Ed left the priesthood and married Aggie. We became friends through Madison Urban Ministry. Ed was a tireless advocate for the poor. He, like Camera, critiqued the oppressive structures of Society.7 He fought to reform the dehumanizing practices of the prison system, particularly solitary confinement in the super-max. Ed's connection with the life-giving love of the cosmos was evidenced in his actions and in his second passion, nature photography.

Sometimes life-giving love is manifest in organizations, groups that are characterized by people who move forward with passion and humor even in dire circumstances. The Church of the Saviour, founded by Gordon Cosby in Washington D.C., is one such organization. Cosby told how he and his brother, also an activist preacher, met annually at a motel to strategize. One year, the president of Cosby's congregation joined them. She was ill with cancer. Gordon said, “Here we were, two old men and a woman with cancer, sharing how God was using us to change the world.” The congregation he led continues to minister in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C.  Life-giving hope and love flows through these people into our nation's capitol.

Sometimes life-giving hope and love manifests itself in large social movements., like the civil rights struggle where millions of people are impacting the course of nations. Some of the leaders are familiar to us8, but the power of life-giving love is carried mainly by thousands of ordinary people and organizations who operate behind the scenes with little fanfare. We gravitate to such endeavors because something important is happening through them, something that is transforming the world. Many of us risk reputation and personal safety to be a part of these efforts.

Yes, we humans are part of a mysterious dynamic that defies rational description. We are more than we think we are. We know this dynamic, not through logical arguments and theories, but in our experiences. It might be in watching a sunset, looking at a picture, listening to a piece of music, hearing a story or experiencing one of the thousands of everyday events that fill our lives. This knowing comes from our guts, not our heads.

Habakkuk described this knowing as engaging Yahweh. My sister Sue, my friend Ed Steichen and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violent resistance motivated by his life as a Hindu. Buddha preached an enlightenment that grows out of compassion.

Inspiring as these teachers were, many of us today are not moved by traditional religions. They no longer speak to us. Their images and beliefs seem outmoded and irrelevant when viewed through the lens of our twenty-first century technology, science and psychology. Yet we all experience moments when we “know” something that is difficult to explain rationally. This knowing often gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Fritjof Capra9 and David Steindl-Rast10, with Thomas Matus, discuss this disconnect in the book, Belonging to the Universe11. I have excerpted a few paragraphs below:

David: We all carry with us a great question. There is something questioning within us. It is unexpressed most of the time, or perhaps always. Our very life is a quest, a questioning. And once in a while, for no particular reason, we suddenly know the answer, we glimpse the answer. But the answer is not yet spelled out. We just say, “This is it.” It may be the smile of a baby in a crib. A parent looks at the baby, and there, “This is it.” It is this kind of being able “to rest in it” from our restlessness with which we normally pursue life.

Fritjof: Yes, but I want to get at something else in spirituality or Religion . . . It is the sense of connectedness to the cosmos as a whole. That's also in the smile of the baby, because I am the father, but the smile of any baby is also my smile. And the smile of a dolphin - if you can call it a smile – is also my smile. . . . So this sense of connectedness with the cosmos is essential to religious experience for me. . . . the expression I usually use (is) belonging.

Thomas: Belonging has a double meaning. When I say, “This belongs to me,” I mean that I possess something. When I say, “I belong,” (I mean) I take part in, am intimately involved with a reality greater than myself, whether it's a love relationship, a community, a religion, or the whole universe. So “I belong” means “Here I find my place,” “This is it,” and, at the same time, “Here I am.”

David: Maybe one can now use another image. I said we go around with this quest, with this question. Maybe one can say we often feel orphaned; we feel lost; we feel we're wandering and looking for something. Then comes a moment, unexplainably, “Now I am at home, this is my home. And I belong. I am not orphaned. I belong to all other humans.” Even if there's nobody around, this is clearly felt. I am at home with them. I am responsible for them and to them. We all belong together in this great cosmic unity.

Fritjof: Etymologically, the root of religion is connectedness and the root of theology is in theos, God. But the way you present it it does not require the concept of God.12

David: It does not require the name “God.” And I am always very careful not to say “God” unless I know that the people with whom I speak feel comfortable with it, or at least don't misunderstand it too greatly. The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.

