Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.

rage

Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.

Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!

Are there similar things that leave you mystified?

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Becoming Comfortable with Change

My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!

We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?

It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.

Wounds

Life hands us all a variety of wounds. These wounds are of different sizes and depths, different intensities and duration, even of different quantity and quality. Our task is not to avoid them, but work through them; not to pass them on to others or try to ignore them, but to understand and heal them.

These important parts of life aren’t always fun. Quite often they cause pain and struggle. This important work is, in part, what our spirituality should equip us to undertake. Doing this work constitutes enlightenment, salvation, awakening – whatever your word for the goal of life may be. We do this work best in community, which is why friends, colleagues, and groups to which we belong are so important.

Change

If you want your circumstances to change, you are going to have to take the first step and change how you relate and react to what is happening. If you are not willing to do that, the only one you have to blame is yourself. Nothing can change if everything stays the same.

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?

No More Crusades

As I wrote the title of this post, it occurred to me that the word “crusade” has three uses in contemporary spiritual culture, and so my title might lead to some confusion. I’m not beyond using a little confusion to attract readers, so rather than change it I thought I might explain it.

black knightThe historical sense of “crusade” hearkens back to medieval times and the unfortunate wars undertaken by the Church in an attempt to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslin powers that held it. While there were a few jewels in the rough during these times, from a contemporary perspective they were horrific, genocidal undertakings by a Church more concerned with temporal power that spiritual concerns. These are not the crusades to which I refer.

Then there are crusades of the type that Billy Graham and others undertook. While thereCrusade-Cities-Featured isn’t anything wrong with this sort of crusade (if you’re into that sort of thing), I never have and never will set out on one.

The crusades to which I refer are the ones to right what’s wrong, to challenge the status quo, to get the [metaphorical] troops fired up to do [metaphorical] battle in the great arena of social justice. Mind you, I still believe in these crusades and I will still occasionally write about these topics, but not with the zeal of a younger man who perhaps foolishly believes he can change the world. These past few years have taught me that the world may well be fucked up beyond my ability to help it recover in an activist sort of way.

Many years ago when I worked as a field service engineer on diagnostic ultrasound equipment, a very insightful man named Dick Cline summed up the difference between sales and service people in this way. He said that when a sales person hears, “no,” they get excited and see it as a challenge. When a service person hears, “no,” they pack up their stuff and leave. As he spoke those words, I knew that I was a service person. I don’t like wasting a lot of time trying to convince people to do the right thing. I will happily identify the right thing, explain why it’s the right thing, and offer suggestions about how best to implement it. If you want to argue with me about why the wrong thing is the right thing, I’m just going to pack up my stuff and go home. There are other people who will be more than happy to fight the good fight, and I will leave it to them.

angry (1)Why? There are two reasons I feel this way. The first is that crusades simply don’t work in a country already profoundly divided and profoundly angry. The result is that campaigns and crusades end up preaching to the choir, reinforcing the views of those who already agree with the crusade but causing those with differing views to simply become more entrenched. The second is that, from a spiritual perspective, I feel our time is much better spent by trying to rebuild fractured relationships and thereby start a much needed healing process. That will in turn provide the foundation for the change that is needed. Of course, you can feel free to disagree – just don’t expect me to debate it with you.

Stop Saying, “This Is Not Who We Are.”

America please, seriously, stop saying, “This is not who we are.” That statement is trump_baby_blimp_getty_0categorically false. This is precisely who we are: a country that has elected a serial sex offender; a small minded, profoundly mentally ill, petty dictator President of the United States. We have filled Congress and the Courts with people who think this is a great idea; we have a malignant, obstructionist, pathological liar leading the Senate; and a woman who should be posing for advertisements for the local assisted living center leading the House of Representatives. A significant number of people running for President in the Democratic Party are or soon will be wearing adult diapers, making that job the only one we feel our elders are fit to do because we sure aren’t hiring them in the private sector to mentor young people.

WE THE PEOPLE created this mess, WE THE PEOPLE are responsible for it, and this certainly is precisely who we are. Before you start shouting that Hillary won the popular vote, I would remind you of four things. (1) Most Americans didn’t vote. (2) She won by less than one percent of our population, a stridently unimpressive margin. (3) We allowed the DNC to torpedo the campaign of Bernie Sanders so that someone who was, at best, a second choice power broker could lose the Presidency. (4) WE THE PEOPLE created the system that allows the person who lost the popular vote to inhabit the White House and WE THE PEOPLE are either unwilling or unable to change that system. So, yes, this is precisely who we are.

September 29, 2015All of the ugliness, the confederate flags, the children in concentration camps, imperialistic foreign policy around the globe, all of the misogyny, even Alyssa Milano trying to resurrect her flagging career by hoping that we will forget that actors can cry at the drop of a hat – it is precisely who we are. Denying it isn’t going to help because denying reality never helps. Protesting it isn’t going to help, because protesting simply burns off the energy that might be used to effect change.

As Thomas Merton pointed out when he wrote  …for, you see, when “I” enter into a dialogue with “you” and each of us knows who is speaking, it turns out that we are both Christ… the only way to change this is to enter into dialogue with our neighbors. That dialogue need not be about things of any substance, because what is needed is relationship. You can’t build relationship by entering into it with a political agenda, you build it by entering with no agenda beyond getting to know your neighbor. It takes time, it’s messy, and we are not always successful – but it is the only way to build relationships, decrease suspicion and mistrust, and begin to see one another as human beings rather than political pawns.

Many of us subscribe to the religion of politics, and it is an idol just as surely as golden calves are idols. Politics is a human construct and as such has only the power we give it. Relationships, on the other hand, are the point of human existence. We need to develop these relationships not only with those who are our physical neighbors and therefore are mule1probably very similar to us, but most especially with those who live across town and whom we perceive to be different from us – because they are not, and we need to overcome that mistaken belief. Most of all we must come to see that, as Thomas Merton pointed out in No Man is an Island, “…truth never becomes clear as long as we assume that each one of us, individually, is the center of the universe.” We need to get off of our asses, and start building relationships.