Friday, June 30, 2017

Meaningless and Beautiful

I have friends who have no need -- and no use -- for God. Any God. They’re completely satisfied with the universe of time and space as it churns into being moment by moment without any Divine help.

I understand that. I totally understand that. If I hadn’t been raised in a church that taught me to believe in things that cannot be seen—perceived in any physical way, in fact—then maybe the ten thousand things would be enough for me, too.

But I choose to see more. And there is more. And what I see adds an ineffable layer to that universe of time and space, to all of those ten thousand things.

And when I come back to the real, the real is still here. But brighter. And also meaningless and beautiful.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wealth and Fear

One of the blessings of getting older is that I don't feel quite the same need I used to have for more and more and more. I find myself thinking less about what I don't have and more about what I do have. Gratitude ensues.

Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I feel sorry for the wealthy of the world. Jesus was right when he said it was easier for "a camel to go through the eye of a needle" than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. I don't think he was talking about wealth. I think he was talking about fear. A fear of the future. A fear of loss of control. A fear of powerlessness. A fear that nobody can be trusted.

Wealth allows for control, and control allows for power, and power allows for security -- which is freedom from fear. We think money can free us from fear. Jesus saw that this is not so, and so he pitied the wealthy because their fear makes it harder for them to open their minds to the presence of [God, Tao, Allah, etc.] -- even though it's all around them and constantly welling up inside them like a spring.

Wealth can spread fear, or it can spread compassion. Great wealth can spread great fear, or it can spread great compassion. My hope is that the wealthier we are, the more compassionate we become.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Spirituality Quote of the Week

In the Scriptures, prayer is always ascribed to the heart, for it is the heart that God teaches and it is through the heart that God enlightens the mind.

-- Jean-Nicholas Grou

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Lunch with Sally

I'm almost certain that somewhere in our conversation (see last two posts), Steve and I ended up talking about people who pray before their meal when they're eating out in public the same way they presumably do at home in private.

He asked me if my family prayed in public when I was a kid, and I explained that my father would say a prayer after we sat down to eat at home, but only at home. We didn't pray in public places outside of church and home. That was considered unnecessary, showy, pretentious, and off-putting.

What I didn't remember until some time later is that a couple of weeks before my lunch with Steve and the prayer men, I had lunch with another friend of mine -- who led the two of us in a prayer at our table in the restaurant across the street from my office.

I'll call her Sally. She's in her 70s and is another retired Presbyterian minister friend of mine. We go to the same church. She's written a novel and has hired me to edit it and design it into a book for her. I should add here that Sally and I have developed a good and deep friendship over the years. We are spiritual mentors for one another. She's hurting these days because she just lost her husband, who was yet another Presbyterian minister. I'll call him Carlos. He was born in Cuba but had to flee the island in 1954.

Sally and I went to lunch after one of our meetings about her book, and after the food came and the server had headed back to the kitchen, she asked if I wanted her to pray. I said yes. She then said a short, delicate prayer of gratitude, and that was it.

I don't know how it looked to others on the outside, but to me on the inside of this little duo, it was lovely. I know that's a corny word, but that's what it was. It was a lovely little moment, and I'm glad I was included in it.

Why is that different to me than what I would think if I saw two people sitting at a table in a public restaurant praying aloud with their heads bowed and their eyes closed? Why can I not allow them to have the same experience I had with Sally?

Fair question.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Steve's Question, II

Back to what I posted yesterday about my friend Steve and our conversation about prayer.

As I mentioned, it didn’t surprise me that he would ask me about the two guys praying at the restaurant. He’d asked me about church stuff and Bible stuff and Jesus stuff and Christianity stuff and God stuff lots of times. As I said, he has a curious mind.

And opinions. Lots of opinions. (As do I.)

For instance, I've heard him say more than a few times that he doesn’t think it makes sense to pray to the Creator of the whole universe about his own petty little problems. After all, shouldn’t He or It or Whatever be out there taking care of bigger shit than his piddly little crap? He mentioned this again at the restaurant after he heard the guy praying for different people by name.

Even though he and I had talked about prayer in general, and he’d weighed in on how it looks to him, I'd never really said much about my own prayer life. So I started telling him about my view of prayer. (He did ask, after all.)

First, do I pray? Yes. My prayer life goes back before my earliest memories, and it's been with me ever since. I don't remember a time that prayer hasn't been part of my life.

I told him his idea that God would be too busy to worry about me and my daily calamities was understandable, but I had a different way of thinking about that.

