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Monday, November 30, 2015

Imagining Sanity

Sometimes it feels like the whole world has had some kind of massive head trauma. Many if not most people seems to operate on a misguided survival instinct that spends much of its time trying to identify the other and then acting violently against anyone and everyone who resembles that other. Many if not most politicians spend their time throwing gasoline on the fire and denying things which cannot reasonably be denied, such as the existence of domestic radical Christian terrorism and terrorists. We seem to have voluntarily donned blinders which distort reality to conform to our comfort level, and our comfort level is reprehensibly low.

What is the solution? To be honest, I cannot find a solution that can be implemented quickly. As a nation we have a massive educational deficit that, with the truly lethal combination of corrupt politicians and an apathetic electorate, shows no signs of abating. When you add to that educational deficit an unprecedented level of anger, you have a perfect storm of epic and absurd proportions. It seems to be open season on Muslim Americans. The police seem to have declared open season on people of color. Radical Christians have declared open season on women and their bodies. Progressives are castigated for not responding to these transgressions forcefully enough, as if the solution were a shooting war.

As I have said before, I believe the solution will be found when every special interest group clamoring for special attention and status finds their appeals falling on deaf ears and when every group begging for special attention is met with a disinterested yawn. We simply must see that we are all inseparably interconnected and the result us that what diminishes one of us diminishes all of us. We must see that there is nothing special about being black, white, brown, yellow, red, or green - these qualities just are. What's more, there is nothing special about being Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Shinto, peacticing Indigenous Spirituality, New Age, Wicca, New Thought, Atheism, being SBNR, or anything else - these things just are. There is nothing all that wonderful about being conservative, moderate, progressive, or not giving a damn; nothing special about dwelling in a city, its suburbs, or in the country.  These things are all simply choices, none more or less valuable than the other. Until we come to see this and stop lobbying for our special interest, we will only reinforce the in group and out group divide that leads to the kind of hatred and misguided loyalty to a cause that makes someone load their rifle or strap on a suicide vest.

Maybe we really don't want peace or even safety. After all, the wisdom that we are all interconnected is more than 2500 years old and still most of us don't seem to want to hear it. The truth that radicalized religion isn't really religion at all but a perverse and violent selfishness masquerading as religion. Seeing this truth would take away the little justification we need to go to war, and it may be that rich people throughout history have loved nothing more than sending other people to die at war. At least, a long time ago, leaders led the troops into battle instead of hiding inside the White House, the halls of Congress and the Pentagon.

My position isn't popular because it speaks against the drive all of our egos provide us with to want to feel special. We need to know that we matter, and for some unknown reason we believe the only way we can be special is if we identify someone else as less than special. That's where all the trouble starts, and so it is what we will need to resolve if we want the trouble to end.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Both Responsible Handgun Owners are Out of Town

Yesterday at three in the afternoon in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, two men were shot to death outside a restaurant. In case you aren't from Wisconsin, that's pronounced muck-WAAN-ago, just as you suspected. While details of the shooting haven't become clear, one thing is certain - Mukwonago is a town of a little more than seven thousand people about thirty minutes outside of downtown Milwaukee. It's the kind of place where shooting mostly happens at animals, not people. If these men had been inside the restaurant drinking and went outside to shoot it out in some bizarre Old West fantasy, I won't be surprised.

It seems that, no matter where you live, both responsible handgun owners are out of town.

This morning I was watching some silly Halloween prank videos on Facebook when it occurred to me that you really cannot make those kind of videos today with there being a good chance you are going to come across some damn fool who, instead of running away peeing his pants to everyone's delight, will shoot you in your clown costume. You see, not only are we mad as hell, the culture has shifted to ensure that anyone who wants to can march about prepared to vent his anger on anyone who looks sideways at him - or any who he thinks is looking sideways, which may be some unsuspecting character with a wandering eye.

During my teen years, one of my favorite bands reminded us of this:

Hand guns are made for killin'
They ain't no good for nothin' else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don't we dump 'em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some ol' fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me

It seems that's a lesson we are still trying to learn. What has changed is that the number of fools has increased almost exponentially in the intervening forty years and the laws have changed, too. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, which I am not, could it be that our government has made it easier for the population to live our their John Wayne fantasy not because it is a good idea, but precisely because it is a bad idea? It seems there are few better ways to gain the support of the ignorant than to allow them to turn our streets into shooting galleries. It has the added advantage of making those who aren't ignorant so concerned for their own safety that legislation can get passed with ease to further restrict our rights and increase the presence of government security forces on our streets.  

I have written before, though it was some years ago, of the curious fact that the system of alert levels at airports that was in place from after 9/11 until it was changed in 2011 never dropped below yellow, the midpoint of a five point system. Though it has since been replaced by a two point system, the proliferation of security agencies and the promotion of "heightened awareness" by our government has lead to a population that it scared senseless. Combine anger with fear and you get people who react without thinking. Throw in economic uncertainty for good measure, and you get people with little to lose shooting it out in parking lots.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was right. Handguns are made for killing. Despite the presence of thousands of responsible gun owners, they remain largely mute. Instead of being shills for the gun industry, the NRA needs to stand up and tell people to be responsible. That's about as likely to happen as me flapping my arms and flying away later today, but it's worth mentioning. If the NRA really represented the best interests of its members, it would launch an advertising campaign encouraging people to be responsible with their weapons. I doubt that will happen, because the NRA serves the industry, not its members.

I know. If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. I don't think the two dead guys in the parking lot in Mukwonago were outlaws. The odds are that the asshat who shoots you in a road rage incident won't have a criminal record, though the guy who shot the four year old in a car did have a record. If you scare somebody in your neighborhood while wearing your clown costume tonight, you will probably be their first crime.

A few years ago I had a part time job inspecting pre-forclosure properties and vacant homes in the hood. One day I was talking to a lady who asked me if I was carrying a gun. I told her that I wasn't, and she responded by saying I was crazy because literally every house on her block had a gun inside the front door. A few weeks before, she told me, a gang member had opened fire on a house on the block and the people who were home on that end of the block all opened fire on the gang member as he ran down the street. Funny how those stories don't make the news, isn't it? I responded to her story by saying that's exactly why I didn't carry a gun - if I had to use it, I might stop the person attacking me, but probably wouldn't be able to win an all block shoot out. I felt I was safer trying to talk my way out of any situation, which is exactly what I did when someone did pull a gun on me a few months later.

I realize that anecdotal evidence isn't worth much. I also know that we seem to be decaying into a country of people only too ready to shoot one another at the slightest provocation. The odds are that your handgun is more likely to get you killed than save you, and having one brings with it a kind of foolish bravado that won't do you much good when the bullets start flying. Leave it at home. In doing so you will be a truly responsible gun owner.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

You Aren't That Important

...and neither am I.

There is a title that will encourage everybody to read this post! Nevertheless, it's true. That being said, you would never know it from how most people act and react.

Back in the day, a much less sensitive day when I was much younger, men and boys spoke about "stepping on each other's dicks." While I admit it is perhaps not the most politically correct terminology I believe it has some merit. Obviously, in order to be able to step on someone else's dick they have to expose it to you or else you have to go to a great deal of effort to gain access to it. One doesn't simply accidentally step on someone else's dick. Yet there have always been plenty of people more than willing to cast their penis upon the shores that unsuspecting beachgoers might trample it, at which point they shout "look what you did!"

