Reflections and Questions

The Real Election

This week was the first presidential debate, and in just a few weeks is the election. This election cycle is like none other in our collective memory.  Regardless of the outcome, what has been revealed during the process will remain: dissatisfaction, distrust, fear, bigotry, anger, and judgment. The election will not resolve these maladies. Which has me thinking that while November 8 is an election, beneath it is another election.

Yes, this election is about who will be president. It's about the balance of power in Congress and in state and local jurisdictions across the land. It's about ballot measures. All are crucial. All require sober thinking, reflection, and the exercise of our sacred right to vote.

Yet, in, with, and under the November election, is a different election, a choice, about what we hold to be real.

Beyond Hillary or Donald, beyond our political affiliations, beyond American citizenship, is a deeper reality. This reality, infinite and beyond form, encompasses everything else we hold to be real. It is within the first inhale of a newborn and the last exhale of a loved one. This reality, beyond mind and emotion, is the Sacred Essence from which we are made, in which we live, and to which we return beyond this life.

This reality is a palpable Love that dissolves our fears and disempowering stories. It is a clarity of soul  that breaks through the twin traps of comfort and discomfort to live more boldly, truly, and graciously. It is a vision that sees both the need for justice and the humanity of those who perpetrate injustice. It is the interweaving of compassion, self-compassion, forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. It is the Ocean rising and falling with each individual wave, yet existing beyond every crest and crash.

And so, we are faced with an election, a choice. Will we root our actions in a centered knowing of our own Being-ness, a Being-ness that also includes opponents?

Will we trust in a Reality so vast and so gracious that we surrender our drive to control everything and everyone? Will we let the Universe move through us and incarnate greater awareness, fairness, understanding, honesty, clarity, and generosity?

As we head toward this fall's vote, will we take responsibility for our state of consciousness, and act in alignment with it, no matter who wins in November?

That is the choice we face. That is THE election.

Spirituality vs. Religion: When God Becomes a Weapon

Paris. Colorado Springs. Myanmar. San Bernardino. Beirut. Egypt. Uganda. Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Different religions used in different locations as justification for mass killing. How can anyone commit acts of terror in the name of God?

The answer is not simple. It seems that each incident involves factors in addition to religion:

  • Mental illness
  • Occupation of a homeland by foreigners
  • Loss of hope/opportunity
  • Workplace discord
  • Retaliation for military strikes
  • Racism
  • No confidence in Western democracies
  • Homophobia

While these factors contribute to the violence, religion is also in the mix of motivations to slaughter. How is this possible?

One reality is that the world's religions are a reflection of humanity. Since humans have a shadowy penchant for violence, it is not surprising that religious texts and the history of religious communities are rife with violence.

Religion is a reflection of the human psyche and its ongoing struggle to evolve and awaken. At its best, religion transforms humanity's violent tendencies into compassion and right action for the common good. At its worst, religion foments unrest, hatred, and vengeance.

Perhaps more telling is the dichotomy between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is tending one's inner life, which includes observing, accepting and seeking to transform one's violent proclivities, rather than projecting them on to some other group of people. Religion is the container and communal support for doing this inner work.

The primary reason so many in this country now identify as "spiritual but not religious" is that, by and large, religion has failed to nurture the inner life. [There are notable exceptions. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement was largely fueled by religious institutions.]

Religion has failed to be an agent of personal and societal transformation. It has been hijacked by institutional, economic, and political agendas that reflect the smallness of the human heart. These violent acts are being committed by those who got some religion but lost spirituality.

As we look across the globe and witness political instability, climate change, economic and racial injustice, it is up to each of us to tend our inner world. Where do we find hatred and fear of "the other"? How are we grasping the status quo to the detriment of those less privileged? Where do we find our own hearts shrinking and harboring "against-ness", judgment and vengeance?

There, in the violence of our own hearts, is where we need the Spirit behind, beyond and within all True Religion. No matter our religion or lack thereof, the work is to notice, accept, and transcend the ego's grasping, selfish, fearful programming.

As we tend our own inner demons, we cultivate understanding, and then a compassion for our flawed humanity, which cant's help but spill over into our relations with others. That's the Spirit, the God Essence to catch, and it's at the heart of all True Religion. Anything else is neither spiritual nor truly religious.

The origin of the word "religion" is most likely from the Latin religare, which means to fasten or bind. The sense was the religion is that which binds and connects us with the divine and each other. Such a binding requires spiritual work of self-reflection, compassion, and right action. Without spirituality, religion degenerates into the vilest tendencies of the ego.

In the wake of violence inspired by religion, we need to re-bind religion and spirituality. In such a reunion, religion is an agent of transformation rather than a weapon. During this Season of Light, tending to our darkness and our light, our violence and our compassion, our religions and our spirituality, is our best hope for peace.

What We Can Learn from Time Travelers

Forgive me for making a Star Trek analogy, but I am a lifelong Sci-fi nerd. A recurring theme in Star Trek is the messiness of time travel. Those who go back in time to prevent a problem often create worse problems than what they travelled backward to fix. Eliminate a youthful indiscretion, and the whole tapestry of one's life unravels. Save one friend and millions die who did not die before. The problem with time travelers in Star Trek is that they fail to take into consideration the interrelatedness of everything.  They often create self-fulfilling prophecies. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the act of creating the very thing we wish to avoid (or something even worse) through short-sighted behavior.

