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On this lovely piece of property where Scott and I get to live and cultivate, we have planted in the past half decade over one hundred trees, though you would not suspect since the groupings limit the eye’s ability to correctly ascertain how much it is seeing.  We have a hedgerow of Leland Cypress, a dozen and a half new redwoods, several October Blaze maples, currently blazing right on cue as if they were in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  We have beech and birch and liriodendron (dropping their large golden leaves just outside my study’s window as I write) flowering plums, katsuras, two elegant cedars, a Colorado Blue Spruce on which to hang blue lights at Christmas, an Atlas cedar from the mountains of the Maghreb, planted to honor Trappist monks living amidst the poor, wantonly slain at Tibhirine in the far south of Algeria many years ago, their simple witness too much to bear to religious fundamentalists.   The surviving monks stayed on.

We have a Jujube, yes, like the candy and from which the movie palace sweet acquired its sticky name.  A dozen Japanese maples huddle together in the slash of shade on the house’s northern perimeter, along with a Hinoki cypress, their aesthetic sister, under which sits a Buddha now covered, after many years, in moss, befitting somehow his mission.  Douglas fir create a partial screen in front, where we removed many reedy old cottonwoods (farewell, Nebraska…).   This fenced land has seven old live oaks, Valleys, deciduous, majestic, with canopies that in the summer create total cover, and, in the winter, through which stars shine one does not otherwise see.   After several years of raking up their immense drop, I learned recently it is best for the trees to leave the leaves in place.  Ah.  O.K.

Fruit trees produce an abundance of apricots and figs and a smattering of peaches and pears too small yet to eat and enough pomegranates for the holiday table.  No cherries to speak of, not a jujube in sight, but plenty of quince, about a century late for jamming purposes.  The old plum tree produces hard little miniatures with stones too big for their skins.  The apricot has cankers, and will have to be removed.  Older and wiser orcharders told me you can’t really grow apricots in this part of Sonoma County.  I did, but not for very long.

But these are not the woods I have moved into.  Even saying I have moved denotes an inaccurate placement of the pronoun, and the wrong case for the verb.  Am being moved?  Moving?  Have been moved by?  Shoved?

Maybe wrong verb grouping altogether.  The more precise one is deform.  I am being deformed, or I am partially deformed, with some movement apparent towards a total deformation.  The forms, on which I have staked my life, actually, are melting.  No, withering away.  Falling apart.  Crushed by their own weight.  You get the picture.

The forms:  metaphysical assurity, moral absolutism, perfectionism.   More colloquially: understanding (of incalculable value), controlling (hello?), tasking, an inheritance of both Jansenist and Puritan forbearers with instructions on how to cram jam full a day, or perhaps a life, and maybe  even naming, Adam’s forlorn task.

Sometimes I can escape my body and float above and look down on this poor chap and all his efforts, genuine, sincere to a fault, and yet with a moral calculation to please and control the divine just enough to ensure some predicated outcome.  Some acceptance.  Some redemption.  Some abject atonement.  Some fulfillment of the tasks necessary, finally, to be found worthy.

Alas, no task, no matter how arduously performed, or how often, even to the end of one’s days, qualifies one.  There is no competition.  There is no reward.  No atonement.  No justification.  Your categories, dear Bill, are backwards.   Well, not even backwards.  No longer applicable.

The past eighteen months of my life have left me with one knowing, if you will: the divine (my awkward word) is not to be managed.  It is not to be defined.  It cannot be understood.  It cannot be manipulated.  It cannot be secured.  It cannot be disciplined.  It cannot be metaphysiced.  It cannot be natural lawed.  An asteroid rammed into Jupiter recently the size of the Pacific Ocean, and plot, if that happened to the earth, history is, shall we say, altered for all time. That being the case, in what lies the meaning, if at all, of our treasured lives.

Our imaginations have failed us, or at least not kept up pace.  Physics, particle, astro and otherwise, has over taken metaphysics, and all on which therein relied.  The universe is an immensity we cannot even though barely glimpse.  Hubble is the photographer to the divine court, and the billions upon billions of galaxies it suggests are a tribute to the divine imagination, always changing, or as Thomas Keating says, always just a bit ahead of where we might be.  To us, he is generous.

My precious categories are being shattered.  Missouri Valley Thomism (yes that’s the nomenclature used by Aristotelian metaphysicians at Saint Louis University and Jesuit environs mid-last-century) into which I was intellectually birthed 40 years ago is like an antique side car, clanging along next to the vehicle who dimensions I do not know nor cannot fully fathom but in which I find myself delighted to be travelling at a clip I cannot measure .

Eighteen months ago while on retreat I had an experience.  I attended to the experience, using what I had at my disposal, and did so sincerely.  Nonetheless, the experience got bounded by my limitations.  What else could I do?  I have my understandings.  I have my notions, formed by those I have thought much brighter than me, with candle power in excess of my own.  I have been attending to the One who was at the heart of that experience for a long time.  But my categories are so short, so clipped, so narrow, for all their breadth.

The divine, how can one say anything of this, I, like you, am experiencing is More.  Ahead.  All.  Ether.  Cupping the immensity of the universe in the anthropological hand which we provide him.  (So interesting, no?,  that humankind in inventing language did not create a fourth pronoun-set for the divine, instead relying on the third person singular masculine, now so entirely inadequate yet nonetheless clogging the pipes with its accreted corrosion).

We know so little.  And yet.

Saint Francis knew enough to touch the leper on her sores.

In Sonoma County, persons of accidental means are creating winter shelters for those whose accidental means have left them shelterless.

