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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Good Old Days

We can't return we can only look / Behind from where we came 
~ Joni Mitchell,  The Circle Game

The past is not dead. It's not even past.
~ William Faulkner


What is so alluring about the past?  Ask anyone, better yet ask yourself what have you been thinking about lately and more than likely the reply will be something about the past.  The question itself is even oriented toward the past. My guess is that even putting the question as "what are you thinking now" would not change the response very much.  

There is something comfortable about the past, regardless of whether our memory of it is good or bad. Perhaps because it is so familiar, or maybe because we can make it what we want it to be by re-framing our thoughts about it.  We can take an unpleasant event and turn it positive, or a tragic event and make ourselves the victim or the hero. Or we can turn a rather benign event in to a tragedy. The reality is most of the stuff we remember probably never actually happened the way we remember it anyway.  The past literally is all in our minds, and sometimes all that is in our minds.  Most of the time the "good old days" are not nearly as good as we remember them to be. Our memories are but persistent illusions.

What would happen and how would our lives change if we shifted our persistent illusions of the past into persistent (or at least occasional) awareness of the present or persistent dreams of the future?  If it's all in our minds, then why not change what is in our minds?  Why not make the present and future what we want it to be?

Take the Bible for example.  Most of the stories in the Bible are forward looking dynamic stories.  They are stories of following visions and dreams, of experiencing liberation, of inhabiting new lands, of God's Presence (kingdom) among us here and now.  Oddly enough these same stories are filled with imperatives to "remember" them. The power of biblical memory is not to revel in or repeat the past, or worship past people and events, but rather to realize that the same visions and dreams, liberation, new lands, and Presence in these stories are ours as well - today and tomorrow. 

In the end, Faulkner and Mitchell are both correct. We can't escape the past, nor can we return to it.  However, we can in our minds create todays and tomorrows that when they are "old" really will be "good."  What we think really does matter!

...be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
~ The Apostle Paul, Romans 12:2
    

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Ponderings

Millions of people will have ashes, in the sign of a cross, placed on their foreheads today.  Ash Wednesday is really the only time Christians intentionally, physically, and publicly display a symbol of faith on our bodies. One thing to consider about this ritual is the placement of the ashes. It is not just anywhere, but on the most prominent place on our bodies - the forehead.  It's out there for anybody and everybody to see.  I have two ponderings about this placement.

First, its placement is similar to the bindi and tilaka of the Hindu and other eastern religions. These small red dots and lines are also worn on the forehead, partly as symbols of the the sixth chakra , also know as the "third eye." It doesn't take much to imagine the ash cross as an eye or window of mortality through which we are invited to see the world and ourselves during Lent. The cross reminds us that everything and everybody around us is impermanent.

What's more interesting to me in the placement of the ash cross is that it can only be seen by others. Without a mirror or other reflection, it is impossible to see our own ash cross. This puts one in the precarious position of forgetting it is there.  There are countless tales of Ash Wednesday Christians acting like jerks only to be reminded of the cross on their foreheads.  This reminds me of the story of the driver who cursed and made obscene gestures to the person "honking" behind them, only remembering too late their bumper sticker that said, "Honk if you love Jesus."

And, this prompts what I think to be the central questions of Ash Wednesday and Lent - How is one's faith (any faith not just Christianity) lived and projected sans ritual, symbol, and institution? Are we known "by our love" as the old song says, echoing Jesus' own words?   What remains when the ash cross has faded away?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Allowing

"There is no need to hurry when you don't know where you're going."
~ C. Dudley Brown

Dudley Brown is an elderly friend who has spent the past several days in the hospital waiting for admission to a rehabilitation facility. Each day I would check in with him only to find out that he still waited in "medical limbo." A couple of times he was told "today is the day" but to no avail. At the beginning of the process when I asked him how he was doing he would express aggravation and frustration. Yesterday, there was a peaceful, complacent tone in his voice as he said, "There is no need to hurry when you don't know where you're going." I immediately said, "Dudley, can I quote you on that?"  He said, "Of course you can.  I just made it up!"

"Just made up" or not, there is much wisdom in this simple statement, wisdom that cuts across so many areas of our lives.  Unfortunately we have a tendency to see it in retrospect. For example, how many times in your life has urgency turned into "hurry up and wait?" When was the last time you worried about something that never happened?  What about something you feared that ended up being harmless? How much energy do we spend unnecessarily trying to force-feed our lives?

How much more peaceful would our lives be if we could stop urgency, worry and fear in their tracks by relaxing and allowing life to unfold? Allowing is a process taught in some Eastern traditions as "letting go of results." Allowing our lives doesn't mean we're to sit back and let anything happen. We still come to the table with desires, intentions, and visions, but we don't try to force the outcome. We allow the results to come to us. One may even make the leap and say that allowing the results means we really never know where we are going. The secret is to trust that our destination will be where we belong.

By the way, after a week of waiting, last night Dudley was assigned to a rehabilitation facility, one that has previously "fallen through" but "came through" in its own time. Could it be that he finally allowed it to happen?

"Slow down you move too fast. You've got to make the morning last."
~ Paul Simon
  


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Spiritual Bike Shed

C. Northcote Parkinson's Law of Triviality, also known as the "bike shed theory" is not only a common dynamic in our institutional and organizational lives.  It is also alive and well in our spiritual lives.

The bike shed theory basically says we have a penchant for becoming consumed by trivial matters while more important ones go unattended.  I think Jesus may have had this human tendency in mind when, in reference to judging one another, he asked, "How can you say to your neighbor 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye?" (Matt. 7:4)  This may also be what is behind the old question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" which was originally a medieval criticism against over rationalizing faith.  More recent proverbs along these lines are, "Don't loose sight of the forest for the trees." or "Don't let the perfect get in the way of the possible."

However we say it, the truth is we often ignore what's really important in our lives by paying too much attention to minor details and ignoring the bigger picture.  Sometimes in our religious and spiritual traditions, we get so caught up in "doing it right" or proving someone else is "doing it wrong" that we forget common veins flowing with desire, wisdom, compassion, justice, and love that connect all of us.  Too often the wider good is sacrificed for individual satisfaction.

Just as no one person can build a huge skyscraper, the fullness of the Eternal Mystery we call "God" cannot be captured, contained, explained, or experienced in one tradition or religion. Yet we have all built and continue to build spiritual bike sheds on which we continually expend energy about their shape, size, and color, all the while oblivious to God footloose and fancy free among us.