Many of our responses to today's crises are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Examples:

  • A drone strike kills 5 terrorists but creates 20 more terrorists, survivors enraged because the drone also killed their sisters and mothers. Their subsequent attacks (or anticipated attacks) lead to more drone strikes.
  • Intractable poverty in communities of color opens the door to crimes of desperation. The over-response of police (racial profiling, excessive use of force) creates a police state that only intensifies desperate rage, crime and violence, which, in turn, ratchets up the aggressive response of law enforcement.
  • Lack of good jobs leads some to look for powerless scape goats, such as undocumented farm workers. Draconian legislation forces migrants out of the fields and back across the border, leaving behind crops with insufficient labor to harvest them. The dip in economic output drags down other sectors of the economy, yielding even fewer good jobs. (See Alabama's response to undocumented immigrants.)

Our fearful responses create or exacerbate the very catastrophe we wish to avoid. 

The reason a prophecy fulfills itself is because our aperture is too small. We narrow our field of vision to the scapegoat, cost or symptom at hand and fail to see the bigger picture.

  • Terrorism is not just about perverted religion; it's about economics.
  • No fence or harsh immigration edict will prevent desperate people from crossing a border to endure exploitation here if the alternative is starvation at home.
  • Unrest in communities of color is lead by a few bad apples, and it's also symptomatic of deeper issues of unacknowledged racism, income inequality, and a subtle form of segregation enforced by a militarized police force and a prison industrial complex.

More pointedly, we fail to take full responsibility for our own behavior and its contribution to the situation. For instance:

  • Is there a link between the $3 shirt purchased at Walmart and the poverty in Central America that leads millions to cross the border?
  • What's the connection between the hegemony of Western countries/companies pursuing their economic self-interest in the developing world, and the resultant political/economic instability in developing countries that then becomes a breeding ground for anti-Western religious extremism and terrorism?
  • Have centuries of institutionalized racism created an uneven playing field that is a daily, lived reality for those stuck its mire but that remains invisible to those who believe that racism and its consequences are largely a thing of the past.

The problems we face do not happen in isolation. Those "lousy people out there" do not operate in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected.

Self-fulfilling prophecies flourish when there is a lack of honest self-reflection about how our choices (past and current) are part of the problem. We avoid such self-reflection because it would require us  to make changes that do not immediately serve self-interest.

When we attack and scapegoat, delay and deny, the problems only return to a simmer until they boil over again with greater fury.

While we can't travel back in time to fix what got us here, we can choose to see how our fearful responses create self-fulfilling prophecies. We can acknowledge today our shortcomings, prejudices, errors, privilege, and addiction to comfort and convenience. And we can expand our self-interest to include other people and other species because what affects one affects all; maybe not in the short term, but over time, it is inevitable.  

Getting the Best Deal Possible

My mother and I used to plan our Christmas shopping days like two generals preparing for a military campaign. We'd lay out flyers, ads and coupons on the floor and map out our goals for each store, each of which was grouped by location, all of which was coordinated with a list of which gifts to buy for whom. Armed with our agenda, we'd set out for the day. Part of the strategy included procuring the right gift at the lowest price. In those pre-Internet days, we'd often visit two or three stores and compare prices until we felt reasonably certain we had found the best deal possible. Only then would we make the purchase. Sometimes these shopping days would last 10-12 hours. We'd come home exhausted but satisfied that we'd done well.

I wonder if there's some aspect of this approach to Christmas shopping that permeates other areas of life. Do we hold back a part of ourselves, never "making the purchase", because somewhere out there is still that "best deal possible"? 

What if, however, we already have the best deal possible? What if the friends, partner, job, home, etc., we have right now are exactly what we need? Rather than continually search for the best deal possible anywhere for anyone, can we recognize when we already have exactly who and what we need here and now?

And what if this yearning for the best deal possible is, at its root, really a spiritual matter?

What we are ultimately yearning for are love, happiness, self-acceptance, and inner peace. These graces can't be bought or sold. It is the essence of all spiritual practice to cultivate an awareness that they already and only reside within us.

Will we choose to trust that we are unconditionally lovable and loved throughout eternity? Will we open to the wellspring of gratitude so that all the glory of the Universe is available to us every moment? Will we cultivate self-acceptance and inner peace so that our daily successes and failure rarely rattle our core sense of identity?

When we invest ourselves wholeheartedly in these inner graces, we no longer need fantasy because our outer experience begins to mirror our inner reality. And it is in our inner reality that we discover we've had the best deal possible all along.

Life is Hard. Math is Harder.

Do you remember when parents would come to see what their little urchins do in elementary school all day? I remember one such evening in third grade. My classmates offered MOMA-worthy collages and watercolors. Feeling less creatively-inclined, I filled half a chalkboard with a complex math problem that was above third-grade mastery. I felt a deep sense of accomplishment with my numerical art. It seemed that with enough persistence, every problem had a solution.

Living life as a math problem to be solved, however, yields some lousy equations. One that I'm particularly aware of is:

Life = hard = can't keep up = shouldn't be this way.

When that's been my basic operating equation, I've noticed three responses:

  • Walking around with a sense of weary heaviness
  • Escaping into fantasyland or addictive/compulsive behavior
  • Erecting numbing walls that block out heaviness (but also joy and love)

What would happen if I changed my equation? In fact, what if I simply threw out equations altogether? What if I started living life less as a math problem to be solved and more as a work or art that is unfolding organically? What if I trusted the Flow of Life?

This transition from math class to art class is a process, and I'm learning as I go. One tool that is helping is the phrase: "That's not my problem."

