Projects

I wonder how manyidiot-mattress-604x437
Misadventures have started
As projects conceived
Early Saturday.
Ambition rushing out to
Home Depot, nothing
Save twine, a car roof
And what seemed like a master plan.
Roadside tragedy
Splintered hands, frayed rope
Shattered plywood, airborne bed
Witness plans awry.

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Why?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the horror of things that we never get around to asking why they happen. I don’t say that as a criticism at all, I think it’s just part of how our mind works. We hear of something so out of the ordinary, or at least out of what we are ordinarily exposed to, that our minds seem to get stuck at the initial hearing and not dig deeper.

Some tragedies don’t really have an answer to the “why” question, or don’t have one we are capable of discerning or understanding at this point in human development. We know why hurricanes happen, but we really can’t explain why they turn at the last moment and destroy town B instead of town A. These kinds of things are relatively isolated incidents. I am wondering why we can’t discern the answer to the “why” question for trends, for things that seem to happen repeatedly.

Here’s a question I believe we need to address with urgency: Why all of the sexual abuse and sexual violence? It’s pervasive. It happens in the home, in our schools, in the office, in our places of worship and spiritual practice. It happens to children and adults, men and women, boys and girls, and the perpetrators come from all areas of life. We never seem to get around to asking “why,” or when we do the answers are so simplistic they are really no help at all. We tend to prefer single cause answers, but most problems are much more complicated than that. If we are going to change our culture around this, we are going to have to get serious about asking “why?”.

Dawn

I have resumed the practice of spiritual reading each morning and mixed things up a bit by resisting my nature and waking up early to do it. Over the past several weeks, I have noticed the sunrise moving later in my practice. I now wake in complete darkness rather than with the first glow struggling to break over the horizon, the beak of a chick struggling to break through its shell and greet its first day. By the time I finish, the sun is risen, but before long I will begin and finish before dawn even ponders peeking out at me.

You might think I would find that thought depressing, but quite the opposite. Having spent my life in colder climates, the onset of autumn and the winter that follows is a reassuring reminder that rest follows exertion and renewal follow rest. Everything in nature works that way, yet humans want to believe we are special, not subject to the laws of life.

How foolish we can be! How much worry, hand wringing, and poor behavior at deaths and funerals that brings about! How can we imagine that we are any different than leaves preparing to let go, their tree resting confidently in faith that new buds wait around the corner?

Why are my religious friends jerks?

osteen megaIt’s a question I hear quite often. People will tell me that they like their “everyday” friends more than their spiritual or religious friends. They can easily relate to the former, but the latter – even for people with advanced formation in things spiritual – are hard to be around. They say or do things that are odd, or they act in ways that seem inconsistent with their beliefs. They are overbearing, intrusive, or engage in any of a number of less than well adapted behaviors. We tend to assume the problem is spirituality or religion. In truth, the problem is your friends and their religion or spirituality.

As I approach the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and enter into my thirtieth westboroyear studying world religions and spirituality, I can tell you without hesitation that none of the great religious traditions contains a teaching that says, in effect, “go forth and be an obnoxious fool.” Despite that, we have more than enough self-identified pious folks doing precisely that. What’s the deal? Who is to blame? Are religion and spirituality the problem, or is something else at work?

The truth is that religion and spirituality aren’t objective truths. There is a lot of wiggle room in both, and both are tied to human development. In other words, they can be understood at the developmental level in which the individual currently resides. It’s trivial eventsperfectly appropriate for a child to believe that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale. It’s problematic when adults believe that to be literally true. We also know that not every adult achieves the ability to process abstract thought. This means that a fair amount of what passes for religion or spirituality in our world today has little or nothing to do with any of the historic traditions.

Whether we are talking about more traditional expressions of religion or the more recently born expressions of spirituality, there are charlatans on every corner. Most of them are out to empty your wallet. Their methods differ, including overtly sexualizing their spirituality, claiming special powers or some advanced level of attainment (especially enlightenment/awakening), self identifying as a guru, seeking to charge people for having lunch with them at their request, and a host of other similar scams. If we just step back for a moment and look at their actions objectively, we can see through them quite easily. If we wouldn’t accept certain behaviors from the person who does our taxes, we shouldn’t accept them from a spiritual or religious leader! The fact that I claim to be following the teachings of a depression surrounded by assholesspiritual tradition doesn’t mean that I actually am following those traditions. Con artists, including those who con themselves, exist in every corner of life.