Perhaps we all have some degree of tendency toward this behavior. However, it was in full view during the Pope's recent visit to the United States. When word came out that the Pope allegedly had a private audience with Kim Davis, the Kentucky woman who has achieved notoriety for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, the Internet exploded with criticism of the Pope. An article on HuffingtonPost called him "a coward" and stated that he had betrayed the gay community, that his entire visit to the United States had been rendered meaningless by what was only an alleged private audience with Kim Davis. There was no waiting for facts, there was simply immediate judgment. When the truth came out that she and her lawyer had been slipped into the back of the room that the Pope essentially passed through and that the only private audience the Pope granted during his visit to the United States was to a gay former student of his and that man's partner, there were no retractions, there were no apologies, there was simply a flurry of activity by what I call the "professional gays" in an attempt to get the rank and file even more worked up than they already were.

Interestingly, it tends not to be, at least on a visible level, the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members of the LGBT community that engages in this irresponsible behavior. I do not know the significance of that, but I would suggest that it is indeed significant. Instead of praising the Pope for an affirming audience with a gay couple that in fact actually happened, the voices continued to scream about an alleged meeting that in fact didn't happen. Am I the only one who finds that odd? I am reminded of the story from my childhood about the Boy who Cried Wolf. Perhaps enthused about a recently found public voice, the loudest voices in the gay community seem to be spending a lot of their time tossing their dick down on the sidewalk and then carrying on endlessly when it gets stepped on. Sooner or later, credibility suffers. Sooner or later, part of being a member of mainstream culture is that you lose your special status. All of the things that went into giving you the strength to protest and agitate for change have to be dropped lest you become a clanging gong that is ignored.

Of course, it is not just the gay community that needs to learn this lesson. We all need to learn it whether we have been marginalized or not. We all need to come to understand that healthy life and a healthy society are in the end built around people who can see that everyone matters while at the same time understanding that we do not get to determine the agendas or the meeting schedules of high profile officials. If we engage in all or nothing thinking, which is always fallacious, to the point where we are willing to discount the good things that others do if they do but one thing that we disagree with, we will do little more than spin our wheels in the same place, wondering why we cannot progress.

Our spiritual communities sometimes reinforce that fallacious thinking by teaching fanciful ideas and doctrines that suggest if just one of us among 7 billion people on this planet have a thought then the universe is compelled to change so that it is in accordance with our thought. That is quite simply not the way the universe works and it doesn't matter whether I like it or not. Teachings around humility are not popular because they fly in the face of our ego - the very same ego we must deconstruct to become healthy individuals. When spirituality props up that ego, suggesting that it has the power to rule the world, it does us a tremendous disservice. We would be much better served by learning that none of us are all that important, that people who are endlessly and exclusively critical while having nothing good to say about anything or anybody are eventually ignored, and that change happens when we come together and work together to make it happen.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Shocking People Awake

I have always found it curious, if not surprising, that across the platforms on which I write my most popular posts are the ones that are the most shocking or at least contain potentially shocking tags. I once wrote a Dr. Seuss style poem about Miley Cyrus that I reprint at the end of this post. I is one of the most visited posts I have ever published, and while I think it is a fine work of humor I also know that isn't why people visit it. 

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with me knows I am not a prude. I don't care if people want to see Miley's parts, even as I cannot understand why they want to do so. I write this because the I want to point out that if we want to reach contemporary people with a spiritual message a certain amount of shock is in order. Jesus did it, unless you believe that he really intended people to cut off hands and feet while gouging out eyes. Buddhist teachers have done it with great expertise, as the Zen teacher who said the Buddha was a dried shit stick - a shit stick being the precursor to toilet paper in some Asian countries. Just knowing that may stop you from complaining about the toilet paper in a public restroom! 

So for those of us inclined to follow in their footsteps, the occasional use of frank and shocking language (to some) may be just what is needed to knock down defenses and open a person to the truth of a message. Some may respond that other people will be disgusted by such language. I reply that there are hundreds of thousands of (mostly empty) houses of worship where the language of princes and kings is spoken. They have a place, while the average person does not. Contemporary spiritual teaching requires we use all of the tools at our disposal, including Miley Cyrus' Va-jay-jay.

Miley Cyrus' Va-jay-jay.

I shall not see it in the hall,
I shall not see it if you fall,
I shall not see it in a stall,
Or perched upon a wrecking ball.

I does not interest me in a tree,
It does not interest me for free,
It does not fill me heart with glee,
The prospect makes me want to flee!

I do not want it in a bus,
It does not fill my heart with lust,
Show it elsewhere if you must,
But not to me Miley Cy-rus!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Reflections on Wayne Dyer

I have waited a bit before posting my reflections on the passing of Wayne Dyer. I confess my first reaction to the outpouring of love for him on social media was that it seemed overblown. After all, I thought, he was hardly a theological genius and he mostly peddled very light weight pop spirituality. I knew that sounded unkind, if not untrue, so I waited and reflected on what Wayne Dyer's gift really was.

When Ram Dass, who I consider one of my most important teachers, has his stroke and it became clear that he needed help because he had always given his speaking fees to charity and so would have no place to live, Wayne Dyer stepped into action and used his email list to generate millions of dollars to be sure Ram Dass would always have the care he needed. Wayne didn't have to do that, he did it of his own accord. That reflects a generosity, compassion, and depth of spiritual attainment that you don't often see. I admit that when I learned of this only recently, my opinion of Wayne changed a lot and I started to wonder what else there was to learn from his teaching.

I went to YouTube and watched some Wayne Dyer videos. I was reminded of the horror that was men's shirts with epaulets. We all had them in the seventies, and Mark Anthony recently tried to revive them in his clothing line (another reason to question his judgment). As I watched the videos two thoughts kept crossing my mind. The first was that these teachings were not profound, but they were popular. Cynical critics would say that they were popular precisely because they were simple and that simple teachings attract people because they don't ask much of them. My second observation was that Wayne Dyer did quite ask a lot of people in that he asked them to take responsibility for their lives. His teachings seemed to cry out, "you are in control, you are responsible, you can change things if you want to do so." My own teaching history with its blend of psychology and spirituality resonated with this message. It might be simple, but it is foundational to creating a healthy life.

Of course, feeling the way I do about the Law of Attraction, I believe Wayne Dyer took that idea way too far. I can't help but wonder if there wasn't a shrewdness to his approach that used some pretty fluffy teachings to get in the door and impart his deeper message of personal responsibility. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but it's hard to deny that the deepest thinking of pointy-headed theologians rarely achieves much traction among the public at large. They would tell you that is because they are so much brighter than everybody else. I would argue it is because they are almost completely irrelevant because they are so out of touch with the lives of everyday people. The kind of theology done in the hallowed halls of academia, much like masturbation, is largely for the enjoyment of the people engaging in it and nobody outside of the circle jerk finds it very entertaining or interesting, save for a few voyeurs in the institutional Church.

