What Season Is It?

It's finally raining after a mostly dry January and February. The norm for this time of year in Northern California is Noah-esque downpours alternating with the constant pitter of "Seattle-sunshine". Blue skies, al fresco dining, and sun-kissed blossoms are not seasonal. We live seasonally. The seasons of the earth...and of our human life...continue onward unabated. We must bow to those patterns of ebb and flow, cold and warm, birth and death. We can dance to the rhythm or sit in a corner and sulk, but the music goes on either way.

In Taoism the spiritual path is to align with the Tao, the Way, which is the flow of life. The clearer and simpler we live, and the more flexible we are with the turnings of the seasons of life, the more free and alive we will be.

Societies and cultures also have seasons. But what season are we in? Are we becoming more peaceful or more belligerent?  Is this a season of hope or fear?

It seems that we as a species are in a "shoulder season", a time of transition between seasons. We vacillate between what we are becoming and the lesser angels of our past. We are both a fearful, bigoted, selfish lot, and a generous, welcoming, evolving people. And, of course, each of us individually is somewhere on that spectrum, often vacillating between the poles.

As a nation of immigrants, we nearly erased those native to this land. We are deeply enriched by those not native to our shores, but anti-immigrant sentiment and policies are ascending.

We had our first African-American President. It seemed perhaps that we had turned a page, yet racism is becoming more vocal and visible.

We are fickle, flawed and finite. In this time between seasons, many long for a return to how things used to be, while others aggressively press us forward to a more inclusive tomorrow. It's hard to tell where we are and who we are collectively.

Yet an even deeper reality exists beyond our volatile weather patterns. It does not turn, has no beginning or end. It is the pure potential out of which all other seasons erupt. It contains the poles of our vacillation, yet is neither pole.

What is this reality? Taoists say that the Tao which can be named is not the Eternal Tao. In other words, we seasonal beings cannot grasp the Eternal from which we emerge. We are always becoming, always in process, always a changing manifestation of the Un-manifest.

Everything and everyone is in constant flux between seasons. So perhaps we can be a bit less rigid and have a little more self-compassion and humor; for we are all in a "shoulder season" somewhere between who we aspire to be and who we are in this moment.

As we passionately rally for a most just, welcoming, sustainable world...even when our conscience compels us to cajole those stuck in a previous season to "wake up"...let's do so with a little more compassion and humility.  Even the best of us is still a work in progress.

The Subtle Truth

"We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather around us that they may see their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even a fiercer life because of our quiet." 

- William Butler Yeats -

A mind like still water. My mind is more like a jacuzzi. Yet in those moments of stillness I can see a glimpse of my own soul, and for a time life is clear and fierce and free.

What would it take to live there more often? What does the soul need in order to come out of its den and offer us gifts of hope, wisdom, and creativity?

Largely, I think the soul needs quiet in order to reveal itself. Like a soulful introvert (those whose few words cut to the heart of every matter), what is truest and transformative lives in a subtle space. Rather than a neon sign, wisdom is more like sun's amber goodnight kiss that sets the earth aglow.

Our lives, however, are filled with visual and audio noise:

  • Billboards and the clutter of nonstop advertisements
  • Texts and tweets
  • The inner, anxious clanging of busy lives with endless to-do lists
  • A 24-hour news cycle that compels us to check Smartphones incessantly

We live in a noisy culture. It's little wonder that so many of us feel on edge and don't know where to place our attention, our vital life energy. And this is an essential question. As my spiritual director recently told me: "Love is infinite, but your energy is finite."

A deeper knowing requires a stillness, a haven from and midst the noise. It requires us to regularly unplug, unwind, and unfurl ourselves into silence, into nature, into creative expression, and into life without purpose or agenda. Only then can our purpose become clear and our daily agenda be in alignment with soul.

When we intentionally seek stillness, when we cultivate it like a rare and fragile flower, then it blooms wisdom. Actions flow freely and fiercely from wisdom because our energy and attention are undiluted. We are less concerned with doing everything right, and find ourselves doing the right things.

Over time, we might even notice others pausing in our presence to catch a glimpse of themselves in our deep, still waters.

Beyond the Final Frontier

My partner gave me this painting from artist David Thornberry for Christmas. It's taken from Star Trek: The Original Series' third season, an episode entitled "Spectre of the Gun". In that episode, the Enterprise trespasses into the territory of an alien species, who put captain and crew to the test in a re-creation of the 1881 shootout at the OK Corral.

