Mindfulness…Just Do It

Last fall, I took a refresher course, attending an eight week mindfulness workshop at the First Parish Church in Concord, MA.  About 20 years ago, I had completed a similar course and for several years after that was somewhat of a devotee.  To say that practicing mindfulness is life changing would be true, to the degree that I actually practice its tenets, that I show up each day with myself/for myself for a half hour or so.  While daily prayer and meditation are the unequivocal spiritual powerhouses, necessities to deepen our soul and to share the best of who we are with others, I still like to take a day or two or three off sometimes.  Hence the need for a tune up and a reminder to begin again…and again…and again.

Why do we struggle so with those things we know are better than good for us? We humans just seem to have a penchant for desiring the shinier, easier, faster approach in any given moment instead.  Prayer is simply not glitzy and meditation does not usually provide immediate results.  The same holds true for exercise or a healthy diet or raising a child.  So can you hear the voice?  You know the one, “I think I’ll have a cup of tea and cookies instead this afternoon.  After all, that’s relaxing too.” Or, “Suzy just called and I hadn’t talked to Suzy in so long, and you know, by the time I got around to meditating, it was time to make dinner.”

Every perennial dieter knows the slippery slope when a day or two of indulgence leads into weeks or even months of a return to bad habits. The same goes for prayer. Do you ever save praying for bedtime and fall asleep in the middle of it or before you get started? I present it like this, because I am a gal with varied interests. I am not a plodder. I do not like the same breakfast food every morning. But like every one of us, I am also a dichotomy.  While I adore novelty, I need routine.

I work out 5-6 times a week (mostly running and some light weight training) and have since I was a freshman in college.  I must admit that I feel more than a bit off kilter without it.  Also, I am fiercely loyal, loving the enduring quality of old friends, and looking  forward to our long standing weekly lunches. In fact, a major part of my spiritual journey has been learning to let go, having had the tendency (very much a mixed blessing) to hold on and hope in relationships until hit with an anvil of mammoth proportions.    

So mindfulness brings balance to these occasionally oppositional impulses, knowing when to let go, when to persevere, harmonizing my desire for variety and my need for certainty.  

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I would dutifully find a chair or mat each day and allow my thoughts to drift on by, like words on a series of passing clouds.  I wrestled with monkey mind, the term which simply refers to the mind’s tendency to jump from one thought to the next…the on-going to-do list, last night’s argument with your significant other, where to go on winter vacation, can we afford to go on winter vacation, yada yada yada. The attending emotions to these thoughts gradually loosened their hold on me over time.

Clarity would be granted (not for long stretches of time, mind you, and not the imagined perfect bliss), but a quiet soul sigh. I used to tell my kids when they were little that you don’t get clean, strong teeth if you only brush your teeth 3 or 4 times a week, you need to do it every day.  Spiritual health holds to the same principle of consistency just as physical health does. Half hearted attempts avail us either nothing or only partial benefits.  A reasonable consistency, mind you, is the hallmark of all positive life shifts.  Notice I say reasonable.  Those of us prone to impulsivity or compulsion (me) also tend to be pendulum swingers.  Just do it, routinely but flexibly. And don’t worry, no matter how you’re doing, you’re doing it right.

Book Pick of the Day: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Quote from the Book of the Day: “Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves.  Consider, for example: a magician who cuts his body into many parts and places each part in a different region-hands in the south, arms in the east, legs in the north, and then by some miraculous power lets forth a cry which reassembles whole every part of his body.  Mindfulness is like that-it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life.”