  • When the old equations start calculating the future, I say, "That's not my problem. Future Scott will handle that just fine."
  • When the past demands that its numbers add up, I reply, "That's not my problem. Scott did his best with the resources and level of awareness he had back then."
  • When I simply can't control or solve a problem in the present, I respond, "That's not my problem. The position of God has already been filled."

Fortunately, life is like a chalkboard. We can always erase our equations and start over.

Living in Your Dream Home

Years ago I had a discussion with an older married couple. The wife said she had identified her ideal furniture but was waiting to purchase it until she and her husband moved into their dream home. He looked at her and responded, "Honey, we've been married forty years and lived in the same house that whole time. Your dream home? You're living in it!" How many of us are holding out for something better, not realizing that we are living in our dream home, our dream job, our dream relationship?

In An Hour Before Daylight, former President Jimmy Carter writes of his pint-sized hometown Plains, Georgia:

It is difficult for me to explain why the town of Plains is so attractive to Rosalynn and me. It is obvious that our family ties in Plains are strong. We will take our grandchildren and some guests to the family cemeteries, one north and the other south of the town, where our great-great-grandfathers, all born in the 1700's, settled, farmed the land, and were buried with their wives and progeny. Both us grew up here, and at least one of us is related to many of the citizens, who are still our neighbors. Pains is where I've seen the members of my family laid to rest, and where we expect to be buried...

There is a sense of permanence in Plains, of unchanging values and lasting human relationships, and the town has been a haven for us during times of political and financial crisis. Having visited almost 120 foreign countries and "seen the sights", we find the quiet attractions of Plains stronger with our increasing age, so that, no matter where we are in the world, we soon begin wishing we were back home.

Few of us have this kind of multi-generational connection to a physical location. For those of us who have moved many times, home may be more of a feeling than a location. After two years, our home in San Rafael, California is feeling more like home, but parts of me still feel home is Austin or San Antonio or New York or San Diego.

Can home be more than a singular location? What makes for a home? For me, home is where:

  • Worth is a given with no need to earn or prove it.
  • The external topography in some way mirrors my inner landscape.
  • Laughter dissipates gloom.
  • My pets welcome me with equal enthusiasm on victorious days and abysmal days.
  • My fears and neuroses lay down their armor.
  • Gratitude melts my self-centered negativity.
  • The people I love most dare to be vulnerable with me.
  • I care for a piece of the Earth, and the Earth cares for me.
  • I learn the value of setting aside plans and expectations for life as it emerges.
  • All those I've ever loved are somehow present, nurturing and cheering me on.
  • My heart rests in a Love that even death cannot disturb.
  • I'm allowed to be downright crazy for a few minutes each day (but not allowed to wallow in crazy).
  • I realize I already have the essence of what I've been striving for.
  • A sense of connection with the Eternal frees me to be bigger and better than I have been.
  • I learn the art of forgiveness, for myself and for those nearest me.

What is home to you?


Recently I went to Point Reyes National Seashore and walked along the cliff-ringed beaches, listening to the roaring surf as foam bubbled onto the shore. While that was magnificent, I found that I was just as mesmerized by the slender shadows of grasses waving upon the sand. If I had only experienced those oscillating silhouettes dancing on the dunes, that would have been enough. This week the Jewish tradition observes Passover, an annual meal to commemorate liberation from a period of slavery in Egypt. Passover has a universal message. Even the name Egypt is rich with symbolism. It literally means "narrow places". What are the narrow places in your life that need expansion and freedom?

During the Passover Seder meal, the story of liberation is recounted. One popular Passover song, "Dayeinu", lists 15 blessings from the story, anyone of which would have been enough. Dayeinu means "it would have been enough". If only one of those blessings had occurred, that would be reason enough to celebrate every year with a meal of remembrance, but in the midst of so many blessings…

What is your Dayeinu? What blessing in your life is so AWE-some, WONDER-ful, that, in and of itself, it is worthy of an annual remembrance? Who or what, when you take the time to savor and remember, fills you with such gratitude that you feel like you are going to burst and overflow? What makes you sing "Dayeinu"?

When we practice Dayeinu an odd transition starts to occur. More and more people, places and experiences prompt gratitude, to the point where even a few blades of grass casting shadows becomes reason enough to be on the planet, just to experience that moment. This ordinary, often difficult existence suddenly reveals itself to be one miracle after another. If only we have the awareness to recognize it, and when we do have that quality of awareness…Dayeinu!

New Life for an Old Coat

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the film The Wizard of Oz. Actor Frank Morgan portrayed The Wizard and also Professor Marvel, the once magnificent showman who fell on hard times and was relegated to working county fairs in Kansas. To play this part, Frank Morgan needed an elegant coat that also had fallen on hard times. So rather than create such a costume, the wardrobe department bought fifty dusty coats from a secondhand clothing store. Frank Morgan and the director chose a tattered, black Prince Albert coat with a velvet collar. One day while filming under the hot movie lights, Frank Morgan was sweating profusely while wearing this heavy coat. During a break in filming, he took off the coat and turned the sweat-soaked pockets inside out so they could get some air. That’s when he glanced down at the lining on which was written the name of the original owner as well as the tailor in Chicago who made the coat. Coincidentally, the original owner shared his name: Frank.

