Saturday, April 27, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 28, 2019 - The Inevitably of Collaboration

Humans, like many other animals, are an inter-dependent species. We rely on the strength of the group to protect the individual. Over and over again we demonstrate our desire for and need to collaborate with each other. This is social as well as biological. Diversity of the gene pool and survival of the species relies on our ability to collaborate and adapt as a group.

Unfortunately, we too often lean on the paradigm of sharing a common enemy to create that unity. So much so, that society is often manipulated into believing there is an enemy so that a coalition forms. That coalition is rarely intended to combat the imaginary enemy as much as to accomplish separate, unknown objectives, typically political or financial in nature.

Of course there are genuine enemies out there. But are we perceiving them at the same level as their threat? Are those whom we’ve been told to fear truly as fearful as we’ve been led to believe? Are we being separated on purpose?

Knowing that there are those who wish to manipulate our emotions for their own political or financial ends is the most important part. It’s difficult to be manipulated when you can see it happening and know why they are doing it. All the better if you can manage to have some compassion for the reasons why they might. But even the metrics of evaluating our our sources of information is often manipulated as well. It’s hard to know whom to listen to. When in doubt, however, ask yourself: Is this loving?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the Big Bang. I often wonder about what might have existed prior to the explosive moment when all that we behold in the cosmos first violently expanded from a tiny speck. it leads me to a thought that perhaps there are periodic “big bangs“ in the life of our universe. Things which explode and then, in the floating vacuum of space, gradually return to unity, only to explode again and unify again. What makes that happen? I can’t say for certain that it’s even true, but when I look at the tendency of fragments floating in a bowl of water to join and combine as their own wispy gravitational pulls slowly re-attract one to another, I have to admit humans are no less susceptible to that phenomenon. We just can’t help ourselves.

We fight and do horrible things, yet we are bound to one another. We refine our relational practices continuously. What is the inner-directive which motivates us toward this innate unity? Put your faith in that. That phenomenon is what will ultimately save us from ourselves.

Sometimes in the midst of all this social turmoil I find myself resisting the urge to despair. Or at least trying to. But then I meditate on the fact that our separation is an illusion. I think deeply about the connectivity we all share even when it looks like the opposite. It comforts me.

If, God forbid, an alien species descended on our planet with the intention of destroying us all, we would immediately see how truly bonded we are. We would see how pointless and futile our childish sibling arguments have been. We would know what is truly important in that moment and what is not. Can’t we choose to see that on purpose? Must we wait for the threat of annihilation to join forces more deliberately? Must we have a common enemy in order to recognize our deep and abiding friendship?

On your deathbed, what will you think was important about your life? Will you be glad for all the enemies you maintained? Will you be proud of the resentments you held, the grudges you continued? Likely not. Because they are not natural to us. Collaboration is natural, hostility is not. Cooperation is essential and instinctively ours.

Spend time considering the presence of collaboration in your life. Many things we can do on our own, but must we? Where are the opportunities for us to invite others in? Even if some of the time that might otherwise be spent doing the work are used for explaining and hearing out the other, it is well worth it in the end. The work will ultimately benefit.

A charity that has only one donor, might help a few. But one that relies on the support of many will help many. Allow your work to be made lighter by many hands. Your natural human desire to collaborate, even when you don’t think it’s necessary, will have a ripple effect throughout the world in ways you cannot imagine. At the very least, it will improve the quality of your own experience. And that is plenty.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Message: Sharing the Doubts of Thomas

The observance of Easter is upon us. Cultures throughout the world, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, honor rebirth at this time on the wheel of the year. These celebrations are of course far older than Christianity. But still, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ seamlessly corresponds with the ideas of rebirth and renewal celebrated elsewhere.

Unlike Christmas, which honors the birth of Jesus on a day and time of year likely different from when it actually occurred, Easter is observed in relation to the same Jewish calendar as when it first reportedly happened, the first Sunday after Passover.  According to tradition, Easter Sunday is the day when Jesus rose from the dead following his execution three days and nights before.