Sacrifice Doesn’t Have To Be Grandma or a Live Chicken

Piggy backing on my last post, I was thinking about the word sacrifice, which always means a giving up in some way or the other, and how it has lost the better half of its meaning.  The word sacrifice-Latin sacrificium-means an offering to a deity or to something greater than one’s self, rendering the person(s), place or thing involved- sacred. The whole idea of sacrifice has become  antithetical to our current American culture of consumerism. It’s made even worse when fear mongering makes citizens actually frenzied with the idea that Grandma will be the first to be killed with the National Health Care bill.  OMG, the sacrifice will mean that our children and children’s children face certain bankruptcy. Whether it’s a government official or a family member asking us to make sacrifices, either  for a greater good that we won’t see until the future or for a temporary setback that’s here with us right now, we tend to squirm or bargain or unenthusiatically agree to it (knowing it’s the right form of action) and then shortly thereafter, kick and scream, taking to the streets with how unfair it is.  

And yet, a truly just society demands some sacrifices.  Our commitment to social justice, while deeply felt, can be very difficult to sustain.   This is particularly true in a society that has valued and prized individualism since its conception.  Unlike other cultures, where the community needs are primary (and this too can be problematic), our understanding of the self in relation to the community tends to focus on the community being there to help forward our own self realization and not the other way around.  I do believe, however, that we are currently in a phase of positive but disorienting transformation.

We can no longer avoid the growing sense of interdependence of the world’s population. Reality at its core, whether spiritual or physical, has a relational nature.  Nothing can be fully understood or experienced in isolation. When we ignore any kind of shared reference point, or the ability to see beyond the end of the nose on our face, we see the degeneration of public discourse.  Talk radio, FOX news, to name a few, have resorted to slander, inaccurate sound bites, and mean spiritedness to buoy up a world view that is not on the side of creation. In the wild current of cackling voices, we lose both content and the possibility of real understanding. While it may not be possible to agree on universal truths, this doesn’t mean there are no meaningful ideas or truths.

As Paul Raiser writes in Faith without Certainty, ” The truth is that we don’t first exist as individuals who then form social groups.  The group always comes first.  As individuals, our identities are always formed in relation to a particular social context. We are social beings through and through. Can we look at social justice work not simply as choice we make for ourselves or do not, but as a fundamental factor in the formation of our own identities?  We think we need to attend to our own well being to be able to help someone else, and this is only partially true. We can also be reminded that our own well being is deeply connected to the well being of others.”

For Christians, this is the season of Lent.  It is a time of consciously giving up those things that are superfluous to our lives.  It creates space for the sacred. One chooses to sacrifice, because the benefit to the mind and spirit is greater than if one did not.  It is not that the giving up of chocolate or alcohol is a chit to get to heaven.  Or that daily choosing to do a kind act without anyone knowing of it makes you a better person than your neighbor.  Rather it is by sacrifice, that we come closer to understanding and participating with the sacred.

Book of the Day: The Responsible Self by H. Richard Niebuhr  

Quote from the Book of the Day: “It has often been remarked that the great decisions which give a society its specific character are functions of emergency situations in which a community has had to meet a challenge.  Yet the decision on which the future depends and whence the new law issues is a decision made in response to action upon the society, and this action is guided by interpretation of what is going on.” (Ed. note: Our forebears had to determine what was happening during the Civil War (End of Slavery and the importance of union), how to address the ills of the Depression (The New Deal and the Welfare State), and what was the response to be to the First Two World Wars (a final move away from isolationism), all of these decisions made our country change in ways no one could foresee, and today’s decisions are no different.)

National Health Care and The Good Samaritan

If we remove the millenia of fine print of the literature of the world’s great religions (much of it wonderful, some of it confusing, and lots of it needing to be put into its historic context and away from its literal interpretations), we can condense their message down to two simple but not easy imperatives, to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, which includes being grateful for all of creation and appreciative of its wonders- and to treat your neighbor as yourself. Agnostics and atheists, while not inclined to use the word God, too share our awe of the natural world and its blessings and feel the same sense of moral and social calling to improve the plight of the less fortunate.

It’s one of the very best impulses of being human, to reach out to those in need of help. Certainly the other human tendency, which we have seen at work tirelessly over the last year of health care debates, is fear.  If we have to give money to cover those who cannot afford it, we’ll have less, perhaps we will have to sacrifice and perhaps the sacrifice will be too great for us.  Then comes the idea that most of “these people” are just wanting a hand out, “never worked a day in the life” and unfortunately, there are many out there (friends of mine) who believe this. 