The truth is that we need more Wayne Dyers. We need people who not only talk the talk but also walk the walk. We need people who are willing to find the issues and teachings with which everyday people connect and who can use those teachings to open us to greater truth. We need those people much more than we need people who spend their time calculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because those basic teachings help us avoid the kind of obscene perversions of spirituality we see in America today wherein freedom of religion is confused with compelling others to believe as I do. As we become more and more polarized spiritually, I can't help but wonder from where the next Wayne Dyer will come.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How to Detect a Cult

I recently came to the conclusion that a spiritual group with which I had been loosely affiliated for the last six years or so is in fact profoundly unhealthy. I believe it has many of the characteristics of a cult, which led me to write this blog post in the hopes of helping others identify unhealthy spiritual communities. Obviously, there is a large amount of ground between unhealthiness in a community and it becoming a cult. However, I believe it is a trajectory. It is probably true that most people do not set out to form a cult but rather set out to form a spiritual community and over a period of time unhealthy traits in the leader and the membership allow the group to turn into a cult. So fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

1. The healthiness of the teacher. It may seem glaringly obvious, but the teacher should be healthy. Whether or not the teacher is involved in a romantic relationship is irrelevant to the truth that the teacher should have relationships with friends and with peers. A teacher who is withdrawn and isolated or who looks to his students for friendship and emotional support is not healthy and should not be leading a spiritual community. Spiritual and religious students invest quite a bit of authority in their teachers and pastors. When the spiritual leader seeks to have their own emotional needs met by their students, in reality those needs are being met at the expense of the students. It is completely appropriate when considering membership in a spiritual community to ask with whom the teacher is involved in peer relationships, who the teacher's teacher is, and with whom they have an accountability relationship. This becomes especially important when dealing with spiritual communities that are not part of a denomination or network because it can easily be the case that not only is no one watching over the teacher but it can also be true that there is no way to rein the teacher in should he begin to display unhealthy behavior.

There is nothing about leading a spiritual community that is not a part of a larger organization that makes it impossible or even difficult to find a network of peers with whom a teacher can engage in mutually supportive relationships that also provide a means of accountability. It is important, however, to remember that just because a group calls itself an accountability network does not mean it actually functions as one. It is fair enough to ask, if a teacher belongs to such a network, whether that network has an ethics code, and to ask see a copy of that code.

2. The healthiness of the students. While every spiritual organization has a certain number of unhealthy members, it is certainly the case that a healthy spiritual organization will call its members to become more healthy and facilitate that transition in ways that are appropriate to a spiritual community. A spiritual community is not a psychotherapeutic community but a spiritual community can and should model appropriate relationships, foster independence on the part of its members, encourage healthy and independent decision-making among its membership, and encourage members to freely serve on committees which make decisions for the future of the community. A spiritual community that has a single individual overseeing both the spiritual and administrative decisions of the community is begging for trouble. A spiritual community comprised largely of dependent personalities who seek to transfer the responsibility for their spiritual journey onto a teacher is already in trouble. If a member of a spiritual community has a question about something that is happening in the community, including the content of the teachings, but does not ask their questions for fear of angering the teacher, it is a sure sign that the community is already profoundly unhealthy and at least on the cusp of becoming a cult.

3. The spiritual health of the teacher. This may seem glaringly obvious, but a spiritual teacher should be spiritually mature. It should be extremely obvious in the behavior of the teacher that they have done their spiritual work. This can be assessed in a number of ways. While the teacher should engage in appropriate leadership and decision-making practices, the teacher should not be overly concerned with what others think of them. The teacher or leader should not be overly concerned with the numeric growth of the spiritual community but rather should be concerned with the spiritual growth of the individuals already in the community. The spiritual teacher should not have behaviors which appear to be compulsive, nor should they be in active addiction. A spiritual leader who spends most of their free time engaged in one single activity is at the very least not well-rounded. A spiritual teacher with an Internet addiction, or who can't seem to leave the casino, or who can be found at the corner bar every day is probably not engaged in a healthy spiritual practice - and there is no level of spiritual achievement that exempts a spiritual teacher from engaging in spiritual practice. Even the Pope prays and the Dalai Lama meditates. Any spiritual leader that claims they have reached a level of achievement, awareness, or awakening that makes spiritual practice unnecessary is profoundly unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs.

4. The financial transparency of the spiritual community. The financial decisions of a spiritual community should be made by a committee, not by a single individual and most definitely not by the spiritual teacher. The financial records of a spiritual community must be an open book. Members need to recognize that since they would not pay their utility bill unless they received a statement first, so they should not contribute to a spiritual organization that does not provide an accounting of where the money went. As a part of this, spiritual organizations that frequently make special financial appeals due to either unforeseen circumstances or for the purposes of expansion, or (worst of all) both, do not have adequate financial oversight or adequate financial planning. If a number of members of a spiritual community, and by this I mean far less than a majority, have reservations about the financial practices of a community and cannot freely access the financial records of the community it is a very good sign that something is wrong.

5. With the exception of issues of confidentiality, there should be no secrets. Obviously the "seal of the confessional" or the counseling room must never be broken. With this one exception, there must be no secrets. Any time a spiritual leader advises the members of a community, even the lay leadership of the community, to keep something a secret there is serious dysfunction within that community. Often unhealthy leaders will assert that secrets must be kept because the common member of the community either would not be able to handle the revelation of the secret or would not be able to understand it. If we think about what this says we will realize that it asserts that the spiritual health of the students is quite poor. Since most students effectively handle the requirements of daily living including managing a household and maintaining employment, there is no good reason to believe that they are incapable of handling even difficult truths. What secrets really mean is that one or more of our first four unhealthy traits is present in the spiritual community. Transparency is an ethical requirement for a healthy community.

6. Control freaks and micromanagers have no place in the leadership of a spiritual community. In fact, a healthy spiritual teacher will encourage the independent functioning of the members of the spiritual community no matter how important the teacher claims an event or a practice might be. The rank and file members of a spiritual community should always be encouraged to assume leadership positions and other positions of responsibility. When they assume those positions they must be allowed the freedom to make whatever choices the community sees fit with the exception of choices which would be physically dangerous or emotionally abusive. Obviously, if the leadership of the community is planning an orgy for Saturday night as a fund raiser somebody must step in. Short of that, however, the truth is that human beings learn by making mistakes. Leadership of a community must be allowed to make mistakes as long as those mistakes will not do serious harm to an innocent person. If a leader insists that things always be done the way that they would do them it is a sure and certain sign that the leader is unhealthy. It is also certain that such an unhealthy leader will cause the members of the spiritual community to suffer from diminished capacity in their functioning within the community rather than grow - and a healthy spiritual community always leads its membership to a place of growth.

7. Emotional manipulation is never appropriate. It really doesn't matter who within a spiritual community engages in emotional manipulation, people are always harmed by it. Statements that begin with phrases like, "if you really cared about this community," or, "if you really cared about the spiritual teacher or pastor," are always manipulative and a sign of a less than healthy spiritual community. The job of members of a community is to ask the questions that are on their minds and in their hearts, not to assuage the feelings of the leader or membership. Healthy adults, including spiritual teachers, will have what ever reaction to circumstances within the community that they choose to have and such reactions are theirs alone to deal with. In fact, it is the job of every healthy person to deal with their own feelings, thoughts, and behavior and when people attempt to place responsibility for those three things in their lives on to others it is always unhealthy. Manipulation is essentially an attempt to make someone else responsible for my feelings, thoughts, and behavior and so is never appropriate.

8. A teacher who insists on oaths of loyalty or overly deferential treatment from the membership of his or her community always has an ego problem. Since one of the principal tasks of the spiritual life is the dismantling of the ego, such behaviors are evidence of the spiritual immaturity of the leader and must be confronted. This is one of the great dangers of some Eastern cultural practices when they are transferred to the West. Most Westerners do not have a sufficient grounding in Eastern spiritual practice or a sufficient understanding of working with a guru to engage in practices such as guru devotion. Guru devotion encourages adherents of a tradition to picture the guru is the founder of the tradition. It is roughly equivalent to the Christian notion that the priest stands "in persona Christi," meaning that the priest appearing in front of you is acting as Jesus and as God. For many people with dependency characteristics, such a dogma is a too tempting invitation to abandon our personal responsibility and attempt to lay it at the feet of the spiritual leader. This is never healthy. What's more, most Westerners rush into relationships with their guru, ignoring the advice of people from cultures where working with a guru is the norm to delay selecting a teacher for as long as possible - at least several years after beginning study with them. It is not surprising, then, that all sorts of unhealthy behavior is evident in these relationships. No qualified, competent, ethical spiritual teacher of any tradition will ever rush you into a teaching relationship with them.

