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MIND POLLUTION

Paranoia, Fear, Prejudice…what are they?  They are very simply, negative EMOTIONAL states.  The rational mind is frozen, led by the nose by the “instinctive run or be eaten” part of our primal brain that our very distant ancestors needed for survival. 

For a moment, for years, or for a lifetime, it can rack the minds of its owner and worst yet, collectively, a whole population (ie., the mob mentality).  The ‘us vs. them’ mindset is the perfect atmosphere for charlatans and ego-centric politicians to whip up supporters, with sound bytes as rallying cries.  I’ve already talked about the tea partiers in another post, so we won’t go there.  But this mind pollution has tentacles.

In Arizona, they’re pulling people over who look Hispanic, just in case they might be illegal immigrants  (which is absolutely nuts as there is an overwhelming population of Hispanic Americans residing in that state).  The same people who are screaming about our taxes are now cheering as we pay law enforcement big bucks to play “Big Brother” to fight against the illegal “aliens”.  And they don’t find this shoveling “you know what” against the tide? Us vs. them will not work.   

Osama Bin Laden must be gleeful.  The politicians and other pundits have gotten us riled about over the Islamic Center in Manhattan.  He planted the seeds of terror and we ourselves are watering them.  He doesn’t even have to tend the horrifically evil garden he planted.

It was our founding fathers’ explicit wish and was thoughtfully constructed in our Constitution, by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, that our nation would be a place where everyone (Christians, Jews, and Muhammadans (as John Adams refered to them) could have houses of worship and practice as their conscience dictates (never mind community centers).  Us vs. them will not work.

We moderates better be careful.   When we sat by and thought the lunatic temperance movement would pass, we got Prohibition (There would have been no wine for Nun Tuck) . Over the years, paranoia has gotten us McCarthyism, interned Japanese Americans, racism, classicism, sexism and every other ism. 

I’d like to close this frustrated rant with two excerpts from a RATIONAL editorial by John Buchanan in the Christian Century (Sept. 21) :

“In his New York Times column (August 22), Nicholas Kristof wrote about the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan: “For much of American history, demagogues have manipulated irrational fears toward people of minority religious beliefs, particularly Catholics and Jews…Today’s crusaders against the Islamic Community Center are promoting a similar paranoid intolerance, and one day we will be ashamed of it.”…”The most tragic dimension of that irrational fear is the way it is exploited by politicians.  I cannot comprehend how otherwise sane and thoughtful people can conclude that an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate-not to mention dangerous.  It’s not a mosque and it’s not on the site of the World Trade Center twin towers, but even if it were, the right of all Americans to pray and worship how and who and where they choose is one of the most important rights and values of our nation.  It is not negotiable.”    

Who are we REALLY…as a people, as a nation?

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A NICE GOD

The Christian Centurys August 10, 2010 cover story, entitled “Our God is Too Nice”, contains a survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion on what today’s Christian American teenagers believe.  They created a new term to describe this loosely held set of beliefs, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.  Here is a condensed version of the findings:

“1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.

4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem.

 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Hmm.  Here are my thoughts (in no particular order):

Having three teenagers myself, I see their struggle between the adult rising within them, with complex ideas and  accompanying responsibilities, and their desire to revert back to simple, more comforting, childlike roles.  Teenagers are not quite a grown up, not quite a kid.   With that as a backdrop, I can see how some of these notions would fit the age.  It is reassuring to believe that someone else is in charge and that someone will take care of us (only if and when we ask them). It is certainly assuages our human fears of death and/or hell.  If we are good, if we behave, we will go to heaven.  

However, I asked my own children (19, 18, and 16) to respond to the above list of basic concepts of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. My kids are typical American teenagers in many ways, but they are unusually deep and perceptive thinkers. (I know; I’m their mother, so of course I think they’re brilliant; but just indulge me). In addition, they were steeped in church life since infancy and have the privilege of being well-educated.  Here are their answers to the above 5 points:

1.  “God created the world, yes/ puts in it order, perhaps, but don’t forget about evolution’s role as well/ watches over us (hope so, but more likely is within us and around us in the world, actively participating in our joys and sorrows, not Mr. Fix it).”  One stated that “the jury is still out if there really is a God.”    

