Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 31, 2018 - What is Church Now?

It may come as a surprise to you but I don’t really like going to church. Of course I very much enjoy my own church community at First Parish and I enjoy the services. But if I didn’t have anywhere to be on a Sunday morning, church is not how I’d fill my time.
I suspect the majority of us feel that way nowadays. Our generations still remember being compelled to attend and many of us would now rather not. For us “church” can be a concept of boredom, judgement, and oftentimes hostility from other members of a congregation who do not practice what they preach.
I’ve heard recent stories of churches kicking out members because of living with a boyfriend, or having to stand before the entire congregation to confess sins like adultery or other crimes. Is this mercy? This is not what was taught. This is conformity by shame. Not growth by grace. These punishments are antithetical to the concept of church.
Of course not all churches are like that. Thankfully, my own included. But these are the churches which give Christianity and other faiths a bad name. Their public misuse of scripture prevents those who might need a spiritual community from ever seeking one.
And what of congregations with no awareness of or connection to their surrounding community? These churches are rather fortresses meant to keep the outside world right where it is. They are afraid of the world and hide; pointing judgemental fingers instead of serving humanity. They are missing out. Pray for them.
So what is church supposed to be? Two things. The first is freedom. But more on that in a moment. The second answer to the question ‘what is church?’ is: Wherever you have transcendent experience as part of a gathering. Of course some would say that their “church” is a walk in the woods. But that is not what the word church actually refers to. Church comes from the Greek ekklesia which is a reference to a gathering of people for sacred purposes. A church is people. A solitary walk in the woods is meditation. There is a difference. Each has particular value which is enhanced by the presence of the other.
Regarding freedom, spiritual expression is unique and fluid. Our personal beliefs and feelings evolve over the course of our lifetime. Moses was warned not to make false idols, but what I suspect is that he was being cautioned against concretizing God. He was being advised against making God into a fixed thing, incapable of evolving and growing alongside humanity. The moment an image of God is carved by a sculptor into a form, the image is already obsolete. But the artist will never know it. For they will be transfixed by the beauty of what has now been made permanent. Safe. Unchanging. Understood. However, that is counter to the freedom we require in order to evolve.
We more easily understand things which do not change. We would prefer God be the same so we can just have a rulebook for everyone and be done with it. But that is not the nature of anything in our world. Nothing doesn’t change. Adopting a static version of human spirituality does no justice to the complexity and awesomeness of the Universe. Therefore, the best version of “church” is freedom. Freedom within it. Freedom to explore and evolve. Together.
Sociologists understand that humans are a communal species. We operate as a group almost exclusively. Wonder why that is. Does your faith tell you there is a power in numbers? Be curious about what that fact implies about how best to tackle virtually any problem or make any discovery. Seek community. Even solitary people exist because of the work of others. Else a child could be born in a field to immediately fend for itself and the mother could simply walk away. We need other people from the moment we are conceived and it never ends. Lean into it.
Spiritual community is an expression of our natural desire to gather with our questions. Through it we achieve a sense of belonging and family. These, above all, are the best platform for true exploration of the world and All which has made it.
I may still from time to time enjoy sleeping in on a Sunday without a single whiff of regret. But I know that I have a community waiting for me when I return. And that sense of safety and belonging gives me the strength to go forth and thrive.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 24, 2018 - Thanks for the Best of All Possible Things

Quantum mechanics teaches us that all possibilities are still available until one is chosen. In my frequent case, that means every time I lose my wallet, it is literally everywhere until I lay my eyes on it. Until something creates a decision about where my wallet is located, all probabilities, from leaving it on the roof of my car to tucked safely behind the cushion of my couch, are still possible.
Is it logical? Decidedly no. But any time spent with quantum theory is a bit of an adversary to logic. It even made Einstein scratch his head.
I actually use this way of thinking when I lose my keys or wallet. I picture them safe. I remain calm. I assume eventually I will discover them. I can say to date that despite losing them virtually every other day I have never, knock on wood, had to replace a single card or key.