Must we believe such a story? Most Unitarians would say no, belief in the literal rising of the dead is optional. Today, we rely upon reason to decide, for the most part, that once something or someone is dead, they tend to remain so. That does not mean the resurrection story has no value. Literally hundreds of Christian denominations, including our own, look at this moment very differently from one another.

It is safe to conclude it is a mystery. Because none of us were there. We did not touch the risen Jesus with our own hands. We can neither prove nor disprove it. Thus, it remains an unknown. A mystery. Even if we think it’s impossible, we cannot prove that it did not happen any more than we can prove it did. Out of respect for cultures which steadfastly believe that Jesus rose from the dead as proof that he was God incarnate, we as a collective denomination, choose to largely remain neutral on the subject. It is whatever it is. Neither our belief nor lack of it will alter it. Let it be.

There was one disciple of Jesus who doubted that he rose from the dead. Thomas. Interestingly, the Gospel of Thomas itself found among the dead sea scrolls does not tell the famous story of his doubt. The story of the Doubting Thomas appears only the gospel of John. In the story, one of Jesus’s disciples, Thomas Didymus, was not there when the risen Jesus suddenly appeared before the rest of the disciples who were safely locked inside in the very room where they had shared their last supper together four nights before. When they later reported it to him, Thomas refused to believe it unless he could see it for himself. Including the nailholes in his hands and feet, the spear hole in his side. Thomas said he must put his own finger into the wounds themselves in order to believe.

A week later, Jesus appeared to them again. And this time, Thomas was there. Jesus gently and without judgement offered his wounds for Thomas to inspect for himself. Thomas believed. Then Jesus said, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

To me, this is a surprising story to have been saved from editing by the early church leaders. Especially since the story appears nowhere else, and that the gospel of John is often thought to be the least historical of the four gospels. I would think a story that gives permission to doubt the risen Christ would be uncomfortable for them. But for the line at the end: “Blessed are those who believe without seeing” there would appear to be no redeeming qualities at all for the early church’s designs on maintaining a credal belief in the dogma. Why would they keep it? Why would they allow a story in which even Jesus gives permission to test reality for oneself?

Thankfully it remained. And it was passages such as this one which helped reinforce early Unitarian belief that it is acceptable to doubt until personal experience is achieved. But also that sometimes one must make a leap before the net appears. Even while we honor the right to ask questions and to be skeptical, even hesitant, we understand there is also value in making a leap of faith. And that even God says, “This is okay.”

In truth, an active and fulfilling spiritual life practice must have both faith as well as skepticism. There must be room for doubt, permission to question, forums for debate, and humility above all. Because none of us knows a thing about it.

The fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Free yes, responsible, definitely. We cannot have freedom without responsibility. Knowledge must be accompanied by wisdom. And as we read elsewhere in spiritual teachings, including Christianity, we are one another’s prime responsibility. The care and respect we must show for the beliefs of others is equally important to the search we undertake for ourselves.

For Thomas, faith is a purely personal exercise. All that exists in the universe resides in you. All opportunities for grief as well as joy. All knowledge. All despair. All of the love of the entirety of creation is accessible to your own small but beating heart. You are the epicenter of your own rebirth. You are the curator of your own enlightenment.

When the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the 1940s & 50s in a series of caves around the site known as Wadi Qumran, a gospel of Thomas was among them. The theological viewpoint of John is revealed in the sayings of Jesus which the Johanine author chose to include. Among them is this: Jesus said, "If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' well, then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will have preceded you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."

The experience which mainstream Christianity wishes for us to have on this day is that Jesus’s resurrection was accomplished on behalf of us all. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it never was. But the lessons of Thomas are there, nonetheless. That we must choose to discover boldly. We must put our fingers inside our questions. We must be willing to get our hands a little dirty. Faith is a purely personal experience or else it is nothing but words, written on a page, by someone else, for their own uses and reasons. Let nothing take away your right to personal discovery. It is your gift.