2. A resounding yes, “this is just common sense, what it means to be moral and ethical.” “Sounds overly simplistic though.”

3. A qualified no….being happy is good and feeling good about yourself is important, but they are not the central goal of life.  While none of them was sure what the central goal of life was, words like “love, service, growth, and relationships”, were included.  “Feeling good about yourself was necessary to be happy, but happiness is a byproduct, not a goal, and what about the people in Darfur and Afghanistan?” “This belief of the goal of life being personal happiness isn’t even Christian.”  “This is just our consumerist culture.”

4. “Won’t even answer this, it’s too ridiculous.  Who believes that?? It’s like a genie in a bottle.  This is the same kind of personal deity who saves some people on a plane (and that proves to them, there’s miracles) while allowing others to die, including babies (and they say that’s God’s will).”  

5. (Note: This is what they were all taught as children in the Catholic Faith).  Here are their 3 very different answers:

a.” Yes”. 

 b. “I believe good and bad people go to heaven, all our welcome, a loving God takes everyone.” (My Universal Salvationist).

c.”I don’t know if there is a heaven, I don’t believe in hell, but I’m starting to think they are both just human constructs or metaphors pointing to something else”.

The writer of The Christian Century article, Kenda Creasy Dean, is rightfully discouraged by the wave of “MTD” sweeping the churches.  It certainly does reflect how our predominant culture has infiltrated even our views about God and the role of religion in our lives.  And she is right, this milquetoast of a faith won’t stand up against the pain and suffering that besets every human life.  REAL religion, whatever it is, has to be solid enough to provide a firm foundation and clear enough to utilize in our daily lives. Superficiality and vague platitudes don’t have the substance when it’s time to just hold on.  If your faith doesn’t provide spiritual sustenance, perhaps the place to begin is to ask the questions, “What is worship?, “Who is it for?”

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QUAKER GO TO MEETING TIME

When I was a kid, my parents used to play a game with my brother, sister, and I on long car rides.  It was called “Quaker Go To Meeting”. Whenever the three of us were either arguing or just being rowdy and rambunctious, my Mom would lean over into the back seat and call, “It’s Quaker go to meeting time.” The object of the “game” was to see how long each of us could go without talking.  The winner was the one who was the last to speak. Now, until we were old enough to figure out this was simply a ploy to get us to pipe down, it actually worked (at least for 3-5 minutes).  Some semblance of this game has been used since the beginning of time and across every culture when parents need just a few moments of quiet. All humans know, on some basic level, that silence, even in the briefest span, can provide a bit of needed respite or create a receptacle to gather one’s thoughts.

The idea of not speaking on purpose is central to the tenets of Quaker spirituality.  In fact, an authentic Quaker meeting is a worship service that last approximately 60 minutes and is composed of thoughtful silence, interspersed with members sharing thoughts or feelings that have come to them during the time of meditation. They only speak if the Spirit has moved them. 

While Quakers have divergent religious beliefs and no creed, they all share common roots in a Christian movement that arose in England in the middle of the 17th century by founder George Fox, who  discovered Christ while going within. Today’s Quakers do not necessarily share any Christian understanding, but they do continue to adhere to two essential principles. 

The first is a belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with the Divine. The other is a commitment to living lives that outwardly attest to this inward experience.  One of the ways that Quakers (also known as The Society of Friends) demonstrate this commitment, is through the art of active listening.  The worship service provides a model on how to listen openly and compassionately as well as a time of quiet reflection and meditation.  The members then attempt to practice both throughout their daily lives.

In an article entitled “The Listening Place” the February 23, 2010 issue of  The Christian Century, Gordon Atkinson (a Texan Baptist minister) visits a Quaker meeting  and describes, “A young woman broke the silence and spoke briefly.  There was a gentle shift of attention to her and away from individual thoughts and prayers.  People shifted in their seats and assumed various listening postures…I recognized in the Quakers the unmistakable signs of practiced, active listening.  When the woman was finished with what she had to say, she sat down.  There was a moment or two in which I felt her words were still alive in the room, still being considered.  And then the Friends shifted back to their individual thoughts, prayers, and meditations…it was the most refreshing spiritual exercise I’ve had in years”.

