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America’s Soul Sickness

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AMERICA’S SOUL SICKNESS

I have said before that what is wrong with America is a spiritual illness, a soul sickness. Most of us watched in horror in 2016 as the last remnants of civility and compassion were pummeled into the ground during the presidential election. When Donald Trump made fun of a disabled man, threatened to punch another man in the face, bragged about the size of his genitalia and his power to grab women’s genitalia — well, you don’t need me to go on.

Nobody believed he could win. Because we are better than that.

My contention is that this is where we were inevitably headed. Our national psyche is now firmly centered upon greed, getting  your own, and winning, winning, winning at any cost . . . well, ladies and gentlemen, behold your leader. This is who you are. At least this is who 38% of you are. “He got rich, right? He must be great.”

It’s no wonder that white supremacists are murdering people on trains, congressional candidates are beating up reporters (and winning anyway) and GOP state legislators are threatening to shoot their colleagues in the head. Again, you don’t need me to go on.

America spends $597 BILLION each year on weapons and war — as much as the next seven largest national military budgets *combined.* And the new president wants to increase that. Is this who we are?

Our greed and excesses have quite possibly already pushed our planetary systems beyond the point where humans will be able to adapt. And the new president is OK with that, wants to roll back even minimal protections. Is this who we are?

Is this who we are?? Photo: Dallas Morning News

Somewhere along the line, we lost our souls. Our souls tell us to love one another, to care for one another, to care for our fellow creatures. We have forgotten who we are at heart. We are soul-sick.

The Simple Truth

One of my favorite authors, Father Richard Rohr, writes about this soul sickness. He speaks the truth.

For what it’s worth, an excerpt:

“Most of us have grown up with a capitalist worldview which makes a virtue and goal out of accumulation, consumption, and collecting. It’s hard for us to see this as an unsustainable and unhappy trap because all of our rooms are decorated in this same color. It is the only obvious story line that our children see. “I produce therefore I am” and “I consume therefore I am” might be today’s answers to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” These identities are all terribly mistaken.

This foundational way of seeing has blinded us so that we now tend to falsely assume more is better. The course we are on assures us of a predictable future of strained individualism, severe competition as resources dwindle for a growing population, and perpetual war. Our culture ingrains in us the belief that there isn’t enough to go around. This determines much if not most of our politics. In the United States there is never enough for health care, education, the arts, or basic infrastructure. The largest budget is always for war, bombs, and military gadgets.

E. F. Schumacher said years ago, “Small is beautiful,” and many other wise people have come to know that less stuff invariably leaves room for more soul. In fact, possessions and soul seem to operate in inverse proportion to one another. Only through simplicity can we find deep contentment instead of perpetually striving and living unsatisfied. Simple living is the foundational social justice teaching of Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Pope Francis, and all hermits, mystics, prophets, and seers since time immemorial.

Franciscan alternative orthodoxy asks us to let go, to recognize that there is enough to go around and meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. A worldview of enoughness will predictably emerge in an individual as they move toward naked being instead of thinking that more of anything or more frenetic doing can fill up our longing and restlessness.”

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The Way That You See

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Today is all about seeing, apparently. I didn’t choose this theme for the day, the universe did. Or God. Depending on how you look at it.

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First, I read today’s entry from Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, my hands-down favorite of the dozen-plus “daily readers” that I own. He says you can learn a lot from “religious observances” like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and christenings if you are in a receptive state of mind:

“The word ‘observance’ itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them . . . It is life going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on. As Henry James advised writers, ‘be one on whom nothing is lost.’ OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.”

Then I turn on my computer and in my inbox is a daily meditation from Father Richard Rohr called “Nondual Consciousness.” This is his favorite subject, but it’s not as wonky as it sounds. It’s really about how we see ourselves and each other. Which is to say, it’s about love. Here’s an excerpt:

“You give a piece of yourself to the other. You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously). This allows the other to do the same in return. You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know that you are both participating in a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving  . . . You accept being accepted — for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever! . . .