9. Becoming an ordained teacher, monastic, or member of the clergy should be a process which is uniform and which involves a great deal of discernment. The policies and practices surrounding these ordinations should be written and available to all members to examine. Nobody should be rushed into a decision as significant as seeking ordination or entrance into religious life. People who make such a choice after their substantial period of discernment should be able to explain to anyone who asks what their decision means in a way that the average person can readily understand. Ordination or entrance into religious life must always involve the full and informed consent of those who choose to engage in it. There should be a period of waiting even after a person elects more formal involvement within the tradition. During that waiting, the person must have the complete freedom to elect not to continue should their discernment lead them to recognize that is the best decision for them as an individual. There should never be coercion in any aspect of religious or spiritual life.

10. People should be able to freely leave the community without sacrificing the friendships made in the community and members of a community should always have friendships with people outside the community. One of the surest hallmarks of a cult is the isolation of members from relationships with friends and family who are not members of the cult. Practices such as shunning, which is the refusal to associate with people who have left the community, are always indications of a cult. Any spiritual leader who advises discontinuing relationships with people who have left the community is leading a cult. People must always be able to freely choose to remain in the community or to leave it without any attempt at coercion or isolation.

There are of course many more characteristics of cults than those I have listed above, but these are the easiest to identify and among the most common. The said truth is that whatever spiritual progress might be gained in an unhealthy spiritual community it is more than offset the damage done within that same community. There is nothing about being isolated from friends and family that encourages or fosters growth. There is nothing about being encouraged to be less than a fully functioning, competent adult that is good for us. And there is nothing about being financially manipulated that is healthy. Sadly, most of us can probably think of an organization that has many of the above listed characteristics and many of us will have been part of one. My point in discussing this is not to disparage the people who either are or have been in such communities. I don't believe anybody woke up this morning and said, "I think I would like to find a cults to join today." If we have found ourselves in an unhealthy situation we should avoid the tendency to beat ourselves up because of it and instead direct our energy towards healing and wholeness. As we move toward healing and wholeness we may find meaning in reaching out to help those who are also leaving cults, either the one we were a part of or a different one, but the most important thing is making sure that we do not harm ourselves by moving into that healing relationship too soon. If any of you would like to contact me regarding your situation, please feel free.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Can We Get on With It Now?

This week the Supreme Court of the United States handed down what will be seen as extremely historic and transformative decisions, not the least of which was to affirm marriage for all. It is a decision that was both long overdue and which came upon us with surprising speed. When I began working for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay people in the life of the church and society almost two decades ago, I honestly did not believe that we would see marriage equality in my lifetime. Not surprisingly, the backlash on social media has been relentless. I am amazed at the fear, the confusion of opinion and fact, the misrepresentation of the Scriptures of a number of religious traditions, and the mean-spiritedness with which some people express themselves on this issue.

The truth is that gay and lesbian people are no different than heterosexual people. They want the same things. They are neither inherently evil nor universally good. I have been both profoundly supported and profoundly betrayed by members of the gay and lesbian community, especially in the Church. I could say the same thing about members of the heterosexual community, especially in the Church. There is no line that can be drawn, no universal distinction that can be made between human beings based on whom they love. If you happen, like me, to be heterosexual then the truth is if you have loved you have experienced the same feelings that any gay or lesbian person feels toward the one they love. Despite that, there is no shortage of people on social media who still describe lesbian and gay people as perverted, sinful, unnatural, and contrary to the will of God. The latter comment usually comes from people who self identify as Christians, but are that unique sort of "Christian" who identifies much more with the law of the Old Testament than the love of the New Testament. They are people for whom Jesus' distillation of the law and the prophets into the two great Commandments, to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself, seem to be more than their psyche can assimilate. Nevertheless, if one identifies as a Christian then Jesus simply must trump the Old Testament law.

The truth is that our religious beliefs should never become something we hide behind in an attempt to justify our fear, for it is fear that leads to anger, hatred, and violence. If we are afraid, then rather than hide we need to avail ourselves of our support groups including friends, family, and community resources. It is a mistake, no matter our beliefs about any subject, to surround ourselves only with people who see the world precisely as we do, who agree with us on every issue, and who will never challenge us when our thinking is unclear or muddled. There is no advantage in surrounding oneself with a support network that is nothing more than a group of yes-men and yes women, for such people really don't care about us and will stand by idly while we make fools of ourselves.

The truth is that whether we like it or not the rebel flag, which is not the Confederate battle flag by the way, is coming down; the affordable care act has once again been upheld; and all people are free to marry. The last two of these are now the law of the land. The law will not change nor will the flag go back up. People of all perspectives are now faced with the choice to continue attempting to fight a battle that has been decided and therefore cannot be won and in so doing to waste one's energy and only increase one's own frustration or to move forward, accepting that whatever our opinion might be about these changes in our culture the changes have in fact occurred. This will allow us to move toward healing, to move forward and address the other challenges that face us rather than depleting our energy with weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth over yesterday's news. Different people will be able to do this at different speeds, that is human nature. It now remains for those of us who recognize these truths to simply refuse to engage in debates about what has already been decided and in so doing save our own energy for making a difference in the world. As for me, I can do no other.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Simple Solutions to Tragedy

The tragic terrorist attack by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina has brought out of the woodwork many "experts" who seem more interested in advancing their own agenda than in finding a solution to the problems that caused this terrorist action.

To begin, we need to be clear that this was nothing more or less than a terrorist action. Had the same act been carried out by a foreign national, there would be no hesitation to classify this tragedy as a terrorist attack. We have a reluctance to describe attacks by our own citizens as terrorist attacks, yet I believe a simple enough yardstick for determining whether or not an action is a terrorist attack is to examine how it would be classified if the perpetrator was a foreign national. Clearly, if a citizen of the Middle East had killed nine people in an American church the media would be reporting a terrorist attack. We need to be just as honest when the perpetrator is an American citizen.

I have noticed that experts in various areas, learned and intelligent people all, tend to believe that there particular area of expertise was the cause of the perpetrators actions. In other words, those who work with drug abuse and recovery see the reason for Dylann Roof's attack to be his use of drugs. Experts on racism see the reason for the attacks to be his racism and white supremacist views. Mental health experts believe it was mental illness that caused his terrorist action. Other experts see their area of expertise is the critical factor. While this is all very good in that it gets the expert a chance to appear on CNN or Faux News, the truth is that human behavior is never that simple. The truth is that unless we are talking about very simple, survival based actions like getting something to eat or drink, we are most often motivated by a number of factors including our beliefs, our psychological condition, substances we may ingest, our socioeconomic situation, whether or not our basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are being met, and a host of other factors. To say that removing one of these many factors would "solve" the problem is nothing more than simplistic nonsense.