Look to the sacred texts, which can mean virtually anything, to discover your own path, your own faith, your own viewpoint. Touch it with your own hand, see it with your own eyes and evaluate your discoveries with your own heart before you draw your conclusions. And then have the humility to allow those conclusions to evolve over time as you discover new ideas every day.

Thomas teaches us to have the richest of individual faiths empowered by personal discovery. You are the pope of your own church. Use that power wisely.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 20, 2019 - Care for Your Feelings

Your feelings are a real thing, let’s be clear. They have power and influence of their own. They are, in fact, the navigator of our entire lives. Our feelings are what guide us in the decisions we make and the forgiveness we feel. Feelings are the unadulterated language of God.

What your feelings manage to accomplish on a day-to-day basis depends on how well you care for them. Our culture has twisted the idea of altruism into something which excludes us from the equation of serving others. Somehow we’ve come to believe that we don’t matter. We should only think of others. A life of utter sacrifice is holy, so the story goes. But that is a car with no gas to fuel it. How you feel always matters. How you feel determines the stamina you have to serve others joyfully.

How do you feel right now? Are you comfortable? Are you uncomfortable? Are you happy? Do you believe you deserve to be? Deeply ask these questions of yourself and listen very carefully for the answers. Don’t always expect the first answer you hear from yourself to be the truth either. Taking a personal inventory can sometimes be a moving target. Be patient with yourself as you move toward a state of knowing.

What we are feeling at any given moment is what we are projecting into the universe. It is what God hears. Our emotional state is the only form of communication we have which is not linear. Words are linear. Written sentences, prayers, incantations, all linear. Their value is in the emotions they bring up in us. Emotions are conceptual. There is neither front nor back, nor one after the other. The seven stages of grief do not correspond to numerical rules just because we have named them One through Seven. Our emotions have no clear edges or even facets to them. Our emotions are fully conceptual. As is God.

If we look at all of the world’s scripture together, we get a conceptual picture of the nature of God, at least as It has been portrayed in linear poetry and prose. Through our examinations, an interesting version of God appears which does not answer to any particular word or name. It listens only to our hearts. When we ask in order to receive, with what part of ourselves are we asking really?

This is why your feelings are important, and must be tended to like a garden. Notice them. Because if all thought is conceptual rather than linear it’s likely that’s what we’re praying with whether we mean to or not. All spiritual philosophers tell us that what we think, we become.

If you suffer from depression, despite how excruciatingly difficult it is, move toward healing it. Do not relent. If you have a backache, don’t delay in fixing it. If you don’t get the answer you want, or the treatment you need, keep looking. Keep knocking. Keep facing that direction. Care about feeling good. It is your right to feel good. The more often you feel good, the easier life will be. You are better equipped for the hardships which always come. Be strong for those future times by caring about your feelings now.

This is not a method to eradicate all sorrow. Sorrow is a part of our lives and shall continue to be. But if the water table of your emotional state is already so high that it takes nothing but a small rainshower to create a flood, you are in constant emotional peril from anything even slightly less than ideal. Is that really where you want to be?

It’s okay if you don’t know where to begin. Start by visualizing your emotional state as a garden. In your mind’s eye, visit it often. Walk around and smell the flowers, the vegetables and nourishment, the warm fecundity of the earth. On a day you are feeling sad, go into your imaginary garden and hunt for weeds. Check the dryness of the soil. Tend to these things lovingly. It will have an incremental effect on your ability to cope with life’s difficulties. Over time, it may very well give you the strength and courage to look your emotional state directly in the eye and heal it.  