To put it another way, what I let God see and accept in me also becomes what I can see and accept in myself. And even more, it becomes that whereby I see everything else. This is why it is crucial to allow God, and at least one other person, to see us in our imperfection and nakedness, as we are — rather than as we ideally wish to be. It is also why we must give others this same experience of being looked upon in their imperfection; otherwise, they will never know the essential and utterly transformative mystery of grace. This is the glue that binds the universe of persons together.

Such utterly free and gratuitous love is the only love that validates, transforms, and changes us at the deepest levels of consciousness. It is what we all desire and what we were created for. Once you allow and accept God’s love for yourself, you will almost naturally become a conduit of the same for others.”

Richard Rohr is best in small doses, like rich chocolate cake. If you liked that bit, I highly recommend reading his book, Everything Belongs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it changed my life. It certainly changed how I see.

The Eyes of the Heart

Then I pick up my bible, which has been ever by my side lately as I work on two sermons simultaneously — remind me never to do that again! My head is a complete muddle and I have two messes on my hands, one of which is to be delivered in a week. Anyway, I come across a wonderful prayer from the apostle Paul to his friends in Ephesus, present-day Turkey. He prays that “the eyes of their hearts” would be enlightened so that they can see the hope and abundance in which they’re living. What a timely prayer for today!

Also a good reminder not spend too much time watching or reading about Donald Trump, lest my heart be filled with negativity and darkness — lest his anger and contempt seep into my heart and fill me with hate and fear. Elsewhere in the Bible, you’ll read: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness.”

Watch what you see!

Back in my email, I find the daily word prompt from WordPress is “Eyes.” Of course it is.

eye

I leave you with the words of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songsters, Bruce Cockburn.

It’s a verse from Child of the Wind:

Little round planet

In a big universe

Sometimes it looks blessed

Sometimes it looks cursed

Depends on what you look at obviously

But even more it depends on the way that you see

Images of Life: Journal and Camera

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Sometimes you lucky readers are treated to a glimpse of my inner workings when my nearest and dearest confidante — my journal — opens its pages to you. Not all its pages, mind you, just a few select snippets.

The best time for a peek into the journal is when I’m staying at Quiet Hills, my little writing retreat up in New Hampshire. Otherwise you would be treated to endless pages of I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that- and-I-need-to-do-this-and-then-I-need-to-do-that. Here, I have time to pay attention to life and to think and to not think.

And so, a few snippets:

June 17:

Quiet Hills! I’m sitting on the deck in the morning sun after an uneventful trip up, just traffic and fog.

The shower isn’t working, the side door fell off its hinges just after I arrived, and I can’t air out the house properly because I can’t juggle the storm windows with my broken arm. My neighbor never brush-hogged the fields last fall, so they are becoming forest. Sigh, sigh, and sigh. But I am here and glad of it.

Arrived!

Arrived!

There’s always this strange combination of great happiness but also anxiety when I arrive. Just to be here is pure joy. But so much is left undone at home, and I mistrust myself to get everything taken care of. And money is always a worry — how can I afford to keep this sacred place with the crazy taxes and maintenance?

The white iris by the birdbath are blooming. 

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Lots of chipmunk activity. Quiet bird chitter. Peonies in full bloom and lilies covered with buds.

chipmunk

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Orange Hawkweed, also called Fox-and-cubs — don’t you love that?

Beedie’s (grandmother’s) climbing roses by the front door fill the hall with their fragrance. There are loads of Orange Hawkweed and daisies in the small field, but the big fields are all brushy — few flowers.

Butterflies abound. After dark there should be fireflies – loads!

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My grandmother’s roses

I hadn’t been here more than thirty minutes yesterday before Emily W. arrived and invited me for a pancake supper with the boys, so I abandoned unpacking and bed making and went up the hill. With Bill working late, she really, really has her hands full with the three little guys.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     June 18:

It was overcast today, cool but still t-shirt weather. I stayed low-key yesterday, hanging out on the deck reading Richard Rohr’s book Immortal Diamond and perusing cookbooks for recipes to try when the family arrives.