Paul Farmer is carrying medicine up the mountainsides of deforested Haiti to heal the sufferings of the most abject of human beings.

A woman I know has taken Bodhisattva vows to unite herself with those who suffer.

Parents are kissing their children good night before kissing each other.

Someone you love is weeping today with the immensity of which she carries in her heart.

We can’t pray disease away, nor keep our loved ones , let alone the worthies of every description in every place, from pain.  And every one is worthy.  So we do what we do.  And we pray for whom we pray.  Praying only changes us.  Our hearts.  Our capacity.  Our breadth.  Our deepening into mystery.  Our total trust in That which we intuit with our advanced evolutionary brains and hearts and souls to be at the source of all of this splendor and yet somehow imbedded in this immensity of suffering, too.  That must be suffering, too.

We can evade the suffering for awhile, some of us with those accidental means, seemingly for a long while. We can robe ourselves so finely that we forget our nakedness and the absolute reliance we have on others to sustain us.  We are no isolates, no independent actors, no self-reliant individualists.  We are only together even if our vocation calls us to be apart.  Our sinews are threaded to bones other than our own.  How different this is from the daily action agenda our electronic devices spew forth each morning.  How different from what I have planned.

So I am grateful to be in the forest, the place filled with the immensity of trees in which I am small and yet happy.  Fog in the morning, appropriately.  Deep shafts of light between the arched branches.  A soft floor for the inevitable falls.

And yet we are called into the desert with such regularity: the scorching sun, the altered vision, the parchedness of the land and the throat, the psychological lizards, the emotional cacti, mainly the sense of being in some untenable way, desolate, alone.

And the terrible news is, there are times the desert is the requisite place for our necessary tutelage.

And the time there leaves a lasting impression.  One is shy to forget their instruction: To give up the old categories.  To stop praying in the old ways to the old gods.  To stop idolizing the drossed bulls we have fashioned with such sincerity from our tired and ineffective beliefs.  Beliefs appear as so much smoke.  You thought you could grab them and hold them but they are elusive and now gone, a repetition of a mirage, leaving only the faintly acrid odor of ash.

If anything, we leave the desert with trust.  A mighty and de-glamorized trust.  Only trust.   It is a world away from belief.  There is no dogma to explain either the desert or the beauty of a supernova other than the dogma of awe.  To admit the paucity of the moral imagination and enter the realm of awe feels like salvation to me.

Mother Teresa (who I am not used to quoting) said: Do one thing.  Don’t take on the suffering of India.  Hold one outcast.  Spike Lee, likewise whom I’ve never quoted, says: Do the right thing.  We actually kinda know what that is, and it’s gonna cost us.  There is some whiff of suffering involved.  Chosen suffering, or at least a pinch thereof.

We are not in charge, really, of anything.  Our bodies will do what bodies do, and our minds, too.  History has a damnable tendency to repeat itself, and asteroids just fly into whatever planet they damn well please.  And yet, we are the recipients of grace, of beauty, of all of this created splendor.

And of the knowing beyond knowing of something More.  Something  Other.  Something Deeper, Penetrating, Mysterious.
God, the commonly held word to capture something beyond even the imagination and the limits of the limitless universe, appears to have endowed this evolving creature Homo Sapiens, (ah, sapientia, wisdom) with a capacity to feel deeply this knowing: of empathy, of relatedness, of love, our best word, our very best word.

In this must our wisdom lie.  It is contrary to imposed suffering, injustice, war, violence, exclusion, shame, power.  We know just a smidgen about it, but the yeast of that smidgen is enough.  From it love bread will rise.  We can trust, and we can gain our fill.  What else offers such hope and possibility and insight and vision and splendor.  What else?

“Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations,” so states the first sentence on the Conservapedia, a website begun by Andrew Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum.

Launched in 2006 and proclaiming itself as the one true defender of the Truth, Conservapedia is making news with its claim that modern translations of the Bible are tainted by liberal bias.

With an allusion to the 10 Commandments, Conservapedia asserts that modern translations of the Bible fail to adhere to its ten guidelines, beginning with a “Framework against Liberal Bias” and concluding with “Preferring Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness.”

Liberals are “downplaying the very real existence of hell and the devil” and responsible for inserting later stories into the biblical text such as Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery. As found in John’s Gospel, Conservapedia says noted scholars discount this story as being a later addition.

This is not news.

Even conservative Biblical scholars admit that Mark’s Gospel, the earliest, wasn’t written down until 65-70 CE. There are no pure or unfiltered accounts of the life of Jesus.

When it comes to the Bible, interpretation always depends on assumptions and perspective. Liberals read it liberally, conservatives read it conservatively.

Some time back I had a lunch meeting with a Messianic Jew.  We met at (where else?) the Blind Faith Café.

Messianic Jews are people who were raised as religious or cultural Jews who have converted to Christianity. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus really was the Jewish messiah, the one and only Son of God. For all intents and purposes, messianic Jews are evangelical Christians.

To my partner in dialogue I said, “I believe that Jesus is not the one and only door to God but at once a  window to our humanity and divinity.” He immediately flew off the handle. “And you call yourself a Christian? That’s the problem with all you liberals, you believe that truth is relative. And that’s what’s wrong with this society. The moral breakdown of our society is due to the fact that we don’t believe in the authority of the Bible anymore. Take sex for example. Homosexuality and sexual promiscuity are a result of a society that no longer believes in Biblical morality.”

His retort provided a perfect opening so I said, “I imagine you believe that the Bible teaches monogamy, right?” “Absolutely,” he said. “Then how do you account for the fact that Abraham did not practice monogamy. Abraham not only had a mistress, but the mistress was Hagar, his wife’s maid, and Abraham got her pregnant. This is biblical sexual morality?”