Even while the statistics do not bear them out.  A  study done in 2000 by the Progressive Policy Institute stated that 2.1% of the population was on welfare at that time. Today, in 2009, that number is 11.3%.  This number is a clear indication of our recession and our economy.  Looking at the 2000 percentage, if there is work, people will do it.  This notion of being taken for a ride by “those on the dole” really comes down to a fear based outlook on life and not one of  faith.

It is certainly not tied to any of our spiritual values or a sense of community or service.  As an example, last year, the Christian Science Monitor ran an item on foreign correspondent Walter Rodgers.  He had spent several decades in countries that have national health insurance.  Once his family was involved in a car accident in Great Britain and his son spent six weeks in a hospital with a badly broken leg.  Although Rodgers wasn’t actually living in the country at the time, all the bills were paid by the British National Insurance System.  The hospital charged him only$35.- for a crutch his son needed to hobble aboard a plane. 

This is charity that extends beyond the border of you and your immediate circle of loved ones.  This is the altruism that makes for a kinder, gentler world.  The kind of Kingdom here on earth that many go to church to proclaim, but don’t see the irony between their proclamations and their deeds. In the gospel of Luke, there is a passage which states, “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” We here, in the United States, have been given so much.  In that, lies responsibility.  Responsibility to our neighbors and our fellow citizens. 

I often hear that expression “There but for the grace of God, go I” for a number of reasons and situations.  I myself have thought it, while walking by a homeless woman in the city, obviously in the throes of mental illness.  None of us are immune.  The story of the health care given to a guest of Great Britain, reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  If you saw a person struck by a car stuck in a ditch at the side of the road, would you ask: “Are you an American or just visiting, are you an illegal immigrant, do you have health coverage?”  Or would you just want to help?  We should let compassion and human values be our guide. To be truly proud to be a citizen of the United States of America, we need to know that The United States is actually acting on the words of liberty and justice for all.

Book of the Day: Any Bible, “Gospel of Luke”, Chapter 10, verses 25-37

Going over to a man left beaten on the side of the road by bandits, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, “Take care of this man.  If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.” Jesus said that this Samaritan was truly a neighbor to this man, for he was the one who showed him mercy.

An Addendum: Spiritual Food

After my March 21st musings, I happened to be reading the March 9th issue of The Christian Century and just thought you might find this item interesting and apropos as even our popular culture is effected by religious practices.

Pretzels, Welch’s grape juice and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches each have a religious connection.  Pretzels were the invention of a 7th century Italian monk as an incentive for children to memorize scripture (the shape reminscent of a child with his arms folded in prayer). Welch’s grape juice was developed by a 19th century dentist because he thought fermented wine was inappropriate for communion.  McDonald’s created the Filet-O-Fish sandwich at the request of a franchise in Cincinnati who noticed that Friday sales were down in that largely Catholic city (mentalfloss.com).

Apple Pie Can Be Spiritual

Visiting the grocery store this time of year, one can’t help but notice the boxes of matzos (unleavened crackers) that line the shelves of end aisles, a reminder to Jew and non-Jew alike that Passover has arrived.  Most of us know that this “bread” made without yeast is a reminder of the haste with which the Israelites had to flee from Egypt during the Exodus. They simply did not have time to wait for the yeast to rise to bake bread for the journey. 

And then, I was thinking, about how much food is not only directly tied to our religious traditions, but our own particular family celebrations, and our culture’s collective memory. When you come to think of it, food has not only the ability to sustain us physically, but to feed our spiritual selves as well.   

My family of origin has been in the Northeast since the mid nineteenth century… a loud, slightly off kilter band of intelligent, fun loving but devout Irish Catholics whose gatherings always included “spirits” of some kind or another, and lots of hearty, but not so heart friendly FOOD!  Salad, until recently, was an exotic afterthought. 