Emily came by with the boys after work. The twins were playing with my phone and all of a sudden Biff’s voice was filling my head. “Hi, it’s me. I was just thinking . . . ”

I know my eyes got as big as saucers. “Oh my God,” I said.

“Who’s that?” asked Emily.

“My brother,” I answered.

She leapt up, grabbed the phone from the kids, silenced the speaker, and dashed back to put her arm around me.

“It’s OK,” I said, and the weird thing is — it was. His voice sounded hale and hearty and healthy, and I felt glad to have that recording. I might listen to it sometime. I am finally coming out of my serious grieving time.

June 19:

Last night I got back from the Toadstool bookstore just after sunset. The sky was all pinks and gold and there was a hermit thrush serenade going on, at least three of them at the edges of the fields. I walked around the house listening to their divine exchange, fully in heaven except for the mosquitos. So crazy that this is my life! Beginning to settle in. Still a touch of anxiety now and then. The space and time here leave room for worries that are drowned out by busyness at home, but I seem to need to go through them before I get to the peace.

This morning I made gazpacho and a big pitcher of iced tea. Summer.

Then I wandered around taking pictures. It’s a glorious New Hampshire day, just perfect.

Columbine by the barn

Columbine by the barn

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I posted a blog this morning, trying to process — but mostly escape — the latest mass shooting by a mentally unstable kid with a gun. Nine people dead at the historic AME church in Charleston, including their pastor. Kid was a racist, railed about blacks “raping our women.” My escapist blog began with a wish that I were a cat, a cat that knew no racism, mental illness, NRA, terrorism, climate change, or Donald Trump (the moron has announced he’s running for president).

June 20:

Chilly morning, wrapped in a shawl. I’m watching a couple of deer bound across the meadow and listening to dueling woodpeckers rat-tat-tatting on metal and wooden poles along the lane. A chipmunk is fussing at some imagined intrusion, and I can hear a thrush up the road — a lovely, lovely song that deserves a metaphor, except that there are no words.

I’m loving the Rohr book. He can be brilliant at times. Sometimes it’s hard to follow his theology, but it’s not so much the “figuring it all out” or the “grasping it” that I’m after; what I need and desire is a deep knowing, a knowing of the Spirit. I do not need to “have” a philosophical understanding so that my needy little ego can explain it and be right about it, I just need to know — that I am God’s, that I belong, that All is One.

I had some nice prayer time under the stars last night. Prayer realigns me, gets me back on track. What do I pray? That I would be love. A perfect channel for God’s love, get all of my crap out of the way — and that I would desire that more. That God would comfort the families of the Charleston shooting, that God would heal this broken country, that God would guide us as leaders at Cedar Ridge and use our church to bring love to the world. That we would all be more of who God designed us to be.

Fireflies and stars. I love NH in June.

Related posts: Journaling in Space, Journal as Amusement Ride, and A Fourteen Sentence Glimpse into My Journal

For Book Lovers Only

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This morning I was doing some housecleaning. Perhaps you felt the shift in the cosmos? I wouldn’t have been doing anything so drastic if it weren’t for the fact that I’m inheriting a new dining room table from some friends, and it’s much bigger than my old one. Rearranging is in order and that means digging out.

The first task in cleaning any room in my house, after gathering hundreds of papers into piles to do deal with later, is books. They accumulate around me like treasures in an archaeological site; when unearthed, they provide clues to how life was once lived in vaguely chronological layers.

Dusk mask in place and dust rag in hand, I offer a few fun finds you might like:

My New Favorite Author

The Shadow of the Wind, which I recently finished, was on top of the mound. Not only did this book expose me to my new favorite “undiscovered author” (who seems to be known by everyone else on the planet), Carlos Ruiz Zafon, it also opened a new world of book lovers to me.