Similar faulty thinking occurs in the national debate around gun control. Those who believe that they have an unlimited, unrestricted right to whatever weapons they choose to own and use often cite the fact that there are other ways to kill people. They argue that more people are killed by other methods then are killed by guns each year. Whether or not their one "facts" are accurate is almost irrelevant. The real issue is whether or not life is precious, and if life is precious then we will want to save every life we can, not just those that are lost to the majority method of execution. It is long past time for handgun control in this country, and it matters little whether or not putting laws in place will mean that "only criminals will have guns." What matters is that having handgun control will prevent legally obtained weapons from being used in tragedies like the one at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. While it is true that other weapons could have been used in these attacks, such arguments missed the point. The point is that we need to make it as difficult as we can for unbalanced individuals to kill other people. There is no single solution which will eliminate all terrorist attacks. What we need to do is enact as many measures as we can in an interdisciplinary manner to reduce the likelihood of these tragedies.

To be sure, we also need to improve public health including mental health services for those who cannot afford them. We need to offer jobs in all parts of our country and to do so we will need to vote out of office the vast majority of our politicians who cater not to the needs of the people but rather to the needs of the corporation into their own greed so that our economy will improve. We need to improve education in all areas of our country so that our young people will be equipped to see through the simplistic arguments of hate organizations. We need to expose all of our citizens to people of other races and cultures and to provide education to increase understanding between our extremely diverse population. This is not an exhaustive list, these measures are just the start, but if we are to begin effectively we have to begin in a multidisciplinary manner. We have to move beyond the simplistic assertion that by changing just one of the many factors that are behind terrorist actions we can achieve meaningful reduction in those actions.

For that matter, our violence reduction initiatives in our cities suffer from the same simpleminded thought process. We believe that by changing just one factor we can reduce violence. In urban areas that suffer from poverty, hunger, almost no employment opportunities, substandard housing, substandard medical care, substandard education, and where the only thing that is plentiful is violence, no single measure is going to have significant impact. That doesn't mean that we should wait to initiate change until we can address all the issues, however. In our suburban areas where every Jim Bob and Bubba who is aware of his own impotence seems compelled to walk into a Walmart with a rifle strapped across his back, it isn't enough to make open carry illegal (although it is a good start), we need to address the reasons for his impotence including many of the same issues that are responsible for urban violence.

To someone mired in profound lack, a scapegoat becomes necessary. If I lack decent housing, adequate education, a living wage, a few dollars in my pocket, I will find somebody to blame and it won't matter the color of my skin or where I live. The Dylann Roofs of the world are susceptible to the appeal of hate organizations because they see no hope in the world around them. This is not to say, even for a moment, that they are not absolutely responsible for their actions. It is to say, however, that they represent a failure of our society on a colossal scale to meet the needs of its people. They are products of our greed, of our fear, of an un-realistic sense of lack among those who have more than enough, and of a failed and immoral political system. No single, simple solution is going to change that, but we need to start somewhere. Where we need to start is by asking ourselves a simple question. Do we want to live, and do we want our children and grandchildren to live, in this kind of world or do we want to make it better? And if we want to make it better then we simply cannot settle for the status quo.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Never Good Enough

The truth is that I have never been good enough for my own family, and the further truth is that implies I have missed a very low bar, indeed. Over the years I spent quite a lot of time trying to unravel why that has been the case. You might think there would be some comfort in finally reaching the place where you understand that the primary reason you have never been good enough is long standing, multi-generational dysfunction, wounding, and woundedness, but it really isn't. The reason that understanding doesn't really help is that it isn't anything tangible. It's not as if you can point to that kind of a family history as you can something physical and show the wounds encountered as if they were a broken leg or a surgical scar. Even if you could, you would be pointing at something that is pieced together with a fair amount of speculation and inductive reasoning. When you examine the family tree and see someone with a certain number of maladaptive behaviors, you can reasonably reach some conclusions about the origins of those behaviors - but you will never have anything even remotely resembling solid evidence or proof because the main players are long deceased.

An example would be successive generations of husbands who are dominated by their wives. You can conclude that somewhere up the line a husband carried a lot of shame and a wife carried a lot of anger, but in all likelihood the exact reasons have been lost to time. Since children learn to be adults from their parents, the odds are that a son born to such a relationship will be attracted to a woman who is strong and perhaps carries some anger just under the surface. He will recreate his family of origin, hoping it will work out differently, but that is roughly equivalent to following a recipe for a cake and wondering why you don't end up with a pot roast. In some ways, everything runs quite smoothly until someone dares to get healthy. The moment someone starts getting healthy the system will try to bring that person back into line with the dysfunctional family rules. If they refuse and continue to get healthy, even if only a little bit at a time, one or more members of the family will subconsciously see to it that they are ostracized, subconsciously believing that doing so will keep the family history under wraps. A story will be created that the increasing healthy person simply cannot be trusted, that it's best not to invite them to family events, and the extended family - some of them quite unwittingly - buy into the family mythos. If the increasingly healthy individual does show up at a family event, they receive the treatment one might expect a leper to receive: glances of pity and suspicion mixed with a fair amount of condescension.

Of course, along the way to getting healthy mistakes are bound to be made that provide enough "evidence" for the threatened family members to use in excluding the family member on the path to healing, and if there is one thing most dysfunctional families are very good at it is judging its members (and for that matter just about everybody and everything they encounter) harshly. Those members who are trying to get healthy may eventually realize that they need to let their family of origin go, let its members think of them whatever they will - either because they can't really do anything to change their opinions anyway or because trying to do so simply requires more energy that most people have, with no guarantee of success. This requires a fair amount of non-attachment, both to family and to results. It isn't a simple or quick solution, like taking the equivalent of a family antibiotic. It has to start somewhere and with someone, however, and the sooner the better.

Along the way we are bombarded with cultural messages about the value of family. We do well not to deny that family is in fact quite important. If it family wasn't important it couldn't inflict the damage it sometimes does. It is helpful to redefine family. however. Family has to be more than a accident of biology, just as being a parent is more than a matter of ejaculation and ovulation. As we enter this Mother's Day weekend, followed next month by Father's Day weekend, we would do well to realize that no family is perfect because all families are the product of a combination of widely varied forces. That doesn't mean we need to subject ourselves to the toxic effects of those who prefer no to move toward wholeness, however. We can simply step away, and look to the future rather than the past. We can create a new family of our own choosing where we will be accepted and loved for who we are rather than keep waiting for our biological family members to do something of which they simply are not capable. We not only don't need to feel guilty for taking care of ourselves, we can acknowledge it simply isn't appropriate. We all deserve to be happy, and it begins with self-care!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Douchebag by Any Other Name

Here's a charming little piece from the website of the United Church of Christ. A so-called daily devotional, if you will...

"In the beginning was the Word." - John 1:1
Here's a middle-aged complaint: a bumper sticker offends me. It isn't "Vehicle Insured by Smith and Wesson" (I don't like that one either, but given the forum, it probably goes without saying).
It says "COEXIST." The "C" is a crescent moon, symbolizing Islam. The "x" is the Star of David representing Judaism, and the "t" is a cross representing Christianity.
When I see the cross I see my faith in an ordered universe shot to hell. The world I thought I lived in, and the God I thought I lived with are exposed as an illusion. We live in a senseless, treacherous world. That's what the cross says.
And then I blink and I see the cross again and it says Easter; it sings God's victory over all despair, including my own. And then I blink again and I see the Word through which all that is came into being.
That's what I see when I see the cross. I don't see a consonant letter.

