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Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Grateful Life

As my mother receives guests into her home and says goodbye to old friends, some deep questions poke to the surface of my conscious thought. What is this life that I so easily take for granted, this stretch of 80 years (if I’m lucky) from cradle to grave?

Just now the morning sun glows in the curtains, dappling the floor in a play of shadows and light. In five minutes it will be different – but that’s only because my attention chunks time into snapshots for measurement and comparison. Actually, each moment opens a unique touch-point on reality, where the fluttering pattern of light and shade is continuous with yet utterly different from what it was just a moment before.morning

How wide is a moment of time? Just a flash, a dissolving threshold? Am I not always in it – however wide or impossibly narrow it may be?

This, right now, is the present because at this very moment reality presents itself to my awareness. As present, it is a gift that I can open or set aside for later.

But if I should set it aside – out of intentional avoidance, preoccupation, laziness or on the promise that I’ll get back to it, it’s no longer there when I do.

The past isn’t where the present goes. It’s only how I remember or try to recall what happened, a fixed snapshot in my album.

I also spend a lot of time looking ahead, into the future, which is not the present coming to me but merely my mind again, chasing out the trendlines, flopping assumptions from over my shoulder and onto the path ahead.

So whether I’m reaching back to recover the past or looking forward to predict the future, I’m doing all of it in the present. This won’t be here again. Yesterday I was hoping for something else, and tomorrow I’ll be wishing I could have it back.

How many presents go unopened?

What if the sun comes up tomorrow morning and plays in the curtains again – but I’m no longer here to witness it? It won’t be chunked and framed, and it won’t be around for me to remember later. What if I’m not around tomorrow? What if this day is my last? What if this moment is the final present I have a chance to open?

Truthfully we can never know, can we? And that realization will either drive you insane with anxiety or call you to present-minded wonder and appreciation. If all there is is right now, then right here is where we need to start digging. Or maybe that’s already too willful and aggressive. Close your eyes and just relax into being.

The opening of reality to me in this moment coincides with the opening of my attention to the present mystery – or perhaps they are really the same. This moment is for me in the sense that the mystery presenting itself is made present as I give my attention to it.

But what am I supposed to do with it – this precious gift of time? I can’t simply gush all over it with sentimental acknowledgment of its fleeting character, grabbing up as much as I can before it slips through my fingers. Life can’t be lived perpetually in a stoned haze, gazing in stupefied amazement as it vanishes in wispy rings above our heads.

Maybe it’s the “harsh realities” of daily life – all the deadlines, appointments, and concerns – that push me to an opposite stance, where I’m perfectly willing to squander the moment in distraction or worry.

This could be what’s behind the worldwide tendency in religion to postpone what really matters to a later time, a distant paradise, on the other side. While the soul longs for authentic life now, mystical communion here, and deep peace in this moment, my ego-in-charge is too busy trying to hold its own and make progress against the steady drain of time. Having the assurance that I’m all set for life everlasting excuses me from fully investing in life here and now.

What if this is all I have, my only “at bat,” my exclusive opportunity to open up to the Real Presence of mystery. Do you pity me?

Please (and respectfully) save it for someone else.

Today I will begin receiving guests into my life and saying goodbye to old friends, knowing that this may be our last or only chance to touch the divinity in each other.

Tomorrow morning, if I am offered a gift of the sun dancing in curtains, I will notice, open the present, and give thanks.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

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This Hour of Passing

We just received word this past weekend that my mother is dying. Pancreatic stage 4 cancer has metastasized and migrated throughout her body and into her brain. A healthy 79-year-old now likely has just weeks to live.

My mother is a woman of deep faith, and although I may not articulate mine the same as hers, there’s no doubt that we both desire a life in communion with the gracious mystery at the heart of all things. That faith has helped her rely on grace – and hope and love and joy and strength – through ordeals and tragic losses along the way.

We lost my brother 27 years ago in a drowning accident. He had entered a triathlon on the very morning of his graduate school commencement, but never came out of the water. That loss, which is something I cannot even imagine, dealt a devastating blow to my mother. So deep and cellular was her grief that she found it difficult to process or understand it.

Such a faith as can lift us up when we’re down, or, more importantly, keep us quietly in the present moment when life falls away from us, is not something any religion can define or broker. The salvation it brings is hardly ever an escape from the pain, emptiness, or confusion we feel. It rises up from beneath us and seeps into us, in the wordless assurance that we are not alone.

I’m not sure yet what it’s like to lose my mother, but I know it won’t be long before I’m on the other side looking back.