I am impressed with David Steindl-Rast's insight in the paragraph above. “(Religion) does not require the name 'God.' The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.“

This statement puts us all on equal footing. Whether or not we use the name God, we are each responsible for how we engage that unexpressed questioning in our lives. We can try to ignore it. We can lose ourselves in societally conditioned pursuits that never really engage this dimension of living. Or we can seek to live our lives as authentically as possible, saying, “Here I am.” “I belong.” Only when we engage that sense of belonging that we occasionally glimpse will we know our authentic selves, our human capacity to live in hope even during desperate times.

Only then will we sense that we are part of the energizing, creating dynamism of the cosmos. Perhaps this is why the recent celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is so meaningful to me. It is a manifestation of humankind's potential in the midst of humankind's shortcomings. We are able to discover life-giving love and hope even in the midst of the hopelessness and fear that often characterizes our human condition.

I will end this reflection with another personal story. Sometime in late November, we were caring for our grandson. He told us he wanted to take a break in the crib in our bedroom. He knew he could only have his pacifier and blanket when he was in his crib. I put him down and lay on our bed, hoping he would go to sleep. I felt restless and despairing as my mind played through all the violence and suffering in the world. In the silence, I heard my grandson talking to his stuffed animals: Big Doggie, Little Lamb and Little Doggie. After asking them questions, he was quiet. Then I heard this little voice say, “Big Doggie, I love you so-o-o much.” My heart melted. I felt strangely at peace. Something soft yet powerful filled the room through my grandson's proclamation.

1I want to thank pastor Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang of Woburn (MA) United Methodist Church, whose sermon on Nov. 30, 2014, “Standing at Watchpost,” inspired this reflection.
2The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk lived in the late 7th century about the time the Hebrew people were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.(Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:2-3)
7The late archbishop's place in history will be heavily influenced by one of his more memorable sayings. "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."
9Fritjof Capra is an Austrian-born American physicist. His books include, The Tao of Physics (1975), The Turning Point (1982), UncommonWisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002)
10David Steindl-Rast is a Catholic Benedictine monk, notable for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science.
11Belonging to the Universe: Explorations on the Frontiers of Science & Spirituality, Fritjof Capra author of The Tao of Physics & David Seindl-Rast with Thomas Matus, Harper Collins, p. 14-15
12Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word back to an old Latin word religio meaning "taboo, restraint." A deeper study discovers the word comes from the two words re and ligare. Re is a prefix meaning "return," and ligare means "to bind;"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


What a summer! Our children treated us to two weeks in Italy to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Our whole family – Rebecca, Dan and little Gus as well as Timothy and Johanna – spent the first week in a villa near Cortona in Tuscany. The second week, Jean and I set off by ourselves, traveling to the cities of Cinque Terre1, Pisa, Florence and Rome.

I was awed by the beauty of the country and by the Renaissance art of Florence and Rome. I was further blessed spending time with our family and with Jean. This alone made the trip worthwhile.

Yet I received something else from the trip for which I wasn't prepared. This was our involvement with the people of Italy. These experiences humanized the trip and helped me appreciate at a deeper level what it means to Live With Soul. I'd like to share a few of these experiences with you.

I remember mornings hiking up to the walled city of Cortona2. The road was bordered by trees in the valley and by vineyards and olive groves as we ascended. The base of the city wall dated back to Etruscans times (5th century BCE) while the remainder was added in the 3rd century after the Roman conquest3. Upon reaching the city, we entered by one of the four gates and proceeded down narrow streets, past ancient buildings, to Bar Cafe Signorelli, where we enjoyed our morning coffee. Claudio, the owner, would greet me with a friendly “Ciao,” while bringing my decaf espresso with cream. Although his limited English and my non-existent Italian, made conversation difficult, I felt a special bond with him. The day we left he hugged me saying “Arrivederci.”