A few months back, I queried my “friends” (or so I supposed) on Goodreads for recommendations of good novels in which I could completely lose myself. Much to my surprise, I got recommendations from total strangers all around the country!

Pretty cool.

Zafon’s book was recommended by a guy named Steve, I think in Seattle, with whom I’m now friends. I’m mining his reading list.

Sifting Through Spiritual Stories

This spring I co-led a spiritual practices group at my church, so I had hauled out many books in that vein and left them lying around.

Holy Silence is a quiet little Quaker book that I rediscovered when we studied meditative silent prayer in our group. I’m fond of J. Brent Bill’s books. They simply say “Quaker” — small, unassuming things with black and white drawings on the covers. The books contain nuggets like, “Quakers call the presence of the Holy Spirit working within us a ‘sifting silence.’ It separates the worthwhile from the worthless.”

I think we could all use a little more of this sifting silence in our lives.

In the same stack of spiritually themed books, I found one of my absolute favorites. It’s the first one I read by Father Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M. I love, love, love this guy. I had lent my signed copy of Everything Belongs to a friend years ago and only just got it back.

I know everyone’s journey is different, but for me, this is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.

Rohr talks about “spiritual capitalism,” trying to acquire new things and knowledge to attain spiritual growth. “In reality,” he says, “our growth is hidden. It is accomplished by the release of our current defense postures, by the letting go of fear and our attachment to self-image. Thus, we grow by subtraction much more than by addition. It’s not a matter of more and better information…Once our defenses are out of the way and we are humble and poor, truth is allowed to show itself.”

Another spiritual book that I just got a few weeks ago but which was already being buried under the detritus of my life is Anne Lamott’s new one, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I never regret spending time with Anne; she always makes me laugh out loud. This one’s a very short book, so I’m waiting until the proper time to savor it. Maybe I’ll read it all in one sitting later in the summer when I have some time alone.

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Me Giving Writing Advice to Anne Lamott

The Goddess and Mona Lisa

The Goddess and Mona LisaMy Friend Joe  B.

My Friend Joe B.

A friend of mine passed away last winter and his wife did a wonderful thing. She held a big party for all his friends and family at which she laid out his things and said, “Have at it. He would want you to have his stuff.”

Clothes, musical instruments, tools, houseplants….and books. Tons of books. I helped her shelve them in preparation for the party, so I got first pick. A couple I particularly liked were As Simple as Snow by Gregory Galloway, and Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwartz. I enjoyed thinking about Joe reading and reacting to them as I made my way through the stories.

Writing Books

I fear that I’m in danger of becoming one of those writers who spends so much time reading about writing that she never gets down to actually writing. I have a ton of books on writing, and I enjoy reading journals by writers about the writing life. I’m currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, which I find eerie because she’s living and writing in a little white house in New Hampshire, like me, and her days are so similar to mine. Taciturn neighbors coming to hay the fields, same flowers blooming, black flies biting, raccoons gadding about in the trash.

I have several volumes of Gail Godwin’s journals on writing. I find her writing inconsistent, so she’s not one of my favorite authors, but some is quite good, and I like her “voice.” So I think I’ll enjoy the journals when I get around to them.

I was especially glad to find a Natalie Goldberg that’s been MIA for a long time. It’s my go-to writing book, called Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. It has great writing prompts and is far better than most of those types of books.

One of her prompts led to a moving experience for me, writing about a bicycle I had when was eleven – it was olive green.

“Why would I get a green bike,” I wondered, “since I don’t like green?” I came to realize through my writing that in fact I had stopped liking green as an adolescent because it was my father’s favorite color and I was angry at him for his drinking. A simple but profound realization that is helping me redeem my relationship with my late father and also with the glorious color green.

Reading Books

Near the bottom of the piles was a book that I’m truly looking forward to falling into. For now I’m leaving it out of my boxing-up project so that I don’t lose track of it again. A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel is not the type of book I usually read. At almost 400 pages, it’s a dense tome of nonfiction. But ever since I first flipped through it in the used book store, I feel excited at the prospect of tackling it.

