Saturday, May 30, 2009

Conspicuous consumer

I think I need to start my postings with an appropriate spiritual verse to center my thoughts properly. So I need to stop here until I find one that's appropriate. Oh yes! I remember now what verse has been going through my head today.

Today's centering verse: "Give us this day our daily bread." Matthew 6:11

It is so ironic that I was waxing rhapsodic about living with less. We used our clothes line last weekend, and I was thrilled! We disconnected our cable TV; I feel empowered. We had way too many cucumbers from the garden and gave a bunch to our neighbors. Free, abundant food that we grew!

Now, just today, we have decided to go on a cruise. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Where does that fit in to this "less is more" lifestyle?? All I can say is that when someone has a major, unplanned career change, life gets topsy-turvy for a while.

We are visiting the Caribbean, again, on our first cruise. (A picture of Cancun, which we visited over Thanksgiving, is posted below.) I know many people who have taken cruises, most notably to Alaska, and I've always thought, "Wow, that sounds so incredibly fun!" So why am I feeling guilty now that we are the ones going?

Maybe it's because I was just talking with Karen about how Americans are such conspicuous consumers of everything. We have the biggest houses and cars and are the biggest meat eaters, the biggest around the waist, and the major energy hogs of the world. God only help us if the rest of the world becomes more like us, as seems to be happening. I hope as we recover from this global recession (caused primarily by Americans stopping their spending) that we become a bit more prudent and learn to conserve our resources and money.

I just read in National Geographic about the billions of people who are suffering on this planet, and the unbelievable fact that so many people are starving. Remember the Malthusian Doctrine (maybe you need a reminder too): population grows geometrically, while food grows arithmetically, so unchecked population growth will far exceed the supply of food. Of course, this seems so silly. If everyone just had a small garden, it seems obvious that there would be plenty of food to go around. And if everyone had enough water (no droughts or deserts) and fertilizer, and there was world peace so the gardens could be tended and not destroyed, or the people driven away from them ... so maybe it's not quite that simple.

We had a travel agent helping us book this cruise, and she kept talking about all the food on the cruise ship. Of course, that's one of the big draws: free food, 24 hours a day. If you've ever experienced this kind of vacation, perhaps you remember how sickening food can be after a while if you overindulge. And it's so hard to practice moderation when surrounded by immoderate quantities. Humans don't need unlimited amounts of food. In fact, it's terrible for our bodies and souls. So why is this such a huge perk for many vacationers?

It does not add up: cruise ships offering obscene amounts of food while people in Africa and elsewhere don't even get enough protein and fat to nurse their children.

Can I enjoy this vacation or will I be too busy flagellating myself for even daring to go? Don't worry, I will somehow manage a way to have fun! But this guilt is telling me something, and I will not ignore it.

Are all my posts going to be big downers? I guess they will be if they need to be! I want the kingdom of heaven to be realized on earth, now -- and it sure ain't here yet.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Running

I did a "long run" this morning -- for me that means over 3 miles, not really long at all! I have to admit that I am such a wimp when it comes to feeling pain. I hate feeling discomfort/pain, and I have to talk myself through it. For real runners out there, I know it's hard to imagine needing much prodding to get through 40 minutes; but for newbies, it's how you get through the initial training at all.

This morning was just another hot, humid day in South Texas. I didn't get started till after 8:30, a late start even for me. The route I use at home has a hill at the end, which I really don't mind. It concentrates my mind and I have a real enemy to focus on -- the hill -- instead of vague complaints coming from various parts of my body.

So the hard part today was getting to the halfway point and back to the hill, pictured at left (that's me and my son Andrew). The hill doesn't look as impressive as it feels!

At that point I'm almost home, so I know I just have a few more minutes of running and then I can collapse if I need to. It helps that I've been training for more than a few months now, and I can honestly say, this is nothing! I know I've suffered worse on this same course!

