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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Standing In A Place Of Infinite Possibility

There are many things that can affect the creative process for better or worse. There is practically a genre of self help books just to address the most common problem for all writers and artists: being blocked. It is a terrible thing for a creative person when no ideas will come. I tend not to have that particular block. Mine is more about being flooded with ideas all which make me a little high. I have to work pretty hard to sort out which are flights of fancy and which are viable and worth pursuing.

For the last week I have had a particular phrase running through my mind: standing in a place of infinite possibility. It began last Sunday morning on my way to church. It was a beautiful fall day, crisp but not cold with a sky that was completely clear without a single cloud. Seeing the eternal blue made me think: I am standing in a place of infinite possibility.

Photo - Fall Color

During worship I contemplated and even spoke about being in that condition. It meant standing between fear and courage, between despair and hope, between paralysis and action, between hate and love.

For an artist like me it also means that at the beginning of every project it feels like I have been given a beautifully wrapped present. Anything could be inside. It could be ugly socks or a gold necklace. Of course the way my mind works the socks are often preferable because they make me think of all the amazing hikes I could take in them - and the idea of the gold necklace makes me a little a shamed and wondering where I might wear something so lovely and useless. Nonetheless imagining what is in the box is sometimes better than the actual present.

This week was the regular meeting of a book club I belong to. I always look forward to our unpredictable conversations. This time we were discussing a book I brought to the group: Illuminations by Mary Sharrat. It is a work of historical fiction about the life of Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a Twelfth century nun and mystic whose writings, musical compositions, and book illuminations made her famous. She eventually became an abbess running her own nunnery, and an advisor to the Pope. This was no small feat in her day. I was most interested in what my friends would say about her visions and the mystical experience.

Some thought they were very interesting and even inspiring. Others thought they were simply a sign of mental illness or symptoms of some other undiagnosed physical ailment. Hearing that, for just a moment, I was still a little disappointed that people were so dismissive. But I was not surprised by these reactions particularly when discussed in the context of the story. Visions are elixirs, intoxicants, hallucinogens.  They can be sheer pleasure or frightening torture. It is no wonder that they are terrifying to many people. It has always felt strange to me that they are not part of everyone’s experience.

I have always had them. And in fact visions are kind of what I do for a living. My job as an artist or designer and writer is to take the fantasies in my head and turn them into something either tangible or perceivable to others. When I am doing it right my work results in something helpful to someone else.

Creativity and the spiritual experience are completely intertwined for me. I believe in God. I believe God has communicated to me and through me. However, I do not think that is terribly special. I believe there is that of God in everyone. God communicates to everyone in a way we can each best understand. God communicates through each of us particularly when we are acting or speaking with integrity, compassion, and love.

This Sunday morning the weather is very different. It is very common this time of year to have a dense morning fog and that is what I see beyond my window. I am reminded that a week later I am still standing in a place of infinite possibility. The mist is quite beautiful and mysterious. It presents a whole other set of choices. I am between reality and dreams, between knowing and belief, between community and solitude, between inside and outside.

When the Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s wife was dying it is said that he could not resist the urge to draw her portrait on the death bed. He could not deny his role as the observer recorder outside looking in. When I first heard that story I felt a wave of emotion. There was someone who actually understood my experience. More often than not I feel like an observer looking in on a world I am not really part of.

And yet standing in that place I have the vantage point of being able to turn and see the entire universe. I am standing in a place of infinite possibility. I cannot remain there forever. Every day I have to step back from that place and harvest the fruits I grow in the land of make believe. I am grateful for the gift of being able to go back and forth and the opportunity to share it through my work.

Photo - Fall Mist

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can you hear me now?

I am in the middle of reading a novel about Thomas Cromwell the chief minister of English king Henry VIII and a proponent of the Protestant Reformation. During that time there was much debate about who could hear the voice of God. It was mostly believed that only the Catholic Pope, and maybe a few saints, could hear and deliver God’s Word. King Henry naturally disagreed. He believed that he was ordained to rule by God and therefore he also could receive direct and holy counsel in order to rule his nation. But this did not extend to non-royals and women. They were not privy to such communications. Henry used this belief to justify his desire to divorce and remarry so he could try to create a legitimate male heir, since he only had one daughter by his first wife who was now past childbearing. He was afraid that when he died he would leave his kingdom without a ruler in direct contact with God.