There’s something archetypal about this One, whose body was my first home, the origin of this mystery I would gradually come to know and possess as “I-myself.” Her heartbeat was the first sound of the universe in my ears. She is the doorway that connects me to a genetic past going back countless generations and across perhaps numerous species of life. It’s a connection I don’t understand, but when I feel it, I know that this, too, is faith.

As I’ve talked with her on the phone these past several days, my mother sounds very calm and centered. She talks about the complicated things happening to her – the pokes and probes and scans of her body. She also confesses her gratitude for the life she’s been given, and for the gift even now, in this uncertain moment, being opened to her. She is thankful for the love and support, over the long years but especially now at this jumping-off point on the edge of her life.

This life is a witness. She embodies a grounded and authentic life that I want to celebrate, even now as I grieve and prepare for her body’s absence. She calls me to attention, beckons to me from that deep place at the center of my existence, where the pulse of life begins … and will one day be released again.

Thank you, Mother. Thank you for helping me into this life, for carrying me through as far as you could, and for your guidance along the way. You may be too humble to hear and accept this, but you are the grace of God to me – present, compassionate, patient, devoted, fun-loving, thoughtful and searching.

Thank you for finding me … again and again – in this passing hour, and now in your hour of passing.

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2014 in Timely and Random

 

Myth and the Matrix of Meaning

Homo mythicus – I know it’s not a word, but perhaps it should be. Human beings are myth-makers.

We create meaning by telling stories. Personal anecdotes and nursery rhymes, factual reports and fairy tales, thin excuses and passionate confessions, epic histories and heroic adventures, religious creeds and scientific theories – these are just a few of the types of stories we tell. Identity itself (ego), that prize and protected treasure of contemporary individualism, is constructed out of countless storylines.

The meaning of life is what we make of it. Your personal myth is based on some very early stories your family told you, stories that carry assumptions about the way things are, where you belong, and what’s important in life. Such core beliefs are sown into the very fabric of your sense of self. You no longer question them – if you ever did – simply because they condition and qualify your grasp on reality at the subconscious level.

Matrix_1But our stories don’t simply arise spontaneously out of the creative imagination. It’s not like we got bored one day ten thousand years ago and decided to pass time spinning yarns by the campfire.

In other words, humans don’t tell stories because we have nothing else to do. Stories are how we orient ourselves in the world, and are what our worlds are made of. They carry the rhythms of our bodies and brains into the rhymes and reasons that make life meaningful.

In this blog post I want to offer up the idea that meaning itself is constructed upon a matrix of primary human concerns. If our stories are to mean something, they must take into account and work out an interpretation of life with respect to these primary concerns – and just these four.

Security. Human newborns are defenseless, vulnerable and dependent. One way that evolution accommodated our species was to get us delivered “prematurely” and prolong our development over the course of twenty years or so. During this time the operating system and local applications of our culture get downloaded into our brains. In varying degrees depending on our circumstances and early parenting, each of us emerges from childhood with a sense of security – that there is enough of what we need to live and grow.

Suffering. It’s also a fact of our existence that we don’t always get what we need to live and grow. Reality is not perfectly safe, and no security arrangement in life is permanent. This was the Buddha’s insight: Life is suffering. In the end you will lose your life, and you will lose much else along the way. Hanging on and gripping down only sets you up for anxiety, frustration and disappointment – in a word, for more suffering. The reality of suffering – chronic pain, sudden loss, heartbreak and loneliness – is something we cannot escape, though we do our best to medicate, minimize or distract ourselves from it.

Freedom. Another primary concern of humans is a function of our ability to take control (to a limited extent) of our bodies and the natural environment. The acquisition of skills and invention of various technologies has opened the scope of our freedom at an accelerating pace over the millenniums. Mastery at one level creates opportunities higher up – such is the calculus of human progress. Dependency at an early age gives way to autonomy as we grow up, taking more of life into our own control and putting more options at our disposal. A meaningful life is one you must choose – now more than ever before.

Fate. But there are limits, and every choice has its consequences. Whereas much about our world is made up and open to revision, the reality of life places constraints around our talents, strengths and possibilities. Genetic temperament deals us the cards and personal character plays them out, over time reducing the different combinations and alternate endings we might choose. And then there’s the fact that no one gets out of here alive. Probably much more than we know or can admit, the denial, avoidance and postponement of death drives much of what we do.

As the above diagram suggests, these four primary human concerns stand in relationships of paradox and tension. Specifically, security and suffering are really the polar opposites of a shared continuum, while freedom and fate are similarly related. None of the concerns can be properly understood and appreciated in any absolute sense. At this very moment, as you compose your personal myth of meaning, you are somewhere between security and suffering, freedom and fate. The patterns you weave are anchored on these four primary human concerns.