Facing imminent death, Mr. Spock realizes the truth: nothing is real. A tranquilizer that should work, doesn't. Imaginary guns that should have no effect, can kill. The illusions only have power when the mind gives them power.

And so, with the assistance of Mr. Spock's Vulcan mind meld, Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott know this illusion to be harmless, and the "bullets" at the shootout pass right through them.

For many of us, 2017 felt like a shootout. The daily barrage of news pierced us. Personal challenges seemed more ominous against the backdrop of violent world events and vile politics.

2018 can be different.

What if we called into question what we know to be real? What if the daily "bullets" weren't so solid?

I'm not suggesting that we ignore or minimize what is happening. But what if we questioned our fixed stories that we believe to be absolute truth? What if we called into question the mind that generates those stories?

The pain of daily life and the angst of our political era are what they are. Shit happens. It's the mind's commentary on those events that is arbitrary. It's our belief in the mind's creations that limits our freedom when we turn its commentary into rigid truth. It's our unquestioned loyalty to those rigid truths that exacerbates personal suffering and interpersonal strife.

In 2018, we will once again face perils, internal and external. The external perils call us to respond as people of goodwill, faith, compassion, and courage.

The internal challenge is subtler yet just as exciting. We can see thoughts as apparitions. They come and go but have no inherent substance. We are free to believe or disbelieve them, act on them or ignore them.

And in that place of doubt and unknowing, a deep Knowing is recognized. Whether we call it Wisdom, Life, or the Sacred, it's the beginning point of wisdom, and the genesis of all freedom.

From that Awareness, the mind is seen for what it is: a generator of specters: some valid...some not, all transitory. And for just a moment, an hour, or, if we're fortunate, chunks of a new year...we know the Truth, and we are set free.

Shining a Light Within

A few weeks ago I had a silent retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. For a couple of days I watched the ocean and listened to birds. I paid attention to my dreams and went on long walks down a steep winding road that snakes its way through scenic vistas of undulating mountains spilling onto  the shoreline. It was externally blissful.

Internally, storms raged.

Particularly noticeable was my stormy self-talk: alternating waves of judgment and anxiety (negative fantasizing about the future). No wonder I had been so stressed. My mind was seething with fearful, self-shaming chatter. Was this really the inner dialog of my daily life? Yes.

I watched the ocean with my eyes, and with consciousness I watched my mind generate its turbulent weather patterns. I realized the ridiculousness of my own mind's content and how miserable it had made me. With each breath, I released another wave of fear or self-criticism into the ocean.

And then something amazing happened. I looked out at the ocean and experienced an infinite Love. The mind receded, and and an unconditional, limitless, judgment-free LOVE emerged.

Yet, I knew this was not new. I've been surrounded by it my whole life. It's everywhere. It's what I breathe. It's the ocean in which I swim. Suddenly I knew this to be true in a way I had not known before.

Now, a few weeks removed, I know something more. I am the ocean. I am that Essence in which the judgment, anxiety, bliss, and forgiveness all arise....and recede.

That means I have the ability to "just say no" to the internal crazies. I hold them in love as wounded parts in need of healing. I neither become nor destroy them; I just parent them and watch them splash around, while I remain the oceanic embrace.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Nighttime has reached its peak. But this is only one perspective. The sun is the same brilliance every day. The tilt of our orbiting Earth either embraces or evades the light of the sun.

Your brilliant Essence never waxes or wanes, yet you can choose whether to embrace of evade it. You can choose your self-talk and inner dialog. Which way will you tilt in the new year?

Barking at Shadows

Las Vegas. The Rohingya in Myanmar. Syria. Charlottesville. The list of atrocities grows. How can we hold such pain? What do we do with our anger? Where do we go from here?

A wise response is both external and internal. External, political action includes sensible gun regulation, like banning rapid-fire devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic weapons, which are already illegal. Another external response is opposing white supremacism and dismantling the lingering effects of structural racism.

But the harder and yet most essential work is internal. Are we willing to face the hatred, fear, unacknowledged racism, Islamaphobia, and xenophobia that lurk within our own hearts? Will we own or project these shadowy denizens of our psyche?

Two weeks ago we brought home a new dog Benny, a Terrier/Havanese mix. He is a one-year old rescue and has fast become a loving companion and fierce protector of the household...perhaps too much so.

A few nights ago, he started barking uncontrollably. We could not figure out what was disturbing him. Was it the raccoon family in the neighborhood? No. Perhaps the neighbor taking out the trash, a favorite faux-threat that Benny warns us about vehemently. No.