Ease and joy are our intended states. We are meant for them. We hold ourselves back from them without meaning to. And it’s understandable that we do. Human nature is a difficult labyrinth to navigate, but sacred nonetheless. There is only one test for us to take: that of seeking our divine spark and allowing it to become the guiding star of our journey. You are a sacred creation. Treat yourself accordingly.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - April 13, 2019 - Your Trust Keeps You Safe

Remember the first person who trusted you with something expensive? You knew you didn’t want to let them down. Their trust in you meant so much you tried even harder to keep it. Remember that.

Trust is something we often do by choice. We choose to entrust something to someone without 100% assurance of either safety or success. Of course, we don’t always fully trust the people for whom we choose to demonstrate it. Letting your newly-licensed child drive your car is a display of great trust not always felt. Sometimes we behave according to a level of confidence we do not fully know, but hope to.

The word trust originates from an old Norse word for strong. We tend to have confidence in things which appear to be strong. Sometimes, however, things are not as they appear. Weakness can always hide behind a thin veneer. It’s the inside which determines strength, not the out. Consider the inside of something when placing your trust in it. When faced with a dilemma, a person‘s character, their ethical inner scaffolding, always determines the choices they make. Especially in times of stress and need. It is that part, the inner part, in which we place our trust. Be careful that the TV you’re buying wasn’t for display purposes only.

Then there is the trust we place in others. Not just the people we know. It’s the people we don’t. People we might be afraid of. People whose customs confound us, their language challenges us, and their unknown purpose frightens us. Take the time to realize they are human just like you. Imagine their feelings. Imagine how they might feel if you were to be welcoming of them when others are not. How much do you think they’d value your trust? When we cultivate a sense of belonging with others we are inherently safer from them. Fences may make better neighbors, but walls only make better enemies. Choose trust. It will pay off more often than not.

And for those who have a relationship with a higher power, what do you do with It? How much trust do you give It? How much do you withhold? It’s about letting go, really. A lack of trust in our higher power, or in anything for that matter, is a missed opportunity for inner peace. Place your worries in the hands of something larger than yourself. That is trust. Choosing to believe that there is a purpose to the difficulties you’re experiencing is trust. When you choose to believe in this kind of trust your body downshifts from code red to orange. A whole set of outer-edge defense mechanisms switch off. Standing down a bit from high alert is one of the greatest benefits of having a relationship with a higher power and placing our trust in It. Make an assumption that all shall be well and then behave as if it is already so.

There is danger in the world, yes. There are thieves and liars and cheats, oh my. But I have known criminals whom I’ve trusted. My trust was valuable to them and they generally didn’t betray it. I was statistically safer by just being kind.

Of course others can betray our trust, and often do. But remember again that feeling you had when someone first entrusted you with something precious, how much you wanted to prove yourself worthy of it. If you take a chance on someone and they know you’re doing it with reservations, perhaps, but still doing it, does it keep you safer? Does it enhance the likelihood of a positive outcome? I would say yes. I know my mother’s car was safer, at least to a degree, because of my desire to keep her trust. And keep using her car.

Trust others first and those who betray you will be small in number compared to all those who will be honored by the respect and trust you’ve shown them. Likewise trust in your higher power. Talk to It. Get to know It. Assume there is a greater purpose in all things and place your trust in that.

Trust is not the answer to all problems. There is no panacea here. But if it increases, even by a little bit, the amount of time in your life not spent under the weight of stress, good. You’ll live longer.

When we are more relaxed about our concerns the solutions come easier. Trust in yourself that you are clever enough to at least lighten your burdens if not outright lift them. Live your life trusting others so that you have enough friends to help you with the solutions you can’t pursue on your own. We are none of us an island. Trust may be all we have. Use it both generously and wisely.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Sunday Message - Firewalking: the practice of deliberate transformation