“All right”, he countered,” if you want to talk about the Hebrew Bible, what about the 10 Commandments? Do you believe in the 10 commandments, or not?”

“Sure , I believe it’s wrong to steal unless you are stealing bread to feed your starving family. I believe it’s wrong to lie. But there have been many times that people have told a lie in order to save the life of somebody else. Sometimes morality calls us to confront the complexity of life and seek the highest good”. Life cannot be reduced to dogmatic formulas,” I said.

Round and round we went.   When it comes to the Bible this is the ongoing liberal/conservative debate.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of an idol is : “a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god.”

Every attempt by liberals or conservatives to reduce the Bible to fit a preconceived ideology is an attempt to turn the Bible into God. Bibliolotry is another word for this.

A bibliolater is “one having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible.”

The Bible is not God.

Get it?

I don’t fault conservatives for wanting to change the words to make them more palatable to conservative tastes. We liberals do the same thing.

So let’s start here: in whatever form the diverse biblical cannon appeared or appears, it is not God.  It  is a collection of books that contains the narrative quest of people who seek God–this is why the literature is sacred.

Get it?

In whatever form the flawed biblical narrative appears, I am moved most by the words of Paul in I Cornithians 13: “If I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

As Dante Alighieri reminds us,

The love of God, unutterable and perfect, flows into a pure soul the way that light rushes into a transparent object. The more love that it finds, the more it gives itself, so that, as we grow clear and open, the more complete the joy of loving is. And the more souls who resonate together, the greater the intensity of their love, for, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.

Whatever your preferred translation, the Bible is not God—never has been and never will be.

I openly confess however that I am a loveolotrist.

A few weeks ago I wrote on this blog about the things I have learned from people who frown; a month before that about the joy of living in a neighborhood with people whose customs challenge me. I must be in a diversity mode these days.

Maybe that (plus my arrival in Tokyo for a two-month stay) is what led me to recall an episode of many years ago, when the reverse side of this mode shocked me–and reminded me how much we human beings share even when we’re being self-centered.

I was sitting on a cushion across a low table from my friend Manabe-san, engaging in a conversation about religious things. Our visits were intended to help me learn Japanese, but their primary effect was to stimulate my mind and deepen our friendship.

“I am convinced,” Manabe told me, “that Japan is God’s chosen country.” I think I gasped.

The thing that made his comment surprising was that Manabe was a deeply conservative Christian. Jesus, for him, was God’s only son; failure to believe in Christ sent a person to hell. “God’s favorite nation”–even though fewer than one percent of his fellow countrymen were Christian?

Why was he so sure, I asked, and he provided well thought out answers.

These days, I am less interested in Manabe’s answers than in the ideas his comment has fostered in my own set of beliefs as I have pondered the favorite nation idea across the years.

1. Manabe is simply wrong if he thinks Japan is better–or more “chosen”–than other countries, or if he thinks his land has some “special,” God-given right to power and prosperity. Japan is no more God’s favorite place than Israel is. Or the United States. Or Afghanistan. A universal God does not play favorites.

2. Yet Manabe is right. Japan is indeed God’s chosen land. So is Iraq. And Ireland and Namibia. Just this morning, as I went for a newspaper, I noticed Tokyo’s Olympics slogan stretched across an elementary school playground: Nihon da kara dekiru, “This is Japan; so we can do it!” That’s true, I thought, just as much as it would be true if one substituted Brazil, or Spain, or the United States. If the divine spirit flows through us all, we’re all capable of remarkable things.

3. This equation ought to apply to every area of life, not just to politics and national culture. My faith is special; some days I’d even call it “the best”–just as I would the faith of spiritual seekers in every religious tradition.

My family is wonderful; so are the Blegens, and the Chartoffs, and the Hoshinos, and the Husseins. To love my family passionately need not diminish the equally superlative qualities of other families. Nor should the specialness of theirs lessen the love I have for my own. As with faith and nation, it is not a competition.

The Quakers get my attention when they assert that there is something of God in each of us.

It is easy to see that in my two-year-old grandson Ryu. When he asked his father the other day where poop came from, then declared after hearing his father`s explanation that he must be eating poop, I grinned and saw something divine. That was easy.

That divine spark should be equally easy to see in the woman who comes by each morning and sorts through our neighborhood garbage, to make sure people have discarded the appropriate things for that day. My temptation is to dismiss her as eccentric, but there is a divine brightness in that fastidiousness.

There is that of the divine too in the fifty men and women who show up at 7:00 every morning at the nearby park to exercise loudly. And in the rule-inclined postal clerk who last week sent me home, grumbling, to get the right sized envelope. Even in the right-wing zealots who blare their nationalist slogans from soundtrucks and make me grimace.

I may dislike their views; I may wish them away from my nighborhood; I may even invoke imprecations on them. But I cannot deny that spark of spiritual energy that makes their commitment to something bigger than self wonderful–indeed, divine.

Again and again I am taken aback when I consider how much we human beings share. Even when we think different thoughts and follow conflicting ideologies, even when our customs vary, we nonetheless laugh and love and hurt and smile at the same things. We share a need to serve and a vision of giving ourselves to something beyond and above ourselves. That which joins us is too profound, in my reckoning, to be anything but divine.

So I think Manabe was right, though in ways he might not have realized. The Japanese are God’s chosen. So am I.