In my upbringing as a Quaker I was taught that there is that of God in everyone, and therefore we are all capable of hearing God and having God speak through us. With all that rumbling around my brain last week, during the voting to end the shut down and raise the debt ceiling, a stenographer for U.S. House of Representatives calmly walked up to the podium and began to shout a message she claimed to have heard from God. The website Politico reported her as saying: “He will not be mocked. He will not be mocked – don’t touch me – he will not be mocked... The greatest deception here is this is not one nation under God. It never was... the Constitution would not have been written by the Freemasons. They go against God.”

According to Michael Daly of the Daily Beast, Dianne Foster Reidy told her husband Dan that she had been kept awake for several nights by the Holy Spirit who was urging to deliver a message on the House floor. “This whole mess has just kind of sickened her to the whole process,” he said. “The alliances between people who aren’t really allies. The finger-pointing on the dais, [then] the arms around each other... Where are the people being served in this whole deal?

When she struck up her courage and gave her message Diane was pulled out of the hall for being disruptive and promptly admitted to a psychiatric ward for observation. Had the venality and hypocrisy of the whole debacle simply caused her to snap? Had she become unreasonably crazy? Or was she actually the voice of reason reacting to about 500 or more politicians acting immorally at the expense of hundreds of thousands of others?

I know a married couple who, when they get ready for a night on the town, appoint one of them to be the “voice of reason”. That person’s job is to keep them from eating too much, partying too hard, and most importantly see that they get home safely. That person is supposed to remind the other to exercise good judgment. So what is the difference between that and hearing the voice of God?

These questions remind me of the story my grandmother told me about the first time she ever heard the voice of God. Her father traveled on business frequently and usually brought the children small gifts upon his return. One day when he was expected to come home little Lydie went to watch for him from a third story window. She was so excited she decided to climb out side and sit on a ledge to get a better view. Her big sister was shocked to find her in such a dangerous situation. She pulled her inside and shook her saying. “Lydie, didn’t you hear a little voice telling you not to do this?” “Well, yes.” she replied. “Well that was the voice of God! You should always listen to God!!

I would suggest that the voice of God and the voice of reason are one and the same. Common sense is common because it is informed by knowledge we all have access to. God communicates to each of us that special wisdom which we each will uniquely understand. Though the message may seem unique to our understanding, its underpinnings of truth are universal. Morality is an inner knowledge of a universal understanding of the difference between right and wrong.

Immoral behavior is based on delusional thinking. “I won’t get caught.” “There’s nothing wrong with doing this.” “It may be wrong but I have a good reason for doing this.” “I am doing this for someone else.” And so on… When we ignore the voice of reason we behave immorally. To ignore the voice of reason is to deny the voice of God. Fortunately God is not so petty and jealous that we are required to give God credit for all the good directions we take. Unfortunately there are all kinds of people who use God to justify their delusional thought processes. Mostly God wants us to use our best judgment about the greater good, and to share what we have heard so that we all might learn from each other and try to make better moral decisions as a result.

I don’t think Diane is or was delusional. I think she was merely reacting to what a great number of people regard as immoral behavior on the part of the politicians. I hope she will get some rest and won’t let this experience, or the fears and doubts of others, keep her from testing what she has heard from God by sharing it with others again.
Almost every day when I talk on my cell phone I hear myself saying “Can you hear me now?” We have a tin roof which interferes with our wireless phone reception. God has the same problem. Every day we receive the Word of God. Often we ignore it. It rarely comes in the form of a burning bush like the one Moses saw. Not everyone receives a perceivable and specific direct call to action like Diane the stenographer. It usually comes in the form of our common sense and the impulse to treat others as we would be treated. And, God is infinitely patient. The Word comes in many forms and it always arrives when we need it most. God will keep asking “Can you hear me now?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Some Thoughts On The State Of Quakerism

I have thought a lot about the so called “state” of the Religious Society of Friends: whether we are in decline, whether our practices are still relevant, and whether we have some inherent problems in the process of identifying our leadership. These questions keep coming up so I will try to give one perspective.

Full Disclosure
I spent a good part of two decades learning about, serving, and volunteering for my Yearly Meeting. I have worked at almost every level including as an alternate clerk of the Yearly Meeting.  In recent years I have pulled away because, simply put, things weren’t going well and I did not feel like I was contributing to the solutions, only to the problems. Having written a number of screeds that will likely never be read by anyone; I have been trying to get to a place where I can share some helpful observations without succumbing to ego driven condemnations. In essence I am trying to have an amicable divorce from my Yearly Meeting where there are many people (including those I was in conflict with) who I still love very much. My opinions are certainly colored by an unsatisfying experience but hopefully I am now able to share something worthwhile to these concerns which are shared by many devout Quakers.