Jean and I spent two wonderful nights with Gabriele at Stella Della Marina, a 10 room hotel in Monterosso (Cinque Terre). It was here that I lost my credit card to a pick-pocket. I told Gabriele that he was truly the angel Gabriel, as he offered me his business phone for the 1½ hour conversation required to obtain a replacement credit card. His hotel is like a bed and breakfast, because he is both the proprietor and staff. His morning meals, served on the roof-top of the hotel overlooking the sea, were one of the high-points of our trip.

The loss of my credit card enabled another meeting, this one with a wonderful woman in Riomaggiore (Cinque Terre). We were about to purchase a book in her shop when I realized my credit card was missing. She understood immediately what had happened and gave me the book. She then said, “Most Italians are not like this.” Jean later returned to thank her for her graciousness and generosity. With little language in common, they connected at a deep level. The woman said Jean reminded her of a dear relative.

The credit card fiasco precipitated yet a third chance meeting. Since the emergency replacement card could not be used in cash machines, son, Timothy, wired me money via Western Union. Unfortunately, the Western Union Webpage is outdated. This resulted in an unplanned walking tour of Florence. Finding no available Western Union offices, I finally had the hotel call a distant bank which said they could handle the transaction. I took a cab to this location and asked the cabby, Jacobi, a thirty-something young man, to wait for me. Alas, this bank also would not serve me. Upon learning this, Jacobi drove me up and down streets in the area searching out Western Union locations. Although this too proved unsuccessful, I had a wonderful conversation with him. He said that he was most hopeful about the new pope. He also indicated that he considered himself a global citizen. He had learned English by watching YouTube videos. As we parted, he said he was sorry he couldn't help me.

Our vacation concluded in Rome. One afternoon we met Shahidul in the near vacant Ristorante Bar L'Euroea, where he was a waiter. He told us he was from Bangladesh. His wife had returned home because she felt excluded due to language and cultural differences. His children also left because of problems with the education system. It seems we are all aliens in one sense or another.

We toured the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica. As we queued up to see these sites, guides separated us into groups according to our native languages. A woman from Portugal was frantic, because she couldn't find her group and because she spoke no Italian or English. Jean used her limited Spanish to find out what the woman wanted. When she explained her plight, I asked the English speaking guide to direct her to a group, which she did. In some strange sense, I felt part of a larger global community in this act.

We spent our last night in a crowded outdoor restaurant. The staff were somewhat formal as they waited on us. When the crowd had thinned, I asked our waiter, Emanuelow, about himself. He told me he had completed his university degree in the history and philosophy of science. I said my training was in physics and that I was interested in the growth of consciousness. We talked further; and he finally asked if we might exchange email addresses, which we did. It's curious how many opportunities we have to connect with one another if we can only see them.

We finally rendezvoused with Dan, Rebecca and Gus, for our trip home, at Fiumicino - Leonardo da Vinci Airport.  We joined the crowds in the passport inspection line and boarded the plane. As I took my seat, I felt strangely unsettled. Part of me was preparing for the transition back to my 'real world' in the United States – Logan Airport, our condo in Woburn, the traffic on I95, the mundane chores of home life and the news reports of the stalemate in Congress & warfare in Israel, Syria and Iraq. Another part of me lingered in Italy – the rolling hills of Tuscany, the seaport towns of Cinque Terre, the Renaissance art of Florence and Rome, and the wonderful people we met.

As I sit here on a chair in front of Boston King Coffee, at Four Corners, in Woburn Massachusetts, I remain betwixt and between. I am back into my old routine. Yet I am not completely back. Perhaps this time away - yet not quite away - is a portal into a new way of being. Perhaps I can begin to look around - really look around – truly seeing those I meet and myself in the process. Things are always more than they seem. The old is never really old because it is always changing and evolving, as am I.

Life is always a journey into a new country. In some sense, I am always an alien in a strange world. As an alien, I needn't separate myself in my differentness. I can remain open to new relationships, even with those people whom I have known. Life is filled with opportunities for adventure.

As I look around and imagine people throughout the world, each with his or her own hopes, fears, pains and joys, I realize that we live a messy existence - complicated, hurting and fearful. Yet soul shines through. Perhaps Living With Soul every moment of every day, is the most radical action we can take as we engage that mysterious presence that heals and enlivens existence. 

