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“ARE YOU A RESERVOIR OR A CANAL OR A SWAMP?”

This has been the longest time in between posts since I begin in March. I have sorely missed writing.  A high school graduation, seeing one “chick” off to China, getting a part time gig, yada yada, I am back…and inspired.

I don’t know if any of you know the wonderful African American theologian and writer, Howard Thurman, but I would encourage anyone reading this to Google him, delve into his biography, peruse a list of his works, and read one.

My favorite is Meditations of the Heart; today’s blog and blog title were inspired by it.

Thurman asserts, “The dominanat trend of a (person’s) life may take on the characteristics of a canal, reservoir or swamp.  The important accent is on the dominant trend.  There are some lives that seem ever to be channels, canals through which things flow.  They are connecting links between other people, movements, purposes.  They make the network by which all kinds of communication are possible.  They seem to be adept at relating needs to sources of help, friendlessness to friendliness. Of course, the peddler of gossip is also a canal.  If you are a canal, what kind of things do you connect?

Or are you a reservoir?  Are you a resource which may be drawn upon in times of others’ needs and your own as well?  Have you developed a method for keeping your inlet and your outlet in good working order so that the cup which you give is never empty?  As a reservoir, you are a trustee of all the gifts God has shared with you.  You know they are not your own.

Are you a swamp?  Are you always reaching for more and more, hoarding whatever comes your way as your special belongings?  If so, do you wonder why you are friendless, why the things you touch seem ever to decay?  A swamp is a place where living things often sicken and die. The water in a swamp has no outlet.  Canal, reservoir, or swamp-WHICH?”        

Great stuff: here is my reflection…at different times in my life and certainly on different days, I have been all three.  Yet clearly my life’s arc is that of a canal.  I have always had the desire to connect friends, ideas, and causes together.  It gives me great joy. As one who likes to weave a good yarn and talk to everybody, literally; I think I was born to be a canal.  Tides of gossip that have polluted the water flow from time to time have ebbed over the years.  I’ve discovered that low-esteem and fear fuel the impulse to gossip.  Feeling grateful and peaceful are protective antidotes, and my life has too much interesting and engaging pursuits to waste time and energy unneccessarily on unproductive and soul sucking pastimes (yet  I’m human….) 

The reservoirs in my life are several and are some of my greatest blessings.  Everyone absolutely needs a reservoir or two in their life that they can go to and “drink” or “wash” and be refreshed, while leaving the water still and clear and full. It’s equally important to recognize these special people as such; we often take reservoirs for granted.  They seem like they will always be there, however they too are in delicate balance with boundaries and limits.

Not too much needs to be enumerated about swamps, we all know them (some are our neighbors, family, co-workers), we may have to wade lightly on the periphery of their presence.  We can enjoy the view while being careful not to step in too deeply, lest we get mired in the muck.

I think regarding the reservoir or canal or swamp that most important thing to remember is the idea of “WHICH”.  Ultimately, we choose.

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Healing America’s Soul

After my March 24 and 26th posts, I was feeling frustrated by my inability to find a cool head in the middle of this turbulent and sometimes scary time in our country as we to try to discern what National Health Care will REALLY mean for each of us individually and collectively as a nation.  Then I  happened on this wonderfully timed article in Margaret Benefiel’s Executive Soul monthly newsletter entitled, “Healing America’s Soul“.  Dr. Benefiel was a favorite professor of mine at Andover Newton and is currently CEO and Founder of Executive Soul.  Part of Margaret’s mission includes leading workshops and lecturing around the country to companies, organizations, and conferences who are looking to nurture spiritual values and leadership in the workplace.  In addition, she has published two books, Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader.  It is my great pleasure that she has allowed me to share her thoughtful voice of sanity amidst the cacophony of  fear and frenzy.  

HEALING AMERICA’S SOUL”  by Margaret Benefiel  (published in its entirety):

The American healthcare struggle culminating in Sunday’s vote brought out the best and the worst of legislators’ and citizens’ behavior.  The worst of the behavior inflicted wounds that not only hurt individuals, but also damages the nation’s soul.

In some ways, the heat and polarization generated by the healthcare debate can be viewed as an opportunity, an opportunity to expose old wounds that have been festering and need to be healed. When Rep. James Clyburn received a fax of a noose along with racial slurs, when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon by a protestor and called “ni–er”, when Rep. John Lewis was called a “ni–er”, it became clear, in ways that perhaps it hadn’t been to all Americans, that racism is alive and well in America and needs to be addressed.  When a U.S. Representative shouted “baby-killer” during Rep. Bart Stupak’s speech on the floor of Congress, it became clear that slanderous speech is alive and well, even in the sacred halls of Congress.  When pro-choice advocates, characterized pro-life advocates as anti-women, it became clear that intolerance and inability to hear the good will in others’ positions is alive and well.

Racism, slander, and lack of respect for differing views damage the soul of the nation.  America was built on the foundation of mutual respect and rigorous debate.  When all positions are heard and seriously considered, the nation is richer for it.  When some positions are shut out, the nation is impoverished.  When people are demeaned because of their race or political position, the nation’s soul is damaged.  As Fannie Lou Hamer reminded us, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The healthcare struggle revealed gaps between America’s espoused values and her lived values.  America is not a “post-racial” society.  America is not a tolerant society.  America is not a society of mutual respect for differing points of view. 

This is an opportunity for healing the old wounds that have been exposed, for closing the gap between espoused values and lived values.  Will Republican leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their racist and slanderous speech?  Will Democratic leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their intolerance and blind spots?

It’s time to heal the nation.  America faces problems of huge proportions.  If Americans can step up to the challenge to address and heal the wounds, the health and energy that will be liberated to engage the problems will be immense.  If we can’t, we’re destined to limp along when we need to run.

Amen, Margaret.

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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.”

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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

 

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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”

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