This coat was about to be seen by millions in movie theaters across the country. So, Frank Morgan did a kind thing. He had the studio track down the original owner, who, it turns out, had died twenty years before, but his widow still lived. She was touched that this Hollywood actor would want her to have this final reminder of her late husband. Yet, this coat was no longer the same. Only a short time earlier, it was one step away from the trash heap. Now it had a whole new life in a timeless movie. And having been given new life, it was happily returned home where it belonged.

Do you ever feel like you are getting a bit threadbare and tattered? Even as spring brings promise of new life, the reality is that it all starts with dead seeds planted in the dry dust. For old coats, dead seeds, and  tattered souls, the common need is hope.

The Biblical prophet Ezekiel had a vision (Ezekiel 37) in which dry bones come back to life. This vision was a lifeline of hope for the original hearers who were living in exile after their nation had been obliterated. Bereft of identity and seemingly any future, they felt like a valley of dusty bones.

Then this vision of hope breaks out. Life comes from the four winds, from breath and from God putting God’s Spirit in people. The bones reunite, put on flesh and breathe again because of wind, breath, and spirit. In the original Hebrew of Ezekiel's prophecy, they are all the same word, RUAH.

Why is the same word used in such diverse ways? Perhaps because each version of new life is all the same thing. The wind at your back. The breath of friendship. The Spirit of your God. They are different forms of one movement, any and all of which restore life and hope.

But there’s a catch.  Revival is not individual. It’s communal. The prophecy was not for a person but a people. We are the means of renewal for each other. This is just the way Life/God seems to operate:

  • As we inhale gratitude and exhale compassion, we become the Breath of Life for each other.
  • The wind at our back is the encouragement we give one another.
  • The Spirit in us, literally “inspiration”, is Sacred Essence flowing through us to inspire each other.
  • That’s the way it works. Life/God revives us is through each other.

Here's one extra detail about that coat from “The Wizard of Oz”. According to oral legend (and one documented account), this coat had travelled from its creation in Chicago until it reached a secondhand clothing store in Los Angeles.  Of all the clothing stores in Los Angeles, the wardrobe department happened to pick this store, and of the fifty coats brought back to the studio, this one dusty coat was selected, and it fit Frank Morgan perfectly.

What I did not tell you was the full name of the original owner. Frank Morgan was stunned when he looked at the lining and read the name of the coat’s first owner...a man who had the coat tailored in Chicago, a man who had died twenty years earlier, a man whose coat was saved at random from a used clothing store, a man named...L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz”.

Finding our way home takes brains, heart, and courage, that is, a community, and sometimes a wee bit of magic. When we feel dry, alone and without purpose, remembering where we belong is the wizardry that restores hope. In the context of community, we are revived and become revival for others. New life for coats and people comes when we find our way into belonging, that is, we make our way home, and there truly is no place like home.

Transformation: Becoming Who We Already Are

This past weekend my friend Hannah visited us. We had a lovely time eating good food, catching up, telling and retelling stories. We also explored the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. It's the start of an old joke: "An Irish Catholic sister and a gay minister walk into a hippie neighborhood…" On Sunday, we attended Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church and enjoyed a wonderful homily on transfiguration/transformation. Afterward we discussed how this transformation thing works. Is it something we do? Is it something that is done to us? To what degree can we move it along, if at all? And, what exactly do we mean by transformation anyway?

So here are a few thoughts on transformation:

  • Transform = trans (across or beyond) + form (to shape or change). To transform is to move beyond our personas, travel across self-imposed barriers, and morph into a fuller manifestation of our innate truth. In other words, we become a purer essence of who we already are.
  • Most self-improvement modestly improves a fixed self without risking any transformation. It is short-lived tinkering.
  • On the other hand, if we continue relating to life as we always have, we will continue to reap more of the same.
  • Life has a way of transforming us, but it usually takes great pain to pry us free from our smug, spiritually-lazy attachment to our habitual ways of being.
  • Can we choose transformation without trauma? Yes. And No. We can choose it, but we cannot will it to happen, at least not the kind of inside/out transfiguration we crave.
  • Transformation starts with a choice. We desire to change and commit ourselves to growing up as best we can, though we know not how. That simple decision is the key step that starts the process.
  • That desire then stokes a fiery intention: "I live my life by fear no more." "I choose gratitude here and now." "I pause to check in with my own wisdom." "I surrender perfection and welcome what is."    This is our "YES" to life.
  • We also say "NO" to all that conflicts with our intention, including our addictions to control, safety and making a good appearance. Usually this requires some sort of regular practice: a hobby in which we lose all sense of time, nature, meditation, art, music…the kind of activity in which you find yourself by losing yourself.
  • So far, this only makes us available for transformation, and yet this is as much as we can do. Then something mysterious happens. Our Wise Inner Self (a.k.a. Life/God/The Universe) meets us at the point of our willingness. The fierce intention to become more/better/truer is our part, the rest is done on levels beyond words, deeper than conscious mind, and more inter-connected that we imagine. Transformation is an alchemy in which our surrendered willingness activates sacred Energies and latent Potential on our behalf.
  • The process is not predictable, quick nor linear, but it is progressive, genuine and surprising.
  • One day we realize that, though still imperfect, we are nonetheless changed. And having arrived, we see that the transformation we sought was within us all along.

These are my reflections. What is your experience?

P.S. If you or someone you know is in need of a ceremony (wedding, memorial service, etc.), please see my new Ceremonies page.

Surprised by My Own Unfolding

"I would love to live as a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding." John O'Donohue

Have you ever had one of those moments when everything came together into a singularity of bliss? It never lasts for long and evaporates as unexpectedly as it appears. Nonetheless, when those occasions unfold, they exude hope, a sense of purpose, and oodles of joy.

