Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Autumnal Equinox

It has been a while since I have posted anything here. Work and life have been busy and I have been dedicating morning writing time to a large project. Last night I was hit with a little equinox inspiration that I posted on Facebook and now share with you.

Mysterious blessings are found
In a moment of autumn balance
Between light and dark
Summer lingers stubbornly
Before winter's insistent approach
The crisp chilly night air
Awakes to greetings and the promise
Of a warm embrace by the morning dew
The season ebbs and flows
Reminding us that cruelty
Is only mended by kindness and
Sorrow's fretting healed by
Time's tender inevitable grace.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Original Potential

Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.
- Eugene O'Neill 
I always liked this quotation and the concept of God being the glue in our lives because it makes sense to me that our Higher Power connects all of us. This quotation also seems to be a profoundly apt description of original sin. But are we really born damaged and needing salvation that can only come from something outside ourselves? 
I recently had a conversation with a few friends about whether we believed in original sin or not. One person made a good case for original sin. She said that an infant is all ego. They only know their own immediate needs and that we all have some of that innate ego selfishness that remains with us throughout our lives. This, she said, is our original sin.  
My response was that all creatures including humans are hardwired for survival so an infant only knows to cry demanding food and attention because their first instinct is to survive. This is why humans are innately competitive animals. So is that original survival instinct sinful? I have been giving this some additional thought. 
If our primary imperative is to survive, the second is to understand our experiences that we might cope with or adapt to them. The third imperative is to be in relationship with someone or something outside our selves. As we grow up we learn that our survival is connected to the survival of others. We are by our nature social and symbiotic animals so we spend our lives managing our sense of belonging.  Finally, the fourth imperative is to develop our ability to weigh calculated risk against possible reward. There is no intrinsic sin in any of these primal directives.  
It might be helpful at this point to have a common definition of sin. Here is what the dictionary says:
1. transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam. 
2. any act regarded as such a transgression, especially a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
3. any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It's a sin to waste time. 
All these definitions describe sin as an intentional act. It is behavior done with an awareness of its potential harm. It is to willfully ignore the immoral nature of something we are about to do. Sin is any choice we make to intentionally disregard the foreseeable negative consequences of our actions.   
Several years ago there was a best seller that suggested that everything we know about life we learn in kindergarten. There is a lot of merit to that theory. During the first five years of life we learn an enormous amount of information. Most importantly we learn about cause and effect. We come to understand that our behavior has consequences. 
We discover that we have these things called feelings and so do other people. We find out that when we please others we are rewarded. When we displease others we are punished. Sometimes pleasing one person displeases another. Sometimes pleasing our selves is risking punishment. We learn to choose between right and wrong. We learn how to sin by trial and error and from the example of others. None of these things describe a state of original sin, of intentionally bad choices from the time of birth. 
Some might say that if we are not born in a state of original sin, we must be born in a state of grace – in God’s good favor. If we are born in a state of either sin or grace, the inference is that we are born already bearing God’s judgment as a heavy burden, destined to spending our whole lives seeking approval from or hiding from the wrath of something outside of ourselves. 
In that conversation I mentioned, another friend reminded us that God is within us, and therefore never separate from us. God is present in and part of every fiber of our being. I say that this is why we are not born inherently bad or good, that original sin is a mistaken concept. We are actually born in a state of original potential. Even the child who is born into the worst circumstances, whether they be the result of a rape, or they are born into a situation of physical impairment, dire poverty, or violence; even they have value and possibility.  
There are some who surmount the challenges they encounter and others who succumb to them. But God is present at all times; not as a magician who can fix things, but as the transforming power of Love. And, we all have the same potential to grow into an awareness of that Love. 
We all have the same potential to make negative or positive choices. Just because we get in the habit of tending towards one or the other does not mean that at any time we do not have the ability to turn in the other direction. Our physical and emotional survival depends on our ability to make good choices. It is not until we learn that all our decisions have consequences, and that making no decision is actually a decision, do we realize that we have great control over our own fate. When we learn that God’s Love is constant – never wavering – we learn that we can repent our mistakes and commit to making our deeds match our best intentions. 
The imperative to belong is not just born out of biological symbiosis or emotional neediness. It is an inborn calling to return to the original state of potential where we were open to the infinite possibilities available in our inherent connection to that of God in all creation. When we give ourselves over to those possibilities we are born again. There resides in each of us a small seed of awareness of God’s ever present Love. As that awareness grows so does our confidence to love others the way God loves us: without conditions. 
Life’s circumstances and the choices we make within them may make us feel broken. But we are never unfixable because God is the glue that will transform our suffering into mending. From start to finish that glue is available if only, as Stephen Stills once sang, you will “love the one you are with.”