1    The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The Cinque Terre area is a very popular tourist destination.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Sentimental greeting cards rub me wrong. They seem trite and false. The life I experienced in Madison Urban Ministry wasn't warm and fuzzy. The real world is nitty-gritty and not always hopeful.

Dishonest individuals – members of Congress, business people and even religious leaders - get rich at the expense of others. They corrupt the democratic and religious principles we hold dear. As a result, ordinary people suffer. Globally, our economies are in difficulty. The environmental crisis threatens our long term existence.1,2,3 Billions of people live in intolerable conditions. Poverty is widespread. Wars rage throughout the globe. Honest reformers - politicians, business people and spiritual leaders - fight an uphill battle to promote justice. “Good guys” finish last. Pietistic assurances that the world will be a better place if we love each other, seem to apply only to those who are well off.

This is a real bind. We crave affirmation and unconditional love. We yearn for a creation in which the “lion lies down with the lamb.” Yet, we are stuck in a world where “might makes right” and the powerful make the rules. Fear, anger, violence and defensiveness condition the realities of our existence.

Is there anything that can modify these destructive dynamics? Is there a deeper form of love that can transform things? I want to say, “yes.” But I can't prove it. What I have is stories that resonate within me.

My mother, twice widowed, raised four of us as a single parent. Ours wasn't a Brady Bunch family. Mom told me once that she was sorry she couldn't provide the male guidance I needed when I was young. She said, “I didn't know how to be both mother and father to you.” Life didn't go as she wished. She had to be tough and make hard decisions. Yet she loved us with the fierce tenacity of a mama bear protecting her cubs. Her love was infused with the coarseness of real life experience.

My second father, Jim, demonstrated a loving gentleness that still amazes me. He was a farmer turned small business owner. He left the farm because he knew my mom would be unhappy as a farmer's wife. He was soft spoken and not very assertive. Still, he was a constant source of support. I remember the winter he fitted our old car with snow chains so the family could drive through a blizzard to attend my sister's performance in a college drama. He made this extraordinary effort because he knew my mom wanted to be there.

Last winter my little grandson was fascinated by the Christmas tree. He wanted to touch the pretty lights and decorations. I warned him that he could be hurt if the tree fell over. Testing me, he reached for the tree. I shouted, “No Gus!” This scared him. He looked at me. His face clouded over. His lip quivered, and he burst into tears. Then he reached up for comfort. Even though my shout had startled him, he trusted I would keep him safe. My heart nearly broke as I held him.

Another time Gus was riding with us as we drove to our local coffee shop. This is the place where he is smitten by one of the staff. As we drove down the road, we heard this little voice from the back seat. “Gus love Allie.” He is so innocent and na├»ve. Love is just love. It's uncomplicated and true.

I spent time with my sister, Sue, as she fought the ravages of cancer. She struggled just to eat and to walk a few steps. It tore me up seeing her suffering. When I left her home the last time before she went into hospice, she hugged me. I could feel her ribs. She was all skin and bone. I gave her a squeeze, but didn't hug her as I wished I had. I was so filled with sorrow and love that that was all I could do.

When the Tsunami hit Japan and wrecked their nuclear reactor, I saw a newspaper photo of an old woman. She stood in the wreckage of her town wailing in despair as her body was bombarded by lethal doses of radiation. I anguished for her as I might for my own mother.

I remember camping on a lake in northern Minnesota. It was evening. The sunset cast a pink glow in the sky. The trees, mere silhouettes, reflected in the still water. All was peaceful and calm. I could have sat there forever.

I saw a baby robin hopping in the street near the wheels of a car that was stopped at a traffic light. I raced toward it wanting to sweep it from harms way. The car moved forward crushing the life out of this innocent creature just short of my outstretched hands. My heart screamed in anguish.

Once, while hiking on a warm summer day, I watched a hawk soaring motionless in the clear blue sky. I stopped, captured by wonder.