First: Is the Religious Society of Friends in decline?
Obviously I cannot speak for all of Quakerism, but I can share what I have seen happening in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. During my experience since 1987, we have been in a continual struggle to address fears about numbers. The most frequent questions asked at our annual sessions have been:

1.    How can we attract more young people?

2.    Why can’t we get our Monthly Meetings and their members to give more money beyond our annual covenant to support the work of our Yearly Meeting?

3.    Why can’t we get more people to volunteer for Yearly Meeting standing committees, working groups, and positions of leadership?

Certainly during discernment efforts we have asked how Spirit was leading us. But those three questions were the most consistent topics of concern even above and beyond our concerns for peace and environmental stewardship. These topics are certainly common to any religion today, particularly here in the United States. And, there are all kinds of excuses about them. The questions show that we are more focused on practical matters and less on matters of the Spirit. And, yes, they are evidence of a declining organization.

So what? The more we focus on our decline and those three related questions, the less attention we give to listening to that of God in one another and acting with love and integrity. They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but because they are based in fear they are lacking in faith. They corrupt our good intentions. They corrupt our ability to act with love. The corrupt our understanding of God’s call to us.

Second: Are the practices of the Religious Society of Friends still relevant?
Another consistently expressed fear of Friends is that we have fewer long time Quakers and a greater percentage of new ones - who do not fully understand our practices and who misinterpret them to mean that we can easily change them. There is an apprehension of losing our traditions, of becoming more of a like-minded social club than a religious society.

In my experience the practice of discernment by the sense of the meeting in worship is still a relevant and powerful experience among Friends. It is central to who we are. Many meetings struggle to teach new attenders about how this works, but when they do, attenders who become members are more likely to embrace the practice than try to change it. It takes patience and intentional friendly attention.

However I, and many others, have come to the conclusion that this form of decision making (Quaker Process) works best in local Meetings and committees made up of the people who have to actually do the work or live into the decision being made. It does not work well with representative bodies. Too often we see decisions by Quarterly and Yearly Meetings enthusiastically embraced by those present at the business meeting and completely rejected by congregations at home. The process alone is not the problem. It is the scope and type of work we are attempting to do in these representative bodies. Our missions have become too complex and disconnected from the needs and leadings of our congregations.

This reality combined with questions about decline causes us to question of the role of representative bodies within our society. What is their purpose? They are most relevant and effective when they serve as a network for fellowship and common leadings, and as a source of education about the ways of Friends. Quakers have long rejected hierarchical organizations. From the beginning the philosophy has been to be organic, adaptable, and locally autonomous, in our structures. In other words responsive to God's continuing revelations.

Older Yearly Meetings like the one in Philadelphia have the added problem that they have old money in restricted trusts and old buildings to maintain. You need professional volunteers with the education of an accountant and an attorney to understand and make informed decisions about these. That work does not necessarily excite most people and seems far removed from the reasons they belong to the Religious Society of Friends: our meetings for worship; pastoral fellowship; and like minded leadings about theology, peace, justice, and stewardship.

Third: Do we have inherent problems in the process of identifying our leadership?
In a word - yes. Too often our nominating committees are forced to fill positions of leadership based on an exhaustive search just to find willing volunteers. They rarely have the luxury of choosing between individual candidates’ spiritual and leadership talents. Recognizing the difficulties they face, the recommendations of these committees are usually accepted without challenge. These things come up in our annual schedules in such a fashion that there is really little time to object and request an alternative name. So trust, faith, and term limits are required.

Unfortunately in many cases we burn out these willing victims or they stay way too long in their positions because no one else will step up to take a turn. Circumstances both within and beyond our control have led our Yearly Meetings to neglect developing an intentional Spirit-led approach to leadership choice and accountability. Likewise Monthly Meetings, doing the best they can, have been unable to commonly make specific efforts to nurture and encourage spiritual leadership among us. Some Meetings are better at this than others, but this does not seem like a very good way to choose our leaders; especially for a society who values intention and accountability as highly as we do.