Professional Christian Science practitioner Phil Davis argues that the healthcare debate is not only about politics and economics but also an opportunity to embrace the mind/body connection. “It’s about the possibility that one’s relationship to God is a redemptive process and that physical well-being is an aspect of that spiritual growth and salvation,” Davis says.

“Disease is an experience of a so-called mortal mind. It is fear made manifest on the body,” said Mary Baker Eddy. The matriarch of Christian Science wrote these words out of her own experience. In 1866 she suffered a severe fall that caused a major injury. She reportedly turned to Matthew 9:2 and read these words, “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’”

Once viewed by mainstream American religionists as a peculiar Christian brand, Christian Science is no longer a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.

From quigong to yoga, from insight to transcendental meditation, the rising tide of Eastern spiritual practices has raised the collective Western consciousness to a new awareness of the relationship of mind to body. Prodded perhaps by the Eastern healing currents and fueled by the latest scientific research, an increasing number of physicians and neuroscientists are pushing old boundaries while asserting new mind/body paradigms—is this the a new secular spirituality?

It turns out that Christian Science practitioners are more like trail blazers than drifters.

While mind/body proponents articulate different versions of the story, most agree that a peaceful mind is a great benefit to the body. Contending that the physical body is not an island unto itself but an externalized expression of the mind, Christian Scientists take the next step and assert that every disease in the body is the manifestation of the mind, says Christian Science. As May Baker Eddy put it, “Disease is an image of thought externalized.”

Given the larger context of the healthcare debate it comes as little surprise that some Christian Science practitioners are requesting that healthcare reform reflect this growing awareness by allowing for reimbursement of mind/body practitioners.

Religion aside, this is should be a no brainer. Even if you are skeptical about the relationship of mental prayer to physical wellness, there’s no denying the placebo effect. While there are limits to the power of positive thinking (no one has yet been able to resist physical death through positive thinking) the research is itself a reminder that what is in the mind can significantly impact the body.

If nothing else, the placebo effect is cost effective. And if you are convinced that mind/body healing is rooted in a deeper truth than mere positive thinking, you might even be willing to consider that yoga, meditation or other spiritual practices are worthy antidotes for many of the ills that beset us.

As Ben Franklin famously put it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Even conventional medicine is beginning to embrace prevention as an economically efficient and compassionate model. In the healthcare reform debates few question the importance of a primary care physician as a basic way to build in accountability and competence into the existing healthcare system.

Why not include reimbursement to all mind/body practitioners as a line item in healthcare reform? In addition to helping people cure from disease recognizing the mind/body connection could be a boon to the prevention movement.

Here is the problem. The fascinating topic of mind/body aside, we can’t even agree on how best to best provide conventional healthcare to Americans. The public option, or no? Medical malpractice tort reform, or no? Will procedures like abortions or gastric bypass surgery be allowed, or not? And how do we keep those illegal immigrants out of the ER?

To inject the nuanced topic of “paying for prayer” into this already fractious debate—who gets what and how to pay for it—is nothing if not a recipe for disaster.

And there are other questions—perhaps even more vexing and complex—such as whether it’s even appropriate for insurers (government or private) to reimburse religious practitioners for practicing their religion.

As Gandhi counseled, to take a long journey we must take only one step at a time lest we trip all over ourselves.

Maybe in some future or more enlightened time we as a people will have the wherewithal to ponder reimbursement for the ultimate prevention strategy. But for now, the “pay to pray” option is hardly an answer much less a viable question.

That said, I do agree with mind/body author Dr. Larry Dossey who says,

The major challenge we face is how to spiritualize and humanize medicine, how to infuse it with a compassionate quality that answers to our inner needs as well as to the needs of our physical bodies…(over time) healers will take their places in surgery suites, coronary care units, and emergency rooms, as they are already beginning to do in some hospitals. As a result, it will feel different to be a patient. One will know that “the system” cares about the soul as well as the body. Fantasy? Hardly. These changes are already penetrating some of the major hospitals in the country.

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “for everything there is a season.”

When it comes to healthcare reform, it’s not yet Spring.

I prefer people who smile. Maybe it says something about me, or maybe it’s universal, but I’ve always found it easier to deal with people whose face lights up when they talk, people who make me feel supported, people who respond to what I have to say with more than a grump or a grimace.

Give me a smile, and I’ll come to see you again; I’ll reciprocate with smiles of my own, perhaps even with gifts or favors.

Give me a frown or ignore me, and I’ll be intimidated. I’ll think four times before making another contact; even then, I may have to force myself to say hello or visit. I may even turn the other way when I see you coming.

And what a shame that is, because smiles can be so superficial. Because people with frowns, or just plain expressionless faces, usually are as sincere or as friendly as those whose demeanor exudes warmth. They clearly have as much to teach me.

Thinking back across life’s many years, it occurs to me that in almost every instance the dour ones have helped me grow at least as much as the warm ones have, often more.

I recall Bernie, a professor who drove me up many walls with his cynical, sometimes nasty (always smile-less) attacks on my views. To this day, I argue with him often, even though we’ve not communicated for years. His mind was powerful; his words were sharp, his ideas even sharper. And how he intimidated me! I still think he was wrong about many things. And I wish he had been less sarcastic. But there is no question that all of my arguing with him–internally more often than outwardly–has made me a better thinker. I’d never recommend him for a favorite teacher list, but that says bad things about me, because his challenges have made me grow more than the plaudits of those I’d be more likely to nominate.