As Manguel writes, “We come to feel that the books we own are the books we know…to glance at the spines of the books we call ours, obediently standing guard along the walls of our room, willing to speak to us and us alone at the mere flick of a page, allows us to say, ‘All this is mine,’ as if their presence alone fills us with their wisdom, without our actually having to labour through their contents.”

This challenging read has been standing guard long enough – it’s time for me to labor through its contents!

I hope you get to enjoy some good reading this summer.

Any suggestions for me?

Hope or Hostility in a Multi-Faith World?

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I bought another book last night. I didn’t mean to, but seriously — “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?” — how can you not?

Anyone but a staffer from the Library of Congress would agree that I’ve already got more than enough books. They line every wall in my house and have crept up the staircase, each step providing space for another dozen tomes. The phases of my life are captured in the titles and authors — What Darwin Saw, Robert F. Kennedy and His Times, Saint Francis and His Times, Animal Liberation, Christian Faith and the Environment, Great English Mystics, John Lewis, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Richard Rohr. Countless Grishams and Micheners.   I just recently gave away my collection of Elvis books, but other than that, I find it hard to rid myself of the friendly bindings that grace my home. They are so familiar by now; they hold my history . . .  and a lot of dust.

I’m adding my new book to a large McLaren collection, but it won’t be getting dusty for a good while. I can tell it contains words I need to commit to memory. The author, Brian D. McLaren, is an old friend of mine – used to be my pastor, in fact. He’s the guy who made it possible for me, and thousands of others, to even consider tagging along behind Jesus.

“Do you believe in evolution?” I asked him once, back in the early nineties when I was still in my fascination-with-everything-Darwin phase.

“Well,” he said, “If you tell me God created the world, I’m pretty impressed.  But if you tell me God created a plan so that the world would keep creating itself, I’m even more impressed.”

And just like that, I realized I didn’t have to get into the Unreality Box to explore Christianity. I would be allowed to think.

Brian certainly gave the crowd something to think about last night on the D.C. stop of his new book tour. The premise of his new book is that there’s too much hostility in our world, which is kind of a DUH premise. But his solution is lovely. What if, instead of all the different religions and sects dividing and conquering and judging and excluding, they all came together in common cause against hostility? The idea of seeing love and benevolence as the sacred center for all of us, regardless of the framework or name we put on our belief system – spiritual, religious, atheist, agnostic, whatever – certainly resonates with me. Sounds like something Jesus might have said.

It’s easier said than done, of course, especially since step one is a heavy dose of humility for all of us. Brian’s book is primarily directed towards Christians — its subtitle is Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World — and it delivers the heaviest blows to Christian hubris. He covers in painful detail the history of his religion’s oppression and genocide and takes a few whacks at TV evangelists (such easy targets). Christians need to learn and repent of their past, not deny or justify it, he says. Interesting that the same prescription that can cure a warped soul might also release a major religion from its painful past. Brian also examines Christian doctrine, liturgy, and mission and how they can contribute to “God’s commonwealth of peace“ instead of “earthly empires of hostility.”

I was going to say that this is a fortuitous time for Brian’s book to be released, with all the violence and hostility and religious misunderstanding that’s going on this week. But sadly, the odds of hitting such a week are fairly high. In America alone, the hostility purposefully generated by multi-million dollar ad campaigns this election year is predictably shameful.

One of things I love most about Brian is that he’s an optimist; it’s in his DNA. Imagine believing that we can rally the world’s major religions against hostility, thereby saving ourselves, future generations and even our planet.

“Perhaps this choice now,” writes Brian,  “to move forward or to hold back, to  open arms or to clench fists, to identify ourselves by opposition and hostility or to identify ourselves by hospitality and solidarity — perhaps this our defining moment .”

And if we choose well? “’This is very good,’ God will say. And we will say, ‘Amen.’”

Amen, right?

Check out Brian’s writing: http://www.brianmclaren.net/

Brian McLaren & Friend in their Natural Habitat

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