Are there any solutions?
As a died-in-the-wool Quaker, my leadings always bring me back to our form of worship where we gather in silent expectation of God’s revelations to us. Our weekly worship is at the heart of all we do. It is what defines us as a religious society as opposed to an activist organization. Simply listening for God has been our clarion call since 1652. God has been and continues to call us to focus on our worship and on being in faith community with each other. We can best support our activists answering a leading to work for peace, justice, and an earth restored, by giving them strong stable spiritual homes. Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings should set aside their efforts to build or maintain organizations and concentrate on worship, and on providing religious education and a supportive network of spiritual fellowship.

Some will say - “That is what we have been doing. These things have evolved taking the form of more and more complex organizations.” This brings to mind the Bauhaus philosophy of design: “Form follows function.” The forms we have created no longer function as leadings of the Spirit. It is time to simplify. Get back to our center: our worship and our love of that of God in each other. Rather than worrying about our decline we should embrace a receding complexity. We can do that by making our communities welcoming to all and simplifying our mission to: worship, religious education, and fellowship.
Quakers at all meeting levels need to develop a more intentional model for recognizing and nurturing leadership and an accountable process for naming clerks and other positions. There is perhaps not a one size fits all solution. But some gifted friends should gather and come up with some real word strategies that our faith communities can use.

Change is not an easy process. Like any growing it is painful. I am watching from the sidelines for now as my Yearly Meeting tries to do these things. I am not sure when or if I will ever again have any significant gifts to offer them. They have given me much. I continue to hold them affectionately in the Light.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Too Much Information

This is the era of TMI - “too much information”. I am new to blogging and already I am worried about speaking too much too often about things I know too little of.

Blogs are supposed to be for philosopher wannabe’s like me. And yet it isn’t writer’s block that is giving me pause about joining the latest fray over the latest controversy. I ask myself: What do I have to say that can add to the conversation and not just to the din and clatter of the disgruntled? What can I say that hasn’t already been said?

The issues of the day are those that keep coming back into our collective consciousness because of current events. Gun violence and how to address it, poverty, unemployment, government intrusion into our lives… These are just a few. There are all kinds of information available about these topics. You can find a study or a statistic to back up any point of view. So when does common sense finally take precedence over the reactionary mob mentality which seems to prevail in these conversations?

For example, a few days ago cable news pundits were debating about whether legally blind people should ever be denied the right to own, carry, and presumably use a hand gun. Trying to defend a blind person’s right to carry a gun is ridiculous. Sure, a legally blind person might still have some vision, but if they can’t see who or what they are shooting at, they have no business using a gun. If you can’t be cleared to drive a car why would anyone clear you to carry a gun?

Listening to people bend over backwards to give this concern a full hearing was really sad. As some of these folks were talking you could see by the look on their faces that they were not buying their own arguments. You could see them experience cognitive dissonance in real time. Their brain was disagreeing with their mouth. Some of them looked like their eyes were about to cross permanently. They had to be wondering the same thing I was: How many blind people are actually so paranoid and selfish that they think carrying a gun is so important that there should be legislation to guarantee it?

In the following days we experienced yet another mass shooting by a mentally impaired and distressed individual. With a dozen people dead and more injured I could not help but think back to that ridiculous conversation about the rights of the legally blind to own and carry a gun. The real blindness is our society’s inability to see what drives these senseless acts and what needs to be done to minimize the carnage wrought with guns. I can’t site a study or a statistic to back up my premise but here goes anyway.

Common sense dictates that guns are dangerous tools which people should be licensed to carry after a background check and a 2-3 day waiting period. That is not a lot to ask. Common sense also dictates that we spend too much time talking about gun control and not enough time about mental illness. When will we learn to recognize and help people who are on the verge of causing so much destruction?

For the next few weeks there will be TMI - too much information about the shooter, too much intrusive rehashing of the terrible experience of the victims, too many inept excuses about helping the mentally ill. There will be too much inaction to address the problems that lead to mass shootings.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Into The Hollow

The word “hollow” conjures up an image of a mystical valley with moss covered rocks under the cool shade of a forest canopy. Entering into the hollow there is a sense of peace yet at the same time of being exposed and at risk. What lurks behind the boulders and trees? Such a place of beauty can feel like a place of danger. Such a place of mystery can be irresistible.