We’re talking roast beef, oven roasted potatoes that brown a bit on the sides, buttered green beans, buttered carrots, actually sticks of butter in just about everything we ate.  Apple pie, cinnamon rolls, and profiteroles (with homemade fudge sauce) just about every Sunday.  My Granny always “did” dessert.  In fact, she was so well known for her perfection in the art of pie crustery, I actually asked for one of her pies during my epic first childbirth….little did I know that was not going to be such a great idea!

How I loved to sit with my mind and soul pleasantly lulled with that warm and fuzzy afterglow of feasting and listen to my uncles argue about football or religion or tell outrageously politically incorrect jokes. Or if my cousins insisted, I would slink my body down to the paneled basement where there was ping pong and privacy from the adults.  Sunday was not so much a day of rest for our family, but a way for the generations to be together in the profound way that only sharing a meal provides.  

Listening to the stories of my friends and their Italian aunties who brought their own Lemoncello or women who watched their Nana lay out the phyllo sheets for her Baklava, I always hear affection, wistfulness, and a sense of  connection.  Likewise, I feel that sense of togetherness in our larger community in our national celebration of Thanksgiving.  While households may differ on the menu, there is comfort and a sense of identity amidst the turkey and gravy, the stuffing and pumpkin pie. 

I would love to hear from you and a memory of a meal or a food that just makes you go “ahhh.”

You know, it may be one that gives you a sense of communion with those around you, like my Granny’s Sunday dinners.  Or, it could be that first cup of coffee that you look forward to each morning, a daily ritual signaling the start of a new day.

Book of the Day (forgot to add as I was traveling): Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

                                                                           Quote from the Book of the Day: “Teenagers like sweets best of all, and that year I discovered the secret of every experienced cook: desserts are a cheap trick.  People love them even when they’re bad.  And so I began to bake, appreciating the alchemy that can turn flour, water, chocolate, and butter into devil’s food cake and make it disappear in a flash…Boys, in particular, seemed to like it.”

Hot Season

There are times when the sun is shining and there are grateful breezes, yet the soul is suffering a hot season.  A sticky, humid sadness rises relentlessly to the surface and the human instinct is to turn away.  Even for me, one who has been preaching about holding and accepting the whole catastrophe of life for a long time now, whether it be the cool peace of good fortune or the disorienting blows of inevitable loss and change, I too am often caught by surprise. 

How prepared are any of us when a loved one dies, a child gets sick, a relationship ends, or we face our own mortality? Would anyone ever want to enter willingly into these spiritual deserts?  At first, our psyche gives us the anesthetic of denial.  Running is usually involved in this, either literally or figuratively, and can include drinking, eating, shopping, sleeping, or any other number of means of escape. The sense of needing to flee is intense.  But all matter of not looking at reality, no matter how effective, are temporary salves,  just shock absorbers.  Sooner or later, we need to become ready, to the best of our ability, to sit with those feelings that seem too hot to hold. 

This is the well-worn course to weather difficult times. Some Buddhists call this “relaxing with what is”, allowing pain, grief, and sadness an open vessel (us) to have their way sort of speak.  We learn to inquire into those emotions, describing what they feel like in the body, in a detached a way as possible.  Feeling our feelings, but not judging them. Allowing space for all sorts of internal experiences to be here, now.  I mean they’re here anyhow. If tears come, let them. Panic arises, we stay with it… spiritual warriors present to the storm.  Not trying to do away with any of it, not forcing our pain to pass quickly. We can continue to attempt to skip the process, but areas of our lives which we avoid have an uncanny way of repeating themselves in different guises until we learn.  We are beginning to discover a way to walk barefoot on the burning sand paths of our life’s journey.

 I say beginning, because each new day, every present moment is a chance to practice.  We may still run to our chosen addictions, from time to time, but we are more aware of what we are doing.  We are more able to be comfortable in our discomfort, to allow for ambiguity without immediately seeking resolution.   