A colleague named Glen comes to mind next. If Bernie sent me up walls, Glen drove me to wit’s end. I didn’t simply disagree with his views; I felt oppressed by him–threatened and put down. And I avoided talking to him, even though he chaired my department. If truth be told, however, I owe him many of the things that have landed me where I am today. He too made me think deeply, painfully, about what I thought and believed. He made me defend my views. He gave me examples of how to be an effective teacher, for many students loved him. And he pushed me, unknowingly, into larger worlds where I could grow in unanticipated ways.

Then there was Ed, a journalist I initially found it hard to talk to. With Ed, there were no ideological disagreements, no nastiness or arrogance. He was just inexpressive and quiet–smile-less!–the kind of person to whom I found it difficult to reach out. But how glad I am that got to know him. Beneath that quiet surface lay one of the most interesting men I have known: a man driven by a passion for justice, a man brimming with unexpected interests, a man skilled with the pen, a man more loyal than a brother. My life has been enriched by his friendship in ways beyond counting, but I’d not have gotten to know him if I’d followed my instincts.

Bob Thompson said in a recent Lake Street Church sermon: “God is in those who force us to stretch.” For me, the non-smilers fit that description.

I’m insecure enough as a human being that I’ll continue to gravitate toward those who smile a lot and talk easily. But I’ll do that at my peril, as Bernie, Glen, Ed, and a hundred more have taught me.

I’m about to go to a twelve step meeting, like ones I have been attending for several decades, and at this particular meeting I will get my chip.  This chip is a metal disk the size of a Kennedy half dollar, with the Serenity Prayer on one side, and the phrase To thine own self be true, on the other.  Shakespeare, a one man Scripture, authored this oft heard yet trenchant phrase and he had Polonius speak it in Hamlet.  Polonius died tragically, wouldn’t you know.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase and its many cousins for some time.  For the past eighteen months, I have been in the wilderness.  I’m just there.  I am not somewhere else, though if I were in charge, I think I would be elsewhere, not wilderness, more city or brass band or ecstasy (the non-pharma kind).  More assurity,  more clarity, more purpose, yes, more purpose.

One would think that at 60 purpose would be resolved.  One would think that one could state in a simple declarative sentence to the satisfaction of all one’s purpose.  The accumulated achievements of one’s life, if such a pile could be gathered, would surely declare, hopefully once and for all, one’s purpose.

But I am sensing one’s purpose, actually, my purpose, is not so easily ascertained.

I loved graphs as a boy, and I still do.  If I graphed my life in linear time, there would be parallel lines correlating my purpose with the moral tasks my religious faith at any point in my development imposed.

But in that simple graph, there would be a faint disruptive line, irregular, sometimes seemingly erratic, which would criss-cross both purpose and religious faith and make a jumble of them, point out their too perfectly connectedness.  That faint line would grow darker and more vibrant over the length of the graph, and if viewed closely, would not quite be on the surface of the graph paper, but somehow hovering just over the page, not wanting to be so easily defined and managed, by me or by others.

This third line I understand somehow as my soul, manifest in my intuition.    It has little to do with my life’s endeavors and little to do with the religious faith I inherited at birth and which was reinforced in ways unchartable but immutable over the course of my life.  I rue neither, and am glad for my life’s experience.   But I increasingly sense, with nothing but my intuition to guide me, that the wilderness portends an encounter…not a purpose.

In the first few months of this wilderness occupation, not knowing its duration or durability, I grew distressed with its effects on me.  Among my many explorations, I sought medical guidance, wondering if in fact my fugue might be caused by mere physiological phenomenon (I hoped so, in any event).  My doc wanted to rule out any potential causes related to neurological phenomena and so I met with a neurologist.  He did a work up over the course of an hour, and at the end said:

I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is there is no sign of any neurological problem that we need to be concerned with.  Bill, as a psychologist, you appreciate you mainly deal with the wounds of childhood in your adult clients, now writ large as they encumber your patients today.  And so like you:  I manage the effects of childhood disorders at whatever age they come into my office.  You have been managing three such disorders since childhood, without the benefit of diagnostic or medical or pharmacological help.  I see in your notes that you were raised in an alcoholic household.  In effect, I would assert you raised yourself, and you did so managing symptoms of these three disorders, which I suspect caused you some great travail.  The kicker is, you managed them so well that they have not outwardly interfered with your life.   But, untreated, they continue to extract a price from you, as they evidently do still.

I first of all was amazed at his perception, his literal perception, that he could observe these manifestations that I had hid, or thought I had, since I was a young boy.

He offered me a pharmacological response to offset their symptoms.   I declined.

What has haunted me since this productive visit with the neurologist is that the symptoms he noted I, and many others, have or once regarded as character defects, flaws in self control, causes of both discipline and shame, the eradication of the effects of which became moral targets for me for which no amount of effort was mountable to offset their daily, hourly, minutely demands.   Not unlike my early understanding of my sexuality, the homo-part and the sex-part.  Everything seemed to be something that needed to be willed away, to be purified, but ultimately, to what end?

I share this story because I encounter daily similar stories from others, perhaps such stories reside in us all.  That which became the object of religious zeal has so often not been the encounter with Love which must be its only goal, and the creation of justice, which must be the path, but instead, the purification of the self, understood primarily as the ego, with the assistance of a highly cultivated super-ego to provide constant instruction.

But this is not a problem of religion alone.  Families, social structures, economic systems all play their part.  Achievement, a name, a legacy, a reputation, accumulation, a total and seamless personal defense system these become the goals of life, the absolutes, the purpose for which we were created, if there is nothing in life to which we submit greater than our paltry selves.