I assume Muslims and Jews have similarly wonderful feelings when they behold the symbols of their religions.
Of course we ought to coexist, but employing the symbols of different religions to spell out a bland appeal for tolerance does damage to the religions themselves. You can't subsume the funky particularities of different faiths into a larger whole without silencing them. I wish I could fit this onto a bumper sticker: "Stop playing with the cross. Stop assuming you can get on top of all these different religions. Quit moralizing from the sidelines. Either get in the game or get out."
Dear God, give me patience. Amen.

First of all, Matt, a bit of stylistic advice. If you can manage to string related thoughts together before the very end of your article, you might write something called a paragraph. Of course, that requires well developed thought, and that may be asking a lot. Also, the construction "consonant letter" [sic] is redundant, and presumably as a pastor you are a professional communicator. Of course, I understand that you are an angry white liberal and so may not be able to calm down long enough to write effective prose. Also, it's a good idea not to undercut your thesis in the one paragraph you do actually construct by admitting you realize the bumper sticker is about religious tolerance - something of which you demonstrate you are in very short supply - rather than syncretism and so not seeking to "do serious harm" to your religion.

All of that notwithstanding, I do have a few questions:

  1. What kind of an effete religion can be seriously harmed by a bumper sticker?
  2. The cross says we live in a senseless, treacherous world? Funny, I thought the cross was about Jesus having overcome the world...
  3. Since you assume Muslim and Jews feel the way you do but don't mention actually having checked with any real, living Muslim or Jewish people, may I assume you don't know any? Or does your bigotry and Christian Triumphalism prevent you from speaking with any?
  4. Regarding your "get in the game or get out," instruction, have you looked in the pews lately? People are getting out of your Christianity at a frightening pace. More than eighty percent of America is gone, and by 2024 projections are that ninety percent will be gone. Ironically, they didn't wait for people like you to tell them to go - they smelled you at a distance and left on their own. What's more, they don't miss you, and they don't miss either God or Jesus because - and this may come as a surprise to you - you don't have either of them tied up in your church, unable to escape.

I'm always amazed at this kind of piece, which comes out of all denominations from time to time. Do people really believe this is an effective evangelization tool? Do they expect people to say, "Holy cow, this guy with an anger problem says we need to get with the program! We'd better see where his church is and get out butts in the pews next week?" Of course they don't. This is the sort of piece that is supposed to make those who are still clinging to the insane hope that doing the same thing over and over will have different results this time feel less foolish about their choices. This is the result of denominational leadership that is too damn scared to try anything new for fear of alienating the handful of people left in the pews, even if doing something new would bring hundreds of people back into their echoing, empty sanctuaries.

One last point, Matt. You do realize that the symbol below, which admittedly uses "consonant letters" [sic], is part of the great heritage of Christianity. Should we ban it, too?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Change Happens

Change happens as a result of committed spiritual practice, and I honestly don't believe it matters what tradition you happen to practice in. A second truth is related to the first - that you don't notice the change until some time has elapsed after it has occurred. This means that it's rather pointless to keep checking for change. It may even be like the child who continues to uproot a carrot planted in the garden to check it's growth - the monitoring itself all but guarantees the desired outcome won't occur. That may be because the purpose of engaging in spiritual practice must be solely to engage in spiritual practice. Any other benefits that accrue are great, but they much be seen as incidental and not the goal of the practice.

The truth of it is that when I was younger I wasn't a very nice guy. I was filled with anger. For the most part, I pretty much repressed that anger. Every once in a while, though, it came out in full blown rage. Fortunately, I'm not much for physical confrontations and so I never got myself in legal trouble. The anger came out primarily through my mouth, and I could verbally eviscerate just about anyone with very little effort. I had to be pushed pretty hard, and I cannot remember ever directing my rage at a woman, but if you were a man who got in my face it wouldn't be long before I handed you your dignity on a platter. I'm not proud of that, and there are good reasons for that, but that doesn't make my behavior either right or admirable.

I've always been fascinated by prayer beads. It started with the traditional rosary not long after I became an Episcopalian way back in the 1980s. In the mid 1990s I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer and the prayer rope, or chotki, of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It suited me better, in that there was less to think about than in the traditional rosary and I could settle into my mantra. A few years later I discovered Buddhism and the mala used for mantra practice, and I was home. A couple of years later I met my wife, Erin, and she didn't mind that often as not I could be found with a mala in my hands. So I went blissfully along, at times practicing more than at other times and at times checking back in with earlier methods to see if I was on the right track.

One day I realized that I was not the same person I was when I met Erin. I became aware that things that would have sent me over the edge no longer did. None of this is to say that I have become perfect - far from it. It seems, though, that while I wasn't looking my practice had worked a change in me. I can't look back and pinpoint a moment that change happened, probably because change is most often gradual rather than a dramatic event that is not present one moment and then present the next. In the end, it doesn't really matter when change happens, does it? This nature of change may be why do many people become discouraged with their spiritual path - they are waiting for some kind of dramatic conversion experience, and that just isn't what happens for most people. If we make dramatic change our reason for practice, we are bound to be disappointed, then discouraged, and then stop practicing. If we believe our practice will make all of life a case of the giggles, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We need instead to let practice be practice, and let what happens along the way happen in its own good time. If we do we may just find, when we least expect it, that transformation has occurred.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Makes One a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, or Whatever?

What makes us whatever it is we claim to be spiritually? Is it our self identification alone, or a certain set of beliefs, a certain practice, or something else entirely? Realistically, between subsets - what Christians call denominations - of a particular religious tradition there isn't agreement on belief or practice. Within my Christian tradition of self-identification (i.e., the first tradition I claimed for myself as an adult), Anglicanism, a meeting in the late 19th century produced the following four items as necessary for ecumenical dialogue, known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral:
  • The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
  • The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
  • The two Sacraments — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
  • The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.
As far as that goes, I guess I could still claim my Christian heritage as part of my spiritual self-labeling as long as we don't push the definitions too much. That isn't the only formulation out there, however. Consider the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith, written as a reaction to modernism. In fact, the first formulation of American fundamentalist beliefs - the so-called Five Fundamentals - can be traced to the Niagra Bible Conference and, in 1910, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. These originate from more or less the same time in history as the Lambeth Quadrilateral:  
  • Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this
  • Virgin birth of Jesus
  • Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
  • Bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
I guess I am zero for five on that one, although I am willing to admit the historical reality of some of the miracles of Jesus. The truth is that you don't have to look too long or too hard to realize that there is no uniformity of belief across any tradition. What's more, you don't have to visit too many different worship services in any tradition to realize that there isn't much uniformity of practice, either. Whether we are looking at the Christian options of a fundamentalist mega-church, a Methodist worship service, and a Roman Catholic Mass or the Buddhist alternatives of Theravadan, Zen, and Tibetan, the primary gatherings are more than a little diverse. When we look between traditions, the diversity is even greater. So what is left? The truth is that what is left is self identification with a particular tradition.

I may only be able to claim I am a Methodist if I can show membership in a Methodist Church, but I can be a Christian (in the real sense of that term, rather than as it has been co-opted by Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Fundamentalists as if they were the only Christians in town) through self-identification alone. We can argue whether that self-identification alone constitutes a sufficient spiritual path or not, and I would say it doesn't, but that's a discussion for another time.