Benny was barking at a moving shadow. We had a lit candle placed in front of a small statue of Shiva Nataraja, "The Lord of the Dance". The flickering candlelight created a dancing Shiva against the back wall. Benny, freaked out by this morphing, ominous projection, was beside himself with fear and protective anger.

What about us? What fear and anger are we projecting into the world? What shadows of the divine do we bark at, that is, what unresolved issues within our psyche do we project outward and call divine? Do we invoke the divine to justify our discomfort with people of other races, sexual orientations, religions, or political persuasions?

What do we do with our agitation and anxiety? Do we find ourselves barking uncontrollably on social media or with friends and family?

The first step toward stopping the external carnage is to face and heal the internal carnage. It's the unacknowledged darkness within that we project outward into a world already full of violence.

The way forward is to shift from projection to introspection. Notice the fear and anger. Notice the bias and bigotry hiding within. Notice and acknowledge the judgments, shame, and rampant anxiety that govern our thoughts, emotions and even actions.

And how do we heal what we notice? Consciousness and Compassion.

Consciousness.Consciousness, or the loving witness, sees all the disaster, turmoil, hate, fear, and despair, yet is not consumed by any of them.  When you notice these shifting, conflicting feelings and thoughts, ask who is noticing all these changes. The "who" is consciousness, the loving witness.

Compassion. When we courageously let ourselves witness the ugliness within, we have a choice. Judge it or forgive it. Compassion, flowing from the loving witness, enables us to finally face our demons. And rather than bark at or run from them, we simply acknowledge them with self-forgiveness...and move on.

How did we get Benny to stop barking? We blew out the candle. Then we placed the statue of Shiva on the floor. Benny circled it. Looked at it. Then slowly approached and sniffed it. The barking stopped. There was nothing to fear once it was seen for what it was.

This is always true of projections. We just have to bring them out of the shadows and into the Light of Conscious awareness and Compassion.

A Personal Reflection after Charlottesville

When I was a child, my grandfather and I were inseparable. We listened to records together on his stereo: Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. We built bird houses, solved crossword puzzles, gardened, and hosted "radio shows" during which we sang and interviewed grandma and our dogs. The dogs were actually the better interview as they played and wrestled with each other. Grandpa and I did everything together. And I loved him dearly. He was a good man, if ever there was one.

When he died, I inherited his records. Midst the ones I knew well, I found two that I didn't recognize. There were comedy recordings, which were blatantly and offensively racist. I destroyed them.

How could I reconcile my amazing grandfather, whose love and upright values formed me...the very best of me...with these grotesque recordings?

This sent me on a journey to face racism in my own heart and mind. Eventually I started to see ways in which my skin color gave me inherent advantages others did not have. For example, the house I live in today would not have been possible to buy if I had not inherited my parents' house, which they were able to buy at a time when people of color were being denied access to affordable mortgages.

In the name of preserving Southern heritage, some are clinging to symbols like the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate generals.  Nostalgia wafts through the air for a bygone era of gentility and civility...for magnolias, cascading weeping willows, and mint juleps.

Wafting through the air with that nostalgia is the stench of slavery. We cannot ignore that an economic system was built on the backs of slaves. We cannot ignore the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow that still oppress and diminish opportunity for people of color. The structures of racism, and their deleterious effects, did not end with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Act.

When we destroy racists artifacts, whether comedy records or statues, we are affirming that we wish to be a different people. Our nostalgia for an historical figure or a beloved grandfather goes not excuse us from facing racism and its symbolic toxicity. Isn't any nostalgia for those symbols infinitely less precious than the tearful healing and hope sparked in people of color when those symbols are taken away?

My grandfather taught me fairness, but that pristine fairness did not fully embrace people of color. The best way I know to honor the legacy of my grandfather that I still feel in my heart is to stretch his values to include more and more people, until I finally become the man he hoped I could be...and more.

Are You a Love Dog?

A friend recently asked me what my favorite poem is. How do you choose just one favorite? Yet, this poem instantly came to mind. It’s from the Sufi mystic Rumi:

One night a man was crying, Allah! Allah!

His lips grew sweet with the praising, until a cynic said,

“So! I have heard you calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?”

“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of.

Give your life to be one of them.

Are you a “love dog”? Becoming one requires a radical shift. A recent experience reminded me how radical the shift is.