Friday, April 18, 2014

Living The Resurrection

When my children were young and I read them Bible stories I always tried to give them my explanation of why each story was important in a way that I thought they could understand. When it comes to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, here is what I told them:

The rulers in Jerusalem put Jesus to death because they were afraid he and the people would try to take over running things and take away their wealth. The story goes that Mary and Martha went to make sure everything was alright with Jesus’ grave three days after he died because there had been threats that people might try to wreck it. When they got there they saw that it had been opened. Then Jesus’ soul appeared to them and comforted them because they were so sad about his death. That is what the Bible says.

I told my children that there may be no way to prove whether it is true or not. But the story of the miracle of his life after death guaranteed that people would continue to talk about him and share his teachings so we might keep learning how to treat each other better. Every time we do a good deed or help someone who does not have as much as we do, the way Jesus taught, he lives on. This is how he was truly resurrected. I believed then and I believe now this explanation.

I have been asked if I believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I have been asked if I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. I don’t think anyone knows for sure if Jesus is the Messiah who was foretold by prophets. To me Jesus’ sermons are more important than any title or distinction we could give him. They have been handed down through storytelling and the written word for more than two thousand years. They are what remain consistent through many translations. They are Divine because they call us to live with humble caring for all humanity. If I believe that there is that of God in everyone – and I do – surely this Jesus of Nazareth had that of God in him. But, surely we are all the sons and daughters of God.

And so, what does Jesus’ resurrection have to do with us? We are resurrected from our sins and sorrows every time we, as Jesus said, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” When we remember that Jesus said “What you do unto the least of these you do unto me” we are resurrected from our hate and fear.  

When we look for that of God in others with love and forgiveness in our hearts we find that our eyes are opened to the inherent equality and value of every human being. We come to know that the least of these are actually no less than we are. We are raised up into a way of living in harmony with all around us. Proving whether the Bible’s account of Jesus death is true is not important. Living the lessons Jesus shared is living the Resurrection.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Up Welling

When you live in a coastal region, there is a weather experience that mainlanders may not always recognize the full effect of. When the wind is, in my case from east to west off the Atlantic Ocean, we experience a warming or cooling depending on whether the water temperature is cooler than the air temperature. During certain times of the year currents bring cool waters to the surface from the depths of the ocean floor. This is called upwelling. During summer months upwelling and easterly winds temper the earth’s ambient heat sometimes driving the fish to warmer waters and the birds follow them.

We humans are said to be 98% water and so it is not surprising that throughout our art forms water plays an important part. Water has been a metaphor for many aspects of our experience. This morning I am pondering upwelling as a spiritual metaphor.

An upwelling of emotions can happen when we are least prepared for it. Though time has lessened my grief; for sometime after the passing of my mother in law and then almost exactly a year later my own mother, something small and random would often spark a memory of them causing me to weep for missing them. Tears would well up in my eyes and I felt like choking on my sadness.

When my children were young I experienced the upwelling of joy. When they were delighted by some new experience and would laugh with unfettered happiness I felt that happiness too. It was pure and intense and unlike any other pleasure I have ever felt before or since then. I am not sure there is anything as wonderful as that feeling of sharing such a pure and positive moment with another person.

Upwelling is not just emotional. It is deeply spiritual. It is one aspect of a living connection between souls. It is a transcendent experience. It washes over us, leaving its mark on us forever.

When I go really deep in prayer or meditation the emotional heat of my waking reality is cooled. Spirit calms my passions. Spirit quells my fears. Peace cleanses me. Negativity is at least temporarily driven away. There are times when I call on Spirit for courage. I need the heat of my passion not to go away but to be tempered with integrity. My fiery resolve is made stronger by the coolness of wisdom shared by those who have gone before, those I meet in my reading, my communal worship, and my travels.

I believe that real and lasting change comes from a deep place within us. It rises to our surface when we need it most, or when we are needed most. The earth’s natural cycles create the conditions for upwelling in the ocean. So too do our often unrecognized cycles of growth and rebirth bring an upwelling of Spirit in our lives. These are not just our individual cycles. They are the rhythms of the societies which we live within. We are connected to all of creation. When we give in to the upwelling Spirit we are giving our selves over to the winds of change, to the currents of deep abiding and universal Love. 