I won’t declare for sure that it’s my way of thinking which has kept my keys and wallet safe until I manage to locate them. Even though quantum physics would. I can say, however, that my way of thinking keeps me calm while I’m looking. Does that matter? Considering the amount of my life I spend looking for things I’ve misplaced, freaking out while doing so would add up to a lot of cortisol and adrenaline from stress I don’t need poisoning my body as I age.
Every time we are under stress our bodies produce stress hormones. Those chemicals may be good when needed to save our lives or react quickly. But most of us don’t realize we keep up a steady drip of them through the way we choose to think about how life works. Our stressful lifestyles literally acidify our bodies over time. Spend every minute you can remaining calm.
I don’t have control over how the world works or where my wallet is when I can’t find it. I only have control over how I feel about it. I can ask my faith these questions also. My faith says all shall be well. Be chill. Be here now. Visualize the safety of the wallet. Visualize the peace of the world. Make a faith assumption that the best of all possible things always happens.
If every scenario is possible until one is chosen, as illogical as that may sound, logic dictates that the most thought directed toward a particular outcome increases its likelihood of occurring. ‘When two or more gather in my name,’ as the scripture tells us. Gather your thoughts.
One might feel that they already know which the best of all possible outcomes would be for them. They would often be wrong.
We usually don’t know what’s best for us. Mostly because we simply do not know all the possibilities available. We can’t see the labyrinth from above. The potential pathways of our day are not laid out before us to choose as we are getting dressed in the morning. Thus, we can’t know which is best because we aren’t aware of them all. And even if we were, the best one might look like the worst on the surface, while underneath holding the potential to launch us into the happiest times of our life.
I can think of many instances where something seemingly terrible, which I would have never chosen for myself, was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. What if it hadn’t? What if I could have, by knowing of its possibility in advance, chosen to let the cup pass me by? What might I have missed out on? Instead of choosing what I think is best for me, I simply give thanks for the best of all possible things. I let my mind fall on that still-faceless option and feel gratitude for it.
It’s like imagining a room full of statues each covered in veils. One of them will make me the happiest to have in my garden. But I can’t look at them all before choosing. I can only uncover one. I can’t decide based on the superficial. My eyes will deceive me. I have to let my soul’s intent make one of them glow. I have to give permission for a part of me far deeper than my fallible eyes to make the connection with the best of all possible things.
That’s exactly what I pray for. Not the thing I may think would be the best or the easiest. Or looks the prettiest on the surface. But the thing which would best propel me forward in the direction of my soul’s deepest intent. That is the key to my overall happiness. That's what keeps us on the path. That is the thing to pray in gratitude when I am at my most joyful and when I am in despair, thank you for the best of all possible things. Even when it’s just my lost wallet.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 17, 2018 - Check Your Religion

Let’s assume for a moment, as many theologians have, that everyone puts their faith in something. It isn’t necessarily a traditional religious doctrine or creed. It can be a faith in money or prestige. Or video gaming. It can be in humanity. It can be in a traditional or non-traditional version of God. Or in science. Everyone maintains their own personal faith system; an organized thought around which we orient our lives. Or perhaps not so organized.
The struggles we each personally face are due, in part, to how well we organize our thinking about that in which we place our faith. In other words, we often don’t spend enough, or any time thinking about what we think. That ship is often rudderless.
For this conversation let’s define “faith” as a thing or idea to which we turn when we don’t understand our world. “Religion” is the accumulating set of understood truths resulting from those questions over time. We develop a personal dogma and doctrine as we mature. What are yours? For better or worse, these are your religion.
You may find that an inherent distrust of humanity is your rulebook. Your dogma is that all people betray. Your doctrine is: Never trust. This is the religion of life from which you operate on a day to day basis. Your creed is to believe that we are islands.
Or perhaps your faith is that all people are inherently good, but damaged. Your dogma is that we are each of us special and valuable, yet prone to failure. Your doctrine is trust but verify. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Your creed is that we are light beings clothed in a dark humanity.
Maybe we all become dust again without a spark of consciousness remaining. How does this affect your worldview? Some believe that free will does not exist. I would argue that the fact we can argue about it at all proves it does. But when a lack of free will is a tenet of your personal faith system, what is your relationship to the choices you make? That is your religion.
