Honestly Facing the Darkness

During the Festival of Faiths a few weeks ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor Mike McBride posed a question that remains with me. He asked: Where is it that we have gone wrong as a culture in our theological formation of people?

Three Streams


It’s an essential question, asking religion to take a long look at its own shadow. The church has come to be seen as condoning questionable ethical, spiritual, and moral conduct. And for those who reject religion because of the darkness in it, the question remains for other cultural institutions and for the individual: What dark part of ourselves are we being invited to bring into the light for healing?

At the heart of this life, our soul’s journey is supported by a deep foundation of compassion. At the base of everything that is, is love. Love gives us the courage to look into the darkness and compassion gives us the strength to bring it into the light. That’s how we find healing and wholeness.

I’m looking within, asking whether I have been part of feeding the darkness. I’m holding in mind what is required of me: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the presence of the divine source of all life. Asking about my part in the institutions of our culture is more difficult, as is finding my role in bringing about change. But if we currently have the system we have asked for, then let me be clear. I’m asking for change.

Let us keep before us the ideal of a culture where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

 

 

 

 

Compassion, Hospitality, and Beauty

At the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville this year, Krista Tippett spoke of beauty as a core moral value. She noted the connection of beauty and vitality, and described God as being present in beauty. She mentioned mathematicians who say that if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it is likely not to be true.

 

UCC Washington, DC - Fountain

 

Influenced by the late John O’Donohue, she spoke of his distinction between beauty and glamour. O’Donohue taught that Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.

As a seminary student I came to love Vermeer’s “Woman Weighing Gold” aka “Woman Holding a Balance” because the print hung outside the office door of one of my professors. During my years in school, as I stood in the hallway waiting to talk with him I was given that rich image to contemplate.

Waiting brings particular attention to our surroundings. The places where we are required to wait speak clearly about the respite beauty can offer, or the grimness of its absence. The intentional creation of welcoming space is a sign of true hospitality. A thoughtfully chosen object or image can infuse a time of waiting with beauty and grace.

Individuals and organizations who understand hospitality find ways to offer nourishment for the soul in the arrangement of their physical space. In this quiet way, they make the world better. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue says:

[beauty] calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:

to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

The places where we wait are often filled with stress. We wait to be seen by the doctor, the government official, the interviewer. As we take in the space around us, we feel the presence of compassion. Or its absence. Unfortunately our culture has come to accept television screens as a way of offering hospitality in waiting areas. What a different environment we could create if those funds were spent on works by local artists. Yet far more spaces are arranged without any thought beyond offering a chair.

Where people have a choice about entering, spaces are generally more welcoming. Where people are required to show up, the setting is more likely to be utterly utilitarian, holding neither warmth nor tranquility. If, as John O’Donohue describes, we feel more alive in the presence of Beauty, then the palatable sense of beauty’s absence creates a space in which we die a little.

Buildings, and the spaces within them, are expensive. They require work and attention just to maintain. Given the investment already made in the physical facilities, why not use them well? Particularly when people are required to wait in a particular space, why not cultivate a peaceful environment that might carry through the entire workplace? Why not offer something beautiful to experience, granting a moment of tranquility in the midst of the day?

The UCC (United Church of Christ) in Washington, D.C. is an example of an intentionally hospitable space, not only for those who enter but for everyone who walks by. In the midst of a busy city, the walls of the church are made of glass so that passersby can see a small fountain inside. Simply to observe the flow of water across the stone disk and into the pool below is to feel a space opening in one’s psyche. What a gift, as well as an indication that this may be a rare place for the soul to thrive.

 

Knowing the River

Every day, I fill a pitcher with water from the tap. I appreciate being able to drink when I’m thirsty, and sometimes remember to be grateful for the rain that fills the river. Water sustains my life. It becomes part of me; I am intimately connected to its source. But sipping from my glass does not allow me to claim the river.

 

Red River Gorge

 

Going to the river is an entirely different experience. In Kentucky there are hundreds, thousands, of places where I might walk along the banks or step among the stones above the water’s surface. Where the water flows clear I can look through to pebbles lining the riverbed and fish darting among them. Where stones are slick with algae there’s always a chance of falling in. I can wade in the shallows or perhaps swim in a few places. The deeper, swifter water requires a vessel and some companions. A guide is helpful where the river churns white.

A close-up look at water’s edge is unlike the changing perspective from a boat, or the wider scene from atop the palisades. Even with a view from the air I can see only part of the whole river. Its long path is too much to take in at once, and yields infinite variations according to time, weather, and season. A blue line labeled on a map is easily found, but tracing the map is not the same as knowing the river.

It’s terrible that many rivers are so polluted we can’t swim or fish in them. Individually and collectively, our hubris has sullied what we need to survive. Yet even these tainted waters remain essential. We filter out the toxins the best we can, reclaiming the water we must have to live.