Let us not hide away from the cooler shores of a Spirit-led life. Let us learn and be tempered by the Upwelling.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


It is certainly an understatement that we live in a very complex world. From the infinitesimal structure of matter itself to the unlimited territory of our universe, to the boiling pot of soup known as human knowledge and relations here on our tiny planet; life is not simple. The very fact of this complexity makes a credible argument against things like destiny and even the existence of God. With so many variables how could there be any grand plan? How could any one God manage and keep track of it all?

My response to those questions lately is that I believe there is one God that is so powerful and so mysterious that surely these things would be within God's power. But, personally, destiny is not an important part of my beliefs. Being present and accountable for my actions is what counts, not any reward later. I do not feel I am owed some special future in this life or the next, if there is a next life. My beliefs compel me to behave for goodness' own sake.

One way I can do this is to live simply. As a Quaker I have been taught what we call the “Testimony of Simplicity”. That is we should live frugally with an intentional sense of our impact on the world around us. We should not allow ourselves to be overburdened by material possessions and complicated relationships. By keeping our way of life simple we allow more room for Spirit in our lives. More importantly we make more room for that of the Spirit in anyone we meet in our lives.

But this is a most difficult approach to life. There is nothing simple about it. Not only does God have to juggle a myriad of variables, so do we. This is both the blessing and the curse of modern life. But we have been given the great gift of history, of all that has happened before. Once human kind comes to know something it cannot be unknown. No matter how hard we try to return to a purer way of life before the corruption of newfangled things, we cannot unring a bell. All human experience becomes part of our spiritual DNA.

Spiritual DNA is made up of three main components. First is our physical DNA: all those markers that make up our physical body, our complexion, our body type, and so on. The second part is our heritage: our life experiences, our cultural and family upbringing. The third is spiritual. This is not quantifiable. It is the culmination of all the rest and it is none of it. Why does one person receive the physical DNA for beauty or good health? What makes one person whither under life's challenges and another thrive? What gives one sibling a bright and sunny outlook on life and another a deep unyielding pessimism? Spiritual DNA is more than luck.

Spiritual DNA is synchronicity. There are mysterious events in our lives which we cannot explain and which seem to affirm something important that we believe. Many people will call this simple coincidence and they may be in fact correct. But when we experience synchronicity it is because an event has meaning beyond the coincidence.
For example, a couple of years ago I was walking on beach near my home, picking up seashells. Among other treasures I found were three flat stones. When I laid out the morning's finds I noticed that the stones seemed to belong together. They looked as if they had been made to be together. Since then they have sat united on my desk. They have served as helpful symbols of many things for me. And they seem to have a meaning that changes.

At one workshop I attended we were talking about stone masonry as a metaphor for faith community. The teacher reminded us that masons building a wall from field stones do not need mortar to bind them. Through trial and error they fit the stones together creating structures that survive the elements for long periods of time. The teacher suggested that this was good way to think of the Religious Society of Friends which had developed practices that have unified us and made us spiritually strong. I remembered my three companion stones which in turn reminded me of three main components of a Quaker faith community: corporate worship, care for each other, and witnessing truth as we have experienced it.

At other times I look at the stones and I am reminded of the passage from First Corinthians: “...faith, hope, and charity. But the greatest of these is charity.” There have been others, but I think you get the idea.

Why did I find these rocks and why do they serve as inspiration for me? The physical reason is pure coincidence. They just happened to wash up on that beach at that particular moment in time. The intellectual or cultural reason is that I have read many things and seen a lot of artwork that employs trinitarian symbolism. I am sure some creative psychologist could theorize about why they are important to me emotionally. But that would be making them seem more important than they are and at the same time not really reveal anything about the significance they seem to convey.

I could certainly get rid of them without any regret. But the symbolism I see in them has meaning for me that is helpful at certain key moments. Why do they seem to resonate with some part of my spiritual DNA? I think one aspect is their simplicity. When the tasks and choices before me seem overwhelming, they are a nice reminder of three simple things: to prioritize, to act with integrity, and to have faith that I can deal with the consequence of those choices.

True simplicity seems unattainable. We live in a complicated world. We have been given complicated tools to help us live within that reality. Perhaps simplicity is not the goal at all, but a spiritual skill which we develop and practice. Like a muscle that we have not used for a while it may at first be painful. But when used regularly it becomes stronger and starts to exist with out our notice.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lenten Season

I am not usually one to observe things like Lent. Many of us who are members of the Religious Society of Friends believe that no one day is more holy than the other; and that we should hold ourselves to high standards of work and self sacrifice every day.