Decide what you think. Be radically curious about yourself. We are like an ocean to ourselves. Deep and largely unknowable. A literal Disney World of facts and truths impossible to visit all in one trip. Enjoy being curious about how your mind works. It will be a lifelong task.
Questions that help us to understand our faith are varied. I often ask someone what they think happens when we die. Oddly, where our lives end is often the starting point for the discussion on how we begin to live. Another is: What or whom to do you trust completely and without reservation? This is your higher power. Is the answer different than you imagined?
For those with a comfortable relationship with organized religion and enjoy traditional religious beliefs and rituals, dig deep. Look to your rule books. Every sacred book finds ways to contradict itself. Why would this be so if not on purpose? If these books are authored, or at least edited by God, as the traditions suggest, every contradiction, every unfollowable rule, every theological disagreement and misinterpreted bit of history is there on purpose. Look to the texts. Be curious about your interpretations. Ask yourself: Is this loving?
Look at the rules you successfully follow and wonder why. Look at the rules you wish you could follow but can’t, or won’t. And most importantly look to the rules you know in your heart are wrong. Rules about slavery or women and children we would never in modern civilized society authorize. Every Christian disagrees with some part of the Bible. Wonder why. Wonder what the line in the sand we draw implies about how we pick and choose from among them. Wonder why for some it is important for man not to lie as with woman, yet unimportant to treat the foreign born as if natural? Both are rules from Leviticus. What line in the sand exists between them making one rule important and the other not?
This is why the contradictions exist. So that you must think and grow for yourselves. Muscle test the rules as you go. See which ones feel right and wonder why they do. Is the rule a good idea because you fear the alternative, or love the idea?
The one seemingly unalterable concept which all traditional religions profess is: Love exists at the center of all things. That’s the best lens through which to check those. Likewise, other faiths, money and prestige included, seek a version of the same. A sense of belonging and control over a world which perplexes us.
GnĊthi seauton is an ancient Greek aphorism which means know thyself. The advice becomes: Let yourself be not Greek to you.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 10, 2018 - Finding Satisfaction in the Good Fight

Political-correctness fatigue is real. Let’s just accept that. It’s not a judgement on the need to be correct with our words. We simply must be.
But for a moment, recognize the enormous seismic shift that effort is making and wonder about why we have chosen to make it. Forget how much thinking it requires, reaching for the newest right word or term to use. Forget the literal anxiety it makes us feel worrying that we aren’t being sensitive enough. That we’ll be embarrassed. Called out for our racism we didn’t know we had. Our sexism we didn’t realize was embedded in our culture so deeply we all gave it permission to continue. Until we didn’t.
It’s an exhaustive learning curve and many feel left behind, even victimized by it. They don’t understand. Not all people do. Forgive them anyway. Frustration breeds anger. Anger is what we are seeing.
Anger has forgotten the reason for the effort in the first place. It’s understandable. It’s human. It’s part of it all. Investigate Julian of Norwich.
Letting all that go for the time being, pay attention instead to what we are trying to do. We are shifting our entire center of dialogue away from disunity. The insistent tone worldwide is nudging us toward more inclusive language because it has perceived that direction to be the surest path toward saving us all. It is instinctive. And wired more deeply than even our DNA.
Most of the words we are struggling to release from modern use are words that divide. They are words which accomplish and maintain division. There is a reason power structures use them. Divide and conquer. The power-panic we now see in them are the futile attempts of their once-highly effective tactics now failing.
There was not some single moment when a person sat down and decided to begin the political correctness movement. Like most of our modern innovations, it erupted from multiple points around the globe near-simultaneously. It moves at the speed of something which already knows it’s won simply because it began.
We forget that this is an effort. It’s difficult. As most things with greater purpose are. This span of generations in which all those alive now exist are the ones doing the heavy lifting of this permanent change in our civilization. Getting the tattoo is the most painful part.
It’s easier to remain calm when you know both what and why you are doing something. We like to be included in the decision-making process. We expect transparency and a solid rationale. But we didn’t all attend the meeting. We didn’t all vote. Many didn’t get the memo. Some were blindsided. They resist change for the sake of it. It frightens them. Pray for them.