What, then, makes one Interspiritual? Self-identification with more that one of the great spiritual traditions makes one Interspiritual. It's not necessary to secure anyone's permission, or anyone's blessing, or even to be a member of communities in two traditions. In fact, some would find dual membership a wonderful blessing while others would feel fragmented if they had dual belonging and prefer to gather with a single group even as they identify with more than one. Perhaps more importantly, we may discover that at this point in the development of Interspirituality we may well be misunderstood and receive a lot of criticism and so a certain amount of self-confidence would serve us well. And, as with self-identification within a particular tradition, we should stress that self-identification alone does not constitute a sufficient spiritual path - but that's a discussion for another time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Hiatus from Blogging

You may, or may not, have noticed my absence from regular posting on this blog. The truth is that at the beginning of March I decided to take a break from regular posting to devote more time to spiritual practice and reading. I felt that I hadn't much left to say and that, between this blog and my shorter posts at, I was reaching to find something significant to write about. Of course, there is plenty to write about in the daily news, but that's usually not what I enjoy writing about. Even when the news is about something at least tangentially spiritual, such as gay wedding pizzas, I have to confess that I just can't get too excited about it. What is the point of writing about people stupid enough to believe that any Divine Being worthy of the name would give a rat's ass about them supplying a pizza to a gay wedding? Anyone with even a passing understanding of the Old Testament value of hospitality would realize it does not apply only to people we happen to agree with. People who can't see that but claim to be Christian or Jewish aren't worth the font wasted in writing about them.

More importantly, there are pressing issues that I am trying to resolve. I've never really tracked how often it happens, but I would guess that at least once or twice a year I come up against something trying to resolve itself in my subconscious, some issue of spirituality that has been percolating underneath the surface and now struggles to rise to consciousness. That in turn induces a fair amount of psychic discomfort within me, though in the early stages I know not why. Over the coming weeks I will be exploring those issues here, and I invite you to join me in that exploration. I will see you next week!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Evolving Beyond Sin

Call your heretic hunting friends, for I have a confession to make - but first I have a question to ask. If a belief is no longer accurate, do we have a duty to jettison it? When we learned that the sun was the center of the universe rather than the Earth, there was tremendous resistance, a herd of excommunications, and not a few executions. Luckily, none of these actions succeeded in maintaining the status quo, and eventually the truth won out. We also believed that the moon had a man in it, or was made of cheese, or had a group of aliens on it who constantly relocated to the dark side so that we could not detect them. Most of those questions were settled when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, cheese slicer in hand. No reasonable person today believes that the Earth is the center of the universe or that the moon is made of cheese - not even in the name of "Tradition."

Here's a bit of light reading from the Episcopal Church. Please note that my intent is not to criticize the Episcopal Church alone. Every Christian denomination has some version of this either in their liturgy or their doctrine. I chose this one for its colorful language.

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father ;for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That's a load to carry, isn't it? I used to say that confession four times a week as an active lay person in the Episcopal Church. Once per week I said a much less daunting version of it in contemporary language worship, but the impact was the same. At its core is the notion of sin, perhaps even the fiction of Original Sin, which says that we are born with a share of Adam's guilt as a consequence of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Never mind that all responsible scholars now acknowledge that story to be, in the best sense of the term, mythological and not historical fact. Our imaginary forebears sinned in an imaginary garden, and we carry the burden with them throughout time. Huh?

Defenders of sin tend to say that if it weren't for sin people would believe they were perfect and their egos would run amok. I contest the notion that egos are not running amok even with sin being a doctrine. Even more importantly, I dispute the notion that the only two alternatives are sin or perfection. There seems to me to be a lot of ground in between of those two extreme concepts. Most importantly of all, since sin implies that we fracture our relationship with God through that sin, I need to question whether sin offers us a satisfactory understanding of God in the 21st century or whether it offers us a projection of our own limited understanding of love onto God, recreating God in our own image for the millionth time.

Let me stipulate at the outset that we all make mistakes. We make bad choices, and our behaviors are sometimes not what we in our best moments wish they would be. Sometimes they are even evil. That's healthy guilt at work - acknowledging that we could have done better, but didn't. The notion of sin begins by saying that our behavior missed the mark, but also implies that if we rack up enough unskillful behavior - and exactly how much that might be is never specified - our very selves become unacceptable to God and we will be excluded from God's presence throughout eternity, so we best confess our "manifold sins and wickedness" compulsively. It's the carrot and the stick writ large, and it says that if you aren't perfect then ultimately you are unacceptable. What it reflects is the truth that biblical images of God much more resembles that of King or Emperor than anything close to a transcendent Deity.

The issue at the root of this discussion is whether or not we can ever be separated from God.

When I Baptize babies, I make the sign of the cross on their foreheads with holy oil and say, "You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." Apparently, immediately after that I should shout in my best Lewis Black voice, "Unless you screw it up!" In a crazy-making festival of liturgical contradiction, we alternately claim that we can never be separated from God and that we are teetering on the brink of eternal separation and damnation. If we point this out to the powers that be, their reply is likely to be that it's a mystery - but there's no mystery here at all. We have recreated God in the image of an abusive parent who is only too willing to torture people throughout eternity. It's long past time for a corrective, and I believe the corrective is to take the word sin out of our vocabulary and speak instead of mistakes, errors, unskillful behaviors and choices, and other words that make it clear that while our behavior is sometimes less than the best, our being is eternally connected to God with a bond that cannot be broken.

This is critically important because unless we know that we are safe we will never be able to address the big issues of life - the very ones that lead us to act in a less than skillful way. We aren't going to admit our struggles if we believe doing so will lead to our being shunned by the very community that we rely on for support. We need to acknowledge that what ideas like Original Sin really do is set the bar low. We can't really help ourselves, because we carry Original Sin in us. What a ready made excuse for doing whatever we choose and denying that we can do better! The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity does the same thing, only more effectively. Forget about improving yourself, it's not possible so hope to be rescued instead. What a load of nonsense!

There were times in history when these ideas served us well, but those times are long past. Abandoning them for a better, more accurate understanding of Divinity isn't being disloyal - it's the only way to truly be loyal to the reality of God. Refining our beliefs doesn't mean that we are saying that God has changed, it means that our understanding of both God and human beings has evolved - as our understanding of everything evolves over time. There will be those who insist on holding to the old view, and that's fine. We should leave them to their cavernous, life denying, empty churches, as they wonder silently and aloud where all of the people have gone. In the meantime, the rest of us can move forward into a life giving understanding of all the Great Traditions. We can do no other.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Problem of Shame

The powerful work of Brene Brown highlights the implications of shame in our lives from the perspective of our social and psychological health. Brene and I believe it also has profound implications for our spirituality, and it's the spiritual implications of shame that I would like to examine in this post. First, though, a definition that distinguishes between unhealthy shame and healthy guilt.

Suppose that we make a mistake at work. Shame says, "I am such an idiot, I can't do anything right. I can't believe I'm such a moron." On the other hand, guilt says, "wow, I really screwed that up." In other words, guilt focuses on our behavior being inadequate or in error while shame says that we ourselves, our very essence, is inadequate. The distinction should be obvious because if our behavior is lacking then we can change our behavior, but if our person is lacking we are stuck. Of course, we can try to change a person but it tends to take many years of therapy with no guarantee of effective change.

Can you see how religion in the West has added to our shame? Tying salvation, which at its heart is a question of worthiness, to our behavior blurs the distinction between guilt and shame and guess which pile it all falls into? Of course, it falls into shame because if I am not qualified for salvation, if I am damned for all eternity it means that God doesn't love me and questions of whether or not we are lovable are always questions of shame. When we hear either people or deities say, "you aren't enough, you aren't adequate, you are less than okay and so you cannot come into our little eternal club," our shame level takes off as if it had been shot out of a cannon.