But not all Quakers feel that way about holidays. Many observe Christmas and Easter in the same fashion as other Protestant Christians with gifts, family gatherings, and festivities centered around their children. And, I know a couple of Friends who observe Lent as a spiritual discipline, doing one additional and prayerful chore daily during the forty days of the Lenten season. This is an expansion of their daily devotional prayer and study.

Other Christians I know who observe Lent follow the tradition of giving up something that they get pleasure from for the duration. One person I know gives up social media during Lent. These friends have inspired me.

The practice of a Lenten fast is to help someone to grow spiritually. Giving up something we enjoy is meant to make more space for the Holy Spirit in our lives. That seems like something I could use. So this year I am trying my own variation on these practices.

Starting today I am giving up the time spent watching television news in bed before starting my daily work. When I have insomnia this can begin quite early. I have been thinking that this is not is not as productive as it could be. Regardless, I still get up and start my day at just about the same time most people do. And, I put in a full eight sometimes ten hour day. But because my office is in my home I have the luxury of using the "commuting" time any way I want. Instead of watching the news I am going to use this time for prayer and writing.
One reason early Quakers rejected things like Lent was that they felt that they had become empty rituals. People went through them in a perfunctory way and they did not really help them to be any closer to God. The practice had lost its meaning and had no lasting effect on them. I am hoping that my Lenten discipline will last beyond Easter and I will give up early morning news in bed altogether.

I can't say that the writing I do during this time will all be made public or that I will begin to observe Lent every year going forward. But this year I am going to use Lent as an opportunity to improve my personal discipline and enrich my spiritual journey. Perhaps on the way I'll discover a few other ways I can become a better person.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Painting The Negative Space

When I was in art school I had a professor who taught us that we should put an equal amount of thought into each square inch of our painting as a matter of good design and integrity toward the future customer who might buy it. This was good advice which influenced my creative approach. Even thirty years later when I paint I tend to get the background or the environment around the main subject mostly done first.

Throughout that process I am learning and thinking about how I will accomplish the primary focus. This helps prevent me from overworking it and to have a more deft touch with brush strokes that look more spontaneous in the places where it counts most. In art school terms the area around the main subject is known as the negative space. It is supposed to be where the viewer’s eyes rest but are at the same time pointed toward the main attraction.  

This painting strategy seems to work for me and, for better or worse, it has been a metaphor for the way I lead my life. Often I find myself concentrating on those things that I have some small measure of control over and putting off the big things like lifelong dreams and goals. It is both a healthy coping mechanism and a procrastinator’s tactic. It works sometimes and not others. It is not an uncommon way of dealing with things.

Recently a friend of mine told me about an older woman who was about to start cancer treatments. She decided that this was a good time to simplify her life and move into a smaller place to live. Now on first consideration, you might say that with all the weakening side effects of cancer medicine this is probably not the most practical time to be moving, which is a stressful event for most people.

But I would like to suggest that this woman’s approach was to paint the negative space. Her plan was going to allow her to not wait idly in fear for an outcome she could not do much to control. Instead she was going to give her health the necessary attention it required and spend the rest of her energy on the part of her environment that she felt she could control learning her limitations as she goes along.

During the holiday season it seems like I spend a lot of time painting the negative space: dealing with a myriad of chores, social obligations, and celebrations, setting aside any attention to the priorities I have the rest of the year. In fact Christmas traditions are a study in such contrasts. Take the holiday colors of red and green – which on the color wheel are opposites or compliments. These represent the blood red sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and his promise of ever green salvation. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:16

This has deep meaning for many Christians. I personally am not really interested in eternal life. I am more focused on the present and another way of looking at the red and the green. Red represents Jesus’ ministry of unconditional Love. "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'" - Matthew 22:37. Green represents the universal eternal presence of God which requires us to live that ministry here and now, no matter how hard that may be to do. "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is here among you." - Luke 17:21

Red - unconditional love - is our main objective. Green is the hard reality of living that objective in the eternal now - the negative space.

My goal during and following the holiday season is to attend to only those things which I am able; giving (hopefully) deft quality energy to the important things. I hope to paint any negative space I encounter with a positive attitude of patience and joy. So on this Solstice, the longest darkest night of the year, I wish you and yours many blessings and warm gatherings of celebration. Let us now look ahead to coming days with greater Light.