If I don't have my music, ooh -- now that's real suffering. I make myself leave the music behind sometimes, just so I can focus on my breathing without distractions. Then I can also focus on all my aches and pains, and the feeling that I'm just about out of air, without distractions.

So why would anyone voluntarily do an activity that makes them long for the moment they can end it? Pretty much every time I'm going for more than 10 minutes, I want to stop running before I plan to, but I haven't so far. The one day I really needed to stop, I didn't. I was afraid if I ended the forward momentum of my pathetic jog, I wouldn't be able to make it home at all! And I sure didn't want to crawl home, so I somehow kept going.

Running is good practice for future suffering -- maybe if I ever need to go through chemo, or just growing old, or living with chronic pain.

Today, I thought about how my suffering is symbolic of the human struggle. Of course, that made me feel pretty great. Like Rocky! Every song on my MP3 echoed this struggle in some way: yearning for fame, to go home again, to run down the dream, or the awesome instrumentals from "Pirates of the Caribbean" that say it all with music.

We are all striving in some way, or else spending lots of time and energy (and drugs, usually) in a futile attempt to avoid the pain. I would rather face the pain of life and go through it, and know that it is as honestly gotten as the sweat on my face. Everyone who has done something worthwhile knows how it feels to hit that wall and think: this is it, I just can't go on any more. And then to get through it, to finish it anyway -- it's thrilling.

When I got in today, my face was red as a beet and a little scary-looking. But -- good news! I felt fine, after I finished rubbing my oh-so-hot body down with ice cubes. So I guess this really was a challenging run for me, and I wasn't just being my usual whiny self. What runners quickly learn is that if they overtrain, they will pay the price all day long, not just during the run. But my body is adjusting to the demands I am placing on it. I'm not worn out, not running to the bathroom (much), and not too achy either.

I have often had a fantasy of going somewhere in the world to do mission work -- someplace with desperate poverty, disease, lack of clean running water, you name it -- but if I ever did, I think I would be immediately felled by some tropical disease or dehydration. I would be so cranky as to be completely useless, because my body is accustomed to being so pampered. Five squares a day, lots of water, and don't you dare forget the caffeine!

I really know so little about human suffering. (Remind me I said that on my next run.)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Living without

We have become accustomed to having so much, and it's ruining us spiritually and physically. No more hunting and gathering, no more hard work just to earn the basic necessities of life.

I don't think we want to go back to the past, though! Barefoot and pregnant, diseased and bug-ridden ... no thanks. But our modern disease is that there a disconnect between what we do every day and what we need to live. What does watching "American Idol" have to do with a meaningful life? (I don't watch it, but many people do.)

Some people are catching on and reconnecting with the natural world, the source of life, in meaningful ways. Local and organic is how everyone on the planet used to eat. That's why the best nutrition advice may be to eat what your grandparents, or their grandparents, ate. But don't eat as much or indulge in full-fat dairy, because you aren't spending your days at hard labor on the farm!

My family is becoming more aware of how to live without some of the luxuries that clutter our lives. The economic downturn has affected us, as it has so many. Could this be an opportunity in disguise?

We just disconnected cable TV, which was connected when Dwaine's mom was living with us. We have a garden that we are eating from daily (even if it's just a salad pepper! Hey, it counts). We are going to buy a couple of clotheslines; my vote is for retractable. I'm not to the stage where I will gladly hang every sock outdoors to dry, but the sheets and towels are just fine. Our vehicles have well over 100k miles on them (well, that's nothing new). I am actually stocking up on groceries when they are on sale.

I know these are baby steps compared to people who already are living more in harmony with the environment, and much more frugally than us, but they are still progress. I am fortunate to know people in our community who live at the poverty level; they are not always easy to spot. They wear the same clothes until they're worn out; they eat simple and inexpensive foods, which usually means plant-based. They don't go out to events that cost money, because they have none.

My friend whose husband cannot find work will get a store-bought cake for her daughter if she meets her goals at school. Her daughter is very excited about the prospect.