Yes, love is real. I experience it. Love transcends rationality. Love immerses us in existence. Love imbues us with compassion, the capacity to “suffer with” others. It leads into valleys of pain and anguish and allows us to soar on waves of joy and awe. Love overcomes fear, compelling us to engage in efforts where the odds are stacked against us. Love connects us in our Humanity. It shifts and broadens our perspectives.

I am beginning to believe that we humans are participating in an evolving pattern of the creation, the growth of consciousness, compassion and love. As we play our part in this cosmic drama, we may be facing some of the greatest challenges in the history of our species. Presently, our interactions are dominated by the fight or flight response. Existence is a zero sum game with winners and losers. We experience this in our interpersonal relationships as well as social encounters. These are all too obvious on the international scene that I characterized at the beginning of this reflection.

Yet there are signs that things are moving. We are more in touch with love and compassion. This allows us to see people, not as adversaries, but as fellow human beings with the same wants and needs as our own.

A Restorative Justice movement is emerging within the traditionally adversary oriented legal profession.4 Trust fund managers are finding that investment policies that improve the welfare of citizens are more profitable than those which don't.5 Business leaders are beginning to adopt practices that enrich the work environment because such businesses are more profitable.6 David Brooks makes a similar claim about the stock marked in an April 11th editorial.7 Recent data indicate that nonviolent movements, as evidenced in the Egyptian protest uprising in February 2011, are more effective than violent ones.8
I observed this potential when I was director of Madison Urban Ministry. We conducted a series of public Dialogues on divisive community issues, including abortion, the death penalty, racism and homosexuality. We brought people together over a meal and told them they were not permitted to argue the merits of their positions. They were only permitted to tell personal stories of how they came to them. As we talked, we realized that our personal experiences had a tremendous affect on our attitudes and ideas. I recall thinking, “If I had had this person's experience, I probably would hold her/his position and not my own.”

I remember conversations on the planning committee for these events. Two of the members, both pastors, one a homosexual woman and the other a heterosexual male, were in strong disagreement. The man believed homosexual lifestyles were sinful while the woman said that she had found God through her partner. As we got to know and trust one other, these two were able to joke about their different beliefs and experiences. Through this planning process, we began to recognize that our common humanity bound us together in spite of our differences.

This realization was born out in another city where a union leader and the head of the local police force were involved in Dialogue meetings. Following the sessions, the union planned a protest in which violence was a real possibility. Prior to the event, the union leader and the police chief came to an agreement. Because they respected and trusted one another, the police chief said his people would not carry fire arms; and the union leader guaranteed that the protest would be nonviolent. The protest took place with no violence or injuries.

As we explore this new way of relating, traditional and contemporary spiritual understandings and practices are important. I'm not speaking here of theological or dogmatic interpretations of religious/spiritual traditions. Rather I'm speaking of ways that ordinary people engage the religious/spiritual/moral dimensions of their lives. At this level, we are more connected than we care to admit.9

Strategies that acknowledge this connectedness can alter community dynamics and attitudes. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Gandhi said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”10 Dr. King put it this way, “I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”11

I believe we can engage the difficult issues of our time with greater effectiveness if we are motivated by love and compassion rather than fear and distrust. Love and compassion connect us, not only in terms of 'doing the right thing,' but in our guts. When I saw the picture of the Japanese woman grieving in the wreckage of her community, I felt compassion. In some sense I suffered for and with her. When the baby bird was crushed by the car, I anguished over this loss of life and innocence.

I can't prove it, but I believe there is a deep form of love that can transform our species.
  1. A member of the selection committee for the 2022 Winter Olympics reported that projected weather temperatures in the 6 potential sites will make the relatively warm temperatures of the Sochi Olympics seem frigid by comparison.
  3. Private conversation with trust fund consultant, Keith Johnson.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I remember my decision to leave physics. I used to think I left because I wasn't capable. This was a destructive childhood tape. (My father died in an automobile accident when I was 4 years old. I was told and expected to be the “man of the family” - a devastating thing to hear; an expectation no little child could ever fulfill.) The truth was, I had no energy for physics. It was tedious. I wanted out. Coupled with this push there was also a pull. I yearned to work with and for oppressed people. Both the push and the pull were vague feelings. I was discontented and antsy. I asked God for assurance. “Please show me some direction in this.” Nothing happened.