We’re talking about something we can’t possibly comprehend because our minds are bound by time and space. How do we imagine the Eternal—the absence of time? How do we conceive the Infinite—the Emptiness that contains all?

This unnameable mystery is limitless, so how could it possibly be too busy to help poor little old me? Or Steve? Or anybody for that matter?

Then we started talking about praying in public, but I'll save that for another post.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Steve's Question, I

For the last week or so, I've been posting a lot of stuff about prayer. Here's how that all got started:

A friend and I were having lunch at a local restaurant a few months ago, and at one point, I went to refill my tea. When I came back to the table, he said, "Do you ever pray? I don't think I've ever asked you that before, but I was just wondering if you ever pray."

He nodded his head toward a couple of guys sitting at the next table. "Like that," he added. They both had their heads bowed and their eyes closed, and one of them was saying a prayer out loud -- not loud, just aloud. It was an extended one, not just a "thank you for this food" kind of thing.

My friend (I'll call him Steve) and I have known each other for more than two dozen years, ever since our kids were in preschool together. He became a client, then a friend, then a quasi-business partner. We shared an office for 10 years, and we continue to have at least one business client in common. We've had hundreds of lunches together and thousands of conversations on everything from women and wives to fishing and basketball to Buddhism and Donald Trump.

We even have the same birthday, just different years. He's the older, wiser one. I'm the younger, prettier one.

I don't know what it is, but many of my best friends over the years have been decidedly un-religious people -- in some cases even anti-religious. Maybe I'm drawn to such people because my own life is so saturated with religion and spiritual curiosity. True to form, Steve didn't grow up going to church, even though he was raised in the same Bible Belt I was. He doesn't believe in a God like the one described in the Bible. He sees religion on balance as a net loss, thanks to things like the Inquisition, various "holy" wars, and the Crusades, not to mention all of the preachers who condemn gays and deny climate change.

On the other hand, he maintains a curious and open mind, so it didn't surprise me that he would ask about these two guys praying in the restaurant. What DID surprise me, though, was to realize how little I'd said about prayer in all of our conversations. Looking back on it, I think it's because my prayer life is such an intimate, private part of my spiritual life.

But that didn't stop me from answering his question. More on that later.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

More Than Two

I think it was Ann Lamott who said she only needs two prayers: Help me, help me, help me, and Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've said those prayers since I was a kid. I still say them -- both of them -- every day.

I want more, though.

I want prayers that godless people can pray. I want prayers that happy sinners can pray. I want prayers that despots and dictators and dilettantes can pray. I want prayers that racists can pray. I want prayers that judges can pray. I want one big, long prayer that I can pray -- a psalm of joy and fear and pain and doubt and awe.

It'll never happen, though. Daily life is too seductive, too shiny. I get drawn away. I could bring prayer along with me, of course, but I get distracted and forget to do this.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Original Definition

As I mentioned elsewhere, prayer can refer to a lot of things we don't normally think of as prayer.

Everything I encounter in my daily life can become a prayer. Every experience I have has the potential to bring me back to an awareness of the Mystery. When that happens and I become aware, that’s prayer.

Watching sunlight on the sky-turned face of a lake. Listening to wind hiss through ripe wheat. Smelling coffee in a dark morning. Tasting salt. Touching water. Prayers, all of them prayers.

It’s the awareness that makes it work. Paying attention is prayer. Paying attention as big as I can as often as I can enlarges me. It guides me to wholeness -- the original definition of perfection.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Spirituality Quote of the Week

Inner brightness ends up being a much better and longer-lasting alternative to evil than any war, anger, violence, or ideology could ever be. All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that he or she is surely the goal of humanity and the delight of God.

-- Richard Rohr

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Always With Us

Prayer can’t be taken away. It can’t be given away. It can’t be thrown away. It’s always with us. One of its gifts is the dissipation of fear -- both within and without.

Whatever reduces fear is a prayer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Four Lessons

Here are four more things I've learned about prayer over the years:

First, prayer is personal. We may pray with other people. We may pray for other people. We may pray in front of other people. But prayer is still personal. Even if we’re praying in a group, our prayers are still personal because we each have our own path of awareness into the Divine. Prayer is part of that awareness.

Second, prayer is a conversation, not a soliloquy.

Third, prayer doesn’t cure. It heals. To be cured is to return to the state of health we had before we became sick or injured. To be healed is to transcend sickness and injury regardless of our state of health.