Even when our lives are full of family, friends, work, and more; we often have a yearning for something that seems beyond our reach. That something is not always clear. We don’t always know what it is we are looking for. We just know that there is a gap within that somehow needs closing. The size of that space grows with no direct relationship to how happy we are in the rest our life. It can make us deeply disoriented even discontented. The world around us may seem full of potential but at the same time full of uncertainty. When we become aware of it we have entered into the hollow.

The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, described his own sense of emptiness as an “ocean of darkness” followed by an “ocean of light”. He was speaking of his own transformational experience when he personally came to know that “there was one Christ Jesus” who could speak to his condition. Many Christians describe this as being “saved” or “born again”. This transcendence is not limited to a Christian experience. It could be described as a personal awakening, or to being washed clean of worldly concerns revealing a higher purpose for one’s life.

Realizing they had a common experience of yearning, Fox and his friends began gathering together to seek God through worship and quiet reflection. Over the years since then, a common explanation by Quakers for the arrangement of meetinghouse benches has been the “hollow square”. The benches line the room in rows leaving an opening in the center. It is not just that we want a practical layout of the furniture where everyone can be both seen and heard. When we gather in silence to wait on Divine inspiration during our meetings for worship, we begin by entering a quiet vacant space. We are about to open ourselves up to the possibility of growing spiritually.

How we individually experience this is as wide and varied as the designs of snowflakes. Not knowing how it might turn out can be frightening. Yet, we merely need to invite Light in and we can be healed. Our lives can be forever changed. The result is to be challenged to actively commit ourselves to lives of integrity and Love. Quaker worship is one way among many to fill our vessels with the transforming power of God’s love. It is a place where we are invited to enter the hollow as a community. We do not face the hollow alone. We go there intentionally.

Experienced Friends advise newcomers that when we enter worship it is helpful to empty our minds of day to day thoughts. We do this “centering” to prepare ourselves to wait in silence to receive that of God through the ministry of other worshippers. We are invited to enter a hollow space both physically and spiritually. The silence itself is an emptiness uncluttered by distractions. This simple ritual is a faithful practice where we risk exposure to the unknown in the safe company of fellow travelers.

This form of worship teaches us how to seek all that life offers; to face our lives with calm confidence. The Quaker process of corporate discernment - the way we make decisions together - also helps us to understand how to enter the hollow as a friendly society, to face the troubles of our time together. Each time we gather to make decisions together we are testing our common ideals. Our meetings with attention to business are experiments in faith and openness. We are asked to empty ourselves of our expectations, our fears, our personal desires, and our temptations. We are challenged to actively serve that of God in our community.

Once emptied we carefully put into our corporate vessel our knowledge, our mutual respect, our trust, and our forbearance. This process can be a complicated spiritual discipline for a religious tradition which has a strong affinity for simplicity. But through a mysterious spiritual experience we attempt to create something practical and tangible. As we consider those matters before us we are charged with filling the hollow with acts of Love.

In our daily lives we are being called to do the same. The hollow fades from our awareness as we learn to embrace a life that is engaged, productive, and filled with acts of Love.

  • Are we willing to enter the hollow setting aside things like preconceived notions. pride, personal agendas, or suspicion?
  • Are we prepared to open our selves up to the power of the Light, to be transformed, and give ourselves over to a higher purpose?
  • How might we walk in that Light which transforms all our endeavors into acts of Love?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Spiritual Imperatives

We often hear about strict religions whose traditions forbid exploring other faiths and philosophies. But most of the world’s largest religions have a moderate branch which welcomes the study of other faith traditions. This includes all the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. They recognize certain universal tenets which do not threaten their dogma. Instead they echo and reinforce their most important teachings.

These maxims help us to live better and coexist more peacefully with each other. They are of equal importance and they are interrelated. But they are not laws. They are spiritual imperatives. What is the difference? A law is a rule which holds us accountable for our actions. A spiritual imperative is a calling to do better.

Be true.

Being true means being honest in word and deed. Speak what you believe to be the truth. When you give your word, do your best to live up to your promise.  Be clear about your intentions. Honor your commitments in all your relationships.

Part of being true is understanding what is false. We often accept as true things we cannot possibly confirm simply because we do not want our comfortable sense of things to be challenged. Trust and trustworthiness are two sides of being true. A reasonable skepticism can be healthy and protect us from deceit. But if we trust no one then skepticism turns into cynicism or worse paranoia. Then we cannot see truth when it is in right front of us. This causes a destructive loop in our consciousness. If we cannot recognize what is true, how can we be true ourselves?