Finally, I decided I had to move into this scary transition. We had two little children, and Jean was not then employed outside the home. We were living on income from my post doctoral fellowship at UW, Madison. Then I received a call from John Mulholland, inviting me to attend his seminar for people making radical career transitions. Fortified by this training, I moved forward. When the physics professor for whom I worked discovered my intentions, he decided not to renew my fellowship. Our savings would support us for two months.

In spite of those potential stumbling blocks, I was energized. Secure in an idealistic belief or plain foolhardiness, I continued on. Just before my fellowship expired, a friend at the university employed me part time for three months. He said, “I'm not going to let you starve.”

For nearly two years, I interviewed four people a week in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. It was an incredible experience. I met dynamic folk and developed a network of contacts. I gained a new self-confidence and a clearer idea of what I was trying to accomplish.

I called this an existential leap of faith but didn't even know what that meant. I see now that faith is not a matter of belief but a matter of trust, tempered by a good dose of inspiration and determination. Finally, I was offered a job as the first full-time director of the newly founded Madison Urban Ministry (MUM). I had found a path consistent with my deepest self, and I began a career that was energizing and fulfilling.

I wish I could say that we lived happily ever after, but this was not the case. After twenty-five years, I burned out with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, resigned from MUM and went on disability. After a time of convalescence, I embarked on another “career transition.” I became a volunteer Spiritual Guide and seminar leader at Holy Wisdom Monastery. This time there was no well defined “God” to whom I could pray. My God, who previously had evolved from a strict Father figure to a Friend, evaporated into a cloud of unknowing. Then, as now, there is only the yearning that impels me forward.

Being in touch with God or “in the Flow,” doesn't guarantee happiness or satisfaction. The stories of our faith traditions make this abundantly clear. Moses encountered Yahweh in the burning bush.2 He and the people of Israel met obstacle after obstacle in the Exodus.

Buddha meditated under the Bohdi tree3 and was tempted by demon images of his past. Evil Spirits brought nightmares.

Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the desert after his baptism epiphany. There he questioned the deepest convictions in his Jewish Psyche.4 Many times he was confronted by frustrations and uncertainties. When he prayed in Gethsemane5 near the time of his execution I imagine he feared that his whole ministry would end in failure. More poignant yet, he cried in anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”6

Mohammad thought he was going insane after his revelation from Allah in the cave.7 He was so distraught that he considered suicide. Yet he followed his vision, struggling to unify the squabbling tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.

Dr. King endured trial after trial in the civil rights struggle. He was promoting the failed “Poor Peoples' March” when he was gunned down by an assassin.8

Mother Teresa was tormented by doubts about her faith and the existence of God. During the last half of her life, she told others she felt like a hypocrite.9

If following the yearnings of our deepest selves results in challenges such as these, why shouldn't we just “go with the crowd?” Why not try to fit in and win the game by the rules of the dominant culture? Why on earth would Jesus say, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it?”10 Is there something more important than “making it?” For me, the answer is, “Yes.” If my life has no meaning - if I justify my existence by how I'm perceived by others - if I spend my life just 'putting in my time,' I'm existing in a kind of living death.”

I had a friend, Henry,11 who was gay. He was remarkably talented, but continued to search for the right job or the right partner. He told me once that he and his LGBT friends felt like outcasts, particularly when religious people condemned them. Henry left town, and I lost track of him. Several years later, I asked a friend about him. “Henry died.” I asked, “How?” The friend responded, “Henry was diabetic; and he didn't take care of himself. He stopped taking his medication and ate foods that weren't good for him.” Then he added, “I met Henry's partner at the funeral. He was heartbroken.”

I imagine that Henry found his life intolerable. The negative opinions of others became his self-definition. He felt unworthy and undesirable as a person. His 'living death' became an actual death. What a waste. Henry had so much promise. The prejudice he experienced prevented him from engaging his authentic self.