Even for those who know and understand, it’s a deep strain. We know university will be hard when we decide to attend. We temporarily forget the meaning of the word ‘hard’ as we apply, beg and pray for admittance. We remember quickly enough. But we deliberately endure the gauntlet because we know both what and why.
Know why you are taking the time to be inclusive with your words. Know that you are doing it on purpose. Be strategic. Make it easier on yourself by practicing. By asking. Teach others what you know. Correct others lovingly! Make it happen faster by leaning into it with compassion and determination.
There is no shame in what we are attempting. There is only courage and fatigue. Fear of failure is understandable but phantom. The race has already been won. And there is only one race. It’s human.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, March 3, 2018 - Our Self-Improving World

     I have always held an instinctive belief that all shall be well. In both the planetary and human sense. It’s the source of my somewhat expansive optimism. As a kid I first heard people talking about “the end of the world.” While I don’t remember the circumstances, I know it struck me deeply. I right away had a very particular view and opinion of what it really meant.
    I don’t know if it was because I feared death as a child (I did) or because optimism was already a fixed part of my identity, but I immediately interpreted the so-called destruction of civilization, as a metaphor. Not a literal death, but a change.
It was long before 80s TV films like “The Day After” depicting the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Nor the dozens of apocalypse films that have increasingly surfaced afterward as the new millennia approached and the year 2012 loomed. Do an Internet search on “end of the world movies.” It doesn’t take a sociologist to see that we have been increasingly concerned about it. Real world subjects like the Mayan calendar, Nostradamus, and Biblical prophecies have all made us skittish.
It’s infected the culture at large. Witness the tremendous shift in the grab for resources. The closing of borders. The enhanced struggle for power. Search: doomsday shelters. It’s on our minds. Ever since the invention of the printing press we’ve been preparing ourselves.
Whether or not the prophecies are real, they appear to have been self-fulfilling. For whatever reason, we have declared this era in human history to be a time of shift and change. One could easily surmise that on even the subconscious level we’d be suspicious of the day when there would be too many people on this planet. Would we sink or swim? That is the ultimate question.
I think that’s what we’re really worrying about. But the flaw in our approach is that we have been comparing our needs of the future with our productivity levels of the past. We operate on a philosophy of not-enough-to-go-around. We forget that we are both clever and loving. And ingenious.
The real fortunes of today earned their money many decades ago. Thinking was different. The old approaches were still working. Those wise enough to earn their wealth were also wise enough to foresee this time of change and didn’t like it one bit. They instilled fear in us then because they were the ones who were afraid. Because of them we are all afraid now.
But we live in a self-improving world. One against which they are ultimately powerless.
I would deduce that for all intents and purposes we are in the prophesied end times right now. The apocalypse is among us. The great revealing is at hand.
It just doesn’t look like we thought it would.
To the world’s powers, for whom the threat of annihilation is all too real, the lights are being turned on in all the kitchens and the cockroaches are scurrying. They are spinning their words and backpedaling into a chasm.
It’s too late anyway for them. The decision has already been made. The world has seen its own light and met its neighbor. Hope is at the bottom of Pandora’s box. Because we can’t un-know one another now. We’ve seen each other. We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen ourselves in them. There’s nothing anyone can do. Neither war nor disease can make us forget.
What would happen if someone suddenly turned off the Internet right now? Would we slip back into forgetfulness? No. What would happen if the entire electrical grid broke down? Would we forget what light is? No. There are too many of us now and too few of them. They can’t win.
We have already decided that this will be a peaceful world. And by hook as well as crook it is happening. Even the darkest figures of the world are playing into the hand of progress because they are galvanizing those who can now see what they’re up to. Even people we’ve always thought of as “good” are being seen for what they truly are. The #metoo movement would agree that the word apocalypse means unveiling.
Perhaps my thinking is flawed. Perhaps I am a fool for believing that all shall be well. It is a choice to live according to the principles and hopes of faith. I can’t prove to you if there is a God or not; my belief in It is purely my own. I have demonstrable faith in Its creation, however. I maintain unwavering trust in the wider humanity. Because it takes great effort to suppress, yet so little to set free.