Being accurate is not always the same as being truthful. Making an accurate statement can be misleading or cruel which is not being true. Neither is withholding the truth. To be true, we need to also understand how our worldview colors the truth we experience, and recognize that there may be truths beyond our understanding. Truth is at the heart of all spiritual imperatives. Without an awareness of truth we cannot act on any of the others.

Be kind.

It is sad that the number of ways one person can be cruel to another is probably as great as the number of grains of sand on a beach. Yet one of the beautiful balancing elements found in our universe is that for every way a person can be cruel there is an equal and opposite way we can be kind.

It is not enough to reject cruelty and violence. We must intentionally choose to be kind. We need to be aware of those around us in need. And we need to have an awareness of the impact that our words and actions have on others. Kindness is thoughtfulness.

To be thoughtful, first you have to care. Seeing someone in need must trigger a response. We are conditioned to protect ourselves from pain. Seeing someone else suffer can cause us to be afraid for our own physical and emotional safety. When we care, we overcome those fears. Life experience teaches us to recognize when it is worth it to risk being kind without expecting something in return. Each caring word or act teaches us that kindness is its own reward.

Be open.

Being true and being kind requires us to be open, to be willing to learn something. By being open to life’s experiences we welcome the chance to grow and change. When we close ourselves up, we set boundaries on the ways we interact with the world around us.

To be closed is to be afraid. And, fear is at the heart of every cruel response. Fear is an emotional defense against pain, risk, and uncertainty. To be open is to be brave. When we are open, we defy those forces beyond control and assert our own free will.

Being open means being teachable. The more we learn about the people and the world around us, the more we understand how to be true, how to be kind, how to choose joy. Suffering is a universal experience. My mother used to say that into every life a little rain must fall. But if we are open to it we can make a choice between drowning in our sorrows and being bathed by what we learn from them.

Be true. Be kind. Be open. These three spiritual imperatives are not new ideas. They have been a part of human understanding since time began. When we put all three together we are given an instruction manual for not just dealing with life as we find it, but for moving our lives in a positive direction.

Though each person finds their own way of living into them, we are all called to meet the challenges they suggest. And just when we think we have completely understood them we will find them teaching us something completely new and unexpected.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Syria: No Good Solutions

There are lots of reasons for and against the intervention in Syria that will most certainly happen sometime this week. Can the world stand by while one government kills its own people? Do we, the United States of America, have a responsibility to use any means necessary to stop what we consider to be a “moral obscenity” in Syria? If we take action in Syria then why aren’t we intervening in dozens of other violent conflagrations around the world?

More than one friend of mine sent out an email urging people to contact President Obama and our other elected officials to ask them not to bomb Syria. Thomas Boudreau shared this message which he sent to the White House: “Remember the U.S.S. Maine, which was probably sunk by Cuban nationals trying to get us to go to war with Spain; remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which the supposed second torpedo boat attack never happened, yet triggered the Vietnam war (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, 1983); remember the invasion of Iraq based on the pretext that it was developing weapons of mass destruction, which was simply false.  So, don’t be played, Mr. President.  The US can’t be the world’s policeman. Please don’t attack Syria…”

I have in the past I have personally sent impassioned communications to elected representatives and our President hoping to be counted for or against some government action. After the school shooting in Connecticut I emailed the White House through their website. It took seven months before they responded with a generic copy of their policy statement on gun control. Even if they are tallying the “pros and cons”, I suspect anything I send will fall on deaf ears. But here goes:

Dear Mr. President,

If you must attack Syria, please only do so if you can be sure that our weapons will only be used on military or munitions sites and that no loss of civilian lives will happen. Each life is precious whether it is civilian or military, and during civil conflicts those lines are usually blurred. Can you assure the world there will be no collateral damage: innocent casualties?

I wish I could ask you not to bomb anyone at all, but I fear that ship has already sailed and you and your administration have already made a decision. Despite the clarion cry for armed intervention over the last year, we know that we got here with the best of intentions. No one wanted to see this, or any other situation, escalate to such bloody ends. But the United States is not solely responsible for this. The international institutions we have in place now only fool us into thinking we are doing the best we can.