I had such an experience Saturday night. At the Chaplaincy Institute's monthly interfaith service, I (along with three classmates) had the honor of receiving my certificate of completion for the Interfaith Spiritual Direction program.  I also transferred my ordination to the Chaplaincy Institute's Interfaith Community. The community celebrated these milestones along with the announcement that I am now the Acting Director of Interfaith Community for the Chaplaincy Institute.

What a change! Over the past year or so, I felt despondent, discouraged and utterly confused. Where was my life going? What is my work? Where is my community? What the hell am I doing? So I waited. I noticed. As each next step appeared out of the fog, I took it, not knowing where it would lead.

When I first moved to California, Stephanie Warfield, a friend in Austin, e-introduced me to John Mabry, the Director of The Chaplaincy Institute's Interfaith Spiritual Direction program. While I have been a spiritual director for several years, I'd never completed a certificate program. The opportunity to do so while also learning about multiple faith traditions (included working with people of no faith tradition), excited me.

Then a fellow student in the program, Amy Hoyt, became the first person to transfer her existing ordination to The Chaplaincy Institute, which is not only a seminary, but also an interfaith community. When I left parish ministry 17 years ago, my ordination was eventually "inactivated" since I was not in a ministry setting with the denomination that ordained me. Reactivating my ordination had not been on my radar screen for some time. Next thing I knew, I was completing all the requirements to transfer my ordination to the Chaplaincy Institute. Now I am once again endorsed as "clergy in good standing".

Then Jim Larkin, the kind minister who shepherded me through that transfer process, announced that he was stepping down from his position as Director of Interfaith Community. I applied for the position, was hired, and started last Monday! I now feel at home in community and in my vocation.

This was no strategic, step-by-step plan. I did set my intentions (prayers) for the kind of work and community that I longed for. Then I kept my eyes open, noticing any subtle hints that emerged. I waited. I struggled. I kept returning to my intentions. I applied for jobs. I tried out various communities and groups. The desert stretched out before me in limitless, frustrating desiccation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, streams converged to form this oasis.

Of course, I still have no idea how all of this will evolve. But, in this moment, I am filled with gratitude for how this life is unfolding. I feel supported by the Universe (God) and by so many loving people, including my friend Kathleen who gave me the ministerial "charge" (words of encouragement and blessing for the way forward), and especially by my partner Herb who put the stole on me during the service.

As you reflect on your life:

  • What yearnings do you notice?
  • How might you activate that yearning into an intention?
  • What subtle hints, crumbs along the path, align with your intention?
  • What is your best guess as to your next, single step forward?

Those moments of bliss, those times when life "comes together", are neither guaranteed nor permanent. They, are, however, more likely to be noticed and appreciated through an open heart, an open mind, and a willingness to be carried along by the surprising unfolding of life's river.

Ordinary Miracles

What if what we perceive as ordinary is really a hologram containing the very essence of all that is? What if the Sacred beams just as brightly from below as from above? What will we see if we invert our sense of where light comes from? These are among the questions pondered in "The original light, blazing through your skull", which is an art installation currently on view in San Francisco at the Manresa Gallery. (See the video below.) According to artist Ali Naschke-Messing, her creation:

"...questions the traditional religious trope of light portrayed as descending from the heavens and creates an inverted conic form, inspired from the light that emanates from all life. The floating gold leaf fragments can be seen as coming from above and below, constantly turning and responding to air currents via breath and movement."

What light do you experience emanating from the various life forms around you? What is the nature of the "light" you emit? How might your movements and your breath be experienced as amazing phenomena? Watch the video. What questions and observations arise for you?

 [vimeography id="18"]

Frozen Chosen

After months of lovingly coaxing our adolescent plants toward mature vitality, we have met our match. Jack Frost has come with unexpected fury to Northern California. The mulch pathway is a concrete tundra. Ice crystals encrust leaves like minuscule toxic parasites. Citrus fruit, approaching peak ripeness, is now fit only for the compost pile. Perennials that were grasping for the sun only a week ago are now a black, drooping mess of frozen protoplasm. It's discouraging. It makes me wonder if the divine feels the same way about religious communities around the world. Tended through millennia of revelations, incarnations and evolutionary progress, we still seem frigid and immature.  One Christian denomination is even sarcastically referred to as "The Frozen Chosen". It must be quite discouraging.

Part of the reason for this limp spirituality is that we have little depth. (Matthew 13:6) We get just enough spirituality or religion to inoculate us from the real thing. We get a taste of the divine, of the Essence of the Universe, and then we march on with our lives feeling quite content with ourselves, rooted in nothing deeper than our own egos.

We adore the words but don't catch the Spirit underneath them. We luxuriate in the religious rituals, but we never move on to the One to whom they point. We are like small children who are more excited by the wrapping paper than the present itself.

What's needed is a little less religion and a little more spiritual practice. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

The "full substance of faith" is to make the ideas of religion concrete. Less talk. More action. Less piety. More gritty willingness to engage life as it is…with compassion. Only then will sacred ink become living blood and the Word become flesh. (John 1:14).

This cold spell will give way to warmth. Eventually Jack Frost will return north. What will we discover when the ground thaws? Those plants with sufficient depth will revive. May the Sacred Gardener discover that we too have sufficient root, flower and bear delectable fruit.