Fourth, prayer is a mirror. It shows us what we think we need. It shows us what we think we lack. It shows us our fears. It shows us our joy. It shows us our pain. Tao already knows all of these things.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Prayer Problem

Prayer is a problem word for me. Not because I’m threatened by it or because I don’t understand it or I don’t like it or I don’t believe in it. It’s because it’s a church word. It’s a religious word. It drags around big suitcases. Prayer comes with a lot of baggage, in other words.

The word "prayer" may be a problem, but prayer itself—the state of prayer, of praying, of being prayed—is a persistent, widespread human activity. It arises out of human experiences, especially the hard ones.

When things get really bad, even people who don’t believe in a Divine will create one just so they’ll have something to rail against.

At other moments, life itself becomes so astonishing or so bewildering or so beautiful that we’re overwhelmed by the experience. In those moments, we create a Creator just by saying "thank you" for the experience of being alive.

No matter what we call it, though, it's a profound thing, prayer. I've learned this mostly the hard way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Life Beside the Stream

My prayer life goes back before my earliest memories. I think my parents must have taught me to pray while I was still in the cradle.

Even in my late 20s when I walked away from the church of my upbringing and stayed away from religion for years, I still found myself talking to God.

Now it’s like living next to a stream. The sound of the water is always there, and I listen to it off and on all day -- sometimes even when I wake up in the middle of the night.

The stream is the presence of the Divine. The listening is my prayer.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Prayer List

Silence is prayer. Stillness is prayer. Emptiness is prayer. Gratitude is prayer. Forgiveness is prayer. Compassion is prayer. Radiant joy is prayer. Awe is prayer.

Angst is prayer. Grief is prayer. Wonder is prayer. Wisdom is prayer. Kindness is prayer. Justice is prayer. Mercy is prayer.

Fear is not prayer. Fear needs prayer. Fear always needs prayer.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Prayers of the Nonbelievers

I don’t think we have to believe in God to pray. I think anybody can pray. Anybody, anytime, anywhere.

Any time we feel grateful for whatever experience we’re having at the moment, that’s a prayer. When we wake up to our gratefulness, it’s as if we’re waking up in the middle of our own prayer.

Anguish is another prayer. Weeping is a prayer. Some laughing is a prayer, but not all laughing.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Spirituality Quote of the Week

Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.

-- Anne Lamott

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sitting Still

For the last 20-something years, I've been in the habit of sitting still with my eyes closed for 20 or 30 minutes each morning. Sometimes longer, sometimes not so long. It seems to be getting longer as I get older.

I clear my mind and count breaths, or repeat a word or phrase, or think about a serene setting, or just stay in the squirrel brain I woke up with.

Sometimes I can actually quiet my mind -- for a few moments anyway. Sometimes I tell myself to rest in the Divine. Just sit and be still and rest in the Divine. Sometimes I'm an ocean of gratitude. Sometimes I get distracted by some long fantasy that's like reading a book I can't put down.

Sometimes I’m needy. Sometimes I'm angry (which usually means my feelings are hurt). Sometimes a grief or fear or pain is too much, and I end up bent over and dripping tears on my feet. Sometimes I ask questions because they come to me unanswered.

Sometimes an inner door swings open, and light floods in, and I see what I hadn't seen before, and I'm stunned into silence. Then I laugh out loud. Or weep. Or both.

All from just sitting still.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Pour Love on It

I think I'm fascinated by fear. My own fear. The fear I see in others. It's a deep-rooted thing, fear -- like love. They both go deep. Maybe they both grow out of the same seed way down inside us. They're both deep and vast. I know that.

Fear comes out of my sense that I stop at my skin. There's me, and then there's everything and everyone else -- all that isn’t me. My goal is to keep myself alive in this universe of everything else. And if I fail, I die. I cease to be. I disappear.

That's what fear teaches.

Love reminds me that even though I'm separate, I'm not separate. Love wears away the walls I build to protect myself from The Other, no matter how thick I make them.

Love is an odd dance partner for fear, but they do balance one another out -- at least here among what Lao-tzu called the ten thousand things.

Here's something else I've learned: Fear is useless in battling fear. Fighting fear with fear only creates more fear. The way to overcome fear is to pour love on it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Where Morals Come From

Trying to live a spiritual life is not the same as trying to live a moral life. It’s not the same as trying to live a good and decent life. It’s about trying to live a life of awareness.

Awareness teaches me to see. The more I see, the more the rest of my life begins to take care of itself. It doesn’t mean I’m going to be a better person. It means I’m going to see those places where I can help, and if I don’t help when I can, I’ll feel the loss of not helping.