My son, on the other hand, was distraught that he might not be able to buy the latest electronic gadget. I did not intend to raise him this way, but he has never had to go without, even for a day in his life.

Blessed are the poor; but I am not ready to have that kind of blessing in my life.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day!

Here are the cards my boys got me.

"Strangely enough, I turned out pretty normal."

Inside: "I think you're to blame."

I told Austin it's too soon to know if he'll really turn out normal or not.

The other one, with a smirking bear drawing on the front:

"Mom, you've always given me good and sensible advice!"

Inside: "And believe me, one of these days I'm gonna use it!"

As Dwaine & I laughed, and laughed, Andrew said, "I didn't know it was a funny card!" (The kids picked their own cards out. And, they tell me, paid for them too. Miracle of miracles!)

Though it will probably not be obvious here, I do have a sense of humor! My kids make me laugh all the time. Good thing, because it helps make up for the times they make me cry. (starting with their birth ...)

As a family, we have laughed to the cartoons of Calvin & Hobbes, the Far Side, and Dilbert. Now I want to introduce my kids to Monty Python and Abbott and Costello.

This morning, I was generating a self-created bad mood. For moody or possibly bipolar people everywhere, here's how it happens. Some really minor event sets off a chain reaction that causes the brain to spiral down into increasingly negative thoughts, and soon I've fallen into a bad mood entirely of my own creation. This has taken me years and years for me to realize, by the way. Often these moods seem so real, and I really think someone has done something offensive to me.

What helps is to find out what the REAL reason might be for the mood. (Assuming it's not a chemical imbalance.) Today, it finally dawned on me -- I'm a little slow -- that it was because it's Mother's Day! My mother has been dead for 10 years this year, and every Mother's Day I ache for her. It actually feels longer since I had Mom in my life, it's so far away.

As soon as I became aware of that genuine pain, the fake stuff left me and I was free to enjoy my day if I wanted to. Thank God for Pastor Janet, who was able to joke about her children not even sending her a Mother's Day card yet! The children of one parishioner made Pastor Janet a lovely card, and after proudly displaying it, she said dryly, "This is the only card I've received today." She will say something, then go into her trademark, "ha, ha, ha!" so you know she's joking. She was talking about Mother's Day and using a musical card to demonstrate the theme song of mothers everywhere -- Here comes the cavalry (I think). She said, "and here I have to use this card that I got LAST YEAR... plus, I have to work today!" The congregation got a kick out of that.

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Christianity and sacrifice

Something that has always bothered me about Christianity is the emphasis on sacrifice. Looking at the life of Christ -- a life we are called to emulate -- it seems like he just didn't have much fun while he was here. He was so overloaded with the cares of the world. He was always going somewhere to escape from the crowd and pray, but it didn't seem like a joyful communion with God most of the time. Maybe it was. There seems to be a lack of joy, though, in the life of Christ.

Then at the end, Jesus became so anguished and prayed three times that "this cup pass away from me. Yet not but I will, but your will be done." We went over this scripture last night at a mini-prayer retreat at church. I don't think Jesus was so worried about the physical suffering and death. As a highly enlightened person, I am sure he was able to tune out of his body and become his spiritual self for most of it -- though not at the very end, on the cross. I thought, what was it that made him so anguished? Was it taking on all the sins and sorrows of the world? That would be plenty to be upset about. Or was he not ready to die at the young age of 33? His ministry lasted just 3 years.

I often wonder if God requires the same level of sacrifice for us as he did for his son. If so, I have not accepted that cup. There's the whole problem of human suffering -- why are so many people so heavy laden? Why do so many people live in parts of the world where violence and suffering are a way of life, where finding the most basic necessities is a huge struggle? Can this all be attributed to human sinfulness when so much suffering seems random?

Does suffering lead directly to spiritual growth? It's clear that there is no obvious or easy answer to this question. I often see a purpose that is possible with certain types of intentional suffering. Every discipline requires personal sacrifice or even pain, whether it is physical fitness, spiritual growth, raising children, or excelling in the arts or science. But this is quite different than the suffering of the innocent all around the world.