Book of the Day When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

Quote from The Book of the Day: “When we have reminders of death, we panic. It isn’t just that we cut our finger, blood begins to flow, and we put on a Band-Aid.  We add something extra-our style.  Some of us just sit there stoically and bleed all over our clothes. Some of us get hysterical; we don’t just get a Band-Aid, we call the ambulance and go to the hospital.  Some of us put on designer Band-Aids.  But whatever our style is, it’s not simple.  It’s not bare bones.”

“Can’t we just return to the bare bones?  Can’t we just come back?  That’s the beginning of the beginning… Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones.  Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time- that is the basic message.”

Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

10. Gospel– This word almost always refers to writings about the life of Jesus, more specifically, the canonical writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Its original meaning however is much more broad.  It literally means “good news”.  Now for many of us these writings of the New Testament are indeed good news.  Yet, for others, it could be the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the works of Maria Rainer Rilke or the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In other words, what is good news to you, that you use to build your life around.  What is your gospel?  

9. Heretic– The Roman Catholic church has, over the centuries, given this word a new definition.  Its current definition means those who hold unorthodox or controversial beliefs or opinions which differ from that of the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, in its original form, the word, from its Greek roots “hairetikos” to its Latin and early English and French derivations, simply means “able to choose”.  So, a heretic, is one who is able to choose what he or she believes.  A wonderfully democratic term turned slander.      

8. Agnostic– one who believes that truth claims about the existence or non-existence of God are in fact unknowable.  They don’t know.  They doubt. While I am not an agnostic, I believe in God, I think that agnostics have been given a bad rap.  People scoff when they speak of a friend or co-worker that is agnostic, like there is something weak or deficient in such a stance.  Yet, I have faith, but sometimes I have doubt.  When I have doubt, I guess one could say I was feeling agnostic.  Lacking certainty is not always such a bad thing.  And it is certainly not a stagnant thing.    

7. Sin– OK, I could write a tome about this one.  I know some of my more evangelical brothers and sisters will get their panties in a bit of a twist here, sin looming large (I’m thinking of Jonathan Edwards dangling a spider over a boiling cauldron, like God dangling our souls over the pit fires of hell).  But I can berate myself just fine, perhaps too fine in fact and I don’t think God wants to get in on the fun.  Sin simply means “missing the mark”.  In most cases, in our day to day living, it’s simply means we are human. We can dust ourselves off, and continue to strive to do and be better (without shame and guilt).  Just like I don’t want somebody “shoulding” on me, I don’t want someone sinning me to death either.   

6. Religion- I don’t want to beat a dead horse.  I mean, after all, hasn’t this word been bludgeoned enough. But, this word, which has come to represent differences and divisiveness was originally just a verb, religio, meaning “bringing together that which is separated”.  So, all I’m gonna say is, huh?

5. Salvation– OK, first we’ve got all that hell stuff to contend with.  Eternal damnation sounds really scary and I don’t want it to happen to me.  A lot of folk want to give you a formula, words to recite, and then you’re good to go.  You’re saved.  Salvation is then nothing more than a deliverance from sin.  But salvation is  more beautiful and subtle than that, the etymological meaning of the word is health.  In early New Testament readings, it meant to restore you to spiritual good health, to make you whole.   

4. Righteous– This word mostly gets a negative connotation, as we tend to immediately think self-righteous, which obviously no one likes. Being righteous is characterized by virtue and moral soundness and sense of social justice.  A true righteous person is a wonder to behold.

3. Tolerance-Many religious leaders nowadays talk of tolerating those of other faiths, as if that is enough.  I’ve never met a deeply spiritual person who didn’t openly inquire about another’s faith, who looked to appreciate some aspect of it, or its encourage its blessings.

2. Evangelical-Unless you are an evangelical, you are very likely leery just hearing the word.  Yet the word is from the Greek “euangelos”, meaning a messenger or angel bringing good news.  It’s too bad, because I’m not too confident that we can bring this one back to its original, more open and joyous meaning.   