My life has in some fundamental way been a grand purification project.   Everything needed to be perfected.  More than everything.  This is full time work.  Actually, because it seeps into one’s unconscious and works itself out in one’s dreams, it is work 24/7. I have been pretty good at it, had some achievements, created a name for myself, perhaps a legacy, certainly a reputation, accumulation as if there were no tomorrow, which accumulation might insure there isn’t, and a pretty good defense system, though, unfortunately for the perfection project, not quite seamless.  My absolutes, in the finest traditions of Thomistic philosophy, were very absolute.  As an Enneagram One, for your aficionados, I was well prepped for this role, and had a variety of perfecting arrows in my ample quiver.

So how is it I find myself, nonetheless, in the wilderness?

Come to find that the perfection project is not sufficient!  Who knew?

On a retreat eighteen months ago, about which I have previously written in this blog, I was changed.   But I was not yet ready for the change.  Through no fault of my own, I am quick to add.  In these eighteen months, much has been taken away from me.  Much assurance.  Much insurance.  So many absolutes.  So much knowledge.  The solace of connections on the cheap, as if there were no price to pay for veracity.  Some apparently not essential hope that the human project is one that extends forever in one direction, regardless of what we do to the environment in which the project unfolds.  This I can hardly bear, and I am very often reduced to tears, tears of grief and tears of awareness of the profound limitations we humans face, both those our facticity entails, and those our rampant egos have imposed on us and on our sublimely beautiful planet.  We trust in every and any solution any charlatan with a perfection project of his own offers as long as he is culturally appropriate to our moment and class and offers a plan other than one grounded in Love and trod in justice.

I have been, like all human beings, thus torn.  I like my charlatans , don’t think for a minute I don’t.

But they are not so active in the wilderness.

In the wilderness, intuition is again become my essential guide.  When I was a young man just starting my purpose-filled life in the Bay Area, there was a quote in Herb Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle by Bill Ball, the long time and deeply admired director of the American Conservatory Theatre.  Ball said:  I have come to trust my intuition at all times, in every situation, with every person I meet.   I knew Ball’s assertion to be true, but was yet incapable of holding the width and breadth of that truth.  And yet, in a email missive the Franciscan author Richard Rohr sent out this very week, he reminds me: the best thing I can possibly do… is to help people to recognize and trust their own deeper and even deepest spiritual intuitions.

When I was a boy, living in a family-as-village of ten, I knew many things, certain things, unspoken things, denied things.  And I knew that I knew them, though I could not explain to anyone how that was or could be so.  But that which I knew I did not doubt.  What I knew did not jive with what one might call the real order of things, the way things were explained, or parsed, or enunciated.  The adults were not letting me know they too knew these things, if in fact they did, though that did not deter me from receiving that which I came to know.  What I knew had nothing to do with the perfection project, but, like for the children in Pan’s Labyrinth, offered a richer understanding of life.

This deep dynamic within never left me, though I constantly downplayed its import and unshakeable presence.  I gave over significant parts of myself to others, to institutions and persons who did not merit the giving.  Not because they were bad or ill-intentioned, though sometimes they might have been.  No, because those givings-over were not corresponded to by this deep sense I have always had.  The results have been predictably counter-productive.   And have led me to the wilderness.

The wilderness is map and chart and path void.  Hence, wilderness.

But the profound grief I first encountered, so unnerving for so many months I did not know how to make it through, has given way to an immensity of space, not fecund, but neither barren.  And in the wilderness there are days of full sun and nights of moonlight.

The Italian Jungian analyst Aldo Carotenuto grapples with the lack of correspondence between a person’s inner and outer states, which is the essence of that with which I grapple today.  In a stirring passage from The Vertical Labyrinth, he suggests that a person’s inability to demonstrate their own value and richness, wherein creativity… flourishes, lies in a fundamental and structural fear of other people’s envy. To be creative, to carry the world forward by one’s thought or by one’s works, means to risk drawing down hatred on oneself, and only someone capable of withstanding it is able to say the right words… What prevents us from discovering ourselves and from expressing our truth is always the fear of losing other people’s love.

I came upon this passage early this summer.  It glistened on the page.  It is what I hear daily, in very different constructs, from the clients with whom I work, whom I have grown to love.  It is what in my own life and in the lives of those in my life, often friends, extended family, the dying, those in prison, the young, those cast out of the formal structures of society.  This is at the heart of the human dilemma:  To become ourselves, our human project, to abandon the perfections and projects the world sets out for us, to go beyond all those who threaten to withdraw love in the myriad and skillful ways that occurs, most subliminally, that keep us from the kind of freedom the wisest spiritual guides have spoken, the freedom from the false self.  It is what the whole of the life of Jesus bespoke.  You must risk everything.  You must go deep inside.  You must trust the deepest knowing you have.  Even when it appears to have vanished, even when it leaves you bereft, even when it leaves you alone.

The wilderness is an alone place.  Is necessarily so.  Its purposes, there’s that word again, are singular.  That we might become ourselves regardless of cost.  Irregardless of cost.  Without regard to cost.

To stay in the wilderness as long as it is required of us means to know each day we have no map nor  chart nor clearly delineated path.  It means that the ones whose love we have thought we could not live without we either find out we can or that we need not fear losing.  It means that our deepest knowing, available to every human being, is sufficient as a source of our wits for today.  We are guaranteed nothing more, expect that we will beyond our recognition be grounded in Love, and invited to trod the path of justice.

Everything else, desert dust.

Sarah Palin said it first, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

In this death denying culture, these words struck media pay dirt.  In the minds of government-phobic Americans the health care reform debate morphed into to a Darth Vader moment.

Sounding dark and ominous, “death panel” temporarily cast a huge shadow over the debate.