    The ritual of walking across hot coals, or firewalking, is a spiritual act recorded as far back as the Iron Age, but comes from traditions much older than written records. It is a rite of passage, a test of strength, and of faith. One walks barefoot across a lengthy pad of red hot burning embers. Hopefully unburned. If done carefully, one’s feet will not burn. It is often assumed to be a great feat of the mind to manage to essentially walk in fire and escape unharmed. But there are physics which explain why it works. However, it is still a great feat of the mind. One must remain calm, firm, but not forceful. If you run across the coals, you will sink into the embers and burn your feet. If you walk too soon before the coals are ready, they will have too much water still in the wood and will burn your feet. If you have not carefully prepared the surface, nails or other metal may be present and will burn your feet.
    So what do we think about that? When faced with this idea as a metaphor, what might we conclude? Where in our lives do we deliberately walk across hot coals? Where in our lives do we avoid it when we know that’s what’s best for us? When do we avoid challenge? All the time.
    But what if we chose to do it on purpose? When have we decided for ourselves that it’s worth it to go through a little hardship now for the transformational power that experience holds for us? Who says you’re too old to go back to school? Too uncreative to make art? Too weak to climb that hill? Too stupid to know what to do next? What if, despite all these fears, we walked across them anyway? What if we simply agreed to the challenge that always comes with transformation?
“A scientific study conducted during a fire-walking ritual at the village of San Pedro Manrique, Spain in 2010, showed synchronized heart rate rhythms between performers of the firewalk and non-performing spectators. Notably, levels of synchronicity also depended on social proximity. This research suggests that there is a physiological foundation for collective religious rituals, through the alignment of emotional states, which strengthens group dynamics and forges a common identity amongst participants.”
Well, holy cow. It appears that there is an observable, physiological relationship occurring among people in heightened states together. At least in the instance of a firewalker and spectators there is a connection which makes their heart rates synchronize. Is that just the tip of the iceberg?
Is there a commonality which occurs not only during the ritual of firewalking between spectators and firewalkers, but also by the trials of daily life? When we see someone is going through a difficult time, how in-synch are we with them? Does this occur only in proximity or can it be virtual? Have you ever been truly comforted by someone simply liking your post on facebook about having to put your dog to sleep? Is it comforting to have someone do something as simple as clicking ‘like?’ Someone out there is saying, “Yeah, I feel you.” What does that feel like?
Loving something or someone is a transformative process. It changes us from the inside even thought it appears everything happens on the outside. Like firewalking. And also like firewalking, love can often feel like walking across hot coals. If it’s not done mindfully and thoughtfully, love can burn.
This country, too, is walking across hot coals right now. We are recalibrating our very nation. Everything is in a state of near constant change. How would a farmer in the 1940’s have reacted to the swift changes in technology we see today? What if he had to trade up his tractor at the same speed we trade up our smartphones? His head would spin. Our world changes at the speed of technology and in its wake are left those who struggle with change. The ground feels like so much unformed lava beneath us. If we stand still, we will burn our feet.
What can we do about our trials? How can we both assuage our grief when something bad happens while also remaining open to the very real transformation that occurs every single time it does?
The science as well as world spirituality suggest the same thing. Doing it together creates a synchronicity among us. Sharing our personal trials with each other synchronizes us one to another.
Think for a moment of your own trials, your own transformations. When things were at their worst, were you alone? I hope not. But it happens. In those moments, were you alone because others rejected you, or because you shut them out? How often do we exclude people from our own trials yet are ever so ready to be there for the trials of others? How much do we exclude our own well being while at the same time elevate the well being of everyone else? Whom do we invite to witness our walk across the hot coals of our lives? Whom do we allow in?
We walk across burning embers literally every day of our lives. Transformation is occurring at every moment. Do we allow transformation to drive us, or do we drive our transformations? We are partners with change, don’t forget it. Change will adapt to our ability to engage with it, coax it, understand and commune with it. Transformation does not happen in a vacuum. It happens with deliberate action, but also through apathy. Change will occur with or without your partnership.
If you have a mound of clay in front of you, it will eventually change on its own. It will dry out, become dust again. Or perhaps it will simply harden into a rock, incapable of providing any service except as a doorstop or a paperweight.
But what if you sat down and deliberately molded it into something beautiful? What if you faced the fire and boldly walked through it? What if you assumed that all transformation, when faced with courage and deep intentionality, could be good?
Have faith in yourself. Have faith in your neighbor. Witness each other’s walks through the challenging parts of our lives and allow others to witness your trials as well. If we synchronize our hearts with one another, what may come of it?