I can’t simply fill a glass with water as a way to know the river, much less hold the river in my hand. Neither can I quote the Bible and expect a scriptural sound bite to convey its teachings. Discernment is an important aspect of grappling with scripture; it’s not as simple as fishing out a pertinent chapter and verse.

The Bible is not a code of law or a constitution from which we draw off rules as we would draw water from the tap. Scripture is a conversation, an exploration that began thousands of years ago. It contradicts itself. It speaks in different contexts. Scripture is rich and varied, and to engage with it is to create an opening for wisdom.

To wield the Bible as a debate tool is to miss being part of its life-giving flow. Scripture can be experienced in a thousand ways throughout a lifetime, but to use it against others is to waste it. It would be absurd to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and declare that I’m acting on behalf of the river.

A line of scripture can offer hope or inspiration. It can be a reminder of the richness to be found in the entirety of the Bible. But separated from its context the passage eventually becomes a stagnant pool. Water separated from the flow of the river grows foul and breeds pestilence.

I am grateful for a glass of water. I am humbled and in awe of the river from which it flows.

 

 

Positive Energy and Prayer

Some of the important people in my life ask for prayer when things are difficult. Others ask for positive energy or healing thoughts when they are in need of support. Both are asking for spiritual support, but in different ways.

Bumblebee in Flight with Redbud Tree

There are good reasons for not using each other’s terms. Religious language may be associated with a world view so painful or constricting that a person rejects the language, the church it came from, and even what it refers to. Yet someone who rejects “prayer” may respond with warmth and love when the request is to “send good thoughts.” The value of the spiritual connection remains, it just needs to be seen in a different context, with a new way of being expressed.

On the other hand, shared language is part of what forms the bonds of a community. Within a community for whom prayer is a positive and meaningful shared experience, to ask for prayer is to make reference to what is held in common. To use another term would be to place oneself outside that shared experience and strain against the community’s identity.

So the language we use says something important about who we are. The difference in language reflects a difference in where we find meaning and belonging. But despite our differences, we share a need for the spiritual support of others. Regardless of how we express it, we know that we are connected in a spiritual way and that our connection matters.

I don’t know how prayer works. But I trust that we are connected to a level of reality beyond the physical world. Even the physicists tell us that beneath the appearance of things the world is made of energy. Some of that energy manifests as material objects, but matter is not the solid reality that we think of it as being.

Physics is offering us new ways of understanding creation and new metaphors. We are energy, we are connected to the energy around us, and connected to others through this energy. Our actions, our thoughts, and our love have an effect on the web of reality, the field of energy, beyond us. When we pray for others we are connected to them. Prayer directs our thoughts, our actions, and our love toward where they are needed, and puts more than we can know into motion.

There may be additional things we can do for the people we pray for. Thoughts, actions, and love can be directed in many practical ways. But prayer is an important means of putting energy into motion, of being connected. Many things can be prayer, or can be done prayerfully. Packing a box of supplies for people who need them as we direct our compassion toward them can be prayer. Bringing love and concern and hope for those who are suffering as we prepare food, or visit a hospital room, or write a note, can be prayer.

Whether we call it positive energy or prayer, this way of sharing love and strength is an important part of caring for one another. It helps to know what kind of language is meaningful to the person we’re talking to. But whether we say, “You’re in my prayers” or “I’m sending positive energy your way,” we’re talking about a spiritual effort. Making that commitment means we care, we want to help, and we will add our energy to the spiritual network that sustains them. Its workings are a mystery, but the spiritual help we offer matters.

You might be interested in an earlier post, “What It Means to Say ‘You’re in My Prayers,” or in “How to Pray for Another.”

Prayer for a Grieving Friend

In recent weeks, several friends have experienced a profound loss of one kind or another. In the midst of a celebration of light, their worlds hold a great portion of darkness. The contrast can make this a difficult season. This post is a prayer for those who grieve, especially during this season, and for the friends and loved ones who long to comfort them.

Through this dark valley I would ease your way,
reassure you of the goodness of life,
even of your life.
But I have not traveled this path you tread,
nor learned the reach of these shadows.
All I can do is walk with you,
both of us stumbling,
certain only that we will be sustained
by powers beyond our imagining—
by life and love, light and hope.

May the Spirit of Life lend its strength,
enfold and uplift us with warm embrace.
May the Spirit of Love tend wounded hearts,
that healing and tenderness may abide.
May the Spirit of Light show us the way—
one step at a time is enough.
And may the Spirit of Hope sow its seeds,
to open in the mysterious dark
and emerge as new life
in the spring that will surely come.

Susan Christerson Brown

The Spiritual Practice of Changing the Filter

Today I’m drinking a glass of water that tastes much better than the one I had yesterday. Not that I noticed anything wrong with yesterday’s water, but I did notice that it was time to change the filter I use. The difference is dramatic, the taste softer on the tongue—something like cashmere vs. leather.