Life is difficult. It is filled with challenges. Some feel downright evil. It's my experience that God, using traditional language, doesn't save me from challenges. Living in tune with my authentic self may even complicate my life. The journey, then, is not about preserving biological existence. It's about a deeper dimension of living. It's about engaging the energy that animates creation. It's about Living with a capital “L.” It's about living with Soul.

  1. See I Gotta Be Me - Part I
  2. Moses and the burning bush reference Exodus 3:1-15
  3. See Mark 1:12-13 (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 1-13)
  4. See Matthew 26:36-56 (Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:40-46)
  5. See Mark 15:34 Matthew 27:46
  6. See Luke 17:33 New English Translation
  7. Not his real name

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Woburn, MA has been our home for nearly two years. When we moved, I told my friends we were starting a new chapter in our lives. Only now, am I beginning to appreciate the implications of that statement. We are closer to our grandchild, his parents and our son; and that is wonderful. Yet I continue to feel out of place and alone.

My dreams reinforce this fact. In one, I'm at a party. People are playing a gambling game that I don't understand. I 'm afraid I'll lose a lot of money. In another, I'm at our church in Madison, but no one acknowledges me. In a third, I'm teaching a college class, but the students ignore me.

I know that others also feel alone. I hear their cries on Facebook. “I got up this morning.” “I'm brushing my teeth.” “I'm having coffee at Starbucks on Main Street.” “Listen to me! I'm here! Pay attention!”

We hustle and bustle, filling our lives with activities. We justify our existence by what we do and how we are perceived. We strive to be recognized, wanting to leave a legacy. Do my family and friends see me as a good parent, grandparent, athlete, fun person? Will my former colleagues remember me when I have changed jobs or retired? Do people respect me? It goes on and on.

I'm beginning to realize that none of this really matters. My life is mine to live. I can't live it for or through others. Worse yet, I don't want to just fill my time with activities, rushing through life without really living it. How can I be my authentic self. How do I engage this deeper part of me?

Pete Seeger just died. He was one of my heroes. He was his own person. He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem. He was called a communist and unAmerican. Yet he persevered into his nineties. Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”1

Pete Seeger is only one of a multitude of people who lived out their personal destinies. We each have our list of such people. Mine includes the names and quotes below:

  • If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” -- Mother Teresa2
  • The God of the Hebrews says, 'Release my people that they may serve me!'” – Moses3
  • When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” –- Lao Tzu4
  • It's never to late to be what you might have been.” – George Elliot4
  • If you grasp and cling to life on your terms, you'll lose it; but if you let that life go, you get life on God's terms” – Jesus5
  • Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, 'I'm possible!'” – Audrey Hepburn4
  • To thrive in life you need three bones. A wishbone. A backbone. And a funny bone.” – Reba McEntire4
  • The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.” – Buddha7
  • I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become.” – Oprah Winfrey4
  • Build your own dreams, or someone else will hire you to build theirs.” – Farrah Gray4
  • Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.6
  • We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light. - Hildegard von Bingen8