Why would religion want to broker shame? Religion wants to dealing shame because there is no better way to control people's behavior than through shame. Throughout the centuries, religion has not been in the business of seeing people reach their full potential. Rather, religion has been in the thought and behavior control business and that is precisely why we see religion in decline today. It comes to us like an abusive parent saying in effect, "I know that I've beaten you every week for all these years, but I really love you and want what's best for you so want to come home?" At least many of us have managed to generate enough self-love so that offer isn't especially attractive.

Eastern religions tends to do better in that they characterize behavior as either skillful or unskillful. In this way they make an effective distinction between healthy guilt and unhealthy shame. If I can come to perceive my own errors as questions of unskillful behavior rather than as a problem with my being, I can begin to move from an unhealthy place to a healthier place. I have to confess, however, that I'm not in a place yet where I can see all behavior is falling into either skillful or unskillful categories. I must admit that I still see some behaviors as evil. When an adult molests a child, I don't believe that calling it unskillful is strong and. When a terrorist sets off a suicide bomb, I believe it goes beyond the realm of what I am comfortable calling unskillful behavior. Perhaps this struggle is the vestigal remnant of my Christian upbringing, and one day I will come to see even the most vile, despicable act is simply a matter of less than skillful behavior. It could be that such behaviors have at their root a long history of the person being shamed. Whatever the case, I'm simply not ready to say that the people who flew those planes into the twin towers at the World Trade Center were simply demonstrating unskillful behavior.

My hesitations and qualifications aside, there can be little doubt that we need to move from a culture of shame to being a culture where healthy guilt is our response to mistakes. We need to stop taking the easy way out in our parenting, refuse to use shame in rearing our children, and instead take the longer but healthier route of modifying their behavior by addressing that behavior rather than shaming their person. Our spiritual and religious institutions must also move from a culture of shame into a culture of separating a person from their behavior. We simply must stop using salvation language that tries to tell us that some of us are okay and always will be while others are not okay and never will be. This will require all of us to invest more effort into our relationships with all other people and relate to them as the equals they are, rather than some sort of inferior being that we can manipulate and bully. I believe if we do this the effect will ripple throughout our culture and offer the best majority of people the self-confidence they need to reach their full potential as the beautiful human beings they always have been!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Religions Aren't True

Religions aren't true. At their best they can point to the truth from time to time, but no religion points to the truth all the time. If that sounds blasphemous to you, it's because you have been very well conditioned by religion. You have been conditioned by religious teachings, sometimes called doctrine or dogma, which you have been required to believe upon penalty of excommunication at best or being shunned by friends and family at worst. Since human beings are social animals, these penalties are among the worst humans can experience - short of being interrogated by the CIA using methods approved by Donald Rumsfeld.

Why aren't religions true given that they are God ordained? Quite simply because no religion has every been God ordained. Every last one of them was created by human beings in response to some kind of encounter with life that led them to believe there was something much more than they could see and that was a critical part of their reality. Many of them named that thing God, but other traditions had other names. Regardless of the name chosen, they all point us toward the transcendent. Religion runs into problems because, although the transcendent is incredibly vast, religion insists that it can only be found in this one tiny corner of reality, and so cuts people off from well over ninety-nine percent of that for which they are searching. It's as if the transcendent was the entire night sky (it's actually much larger) and religion insisted it could be found only in that one tiny point of light just to the left of the big dipper.

Many hundreds of years ago, long before satellites and GPS systems, sailors navigated by the stars - and their knowledge of the stars wasn't all that great, to be quite honest. As you might imagine, being off just a tiny bit at any given point amounted to being off a whole lot after you sailed another thousand miles or so. What's more, they weren't even sure what they would encounter because not only didn't they have reliable maps of the stars they didn't even have reliable maps of the world. This explains why when Christopher Columbus set off to rape and pillage India he had to settle for raping and pillaging the Americas. No plan is perfect.

In truth, religion is a lot like Christopher Columbus - sadly, historically, including the raping and pillaging part. Religion sets out looking for God and quite often finds itself somewhere quite different and, lacking the humility to admit their error, claiming the erroneous destination is God Itself. Sometimes there is a later, although most often rather subtle, correction that everyone hopes will go unnoticed. True believers forge ahead despite all evidence to the contrary, and professional clergy of all stripes encourage that behavior while themselves knowing better, perhaps creating the cognitive dissonance that lies behind much if not most clergy burn out. But I digress.

The truth is that we all have to discover the version of the truth that makes most sense to us. That's not a statement of relativism, but rather the reality that each of us has a largely unique perspective. We may be perfectly happy attending a local church, synagogue, temple, dharma center, or mosque, but we will only remain happy if we give ourselves permission to make adjustments and revisions to the company line from time to time based upon or actual experience. We have to recognize that religion, and for that matter systems of spirituality, only points at the truth. It's up to us to do the spiritual practice and fine tuning that leads us even closer to our destination.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Some Day We'll All Be Dead

Some day we will all indeed be dead. None of us knows when or how that will happen. We probably agree with the bumper sticker that says "When I die, I want to go in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car." The truth is that we have very little control over how we die, but what we can control is how prepared we are for the moment when it arrives.

Given the many advances in medical care over the last few decades, the truth is that we are living longer and longer. The truth also is that medical care now has the ability to keep our bodies apparently alive even after our minds and our consciousness have left the body. Despite this, many medical professionals seem to lack the ability to forthrightly address end-of-life issues, including those that arise when the time comes to discontinue life support. They tend to use euphemisms and speaking directly about "quality of life," and "comfort measures." While their desire not to be abrasive or shock people may be commendable, the truth is the people who are uninitiated to the subtle language the medical community prefers to use at times like this may very well miss the point altogether. A physician can believe that she is telling the family they need to face the choice to withdraw life support while talking around the issue because, in fact, she herself has not learned to face anything beyond clinical death. She may face death clinically with great efficiency, but that is very different from coming to terms with death. And so she believes she is helping the family when in truth she's only confusing them and making it more difficult for them to understand the choices they are facing on behalf of a loved one.

You and I will die one day. The great failure of Western religion is that it runs away from this truth, and in doing so fails to prepare its constituents for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. As noted above, the medical community, with the exception of hospice and palliative care professionals, also fails to prepare its constituents and their families for the transition into whatever lies beyond this life. That's not only very sad, it's completely unacceptable. We need to examine our beliefs forthrightly and explore death long before we are confronted by it. In the East, monks and nuns meditate in cemeteries, charnel grounds, and where cremations are performed. People tend to die at home, and the families wash the bodies of their loved ones as a last gift and gesture of respect. The body is often kept in the home for visitation and the equivalent of funeral services. In the West, we attempt to sanitize death by hiding it away in nursing homes, hospitals, and funeral homes. We prepare bodies for viewing by making them up so that it appears that the deceased is only taking a nap while wearing clown makeup. While I am certainly not in favor of traumatizing anyone, I don't think that there could be a greater disparity in practice between the East and the West. I believe we do ourselves and our loved ones a tremendous disservice through our attitudes toward death and our subsequent inability to be present with them during that most important transition.

Ironically, we so fear that last transition that there is a growing movement in this country to beat death to the punch by committing suicide before death arrives naturally. That movement is based in fear and ignorance. We fear our death because we are ignorant of it and of palliative care and hospice services which allow us to die with dignity and minimal discomfort in a way that suicide never can. I am so convinced of this need for those of us in the West to come to a healthier relationship with death that I intend to make it a primary focus of my personal ministry. I intend to lead my denomination, The UAC, to a similar focus so that we might help others come to a healthier understanding of perhaps the greatest spiritual transition in our lives. Won't you join us?