1. Liberal– The religious right, the political right, the conservative whatevers have suceeded in the last several decades in making the word liberal a dirty word.  It permeates all aspects of our public discourse. If you are a political or religious liberal, you are somehow bereft of moral values, ethics, or for that matter, common sense.  This is a terrible injustice. Liberal, liberalis (Latin) means to be free or to be free and let others be free.  It was the founding paradigm of our nation, Thomas Jefferson wrote a declaration about it. We the people need to take this word back and give it the honor it so rightly deserves.

Book of the Day: Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris 

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I find it sad to consider that belief has become a scary word, because at its Greek root, “to believe” simply means “to give one’s heart to”.  Thus, if we can determine what it is we give our hearts to, then we will know what it is we believe.”

Putting the Joy Back in Jihad

What’s so joyful about a jihad? It’s one of those experiences that afterwards we call a blessing in disguise.

The concept of jihad or holy war is embedded in the Quran, but it has, from its earliest beginnings, been fraught with multiple meanings.  Muslims often speak of jihad as both a struggle to submit to God’s will (considered the greatest of  jihads) and a battle against unbelievers (the lesser of the jihads).  Our focus today will be on the greater, the individual’s journey toward purity of the soul.

However, it is important to note that the jihad that points to a battle against unbelievers has more to do with Muslims being commanded to do something that they believe to be contrary to the law of God (which includes the sin of polytheism), or to those that dishonor or defeat the community of the faithful, at which point jihad becomes a duty.

It has never been historically true that Muslims are somehow obligated to wage war against those who do not surrender to Allah.  In fact, during what many call the Golden Age of Islam (from about the 9th to 12th centuries), “Muslims were ruling peacefully over large populations of non-Muslims without expending the slightest bit of effort to convert them or to challenge their beliefs.” (From Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell). 

In addition, there is no Islamic jurist (classical or modern) that offers approval or legitimacy to what we now call terrorism.  The armed struggles of jihads of the past were elaborately regulated by Shari’a law (which simply means holy law, covering everything from fasting and pilgrimage to constitutional and criminal law). For instance, no women, children, or the aged are allowed to be killed (in principle).  You have to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities.  These jihads are considered wars in the traditional sense or political reforms or changes in economic policies, but do not in any way resemble the terrorist acts of the last several decades.  

“The greater jihad is something all devout individuals must wage… against their own desires. The mystics of Islam often spoke of jihad as a “dark night of the soul”, where the striver is faced with his/her demons and must confront them in order to stay on the path toward God.” (Karabell, pg. 126). It is a sense of purging and purifying oneself.  It may involve works such as fasting or penance, but primarily it is cleansing the heart from obstructive thoughts, such as envy, greed, revenge, and selfishness, that move us further away from our truest nature.

Christians recognize this metaphor from the work, Dark Night of the Soul (Our Book of the Day) by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish poet, mystic, and Carmelite priest.  It is used to describe a phase in a person’s spiritual life, marked by a sense of loneliness and desolation.  There has been much scholarly discussion as to whether the Christian was influenced by the Sufi or vice versa, but there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

Interestingly, the inner turmoil of the soul is referenced by most spiritual traditions throughout the world as a necessary step toward a union with God or for a sense of wholeness.  

The Buddhists have a parallel in their practices called “the Knowledges of Suffering.”  In fact, the Buddhist writer Daniel Ingram speculates that the Dark Night is a common mystical state which is independent of any specific belief system.  He uses the term “maps” for the sequence of mental states:

“The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals.  These maps are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. ”

Jihad is a spiritually powerful word that describes a part of the necessary and well worn path toward a union with the divine; it is the process by which personal roadblocks that threaten our spiritual growth are removed.  By continually and willingly entering into jihad, the gifts of the spirit are manifold, including joy, peace, faith, and clarity.  The soul awakens.