When I consider the people whom I know and admire, I am aware of a dynamic in myself that we all share. I put these people on pedestals. I say, “I can't live like that.” In doing this, I hamper the growth of my authentic self. Worse yet, I tend to dogmatize the teachings of those whom I admire. Rather than developing patterns and world views that work best in my life, I bind myself with their set of rules and beliefs. What worked for them, may not work for me. Rather than engaging life a moment at a time, with all the risk that entails, I strive for security. I live as if life were a static thing with right and wrong ways of engaging it. When I live this way, I am tempted to criticize those who do not live by my rules. This dynamic is at the heart of much of the religious and political polarization in our world.
My grandson, Little Gus, wants to copy my patterns or rules of living. He wears his hat outside because I wear mine. When I watch football at his house, he places another chair beside mine so we can both sit in “big boy” chairs. He's fascinated by what I drink at the coffee shop. He peers into my mug to see if I still have coffee. He wants me to hold him at the counter so he can order and pay with my credit card. When I ask him what he wants, he tells Peter, “Boobry muh-hin.” Then I ask him what grandpa wants, and he says, “Coffee.” I'm honored and embarrassed that I am held in such high regard.
Yet I know I'm also affected by the rules and patterns of others. When I was young, I wanted to be a good Christian so I could go to heaven. I tried mightily to obey the moral rules of my community because I was scared that I had unknowingly committed the unforgivable sin3 and would go to hell.
I continued this pattern in grad school. I was so concerned about earning my degree that I focused only on getting passing grades. I wasn't able to enjoy the excitement of exploring the creation. This is probably why I left physics. Physics for me was just a task. There was no excitement or life in it.
Only when I changed careers and began working on social justice issues did I come alive. I was no longer driven by fear of failure or judgment. I took risks. Life became an adventure. I was finally living my life. Now I can I read about the latest discoveries in physics with curiosity, wonder and awe.
How does one engage life with excitement and anticipation rather than fear or boredom? For some, it comes in a flash of inspiration. For others, it develops slowly. But in almost all cases, it begins with a deep concern or restlessness.
  • Mother Teresa was serving as a nun in Calcutta, and was gripped by the poverty all around her. She was traveling on a train when she recounts, "I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. I knew where I belonged but I did not know how to get there."9
  • Siddharta Gautama, a prince, was raised in opulence when he became aware of all the suffering in his kingdom. He left his family and became a monk, nearly starving himself. When meditating under a Bodhi tree he “awakened” and became Buddha, the enlightened one, at which time he embarked on a ministry to lead others to enlightenment.10
  • Jesus was a carpenter at a time that Israel was occupied and dominated by the Roman Empire. Some scholars say he became a disciple of the prophet John the Baptist. John preached a baptism of repentance; teaching that God would free a repentant Israel from Rome. Jesus went to be baptized by John where he had an epiphany. He left his home and began preaching and teaching about the Realm of God.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher and civil rights leader in the segregated south during a period of great unrest. Dr. King was essentially called forth by circumstances to lead the movement.11
  • Hildegard of Bingen (a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, and medical herbalist) was also called forth by circumstances. She had visions beginning when she was a little girl. Either because of her visions or for political reasons, her parents offered her as an oblate to a monastery. She eventually became a prioress of her own monastery and through her writings and letters affected the whole of the Roman Catholic church.12
I'm sure you can identify the dynamics that led your heroines/heroes to move forward living into their own deep personhood. But the more important question is, “What is the dynamic in your life that is stirring or has stirred you to be more than you think you are?” “What is drawing you or has drawn you forward into the risky business of living into your own destiny?”
In my case, it was the frustration I encountered while earning my degree in physics. I wasn't happy working by myself in a lab. I wanted to work with people to improve the world, but I didn't know what that meant. The inner voices from my past said I should become a minister. This didn't interest me. Finally, I struck out on my own. I explained my interests to people and got advice.
I then received a call from a man who invited me to attend a training seminar for people making radical career transitions. This event was scheduled in Washington, DC, the weekend following a conference I was attending in New York City. He said I could pay for the seminar after I had made the career transition. With this assurance, Jean and I set out for the big world of New York and Washington, DC, leaving our one and two year old children with our parents.
As they say, “The rest is history.” I embarked on a two year adventure interviewing people in Madison, Chicago and Milwaukee. I finally became the first director of Madison Urban Ministry, where I served for twenty-five years. In this transition, I experienced an energy that gave me new life and vitality. I began to relate to my authentic self.
Some would say that I encountered God, Yahweh or Allah in this experience, or that I had moved toward greater enlightenment. I just call it mystery. Yes, I come from a Christian tradition, so I do look to Jesus and the heroes/heroines of the Hebrew Scriptures as models for engaging this reality. But for me, mystery describes it best. Because of my physics training, the image that is most powerful is that of the expanding and evolving energy in the cosmos resulting from the big bang. This, of course, is an image not an explanation. When one deals in these matters, rationality doesn't cut it. It's more about art, music and poetry.
If you would like to share how you have moved toward your authentic self, I would be most interested in hearing from you. You can comment at the end of this blog, on Facebook at “Charles Pfeifer” or “Living With Soul”
In my next reflection, I will explore the challenges in the journey toward authenticity. In future reflections I will also explore the role of synchronicity. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

  1. See Exodus 9:1
  2. See Luke 17:33 New English Translation