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: “, 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.