A Hanukkah Reflection

Tomorrow is the first day of Hanukkah, which literally means "dedication" and which celebrates a rededication of the temple in Jerusalem during which time, as the story goes, one day's worth of oil kept the lights on for eight days. What universal messages might Hanukkah hold, whether or not we practice Judaism? Here are a few thoughts:

  • On the other side of persistent, necessary effort is a victory that comes with no effort. Our term for that is "a miracle".
  • Hope requires the willingness to be surprised. When I lose my willingness to be surprised, hope has little room to operate. Clinging to a predetermined outcome erects walls that limit visibility and possibility.
  • Light, however, can enter where there is an opening, a crack in the walls I have erected. Am I willing to be cracked open and not be so secure and defended? Am I willing to let light in without knowing what inner shadowlands it will reveal or which path forward it will light? Am I willing for my heart to open so wide that light can enter from unexpected angles, from people I dislike or dismiss, from situation and feelings I want to avoid?
  • Am I willing to release control so that God can take the shards of my heart and fashion them into a new heart that beats with unstoppable compassion? Am I willing to have a stout heart, a courage, that is not afraid to face a fragmented world and call it back into wholeness? Am I willing to dedicate my every moment to keeping that heart open at all costs?
  • God, I am willing. And I am frightened. May the Light prevail in me.

Mother Moose

I arose before dawn one morning last week in Grand Teton National Park to take a photo of the sun's first rays painting a pastel swath across the mountains. A terry cloth robe of cottony clouds, however, cloaked the mountains. brilliant landscape photo was to be had.  I looked below the horizon and saw a mother moose and her calf enjoying a pre-dawn breakfast. (See the video below.) Moose, the largest member of the deer family, are herbivores and ruminants who eat up to 50 pounds of food a day. The name "moose" means "twig eater" in the Algonquian language (a Native American tribe). [Side note: What an odd language we have! The plural of goose is geese. So why aren't a pair of moose called meese? For that matter if the plurals of mouse and louse are mice and lice, shouldn't more than one spouse be spice?]

The quest for vegan vittles takes moose underwater to forage on aquatic plants, which are particularly attractive because of the high sodium content of water plants. Moose prize these salty treats so much that they have been known to dive underwater as deep as 18 feet for a snack. These excellent swimmers can also run up to 35 miles per hour.

A calf will stay with a cow, mother moose, for a year until the next newborn comes along. Then a calf must fend for itself. The cow in the video is preparing her offspring for the harsh winter. With mother moose's protection, guidance and good fortune, the calf should be ready for independence come next spring. As I eavesdropped on this mother/child breakfast, the mountain photo no longer seemed quite so important.

[vimeography id="17"]

Savior? Job Filled. No Need to Apply.

By the time you read this, our congressional leaders may have already endorsed the president's plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. I have been trying to understand the reasoning behind this decision. Is it to save face after the president drew "a red line" that must not be crossed? Is it to send a violent message to any who would use chemical weapons because we feel helpless to stop them and simply don't know what else to do? Is it because our foreign policy has devolved into a knee-jerk response to shoot first and ask questions later? Perhaps it's a bit of all the above. At a deeper level, I think it reveals a blind spot in the American psyche. We seem to view ourselves as morally, spiritually, and politically superior to the rest of the world. As such, we can rationalize virtually any action in the name of our principles, even when our actions violate those principles.This has been the case since the founding of our nation when our sense of manifest destiny justified genocide of the people native to this continent.  A self-appointed savior can always justify demonic behavior.

Of course, this is not unique to us. Violent jihadists, for example, mar the name of Islam in the supposed defense of Islam. But let's keep the focus on our own house. It's neither our place nor within our power to be the world's sheriff/savior. Have you ever tried to fix someone? How did that go? What makes us think it works any better on a global scale?

Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Decades of covert CIA operations to overthrow governments and assassinate leaders. Our intention to make things right often goes terribly wrong. Our bombs seem to create enemies faster than we can eliminate them. We say we are making the world safe for democracy. As our surgical strikes kill children and spouses ("collateral damage"), grieving souls must wonder who will keep them safe from democracy.

It's easier to fire missiles (real or metaphorical) and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, than it is to build consensus, fumble through ineffective action until effective action becomes clear, and admit that we are just as clueless and vulnerable as the rest of the world.  It's called humility, but it doesn't sell well on Election Day or jibe with our American "can do" spirit.

What does sell is distraction. Being savior of another person or of the world is often a distraction from neglected inner work. How many times have I helped someone, not out of kindness, but to mask my own sense of unworthiness? How many times has our nation lashed out in righteous anger while ignoring our own unrighteousness? Where's our indignation about an economic recovery comprised of cellar-paying McJobs as corporate honchos rake in record profits? Where's the moral outrage about our eroding civil liberties? Where's the call to arms to fix a dysfunctional social services system that is failing the most vulnerable in our midst?

Yes, America has done much good in the world. And, yes, violence is necessary...on very rare occasions...when there truly is no other our reluctant, humble and sober choice.

So as the drumbeat quickens for more violence in the name of peace and compassion, I'm reminded of a Biblical self-righteous, self-appointed savior who was marching on Syria to make the world safe for God and God's followers. His name was Saul, later renamed Paul. Here's how he tells the story of his aborted crusade:

“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’" (Acts 22)

Saul saw the light. When will we?

Is Lake Tahoe Good Enough?