A reporter from our local newspaper interviewed me about the rise of religious intolerance and also about my new position as Executive Director of the Marin Interfaith Council. The next day I went for an early morning walk. Passing a neighbor’s driveway, I looked down and saw the newspaper and jumped back. My face was on the front page…Yikes!

I knew the article was coming, but I didn’t know it would be front-page news. I became anxious. I wondered which part of the interview was included. I replayed the dialog on my mental turntable. Had I said anything stupid or inappropriate? And why did my face look so wrinkled in the picture? My mind was racing.

I breathed. I stood still. What was going on?

I hated to admit it, but it was ego. I wanted to look good. I wanted to project competence and goodness. My ego works hard to maintain its fabulous self-image and was ready to defend itself.

  • What identity do you maintain and project?
  • What’s the self-image you are ready to defend?
  • Are you willing to let that go in order to find a deeper Life? In order to be a “love dog”?

My friend Nancy McCranie is a Presbyterian minister in Texas. Nancy is funny, smart, and a delight in countless ways. When it comes to officiating weddings, however, she doesn’t mince words. When couples first come to her, Nancy says, “Let’s get one things straight from the start. You have a choice to make. You can have a happy wedding, or you can have a perfect wedding, but you can’t have both. Which do you choose?”

Our choice is just as stark. You can marry ego or marry the Holy, but you can’t do both. The journey of waking up to reality is radical, uncomfortable and non-negotiable. It is to become your fullest, truest Self. And here’s the catch. If it really happens, it’s going to seem like a death.

In Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr writes:

There is a necessary suffering that cannot be avoided which Jesus calls “losing our very life,” or losing what I and others call the “false self”. Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real.

You can save your life, or you can lose it, but you can’t do both. You can have a nice, well-defended ego, or you can look at yourself in the mirror, or on the front page of the newspaper, and simply stop defending your ego.

That’s the spiritual path. Surrendering everything: the comfort of approval, people-pleasing identities, cherished stories that keep you safe but small; the beliefs, self-image, God-images to which you are attached. Let it all go.

And what remains when you let go of everything?

In the surrendered emptiness, you come home to your True Self, to that Indescribable Being-ness that you are. At home as your Self, in your Self, everyone and everything finds a proper place.

Let yourself howl and moan and whine for the Source of your deep longing and discover you already are what you’ve been yearning for:

This longing you express is the return message.

The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of.

Give your life to be one of them.

NOTES: To read the newspaper article referenced above, click here.

This blog was based on a sermon I preached recently. Here is the sermon: Matthew 10-24-39, revised, internet version.

We Belong to the Earth

I had the privilege of delivering the following talk at Marin's Climate March on Saturday, April 29, 2017.  Our Fox Terrier Cowboy is with us today. Everyone who truly loves a dog realizes that we don’t own our dogs. One look into those adoring canine eyes and it’s no longer clear who owns whom. The heart opens, and a deeper truth emerges: We belong to each other. That’s why faith traditions tell us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But how far does that neighborhood extend? To whom do we belong? To immigrants? To the homeless? To those without healthcare? To the incarcerated? To those who look, love or believe differently? To dogs and cats? To redwoods and rockfish? To aquifers and atmosphere? To the entire world that birthed us?

Life on this planet did just fine without us before we arrived, yet it’s not doing fine with us. Without wisdom, we forget our place in the cosmos. We act like we are the cause and purpose of the planet. We forget who we are, what we are, where we belong. Does the Earth belong to us, or do we belong to the Earth?

Yes, we belong to the Earth herself. We belong to flora and fauna. We belong to each other.

Yes, we belong, and in belonging we are freed from over-consuming, abusing, and destroying. In belonging, we are free to be in relationship with, rather than relationship over.

In belonging, we remember who we are: We are evolution, aware of it own unfolding. We are Mother Earth waking up to her own magnificence, a magnificence that includes every person, every species. A magnificent belonging of all beings to one another.

That’s why we march, why we rally, why we act, why we advocate. We belong to each other.

Thankfully, we have dogs and all creation to remind us.

Arrested by an Iris

Bearded irises erupted in our front yard, proclaiming with royal brilliance spring's arrival. Every time I start to walk past them, awe stops me. I am arrested by beauty. I pause, admire, and am grateful. What if more and more could have the same effect? What if gratitude were available virtually every moment, everywhere? What if my aperture for gratitude expanded to include washing machines, pears, sidewalks and black-capped chickadees?