The suffering we all have to endure as part of life certainly shapes our spirits, for better or worse. Some people become so much greater because of their wounds. They can become great healers and teachers because of their own painful experience. But others become bitter or turn inward. Another mystery of life.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Here's one for Emily Dickinson

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I promised myself if I ever started a blog, that this Emily Dickinson poem would be in one of my first posts. I think it's more than coincidence that "bog" sounds so much like "blog." So here goes my blog No. 2: ribbit! ribbit!

This poem resonates with me because I have always been part of the nobody group, since childhood, and to this day I am a strong advocate for nobodies everywhere.

Dickinson's disdainful reference is to an audience (bog), not a forum for reaching it (blog). She and other great writers weren't relying on an intended audience when they were generating their best material. So no one should have to write in public view to be a good writer -- an argument against blogging. Does the act of blogging, itself, even pervert the pure act of writing because it's immediately "published"? Much like sending an e-mail has a whole different feeling of immediacy and casualness compared to writing someone a letter? It's worth a ponder.

It seems everything has a faster pace online. It's harder to sit back and reflect. There's always a goal in mind, a place to be, on the computer. I am never just rambling or randomly exploring. A fast, hurried pace is not beneficial to the writing process.

No, wait, that pace describes my whole life. Even if I were journalling in a notebook, I would have many other obligations pressing on me. That's the pace of life for the vast majority of people in most developed countries. The only place where I picked up on a much different, slower vibe was in Hawaii. They even had brochures educating tourists about the slower pace of life there, because it's under attack by people like me. I've never been good at doing nothing, I mean meditating. Or smelling the roses. Or just being! Not doing. My friend Karen tells me, we are human beings, not human doings. Really?

Back to Emily for a moment. Mirriam-Webster says a "bog" is wet, spongy ground, rich with accumulated plant material. Really, I don't mind being in the middle of all that if it allows a little creativity to ooze out. I also sense a stillness and slowly fermenting growth in a bog. It's quiet, warm, wet, growing ... back in the womb! But a bog for all its stillness is not a safe place. Danger lurks; pain is close at hand. Like life. That danger forces us to change, maybe to grow.

So, I have some questions. Can I be a blogger if I hardly ever read other people's blogs? If I think there are too many blogs out there and "everybody thinks they are a writer these days, even if most people aren't"? My friend Carol, a fellow blogger with more experience than me, reminded me that I said I'd never be out there for just anybody to read. It's so voyeuristic and typical of the false feeling of intimacy that the Internet creates for some people.

Writers never needed blogs before! But blogs are here now, and they're not going away. Just don't take any of them at face value, especially the political ones. Since I hardly ever read them, I guess I'm on thin ice here ... but I've heard enough talking heads to know that you rarely can trust anyone who has a strong opinion about anything, to provide clean facts that haven't been tailored. So don't take my word for anything! Information has exploded, but balanced "facts" about anything are becoming rare jewels and harder to find amid all the piles of manure.

This blog, for me, takes the place of a handwritten journal or diary, which I kept for years starting at the age of 8 when my mom bought me a diary. I stopped the practice of handwritten journals in adulthood, and now my handwriting is difficult to read and produce. Handwriting is becoming a lost art in our society. I much prefer typing, but I acknowledge that something of the soul of writing is sacrificed when it's no longer penned by the writer. Think of the founding fathers and the beautifully handcrafted documents they created: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and more.

I could keep a Word document with all my ramblings, but I'm here instead ... hiding out a bit, hoping not too many people find me ... at least till I've had a while to sort out what I want to say. Now I rather admire people who have a strict format to their blogs, like local Tom Bonham who writes a religious column that I format for the Wilson County News. It makes it accessible to readers. It's just so easy to ramble on, and on ...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Must write now!

I rushed to start this blog because I had that overwhelming urge to write, not just have my head explode with so many thoughts. Expect a long and rambling road! Perhaps it will sort out better if I keep it up.