Perhaps we, too, can carve out some Quaker go to meeting time on a daily basis.  For us, it could be a 20 to 40 minute session in conscious meditation, carrying our full attention to those we come in contact with.  There is no greater gift to another than one’s whole presence.

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DAWN AND RESURRECTION ARE SYNONYMOUS

This morning, I woke up before my dog, to attend one of our local church’s annual Sunrise Easter service. I am not a member of this church, but have lived in this little hamlet of 4500 souls for 18 years. It’s an everyone knows everyone kind of place.  And yet, for one reason or another, I’d never attended before.  It’s held at the shore of our Town Pond, which is lovely and secluded and has an ancient history (if one could call New England history ancient.) As I walked the path to the pond, there were luminarias lighting the way (white paper bags weighted with sand and little tea candles in them).  The hot pink and grey-blue sunrise rose up over the water, blessing our sleepy-eyed band of celebrants.  And while I understand that many past services had a frost and a chill in the air, today’s early moments began balmy.  The crackling bonfire was more symbolic perhaps than necessary.  Although, I don’t think we can ever get enough of the symbols, the concepts, or the people that bring light to the world.   The mood was meditatively quiet. The prayers were simple, direct, and ready for immediate application.   

I saw some of my dear friends around that fire, those who know the kind of challenging year I’ve had.  I felt their good will towards me through their eyes, their smiles, and hugs.  I hope they sensed the same from me. Resurrection is the happy part, but its significance is diminished if we don’t remember what comes before it.   For most of the world’s Christians, today is Resurrection day. It means that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and returned to life everlasting… AFTER suffering a torturous, laborious, and unjust death.  Even outside of Christianity, many faiths believe in a future state after death, where there will be a resurrection, a rising again, to new life in some shape or form.  Yet resurrection’s power, its gift of joy which passeth all understanding (no matter your faith) comes from the awe, the incredulity of being brought back from our darkest places, when we are crippled or broken or blind and death seems certain.  

Ena Zizi was there. (From an excerpt from Paul Jeffrey’s article, “Out of the Rubble”, March 23rd,  The Christian Century:

After having been buried for a week in the rubble of Haiti’s January 12th earthquake, Ena Zizi was rescued by the Mexican team called the  Gophers (rescue workers, some of them survivors themselves of a horrific earthquake in Mexico city in 1985).  As they pulled her dirty and injured body out on a broken piece of plywood salvaged from the rubble and carefully passed her down over three stories of debris to the ground, the 70-year-old woman was singing.  Her singing was inarticulate, as she hadn’t had any water to drink for seven days.  Yet her joy was infectious.  The members of the Mexican rescue team who were carrying her began crying. 

Zizi, who was severely dehydrated and had suffered a broken leg and dislocated hip, yelled for help for hours, then for two days, conversed with a priest, and when he grew silent, she “talked only to God.”   Her singing was gratitude, the indominability of the human spirit, and a way for her rescuers to find her.  To the South African and Mexican rescue teams surrounding her, she was very real proof of resurrection.

Resurrection is never just personal.  It is always in relationship.  Yesterday, while I was out on my daily run, I ran into a neighbor out for a walk with her two school age children.  Her 11-year-old daughter has been struggling with leukemia since May.  I noticed her hair was growing back in a full, spiky, long crew cut fashion.  And she had dyed it in  colors of the rainbow.  I wept later to witness her resurrection, the “resumption of vigor” (one definition).  And her courage to wait on it, expectantly, faithfully.       

Song of the Day: Amazing Grace by John Newton (1725-1807) (Ex-slave trader)

Stanza from the Song of the Day: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares/I have already come/’Twas Grace that brought me safe thus far/and Grace will lead me home.”

Quote of the Day: “Dawn and resurrection are synonymous.  The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.” -Victor Hugo

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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).

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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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