 ” The reason for this has been clearly expounded; for ordinarily the soul never strays save through its desires or its tastes or its reflections or its understanding or its affections; for as a rule it has too much or too little of these, or they vary or go astray, and hence the soul becomes inclined to that which behooves it not.  Wherefore, when all these operations and motions are hindered, it is clear that the soul is secure against being led astray by them; for it is free.  For when the affections and operations of the soul are quenched, nothing can make war upon it.”  (Quote from the Book of the Day)

Tomorrow’s post: Ten Religious Words That The Spin Doctors Doctored

 

Does It Matter What You Call Yourself?

The short answer to that question is no.

Today’s inspiration comes from two magazine articles.  One was a thought provoking piece by Jon Meacham in the April 13th, 2009 issue of Newsweek, entitled “The End of Christian America” and the other was published recently in the January 26th, 2010 issue of The Christian Century with the heading “More people are praying, but religious ties are fraying”. Statistics cited in Newsweek were as follows :

-The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, from 8 to 15%.

-The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76%.

-The number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990, from 1 million to 3.6 million.  Meacham adds, “That is double the number of say, Episcopalians in the United States.” 

These numbers reflect a bending towards a spirituality that is a result of personal and personal soul searching, people looking to develop an inner life that is both meaningful AND practical. Christianity is unequivocally included in the mix, but not unexplored, unquestioned Christianity.  These trends validate what I have experienced over the years with those who form a wide swath of religious affiliations and spiritual practices.  While the idea of “taking what you like and leaving the rest” is an anathema* to many of my colleagues in theology, the notion of freedom is primal to the American psyche.  It permeates our daily living, in ways both conscious and unconscious.  And, at the end of the day, if you don’t buy into some religious idea, no matter how many times you repeat it at church, at some level you’re still not convinced.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Practicing within a specific faith tradition, being steeped in it, does bring rich gifts that mere dabblers will never enjoy.  I also deeply believe in the need for a faith community that both supports and challenges you on your shared journeys.   However, we need to find people where they are, not where we are.  If one’s job is to help grow a soul (and that is my occupation, present company included) that means listening to hear where people find comfort or courage or meaning.  People want their faith to make sense.  Whether you are a member of a mainstream religious denomination or are an unchurched atheist, taking care of your spiritual health needs to have some pragmatic benefits just like taking care of your physical health does. And that would include using a holistic, even eclectic approach to the care of one’s inner life.

And that is demonstrated in the data listed in The Christian Century, “The number of  Americans who are praying is increasing at the same time that more of them say they have no formal religious affiliation, according to a major polling organization.” While adults who practice daily prayer has risen from 52 to 59%, those who never attend a religious service has also risen from 13 to 22%, an increase of 9%.  Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist and researcher, states, “This represents an apparent shift in patterns of spiritual practice and identity away from the familiar institutions.  We are witnessing a decoupling of ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’. I think we can expect to see yet more novel versions of religiosity appear, in response to changes in spirituality.”

What does all of this mean for the individual and for the community, in the best sense?  It means an opening, it means hope for interfaith dialogue and a loosening of prejudices and opportunites for conversations between the believer, the agnostic, and the atheist.  Where does each of them find spiritual sustenance?  What seems to work and what doesn’t?  It means that those who are Catholic or Lutheran or Jewish, may also incorporate Buddhist meditation techniques in their daily routines.  It means that the atheist may be able to read the Bible with a little less skeptism and a little more curiosity.  It reflects a softening and a turning away from the harsh rhetoric of so many of our so-called spiritual leaders.  And, finally, it allows for expanding notions of what constitutes the Gospel, the good news.

*anathema-Latin for ‘doomed offering’, it presently means a formal church ban, usually including excommunication.