The idea that the United Nations can investigate whether a chemical attack has occurred but not who perpetrated it is tragically farcical. The UN Security Council has proven itself to be useless because of the Gordian knot created by its voting rules. When will we and the sovereign governments of the world finally come together to form an effective international police agency and world court that can investigate crimes against humanity objectively; and with a simple majority of the legally elected leaders of the world voting in favor, authorize the capture and trial of criminal despots?

That would mean that every country including our own needs to be accountable. Drone strikes are acts of war. When they are done with impunity without any transparency or accountability they are crimes against humanity. Each hit inflicts a trauma which sets off a chain of suffering. The missiles we launch against Syria will undoubtedly inspire the terrorist acts of the next generation. So goes the insidious and perpetually contagious infection of war.

You might say that the time to figure out how to prevent the acts of murderous tyrants is not in the middle of their acts of genocide. You would be right. We may never be able to prevent the madness that results in genocide. But we can try to stop the carnage once we recognize it. There are violent conflicts going on in many places around the world. So in the mean time, we can’t wait for peace in order to work on peace. There really is no time like the present.

You can still decide on a different course of action in Syria. But whatever you decide to do about Syria, please redouble your efforts to bring the world’s leaders together to build more effective international institutions to address violent conflicts on our planet.

In faith and service,
Dana Kester-McCabe
Sent via 8/28/2013

It would be interesting to know if White House staffers will count this letter as for or against intervention in the Syrian conflict. I am against bombing Syria but I am also against allowing Assad and his ilk to murder or brutalize anyone who opposes their rule. There probably isn’t one panacea to address such matters, but surely an impartial effective investigative agency on genocide and fuller recognition of the proceedings of the world court would be a start. The prospect of all this violence is sad enough. To have it happen as we are honoring the ideals of Martin Luther King and his seminal “I have dream” speech is such a shame.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spiritual But Not Religious

graphic of flowers
I have been a disciplined church goer all of my life, except during college and for the first few years of married life when I did not live near a congregation of my own faith. During that time I was like a lot of people – unchurched – spiritual but not religious. That is a popular expression these days. It is sometimes an excuse given by people who are actually apathetic about religion altogether but feel somehow that they will otherwise be perceived to be shallow or lazy. Like many other people, though I did not attend weekly services, I still had a yearning for something mystical in my life, so I read sacred texts from a variety of religions and “new age” literature.

I meditated. I studied. I wrote down my visions and dreams, and tried to interpret their meaning. It was a spiritually and intellectually fertile period. But I missed the faith traditions that I grew up in. I also had a concern for my children. My personal development was flourishing but I felt that the kids’ were being neglected. I wanted for them the same benefits I got from being raised in a church community: the friendship and wisdom of older friends, and a basic religious education that would serve as the foundation for their spiritual journeys. Though I tried to teach them, I knew that I wanted to expose them to a wider body of knowledge.

We tried the church of my in-laws for a while but when one of my own faith was formed a few towns away I started dragging the kids there every Sunday. So began my return to the weekly discipline of church and a deep and sometimes obsessive dedication to my church. At one point I even worked part time for its regional religious organization. I rose within its leadership structure and recently I even traveled to Africa for a conference of mycoreligionists from around the world.

My children have not remained members of my church. One is atheist and the other a self described pantheist likewise has no interest in joining any church. There wasn’t any thing traumatic in their religious upbringing, but world events and history have taught them to be skeptical even cynical about organized religion. This may also be in part due to a natural resentment of being forced to go every week and having to share their Mom’s time with the church. Their father has never expressed any interest in these things and rarely attended with us. Their religious education was nonetheless not a waste of time because it provided us with many conversations and life lessons about integrity, human rights, and compassion. Ultimately even though they will likely remain “unchurched” they are (in my very biased opinion) principled kind people who are a joy to be with.

There have been highs and lows and many lessons learned for me as well. I have, for better or worse, over indulged for years in the dramas and responsibilities of church life. My local congregation remains an extension of my family. I love them deeply and cherish what we give one to another: unconditional care and support.

Now it is time for a break of sorts. I am about to begin a period in my life when I am letting go of most of my church responsibilities and committee work. I like the discipline of weekly worship so it is unlikely I will give that up. But, I’d like to take some time to be more spiritual than religious again. I am looking forward to more reading, more meditation, more writing. I am excited not just about looking forward, but looking back, and then looking holistically at the things I have learned in the context of a vast and mysterious universe. I will try to think great thoughts and humbly seek the gift of wisdom that I might pass it on to others who might amplify it with their own experiences.