Matrix_2The matrix of meaning also includes what I’ll call four universal motifs, which show up everywhere in the stories we tell. A motif is a narrative theme; we might think of them as the major storylines that we weave together into our worlds. They also stand as pairs in creative tension.

Play. The meaning of your life is produced out of wonder, spontaneity, imagination and make-believe. Reality, very simply, is; but a world is something you put on – as in “putting on” a play. When you were a young child, role-play and pretending, dress-up and games were how you began to experiment with meaning-making. And of course, the costumes and toys you played with were also “propaganda devices” in your early socialization, by means of which gender instruction and class values were installed in your psyche.

Work. Eventually you needed to learn the importance of effort, determination and sacrifice in pursuit of certain outcomes and extrinsic rewards. This second motif shares the continuum with play, allowing for the possibility that your work might also be something in which you find creative enjoyment. It isn’t always the case, however. For many of us, work is simply what’s required to pay the utilities and put food on the table. Perhaps the most obvious difference between work and play is that play without purpose is infinitely entertaining, while work without purpose is one of the deepest hells we can know.

Love. Sex, intimacy, companionship and care – what would life be without these vibrant frequencies of human connection? Your earliest experience of love was likely in a nursing embrace, which may be why we have a difficult time distinguishing between feeling loved and feeling full, and why some of us eat when we’re lonely or feel unloved. The relative position of this motif to freedom and suffering in the matrix confirms what we eventually find out on our own: While love requires freedom, it moves us into attachments that eventually bring suffering.

War. You won’t find a culture anywhere on earth that doesn’t tell stories of adversarial relationships, interpersonal conflict, tribal conquest and political revolution. “Love and War” are certainly two motifs that play well together in the movies, probably with roots in our animal prehistory when males fought for sexual access to females. (What prehistory? you will ask.) As long as the primary concern of security is wrapped up in territory, resources and possessions, the borderland menace of invaders and thieves will keep the war motif strong in our minds. There’s also something about adversity that, as we say, builds character.

Matrix_3That’s the matrix of meaning: Four primary human concerns and four perennial narrative motifs are the “stuff” of which all stories are made. As the temperament, life circumstances, and developmental career of each person is unique, the pattern of meaning that we can call one’s personal myth (along with its corresponding world) will be individualized to that extent.

The matrix reminds us that our stories and the meaning we construct out of them are serious business. They are not supposed to distract us from the responsibility of making our lives count for something, and they shouldn’t divert our thoughtful reflection away from the challenges we face. The stories we tell at the individual, interpersonal, tribal and cultural levels will be meaningful in the degree that they assist us in spinning webs we can live in, webs that connect us in relevant ways to each other and to our home planet.

Above all else, our stories, worlds, and webs of meaning need to lift us out and provide a way back into the present mystery of reality.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Unconditional Forgiveness and the Bankruptcy of Retribution

Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.

In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.

During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.

By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.

Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.

The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).

Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.

But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.

Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.

broken chain

Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?

Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.

What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.

Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.

Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.

Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.

If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.

To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.

 
 

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Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World

In my defense of a new humanism, I made the case that Western consciousness shifted into a post-theistic morality with the radical teachings of Jesus. Where the motivation to do what is right had been conditioned by a powerful external incentive – approval, inclusion, divine favor and final salvation (or the opposite if you break the rules) – Jesus opened a new way.open_prison_door

The incumbent deity (Yahweh) had come out of a mythological background of a small near-eastern tribal confederation of nomadic invaders who managed the conquest of agricultural settlements in the land of Canaan. As a warrior god, Yahweh possessed little tolerance for diplomacy and compromise. But to his credit, over time he did start to soften up a bit, balancing wrath with mercy, vengeance with compassion, retribution with forgiveness.

Yahweh’s war box (the ark of the covenant), which had been carried at the front lines of Israel’s army, giving them a supernatural advantage over the indigenous farmers they massacred, was already lost in the misty hinterland of folklore and legend by Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s accent on purity and obedience was still strong, and it resounded in the religion that remembered and worshiped him.

Let’s be clear: Yahweh was capable of forgiveness. As long as certain steps were taken – that is to say, insofar as particular conditions were met and satisfied by the repentant sinner – Yahweh could be persuaded to let the poor soul back into his good graces. There was a limit to this generosity on Yahweh’s part, of course, and repentance needed to happen first. God is no sucker.

Already 600 years or so before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had fantasized a day when god would simply drop the charges against humanity and enter a new relationship with his people. The knowledge of his will would transcend instruction and be grasped intuitively, written on their hearts. Fortunately for Jeremiah, he didn’t put a date on this future New World.