It wasn’t long before Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)  jumped on the death panel bandwagon by telling a town hall crowd, “You have every right to fear….a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on Grandma.”

It is now well established that the death panel that would pull the plug on your grandma is one more phantom of demagogic political rhetoric. Is it too soon to say the death panel is dead?

Health care experts and politicians have convincingly made the case that there is no such provision in pending health care legislation.  In the Grand Junction town meeting President Obama spoke with passion and tenderness about his own grandmother: “I know what it’s like to watch somebody you love, who’s aging, deteriorate, and have to struggle with that.”   Let’s hope this puts the final nail in the “death panel” coffin.

Most of us can identify with Barack Obama’s story. Sooner or later we all find ourselves sitting beside the bed of a loved one who is clearly dying and suffering terribly while we feel powerless and heartbroken.

As a protestant minister, over the years I have spent many, many hours sitting with families while doctors share a dreadful prognosis, appropriate pain medications, the benefits of hospice and how to keep the loved one as comfortable and clear as possible until the moment of death.

As a matter of compassion and human dignity every American should be afforded the opportunity for end-of-life consultations when the moment presents itself.

It is also essential that every one of us complete a living will and advanced directive before our personal crisis occurs. To provide guidance for the medical professionals who care for us and our loved ones who suffer with us is how we can best express love and compassion to those who are intimately involved in our end-of-life drama.

It turns out Sarah Palin may have done us a great service. By speaking of medical consultation in such a draconian way she did succeed in getting our collective attention.

And sooner or later we as a people must get a grip on two fundamental truths: everything is temporary and everyone dies.

The health care reform debate is not only about how we will live together but how we will help each other die. Living and dying are not two separate realities but two sides of the same coin.

Let us hope and pray that when this health care debate comes to a vote we will finally understand that we’re all in this together.

The Chicago North Shore home where I attended a reception recently was magnificent: beautifully manicured, filled with elegant furniture and lovely art, overflowing with gracious, effervescent people. I had a warm and wonderful time.

But I knew that my way of seeing things had changed when I came home–to my condo neighborhood, where the sidewalks sprout litter, broken blinds sag at some windows, people talk to each other in Spanish, Korean, and Bosnian–and thought, “I like it better here.”

It has not always been that way. Once, I would have found the expanses of pruned shrubs and spotless windows more attractive. Now, I found them lovely but uninteresting.

The next day I waited in line at the post office with a baseball-capped thirty-year-old, a southern European with dark hair, two African-Americans, a tattooed Caucasian in flowered shorts, another in a tight tank top, and people with hair styles of all sorts: braided, twisted in a pony tail, done up in dreadlocks, piled on top, shaved. Again I thought: I love it! These are my people.

What has happened to me?

On one level, I’ve become a city man, in love with the diversity of America’s third largest urban area: the restaurants, the languages (half a dozen, I suppose, on my own street), the religions, the ethnic festivals, the theater.

But something else is going on. Over the last several years, I have begun embracing in new ways the reality that all of us–all of us!–are one: that, as Bob Thompson said in a recent article, “Spiritual love is the intuitive knowledge that One Life lives in all. . . . We are all sharing One Holy Life.” And that has given me a new appreciation of the world’s variety.

For years, I have worried about the hate-inducing triumphalism that proclaims one faith (or nation) right and others wrong (or inferior). I even told myself I would give my retirement to fighting that idea, symbolized so chillingly by the children’s chorus with which I grew up: “One door and only one, and yet the sides are two. I’m on the inside; on which side are you?”

But I often make connections slowly. Only in the last couple of years have I begun to grasp the fundamental truth that the only way to transcend pride and triumphalism is to understand that the core of the divine resides in our oneness. That God really does reside in every being: the holiness preacher, the beer guzzling golfer, the waiter whose English I can’t understand, the librarian whose eloquence I admire.

As that truth has begun to saturate my consciousness, I have come even to read the Bible in new ways. Everywhere, I see the proclamation of oneness.

“Where can I flee from thy presence? If I climb up to heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in Hell, again I find thee.” (Psalms 139:7-8)

God, “the universal giver of life and breath and all else, . . . created every race of one stock.” (Acts 17:25-26)

“There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Then there is that radical assortment of scriptures about love. “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) “God is love; the one who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in that one.” (I John 4:16)

Yes, I know that there is another strand of scriptures, setting sibling against sibling and promising a sword. I learned those passages well in my youth. But the longer I live, the more I am convinced that they stand on the biblical edges. Look at the core of Judaeo-Christian teaching and you find the God of connectedness, the God who is love and nothing else.

This the God of West Ridge’s crumbling brick facades and the North Shore’s stately mansions, the God of dreadlocks and stylish cuts, the God of tattoos and hajibs, the God of thunderstorms and sunrises, of drought and plenty, of followers and rebels.

And when I think that all of those are a part of me–and I a part of them–I stand in dread, in awe, and in joy. I also feel embraced. And I laugh.

Expressing regret for the prickly comment that Sgt. James Crowley had behaved stupidly in his rough treatment of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, the president has now admitted that his off-the-cuff remark was a mistake.

“I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,” the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. “I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.”

Following his first public statement on the Gates story, media outlets erupted with responses that ranged from support to hyperbolic criticism of the president.

The ever thoughtful and reflective Obama stepped back and now admits he could have handled it better. He made a mistake. After all, he wasn’t there when it happened. His original reaction was a conditioned response to a truth that has been and continues to be.   It is a fact of American history that people of color are disproportionately harassed by those who wield power.