I'm starting to notice how many "things" support me every day. Socks and sandwiches, cats and carburetors, ivies and eyeglasses. From the simplest convenience to superfluous joy-boosters like the iris, my entire life is sustained and defined by grace.

What if I basked in God-essence exuding from an aeonium's buttery bloom outside my window? What if even the paper towel became worthy of my adoration? What if I acknowledged my office chair for its support and the mouse for its skillful guidance of the cursor? What if I thanked my cuddling pajamas?

Buddhists talk about interdependent arising; no one thing exists in and of itself. Everything is an interdependent web of interconnected causes. Each gives and receives in ever-expanding ripples of overlapping reciprocity.

The enlightened eye sees through the nebulous border where one thing begins and another ends.

What if the division between the pear tree and me totally dissolved? What if the separation between you and me was seen for the illusion it is?

How would life change if midst genuine pain, frustration, injustice, and uncertainty, we embraced with a full heart every tidbit of grace, revered every thread of the interconnected web of all Being?

Would we able to bear such all-infusing gratitude? Can our hearts hold that much sacred joy? Let's find out.

What is Your Original Face?

I had a disturbing dream recently. I was in an underground parking lot, and police were making an arrest. The man being arrested was charged with a crime: stealing other people’s faces. All around the garage were angry men with stitched cheeks and foreheads. Their original appearance had been stolen, and now they had to wear someone else’s face. As I reflected on the dream, I began to wonder: Is the face I’m wearing truly mine? What is my original face?

I wonder how many of us have given up our original faces for the sake of unity? How many of us have sacrificed a core piece of our soul in order to keep the peace, belong, be loved, or just survive?

My original church home was The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It’s where I was raised, went to seminary, was ordained, and served as a pastor for five years. Twice in American history a major Christian denomination had a conservative/progressive battle, and decided to become more conservative. One was the Southern Baptist Convention, and the other was the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

I struggled as a seminary student. The rigid doctrines conflicted with the expansive love of God I had known in my heart since childhood. I was told to ignore such feelings because they were misleading and infected with sin. True doctrine alone could be trusted, as established once and for all in the Lutheran Confession as written in the 16th Century.

So, I buried my heart, put on an orthodox face, and feigned unity.

Years later, before I left that church, I led an education program for Missouri Synod clergy in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Each year, we’d have a mix of internal and external speakers. For the external speakers, I’d invite someone who might create some discomfort, hoping for a little evolution amongst our clergy, all of whom, of course, were men since the Missouri-Synod does not ordain women.

One time I invited the pastor of the Cathedral of Hope, which was the largest congregation in the world whose primary ministry was to the LGBT Community. The pastor demonstrated how their liturgy and theology mirrored the rest of mainline Christianity. Then he said, “Really, the only difference between you and me is that I achieve sexual friction in a different way than you do.”

I watched old men’s faces turn pale as this registered in their minds. At the end, several of them stood up and railed against him for pronouncing absolution and benediction upon people living in unrepentant sin, people destined for hell. Others, however, with tears in their eyes, thanked him for providing a spiritual home for those who found no welcome in their own congregation. They blessed him and his ministry. For me, a closeted gay minister, it was deeply healing. For the first time, I had heard another Missouri Synod minister bless the fullness of who I am.

After these meetings, one of my tasks was to send a thank you letter to our presenters. We had a standard letter that addressed them as brother/sister in Christ and closed with a blessing for them and their ministries.

Over the years, we had many speakers, representing diverse political views and theologies. This time, and only this time, I was told by fellow ministers not to address our speaker as brother in Christ and not to close the letter with a blessing for him and his congregation.

But I could still hear in my heart the song I was taught in Lutheran school:

Every flower soft and gay, gently smiling seems to say:

"God’s a parent, kind and true, one who loves and cares for you."

That’s the God I knew. That's the Jesus I experienced. I wrote to the pastor, addressing him as brother, and blessed him and his congregation with joy. I was beginning to recover my original face.

What’s your original face? In these times of polarization, fear, and artifice, the best hope for our world is for each of us to to restore our original faces, in all their diverse glory, and let them so shine that others remember who they really are. Ultimately, we are siblings, children of one Essence, an Essence, which I experience as Unconditional Love. How does your original face reveal that Love?

I wrote a haiku about my dream. I've been using it as a kind of mantra when I start to forget.

Original Face

Fun. Heart-connection. God-fire

Wakens world to Love.

If you feel so inclined, please share a haiku about your "original face".