Lake Tahoe. Lying in a hammock last week overlooking the placid waters, I wondered what could be better. Of course, my mind quickly had an answer: "The two jet skis could be silent. If only the sun would move off my face, I'd be more comfortable. I wish I had brought something out here to drink." My bliss was turning into a disappointment. Here I was lazing away an afternoon in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet, and I felt dissatisfied. How did this happen? Fortunately, I remembered something. I was at a retreat center where the theme of the week was gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. The guest facilitator was Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of Forgiveness Studies at Stanford University. (Check out his YouTube videos and his book Forgive for Good.)

Dr. Luskin's basic take on forgiveness is that it is making peace with not getting what we want. When I wasn't getting the perfect "Lake Tahoe viewed from a hammock" experience, I recalled what we had learned as the first step toward making peace with what is: gratitude.

Gratitude begins with: “I am not the center of the universe.” I can see Lake Tahoe without feeling that I own it and that it owes me something. I am part of it. It is part of me. What created that lake observes it through another part of itself (me). This is humility. When I quiet the screaming mind that always wants more, I notice what I’m already given. Then my suffering shifts to gratitude.

Our biology/neurology predisposes us to find problems in order to keep alive, but not to make us happy. We have well-developed threat monitors. For most of us, the part of us that finds good has atrophied.  We need balance. Wholeness is to appreciate the goodness without pushing away the suffering. Yes, there are real threats and suffering. Most of the time, however, in the midst of this unpredictable, dangerous world, we are ok. That in itself is reason for gratitude.

Fred Luskin shared an easy way to monitor whether we are cultivating gratitude or suffering. In any moment we can notice if we are responding to life with “Thank you!” or “It’s not good enough.”

Studies show that 75-80% of our day is consumed with “It’s not good enough.” No need for judgment. It's a biological survival mechanism. It's just not conducive for happiness. For happiness we need to balance that problem-obsession with gratitude.

Gratitude is saying “thank you”. If we are the center of the universe in our own experience, then everything must be perfect…otherwise we complain. We can even turn abundance, even Lake Tahoe, into a problem. We have so many choices, and every choice makes us count the missed opportunities of options not chosen. It’s like online dating, which creates anxiety about what is lost/missed by the innumerable choices not selected. “I deserve to get more/all”. This is the polar opposite of gratitude and "thank you".

So in that moment by Lake Tahoe, I chose to say "thank you". I inhaled appreciation for my surroundings, relaxed my tensed belly, and exhaled. I kept doing this until my self-absorbed compulsion for more/better subsided. "Thank you" was enough. (Mystic Meister Eckhart said that if "thank you" is the only prayer you ever learn, that's enough.)

A deep, in my body sense of gratitude turned an agitated moment into a happy one. Nothing had changed. Except me.

Seeing Right Through Disguises

Growing up I loved reading comic books. I could believe storylines about other dimensions, magical villains, and mutant superpowers. What I found hard to believe was the notion of secret identities, that superheroes could walk around in everyday life undetected. Why didn’t everyone notice that Clark Kent was obviously Superman? His disguise was a pair of glasses. That’s it. How was everyone so blind? All they saw was Clark, a mild-mannered reporter. I shouldn’t be too hard on comic book writers. Most of us wear disguises. We put on various masks to fit in and make ourselves look good, but they rarely fool anyone. On the other hand, our magnificent essence is often obscured by our faults and frailties.

In the Bible is a story about a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). Like most good stories, the irony is the point. The blind man sees what no one else does. The crowd of sighted people see their latest superhero, superstar, prophet and magician. Bartimaeus sees deeper.

The crowd tries to silence Bartimeaus when he calls out to Jesus. But Bartimaeus yells out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”...Son of David. David, that woefully imperfect king who nonetheless was said to be a man after God’s own heart. Bartimaeus sensed in Jesus that heart of God, the heart of compassion, Life Essence, the Web of care connecting all.

Jesus stands still. It takes conscious intention to stop midst the inertia of the crowd (or the inertia of our own ego), get still, check in and then act from a deeper place, from the heart of compassion.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. What an odd question. Isn’t it blatantly obvious? Not really. The unfortunate truth is that most of us would rather stay in the familiar dark. Did Bartimaeus really want to see? It would come with a cost: he'd have to let go of his identity as a blind man; he'd have to find a new line of work; he'd have to let go of all reasonable excuses and entrenched story lines about his life.

Do you really want to see? To see things as they are always requires that we sacrifice cherished illusions. The excuses, blame, judgments, self-centeredness, arrogance, self-pity, apathy…they fall like scales from our eyes. We see life as it is, stripped of our familiar narratives and prejudices. It’s liberating but uncomfortable.

Bartimaeus makes his choice, “I want to see again.” Jesus replies, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Does he physically see again? Maybe. We only know a small fraction of what is possible in this surprising universe. But if all we get from the story is that a man named Jesus performed unrepeatable magic tricks 2,000 years ago and therefore must be praised and obeyed, then we've missed the mystical juice that still heals today.

Bartimaeus takes a leap of faith, which saves him. Is it possible that Bartimaeus takes that leap out of the familiar toward wholeness and finds in himself the very Life-Essence that Jesus radiates? It's interesting that Jesus doesn't say "I saved you" but rather "Your faith has saved you."

The constant choice is between a familiar, fear-based existence and greeting life as it is, with openness and kind eyes. To see life as it is requires faith because we must be willing to surrender our set story lines for an unpredictable, emerging story. If we are willing to make that leap of faith, then we will be saved in every way a person can be saved. We will see right through every disguise, including the one we see in the mirror, to the very heart of God. We'll recognize the lively sparkle in the eyes behind those glasses.