Book of the Day: Thirst by Mary Oliver

Quote from the Book of the Day (actually a poem):
When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees/especially the willows and the honey locust/equally the beech, the oaks and the pines/they give off such hints of gladness.  I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself/in which I have goodness, and discernment/and never hurry through the world/but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”/The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say/”and you too have come/into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”

Tomorrow’s post: “Putting the Joy Back in Jihad”

Nun Tuck’s Almanac

Welcome Congregants of the Blogosphere!

You have stumbled upon a brand new blog. It is a sometimes serious, but always real attempt to return religious vocabulary back to its rightful roots. And if the roots are rotten, we’ll creatively reimagine these words so that they work for us now, in the 21st century.  You know many of the major religions as well as secular humanism tout  lofty goals, such as moving towards a harmonious interdependence of the world’s inhabitants (since forever), whilst quibbling over dogmas and dictums.  Here is where they can come and get a soft nudge or a solid knock upside the head, depending on whether they are the feather or the 2×4 variety of person, and we can get comfort or empowerment or meaning or whatever it is we’re looking for.

This almanac will include, but is not limited to:

* Providing you with brief but accurate and researched information about particular aspects of the world’s religions to fodder questions and discussion (will vary daily on how the spirit moves me.)

*Sharing my own personal musings on the sacred journey or anything related to the collective spiritual quest (this could mean outlining various meditation techniques or what it means to be in a faith community or probing the nature of serendipity…).

*Religion is a word that has been used and misused ad nauseum.  Its definition, its meaning, is very simply that which binds us together.  The religion of this blog is: compassion, an openness to others’ beliefs and ideas (or at the very least, let’s not get nasty) and exploring ways to engage in the simple daily practices of spiritual fitness.

Finally, while I am a highly trained theologian, you can try this at home.  I can wax theological with the best of them, using big academics words like hermeneutics and exegesis, and I like to, at times.  But mostly, people’s eyes glaze over.

I am committing to blogging daily while reserving the right to an occasional lapse, for excuses such as : the Sabbath (everyone needs a rest), illness that raises my temperature or upsets my digestive tract, a paying gig, or a TIC (Teenager in Crisis, one of mine).

My oath to you: I will not daunt, I will not proselytize. I take my opinions seriously until I change them, at which point, I take those opinions seriously.

What about the Name?

I am Nun Tuck, because I can’t be Friar Tuck.  I’m a girl, and while I’m not a Catholic and only play a nun on this blog, the Good Friar and I share four important things in common:

1. I too would much prefer the company of a community of outlaws enforcing a little social justice to a band of self-satisfied complacent Sunday morning hypocrites.

2. Now while stealing from the rich to give to the poor may sound to some as Anti-American sentiment (can you say “Bolshevik Plot?”) many of us are sufficiently outraged by the unadulterated avarice of the past several years/decades to think this perpetually populist idea particularly poignant (take that, Peter Piper).

3. Both of us enjoy a full glass or two from the fruit of the vine (not too picky about the vine) served with any generous volume of carbohydrates.  We continue to attempt to live simply and faithfully (lots more on future blogs regarding this) but alas, the flesh is weak.

4. While friendly and gregarious (we are in the business of saving souls after all), we are fiery by temperament.  Friar Tuck was expelled from his order due to a lack of respect for authority, and I chose to leave my childhood denomination as the chasm between the choices made by the church’s hierarchy and true care and concern for its people became too great.  If authority wants to be respected, it has to earn it.

The Almanac is simply a nod to another historic figure, Benjamin Franklin (one to whom I give Rock Star status) and his version of an 18th century blog of sorts, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Tomorrow’s post: “Does it matter what you call yourself?”

Book Pick of the Day: Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott

Quote from the Book of the Day:  “My Al-Anon friend told me about the frazzled, defeated wife of an alcoholic man who kept passing out on the front lawn in the middle of the night.  The wife kept dragging him in before dawn so that the neighbors wouldn’t see him, until finally an old black woman from the South came up to her one day after a meeting and said, ‘Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.’ And I am slowly, slowly in my work-and even more slowly in real life-learning to do this.”