Awareness teaches me to help the next time. To smile the next time. To say hello the next time. To be patient the next time. To care the next time. To be kind.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Sentimental or Not


Such a sentimental thing -- so easy to parody and diminish. But it's a deep word if we let ourselves dive down into it. An ocean with no floor.

Here's my take on love these days. We talk about love and hate. Love and hate. The opposite of love is hate. To me, the opposite of love isn't hate. It's fear. Hatred is just a manifestation of fear. Fear is at the bottom of everything we see as evil or bad -- hatred, violence, greed, meanness, pride, racism, intolerance, exploitation. It's a long list.

Love, on the other hand, dissipates fear. Things like kindness, generosity, acceptance, helpfulness, compassion, patience, mercy, grace. Another long list.

Where sentimentality fits into all of this, I don't know anymore. I just know I want to shed as much fear as possible, both inside and out. If love is the way to do that, then give me love, sentimental or not.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Little Kinder

Before he died, Aldous Huxley (the author of Brave New World) was quoted as saying, "It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder.'"

Great advice, and I try to follow it when I think about it. But I don't think about it as often as I'd like.

It'd be nice to remember to be a little kinder to the grocery clerk, for instance. Or to the woman behind the counter at the post office. Or to the knot of teenagers taking over the sidewalk as if they'd bought it with their own money.

Try to be a little kinder.

One of my good friends (I'll call him Steve) told me years ago that his father always tried to leave people happier than they were before they encountered him. I like that. It makes me wonder what the planet would be like if we all did that.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Journeyless Journey

Last summer during one of the "spirituality discussion group" conversations we have at church each month, one of the members said he had a problem with the whole idea of a "spiritual journey." If I remember correctly, he made the point that ultimately there is no "journey" because there's no "there" to journey to. We're already there.

I'll call him Mark. Interesting guy. I like him. Tall guy. He's an attorney and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His wife is a Presbyterian minister, too. Makes one wonder what their dinnertable talk is like.

But back to this idea of there being no spiritual journey. I agree with Mark. There is no "there" we have to migrate to -- or even toward. We're already there. When it comes to our spiritual life, we're already home.

On the other hand, I disagree that there's no journey. I can honestly say I've been on a journey -- what many would call a spiritual journey -- for more than half a century. At the same time, though, I've come to see it less as a spiritual journey and more as a journey of awareness.

After all, the "spiritual" is always with us, whether we realize it or not. If we seek it, we find it. If we don't seek it, most of the time we don't find it. Sometimes it forces the issue, but most of the time, we find what we seek. We find what we expect to find.

This is why faith is so powerful. And so dangerous. And so critical.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Spirituality Quote of the Week*

Really hearing a bird sing or really seeing a blue sky, we touch the seed of the Holy Spirit within us.

-- Thich Nhat Hanh

* For the last seven years (almost), I've been sending out what I call my spirituality quote of the week via email to a list of friends. I also post it on my Facebook page. (That's pretty much the only thing I do on Facebook, btw.) And now that I'm back here again, it seems only fitting that I should post them on here, too. I hope you find one you like every now and then.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Community Church

I don’t go to church for theology anymore. I go for community. I’ve been saying this since the 1990s. If I were going for theology, I’d probably have to start my own church. A church of one. Not much community in a church like that.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Resident Taoist

When I finally left the Church of Christ in my late 20s, I went on what I call my first religious sabbatical (meaning that I took my first extended leave from all things religious). I always knew I'd end up back in church at some point, though, and sure enough, eventually some Presbyterians took me in.

Almost three decades later, I still go. It’s a nice little Presbyterian church tucked in a neighborhood in an aging part of town. I like it. I like being a member there. The people are good folks -- like most people -- or at least they want to be.

And they seem to accept me as their resident Taoist, which I appreciate, although most of them wouldn't think to call me that.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Not that Jesus

With a title like "Christian Taoism," there's a good chance Jesus will come up in these posts from time to time.

I should note, though, that the Jesus I'm writing about isn't Jesus the savior. He isn't Jesus the messiah. He isn't Jesus the sacrificial lamb. He isn't Jesus the Son of God.

There are already plenty of people writing blogs about that Jesus.

The Jesus I'm writing about is Jesus the mystic. Jesus the Taoist. Jesus the Sufi. Jesus the finger-pointing-at-the-moon. Jesus the enlightened. Jesus the Bodhisattva of the Kingdom of God.

Let there be light.