The water filter works beautifully when it’s fresh. It removes minerals and chemicals, yielding the clear, sweet essence of water. It accomplishes this by absorbing the unwanted elements, but after a time it simply cannot take in any more. The filter’s loss of function is subtle, incremental, and at first it’s hardly noticeable. But eventually the filter stops working, and will actually introduce impurities into the water if it isn’t changed. The water tastes bad.

All of which has me thinking about the psyche’s filters.

Messages, images, and information are everywhere, more than we can ever process. The needs, demands, requests, and unthinking effects of other people’s actions continually challenge our ability to respond. We cannot let everything in; there’s too much. But determining how to filter our experience requires effort.

When the air is thick with frustration and anger, callousness and mindlessness, that’s what we most easily absorb. Without a conscious effort to resist them, negative mindsets permeate our way of being. It’s important to see the world around us as clearly as possible, but to live compassionately requires being careful of what we allow to become part of us.

Yet even when we are mindful about the ways we sort and learn from our experience, eventually the filter becomes too saturated to do its work. The anxiety we encounter begins to color our own emotional life. Thoughts become infused with the taint of fear or resentment in the air around us. It’s time to change the filter.

The upper portion of my Brita pitcher is designed to hold the cylindrical filter securely and allow it to be changed easily. I just lift the lid and drop the new one in. Sometimes I wish I could do that with my mind, but our filters are more complex. It’s through spiritual practice that they become clean again.

The hardest part about cleaning or changing a water filter is remembering to do it. That may be the case with our psyche’s filters as well. The means of restoring spiritual strength and resiliency are as different as people are varied. But we all need our spiritual health to live fully and well. We need the ability to cleanse our thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and motivations. We need a way to experience the pure, sweet essence of life that will nurture and sustain us.

Cleaning the filter might happen through prayer or meditation. It might mean a walk in the woods, yoga, or an exercise routine. It can occur in the experience of music or poetry. It could result from our own means of artistic expression. It may grow out of our relationships or from doing our best work.

Spiritual practice restores us and enhances our ability to take in what we need for health and wholeness. In whatever way we find effective, it’s important to keep up with those practices that cleanse the filter. It changes our way of being in the world, and that changes the world.

What helps you to cleanse the filter?

If you’d like to read more, I’ve posted a reflection on the recent talk by Diane Ackerman as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference over at the KaBooM Writers Notebook. It’s called Paying Attention, and offers a look at one way of changing filters by closely observing the natural world.

What it Means to Say “You’re in My Prayers”

Sometimes life comes at a person I care about in ways that challenge anyone’s ability to cope. When my actions, or theirs, have no power to change those circumstances, all I can offer is presence and concern. And prayer.

But when I tell someone, “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” or “I’ll keep you in my prayers,” what does that really mean? And what does that person want when they ask me to remember them in my prayers?

We all have different hopes and expectations, as we have differing experiences of prayer. But I see at least seven things conveyed when I offer to pray for you:

1)      It acknowledges the crisis and pain in your life

2)      It says that I am concerned about you, I am with you in your suffering, and I won’t forget about you when we part

3)      It recognizes that our lives are subject to things we cannot control, and that we share that position of vulnerability

4)      It reminds us both that we have access to spiritual strength that helps see us through the difficulties that life brings

5)      It holds faith in the possibility of strength and healing, in some form, through means we cannot predict or understand

6)      It points to an interconnected web of life strong enough to contain suffering and still hold beauty, meaning, and love

7)      It promises that you are not alone

A promise to pray is itself a kind of prayer, but I don’t think the promise is fulfilled simply in making it. In my next post, I’ll talk about how we might pray for someone.

You might also be interested in a more recent post, “Positive Energy and Prayer.”

In the Wake of a Natural Disaster

The photos and reports from Haiti show a scale of suffering that is painful merely to absorb, much less live through. What can we do? Send money. Pray. Help weave a web of compassion to hold the people there.

I’m supporting the efforts to help through donations to Week of Compassion and Church World Service, who are experienced and effective agents for responding to disasters around the world. Even a dollar helps. For a more tangible means of giving, Church World Service is also in need of hygiene and baby supply kits.

What else can we do?

Perhaps, as in the wake of any disaster, we can practice seeing our own lives more clearly.

  • I’m reminded that my life rests on the relative luxury of counting on water, food, and shelter
  • I’m thankful for the health and safety of my loved ones
  • I’m mindful that it’s having my basic needs met that allows me the privilege of working towards a fuller and more meaningful life
  • I’m grateful for the ability to share the journey of body and spirit with others, and to offer help
  • I’m appreciative of the organizations in place to deliver assistance to people in need

Life is fragile, and we are missing out if we don’t try to make it as rich and good as possible.

The outpouring of concern and support from around the world is a reminder of the human connection that binds us all together. My heart goes out to the people of Haiti, those who have lost loved ones, those who cannot feed and shelter those they love, those who are injured and suffering, those who need some reason to hope.

Sometimes it’s hard to see that we’re all in this together. Sometimes it’s easy.

What’s on your mind as the news reports continue?