Any empathic human being can understand that the president, reacting out of not only personal experience but the cultural context of systemic racism might overreact. Borrowing a page from Vice President Biden’s play book—Obama inserted foot in mouth.

Unlike his predecessor, Obama has the humility and grace to admit he made a mistake.  He is modeling not only how to have integrity as a leader, but also as an authentic human being. He freely admitted that his words contributed to ratcheting up the controversy.

His admission that, like Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates, he too overreacted would have been sufficient to quell the storm. But for this president, it’s not enough to repent and move on. This president seems to know you cannot move on until you have cleaned up the mess.

Conflict is the drama of division. In this story, Crowley and the Cambridge police represent one side, Gates and people of color, the other. By his initial response, the president’s choice of words indicated that he was taking sides. He weighed in on one side of the conflict only to exacerbate it.

Stepping back from his comments Obama listened to other voices–without and within. Stepping back, he gathered more information. Stepping back, he reexamined the situation and realized that this particular situation was such a charged moment that perhaps Sgt. Crowley wasn’t behaving “stupidly” but he was overreacting as did professor Gates. And like the central characters in this story, Obama also realized he got sucked into the drama.   It is all very human and very understandable.

Take sides. Who is right, who is wrong? Draw the line.

But as the dustup settles one sees that the best way to resolve and transform a conflict is by acknowledging that everyone has a perspective—in every conflict there are two sides. More than not resolution and transformation of the clash requires that someone step in and represent the third side.

By doing more than admitting his mistake, President Obama took the third side when he invited Sgt. Crowley and Professor Gates to come together for a meeting.  What was originally an obstacle now becomes a brilliant opportunity for conflict transformation.

The author of the book, The Third Side, Bill Ury, has extensive experience in creative non-violent conflict resolution. Ury says that all forms of violence are comparable to a virus. Like a virus, violence lies sleeping, spreads throughout body of a culture and attacks suddenly–unless we have built up the social immune system against it. 

The best way to deal with violence is to prevent it. Violence flourishes when the social immune system is weak.

Finally, a president who understands what it takes to build up our immune system to forces of destructive conflict and violence.  Bring people together.

Last week, I completed a writing project on Japan’s experience with imperialism, just two hours before the deadline. Finished, I felt exhilarated. Free!

The writing itself, by contrast, had depressed me. I love my country; trying to explain the way Americans in the mid-1800s forced a weak nation to sign treaties that we knew to be “unfair,” left me sad when I wasn’t angry. I also love Japan; trying to understand why it turned imperialist, then warlike, in response to those Western pressures also left me sad. And angry.

Why? I asked again and again. What leads a nation, a good people, to abuse another? What caused the Japanese to keep seeking more territory in the early twentieth century, then to make those cursed decisions that led to Pearl Harbor . . . then to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I offered all of the standard answers in my manuscript. Pushed into empire-building by the Western threat, the Japanese couldn’t change their imperialist habit. The Great Depression caused Japan to turn from internationalism to a self-obsessed go-it-alone policy in the early 1930s. Militarists and nationalists took the initiative away from democrats and internationalists in the troubled Depression milieu.

All of those answers contain a great deal of truth. At the same time, I have become convinced that there was another, very theological, very human explanation. Simple as it sounds, Japan’s descent into aggression was fueled in fundamental ways by an inability to understand that all peoples are one.

When we see ourselves as separate, isolated, superior–anything less than connected to every other being–it is a short step to hurtful and dehumanizing behaviors. When we see other people (or peoples) as Other, when we cannot see that they are connnected to us, it is easy to treat them differently from the way we treat ourselves, or want to be treated.

When Westerners sent their gunboats to Japan in the 1850s, they regarded the East Asians as different: pagan, uncivilized, backward. They knew almost nothing about them; what knowledge they did have was often inaccurate. But in their hearts they knew the Japanese to be of another kind–which made it easy, even rational, to treat them unjustly.

When the Japanese moved into Korea and China in the 1900s, they did the same thing. They saw the Koreans and Chinese as different: uncivilized, primitive. They knew more about them than the Americans had known about Japan, but their conviction that continental Asians were Other made it easy to talk about bringing “civilization to the benighted” even while treating them as objects rather than as sisters and brothers.

The mystics and spiritual giants have had no more radical insight than their understanding that all beings are one. The Dao De Jing says of a sage: “The more he does for others, the more he has himself.” Of course: the sage is connected to others; something done for another is done for (and to) one’s self.

Thomas Merton said the same thing when he argued that we all are one; we only have a misapprehension that we are not.

If an Israeli does not understand that she is one with her Palestinian neighbor, how easy it is to treat that neighbor as if she did not exist, or to take away her right to live a fully human existence. If a Palestinian is blind to his oneness with the Jewish settler nearby, lobbing a bomb makes sense.

An American who regards a Taliban activist as Other (the label matters little: extremist, terrorist, fanatic) has little trouble justifying a heartless curse or a nasty attack on an Afghani village. Nor will the Al Qaeda suicide bomber think twice before killing the American Others who dominate her nightmares and day-visions.

Take away Merton’s understanding that we are one, and the decisions become easier. Ask myself, on the other hand, how my actions will affect me (because the Israeli, the Palestinian, and the Taliban activists are me) and the decisions become much more difficult. They also become more humane.

Japan’s prime minister Tojo Hideki reportedly told a reporter in 1948, as he awaited execution for war crimes, that nations think of themselves as fighting for “justice and self-preservation,” but actually war “stems from human greed”–from gaining an advantage for myself over the Other. When the reporter asked if he had thought that way while he was prime minister, he said no, he had realized it only after the war, while sitting in jail.

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