A Broken Record

I had a dream a few nights ago. In the dream I am in charge of the Academy Awards. The show is about to start. I've entrusted the opening music to my mother. She plays the wrong song! I hear Bing Crosby's "White Christmas", and she's playing it on an LP, scratch vinyl! I frantically look through mounds of vinyl LPs for the correct song, which is Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade". I can't find it. I admit to those around me that for last year's show we used CDs for the first time. Suddenly, an obnoxious voice chimes in: "Why are you using vinyl? Who uses vinyl anymore, or even CDs for that matter? Why aren't there MP3s or other modern formats for your music? This is crazy!"

I ask those around me to make him shut up because I can't concentrate. Knowing the whole world is now watching and waiting, I keep shuffling through the vinyl LPs, hoping to find the right song. The End.

Here's what came to me as I played with the dream: A nostalgic "White Christmas" life, a fantasy existence, plays in my head like a broken record. That broken record says that my work should be like an idealized view of a past job. My friends now should make me feel just like beloved friends made me feel in college and young adulthood. The record skips from song to song,  replay old recordings about how community, work, a relationship, friendships, and even the divine should be. Why has my life not turned out to be the award-deserving triumph I envisioned?

I sensed that the deeper issue is the format, symbolized by vinyl LPs. They have deep grooves and ruts that are comfortable yet confining.  Digital recordings and live streaming are more flexible and adaptable. I don't need a new song, which would soon become its own broken record. I need a new format, a different context for listening to the music of my life.

The old format is one of comparisons, "should have been" and "ought to be".  Fantasies about the past become a broken record with which no current reality can compete, and I become too fogged with nostalgia or judgment to notice what's emerging around and within me.

An alternative is to savor the love available in real life here and now. This reality-based format is fluid, unpredictable and vulnerable. And yet the rhythm of goodness here is genuine and vivacious. All I need to do is feel the beat and move with it.

So, I thanked that obnoxious voice which I had tried to silence in the dream. I intend to come out of the nostalgic rut and savor my life here and now. Love...true, messy and the only reality worth leaving nostalgia for.

What do you make of the dream? What do you relate to in it?

Nicotina Mutabilis

This is the Nicotina Mutabilis, a flowering tobacco plant. The name mutabilis literally means changing. It's mutable. Each blossom begins as a white cloudbursts that shifts to a blushing pink and deepens to a lusty rose. This lovely plant reminds me that I have a constant choice in life. I can greet uninvited change with resistance, blame and judgment. Or, once I pass through the unpleasant feelings, I can accept change for what it is: inevitable. It's neither personal nor unfair. It simply is the way of things.

I admit that my obsession with how life "should have been" has kept me stuck. I've often looked at life through the rearview mirror of resentment and victimhood. Today I choose acceptance, and I'm primed...not for passivity...but for moving forward here and now. I notice the changing pigments of my life and relish the subtle hues of this moment.

Nicotina shifts:

White. Pink. Red. Spinning beauty

Out of constant change.

Kitty Community

Our family includes two dogs (a sweet, behemoth of an Airedale and a Fox Terrier with an Othello-sized jealousy streak) and two cats (a sleek, black Siamese and her curvaceous, calico daughter). The dogs, Flash and Cowboy, stay indoors except for their walks and daily romps in the backyard. They lie next to their humans, follow them around the house, and wait impatiently for the next treat or playtime with their addiction of choice: The Kong! Neither will go outside to play without the other by his side.

The cats, Jezebel and Bebe, are much more independent. While Jezebel snuggles next to us every night, most of her day is spent outside. She and Bebe go their separate ways and roam the neighborhood, making friends and mostly taking naps in the sunniest spots they can find. Yet even these independent cats seek community: someone to lay next to, someone to groom and be groomed by, and someone with whom to dine.

We Americans emphasize the individual. Other societies emphasize community. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad, but a balance is needed.

When I visited Japan, I learned to greet people by their family name because that family identity is the most precious and accurate way of introducing one's self, more so than one's individual name. You simply won't find an empty bottle or scrap of paper lying on the sidewalk, even in major cities like Tokyo. Why? Because each person sees the sidewalk as her or his responsibility to keep clean on behalf of the whole community. In America our streets our littered with the debris of our self-preoccupation.

The downside of Japanese identification with the community is that the needs of the individual are often compromised for the sake of community, family, and corporate loyalty. Commuter trains are full of dapper business people just leaving work at 10pm on a Friday night.

Jezebel and Bebe embody a middle path that balances independence and belonging to one another. Most of us have lost the sense of being part of a village, much less the greater whole of humanity. Living alone, or in our nuclear families or with small families of choice, we feel starved for deeper human connection. Our self-centered stories fail to give us the context for who we are.

So how do we experience that balance of community and individuality? I asked the cats. They told me it's all about listening to the purr deep within you. Sometimes that purr compels you to be alone and explore the limits of your freedom. However, that purr always leads you back home, back to where your heart beats to the rhythm of another's heart. Back to where you are always welcomed with nourishment. Back home with the collective where you start to understand deep in your fur what all your individual wanderings meant. Curled up together, you can deeply least until the dogs arrive.

For reflection: Where do you sense an opportunity for deeper community? What is your next step in that direction?

P.S. If you live in the Bay Area, come join us for our weekly experiment with community: Tuesday Night Live.