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 6, 2019 - The Irony of Safety

Many of us have experienced abuse, either emotional, sexual, or physical. Some of us have known war, violence, or deep psychological trauma from one event or many. Sooner or later we all emerge from these places. Hopefully, having survived. Once we are finally free, we often find ourselves with a surprising set of new challenges to face.

The unsettling quality of finally achieving a measure of safety following prolonged abuse is a sudden recognition of how much we had gotten used to feeling unsafe. That is a can of worms all its own. The unclenching. It is part of the aftermath of recalibration. A new normal.

Imagine you need to go to the chiropractor for back pain. Your muscles constantly ache and pull. You take pills. But sometimes the nerves send out shockwaves like lightning throughout your body. The pain is so sharp and sudden it takes your breath away. You’ve gotten used to it. But something has to be done. We can’t keep going on like this.

As you sit on the chiropractor’s table, the inner scaffolding of your body, your skeleton, is realigned. Briefly returned to its intended state, or at least somewhat nearer to it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Future adjustments will have to be made as the healing process unfolds.

The muscles are now made even more uncomfortable for the moment by having to reposition themselves closer toward the form they were supposed to have been in the first place. But they are not used to it even though they’ve been asking for it. They didn’t know how hard it would be.

Change, even toward something better, is never without discomfort. Sometimes it’s a level of discomfort so great, it makes us feel for a while as if it was never worth trying to make the correction in the first place. We secretly wish the chiropractor would push the bones back into the old and incorrect positions, the devil we knew. In our panic, we falsely imagine the old way felt better than this. But some realignments can never go back to their old shapes and forms. Once begun, we must work our way through it. The back end of the tunnel has caved in and the only way now is forward.

The fact is, we get comfortable in our old ways, even when they do us harm, even when they are literally killing us. We ask for change but fear what change will ask of us in return. It’s always more than we ever thought we’d be willing to give. The shift toward health is sometimes more painful than was the disease. For a time.

Think for a moment about our human society. Over the past few hundred years in particular, it has steadily woken up and begun the process of recognizing that the only way forward is together. We had inadvertently begun the arduous and multi-layered commitment of choosing to aspire toward an ideal of equality and fraternity. A struggle which  continues to this day and shall. That desire shows no signs of abating. We began to perceive injustice in a way we had not previously recognized it. We saw glimpses of our own individual worth and value. It would not go over well. No society awakens unscathed.

Take comfort, however, in the recognition of this process. The world may feel less safe than ever before, but it is a lie. Of course much of what we are seeing is really there, but the view is neither proportional nor fully accurate. Each of us has only a distorted keyhole’s view of the wider reality. In taking a step back we see that it’s logical for us to be experiencing the societal angst we are enduring. It’s the natural consequence of a progress not everyone wants. Spend your energy soothing people‘s fears over the changes that are now inevitable. Don’t do battle with people. They are more afraid than you. We are becoming increasingly loving each day and it’s more difficult for some than others.

As our body finds its true skeletal alignment, as we walk into the comfort of greater degrees of safety then we have ever before known, the cost is sadly dear. Our muscles cry out in rage for being stretched from their torqued, but familiar positions. Our memories of all we’ve suffered until now, which have been kept tucked away, suddenly flood forward. The consequences are natural, but devastating. Hold tight. It will get better.

These days are not without hope. Take relief from the fact that we are here and do your best to love all those within arm’s reach. You don’t have to soothe or even forgive the whole world, just help where you can. This difficult time will end. We might even live to see it.