I consider myself a progressive Christian, which also means that I am not fond of labels. So try to think of me instead as an independent voice.

I was wondering why people come to embrace spiritual issues or come to spiritual pivot points in their lives. My friend Karen, a huge 12-step advocate, says, why is grace given to some but not others? Jesus says, those who have ears, hear, which implies that many do not have those ears --- at least not yet. I feel I have been bountifully blessed by God, to the point that I am able to take on a few spiritual tasks outside of my immediate life and family. So many people never reach that point. I wonder why?

Is living in the United States beneficial to spiritual growth? I think the evidence indicates the opposite; it is poisonous to live in all this material abundance, where the focus is material wealth and prosperity. People forget that we live in a world of enormous need and pain. We are too insulated from it here in the states. I've had someone tell me that I lack awareness on some level because I did not grow up in poverty. Since I have no way to remedy that, I am not sure it's a valid point. Of course, I could become more like Jesus and give up all my possessions -- but that's not happening either, from where I sit today.

In the sequence of spiritual growth, people are called to LOVE first and foremost. I think that is the foundation of finding a true spiritual path. It's easy to get sidetracked every day. I have a much easier time loving people from far away than my own family, friends, and neighbors. Whenever I find myself working on a cause but distanced from a loved one, or angry about what someone did, I know I have strayed from the path once again.

Sometimes, people who consider themselves spiritually advanced comment that it is so hard for them to have friends who seem small-minded and intolerant. But of course that flies in the face of true spiritual discernment. I am not to judge that I am superior in any way to any of my fellow human beings. Oooh, it's so human to judge, though. It's so embedded in our culture.

The more enlightened a person is, the less that person should be prone to judgment. Discernment, yes -- clearly we are called to discern good from evil. But a truly enlightened person is a light shining for everyone else to follow, and that light cannot pick or choose where to shine or on whom to shine. (No, I'm not there -- so far away, but able to visualize it at least.)

All that is getting really abstract. Back to a bit of tangible reality -- I am reading "Not on our watch" about how to end genocide in Darfur and other places. I think people who are on a spiritual path need to be endlessly idealistic and never fall prey to cynicism that says, peace is not possible on this planet. Or another one I've heard: the Bible says somewhere (Revelation?) that peace will not happen on earth. Even if that were true (and isolated Bible verses rarely can stand by themselves), it is not an excuse for inaction. If everyone raised their voice against injustices like genocide, they would be exposed to the light. Evil actions wither away when exposed to the light of awareness.

Somehow, the holy spirit worked within me at a recent meeting held by my friend Susan in San Antonio. (Funny how friends can lead us to spiritual growth.) I met people from Rwanda and Darfur, and somehow it dawned on me that these are my neighbors -- just as the Samaritan who put himself in harm's way was the neighbor of the injured man (likely a Jew), as told by Jesus when asked, "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:25-37)

Darfurians do not have the power to end violence in their homeland. The United States does have the political power, worldwide. Without even sending in a single U.S. troop, our nation's leaders could end this genocide. They pressured Sudan's President al-Bashir into expelling terrorists, including bin Laden, after Sept. 11. They could now see that the warrant for his arrest is brought to fruition.

But this step forward in my own spiritual life was years in the making. Like genocide, it didn't just happen out of the blue. So if you're not there yet, don't despair! Remain open to God's work in your life. He often speaks through other people. (Use discernment to find out.) Pray continually, said the apostle Paul. It's hard to sin while praying.

Here's a funny thing. I posted this blog, then realized while I was waiting for my kids to get off the bus that it included a really hateful comment. Me, hateful?? Just goes to show -- we all have to be endlessly vigilant to remove violence and hatred from our own lives and daily words and actions. Anyhow, I edited it out and it's gone now. I will try my best to remove any hate speech disguised as free speech from my writing.

While this post does relieve my inner pressure a bit, I realize it's quite messy and disorganized. I will try to pick actual topics and stick to them in future posts.

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