What would inspire someone, even god, to just “let go” (forgive) and rip up the rap sheet on sinners? What purpose could this serve? Why violate the Rule that had set the rules in the first place? Isn’t that tantamount to throwing out everything – responsibility, accountability, decency and fairness – upon which the moral order depends? So it seemed. And so Jeremiah’s little nightmare about unconditional forgiveness and the beginning of a New Age was rolled up, tucked away, and forgotten.

But the seed was planted. Once an “impossible” virtue like compassion for outsiders, charity for strangers, or mercy for those who just might be getting what they deserve – once the virtue is projected into the collective consciousness, it is just like a seed. It may sit there, covered by dirt and “forgotten” under the urgencies and concerns of daily life for many, many years. Decades or even centuries. But there it is nonetheless, waiting for the conditions to be right.

In Jesus’ time, the conditions were right. But just as important as a generally favorable milieu is the individual who is sufficiently inspired, courageous, and “morally reckless” to announce the moment of awakening and risk everything for its actualization.

16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

As Luke tells the story, Jesus made the announcement as part of a sabbath sermon. In that day, a member of the synagogue might walk up to the front of the room, be handed a scroll of scripture, read the passage and offer an interpretation. In this case, Jesus opened up the prophecy today known as Third Isaiah, likely written just after the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon (post 538 BCE).

The “year of the Lord’s favor” was another mythic reference, going “back” to the ancestral past when the people of Israel celebrated a Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years – after seven cycles of seven years – all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and lost property was returned to its original and rightful owners.

Jubilee was an archetype of the New Beginning, the clean slate, a fresh chance to start again. It’s what the human spirit longs for. But it never made the transition from mythic event to actual occasion. For practical considerations alone, no society could survive such a radical shake-up of its economy as Jubilee represented. It was what we call an ideal.

In Isaiah’s original, the last phrase read by Jesus is actually part of a couplet that finishes with “and the day of vengeance of our god.” Isaiah’s fantasy, then, was of a time when Yahweh’s favor on his people would be realized and his judgment meted out on their enemies at last. There was still hell to pay.

We need to imagine the force of shock that must have seized the congregation when Jesus, after leading his audience along the lyrical rhythm of this well-known and much-loved passage, suddenly stopped short of full circle, rolled up the scroll, and sat down. In their minds that last line was screaming for validation, but Jesus denied it permission.

What he did next was even more scandalous. He looked up at the congregation and declared, “This vision is being fulfilled today, right here and right now.” Today is Jubilee. All debts are forgiven, the prison doors have been thrown open and everyone is free. A new age has begun and a new order is in effect starting today.

In his evangelistic campaign across Galilee, Jesus called this new age and new order the “kingdom of god.” It’s coming up out of the dirt, he said. It shows up around the corner, in the messiness of life, from the least likely of places.

Not long afterwards, when Christian orthodoxy did a make-over on Jesus and turned him into god, this radical challenge to conventional morality would be neutralized. Of course! Who else but Jesus – very god in the flesh – could manage such a feat? For the sake of our salvation he interceded for us, securing god’s favor and saving us from his wrath. By dying in our place, paying the penalty for our transgressions, and taking upon himself god’s judgment against sin, Jesus is our salvation.

The old game is still in effect, however. If you refuse to “believe in Jesus as your personal lord and savior,” your destination in the afterlife won’t be pleasant. At all. Jesus managed to turn god towards you; now you must turn to god by accepting Jesus as your savior. For those who don’t, “the day of vengeance of our god” awaits. Whew! Nothing’s really changed.

As Matthew tells the story, the disciple Peter approached Jesus one day with a question. “According to the rules, god expects me to forgive my enemy three times” (a number that represents perfection). “What do you think? Should I forgive my enemy as many as seven times?”

Perhaps in his desire to impress Jesus with his above-and-beyond righteousness (doubling the old rule and adding one more for effect), Peter was looking for that surprised admiration that any student craves from the teacher. See him standing there, puffed up and plucking proudly at his suspenders.

Jesus replied: “Why are you counting? Forgiveness is not a response to an acceptable repentance. It must come first and never keep a tab. Let go of your anger and your hurt will heal. Extinguish the insatiable flame of vengeance and you will be free. It’s time for you to be strong and take the initiative: Stop tracking offenses and don’t wait for your enemies to repent. Let go, open up with love, and just see what happens.”

If your god keeps a record of sins, hates his enemies, and can’t wait to make them suffer – or perhaps is bound by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners and unbelievers – then it’s time to leave that god behind and step into a brave new world.

There, the seed is planted … again.

 
 

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