The truth is that every last human being is spiritual, whether or not they identify as spiritual. Even your “secular” friends are spiritual (in that they are trying to find meaning in life), the difference is they don’t run around carry on about how spiritual they are.  To paraphrase a popular meme about depression, before you dismiss all spiritual and religious folks, be sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes. They often hide in spiritual clothing.

From what do you hide?

I happened to be out in the country the other day, about forty minutes west of downtown Milwaukee. It’s beautiful out there in what’s known as the Kettle Moraine part of Wisconsin. It is here that the glaciers did some of their most beautiful work during the ice age, and the countryside rolls in a way that would make you forget you were in the Midwest. It’s the part of southeastern Wisconsin where people own horses and their yards almost look as if they are part of a pine forest. Some of the homes are modest, some far from it, and one in particular was a festival of excess larger than a small office building.

I started to reflect on who might need that much space. I wondered if the escape into such space might be an attempt to isolate themselves from a world they is afraid of, yet from which they extract a rather exorbitant living. Then I happened to stopped at a home with a rather large American flag, under which flew an equally large Trump 2020 flag, making America great again by flying in a yard so protected by tall pine trees that nobody could possibly see it, an insulation against the intrusion of a far less idyllic but far more real world that contains a diversity the home’s owner simply cannot tolerate. MAGA is a prison of its adherents’ own construction, and with it comes only the illusion of freedom. An ironic prison is still a prison.

It is easier to understand moats and draw bridges when you see homes like this – homes with slightly more subtle but no less real barriers to intrusion by those perceived to be the enemy. The acquisition of material goods has not brought happiness but rather fear that someone will come along and take those goods. The god of materialism then compels the construction of a fortress to protect the goods, which itself requires even more materialism to pay for the protection,resulting in more anxiety for fear the protection will fail. When will the condom of materialism burst, and rather than semen mad hordes who want our stuff will come rushing in? This is the picture of the contemporary American dream, a dream that if someone is not careful leads to early departure at their own hand.

Going to Hell in a Handbasket

Every generation seems to feel compelled to say the next generation is doing everything wrong and the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Despite that, the world goes on. If we examine things objectively, we see that what changes are the circumstances and details, not the outcomes. The world moves along and new problems do arise, but the ones left over from the previous generation get solved by the next.

What if the real issue is twofold? What if we complain about the next generation because (1) we don’t want to admit we didn’t have all the answers, either, and (2) we just don’t like change?

Controling the Uncontrolable

Most people’s idea of the goal of religion and spirituality is an attempt to control what cannot be controled. They wear their beliefs and practices like some sort of talisman that [they believe] will divert all danger and unsatisfactoriness that lies in their path. In fact, an overly simplistic reading of Buddhism promises just that – an end to suffering. Kindergarden Christianity posits a “little buddy” Jesus who follows us around (unless we are Kindergarden Roman Catholic Christians, in which case we have a Guardian Angel who does this*) like a cosmic Wonder Woman, deflecting adversity with gold wrist bracelets. We have no idea what we are asking for when we ask to avoid problems, challenges, and suffering. In asking for these things, we are in effect checking out of the game, refusing to grow, and wishing for a life that holds still right where we are, which is no life at all. Forget about growth, forget about friendship, and surely forget about love when we are in this space.

Here’s the truth: we don’t grow in any way without adversity. From the physical growing pains we experience as children to the emotional growing pains of loss and failure as adults, growth isn’t smooth sailing. Honest religion and spirituality tells us that, and prepares us for the great adventure that is a fully engaged life. We all would do well to let go of our control issues and live life fully, experiencing all it has to offer – including the not so fun parts!

*to be fair, far better to assign such a nonsensical duty to an angel than to Jesus