Thursday, September 30, 2010

A little food for thought

I'm tired ... it's been a long week, lots of church meetings and first week at the new job! So I won't stay long.

Here's a little brain teaser from an economics podcast I just finished that was discussing work. Used to be, not that long ago, that work was considered work, and marriages were for practical reasons as much as anything else. In fact, lots of jobs were physically grinding and even dangerous in the recent past, even this past century.

Now, in the modern world, everything seems to be about Jefferson's famous words in the Declaration of Independence: "the pursuit of happiness." (Superficially, this sounds Buddhist, but I think the results from pursuing happiness can be anything but.) Work is supposed to cause deep personal happiness and fulfillment, and ditto for marriage. High expectations, indeed!

Now that we have an expectation of finding happiness and fulfillment in our work and our marriages, has that expectation caused an increase in actual happiness, or not? Or would it perhaps be better to start with a realistic view -- namely, work is work; marriage brings many conveniences with it, and is about much more than romantic love. Then the happiness could blossom on its own, without being  fruitlessly pursued as an end in itself.

I don't know, this suddenly sounds like a dull blog entry; kind of like how my mind is when I'm tired. So let me at least post a couple of pretty pictures!
Now here's a happy memory, or maybe I should say a very meaningful one -- touring the  World War II and other magnificent monuments in Washington, D.C., this summer.

Here's me in my crazy blue hat with Austin, Andrew, and Dwaine, in front of the U.S. Capitol. Dwaine is apparently wearing a mac.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The moral dilemma

Before I start my main topic, I must mention that Andrew, my ninth-grader, should be in Drama Club! He just needs some encouragement from someone besides Mother Dearest. I was barred from photographing him in his latest getup, though he did go strut his stuff at our local convenience store (to the gaping amazement of several onlookers). Perhaps his big bro got some photographic evidence to use in future blackmail schemes, but not I ... because he knew I would immediately come here, to the big wide world of cyberspace, and post them!

Here is the origin of today's discussion that follows:

The Mind & Life Institute was formed to organize a series of in-depth discussions between scientists and the Dalai Lama to inform and enlighten practitioners of both approaches to reality. I have been listening to a lengthy podcast of this particular conference linked above, called "Attention, Memory and the Mind: A Synergy of Psychological, Neuroscientific, and Contemplative Perspectives." Wordy, but don't be intimidated. It's fascinating stuff about how little we actually know about what we thought we knew! And how we could possibly find out more.

It seems that most, if not all cultures, when framing a moral reference, create the classic "moral dilemma" tale that goes something like this: You are on a platform, above an approaching train. Someone is standing beside you. You see that five people are unsuspectingly in the path of the oncoming train below. You don't have time to warn them or do anything but decide: Do you push this other person, who is much larger than you and would stop the train, to his/her death to save the five people below? Do you do nothing?  (When during the Mind-Life seminar, the teller had to explain that the bystander was much larger, so that you couldn't simply sacrifice yourself, it was met with uproarious laughter.)

Let's see if I can recall the Dalai Lama's version. One thousand people are on a ship in the middle of the ocean. One is a (vicious and apparently, very efficient) murderer who has decided to slaughter every other person on the ship. (Parenthetical addition mine) There is nowhere for anyone to escape. Do you, having knowledge of the planned massacre, kill the murderer to save the other 999 people? Or not?

The Dalai Lama explained it like this: If you kill the one, to save the many, you create a much smaller negative karma than the one killing the 999. But, he stressed, you must have a pure heart and compassionate intentions, and then nearly anything is permissable. (This is reminiscent to me of Paul's teaching that what is sin to one is not to another.)

Of course, logic begs to differ with this conclusion. Think about the premises of each tale more thoroughly. How does the person who must make a choice possess omniscience with regard to future events? Life is uncertain. It's impossible to predict with certainty what will happen in the next moment, much less a series of events that will lead to a particular outcome. That's the main reason I believe we are barred from "playing God."

Only the most wise and knowledgeable person should dare to harm another in the name of the greater good. Not me! Additionally, I don't believe there are any examples of a holy person doing something wicked for the purpose of helping many more others. So, I believe this fable, though compelling, relies on a false premise (perfect foreknowledge) that could not occur in real life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where is God?

"In what activities do you notice the presence of God?" I am paraphrasing a question asked by our new pastor at a recent house meeting. I think he specifically referenced activities at church.

This meeting was not held in someone's home but in the pastor's office, as a convenience, with childcare so that those with younger children could attend. The pastor is ambitious, wanting every person in the church to participate in these house meetings.

Our younger son went along at our insistence, but he was equally insistent -- adamant -- that he shouldn't be there, and he acted the part of the sulky teenager throughout. (Don't tell him I said that. I tremble even writing it here.) So he proved himself right.

Austin was home sick, an illness that dragged on throughout last week until I finally took him in Friday and got him on antibiotics. Not surprisingly, Andrew woke up with a sore throat this morning. Austin thinks it's psychosomatic, though. If big brother is sick, I must be too. So I sent him out to mow and weedeat with his brother. That will test his theory that he's sick, I guess! (Austin toughed it out every day at school, with killer weightroom sessions, followed by long hours of band practice, some in the pouring rain, till he spiked a fever -- again -- Thursday night after feeling sick the previous weekend.)

I'm sipping on some tea that advertises, "calma la garganta irritada," right now. With me, it's hard to know if it's a real sore throat or just the usual reflux.

Anyhow, the pastor kept asking, kept asking. It almost feels like when you are in a classroom, and many people have given an answer, but the teacher keeps asking the same question and you realize you're all wrong. Though that wasn't it, really. The pastor did have a secret purpose, which I think I understand, and I bow to my reader to divine what that was.

You know me, I could have filled the empty space with reams of answers, but I didn't think that would be appropriate. I was listening to hear what would be said. In fact, not too much. I said, "VBS!" That's where I really see God working in the lives of others and especially in children, and that is very exciting.

But where do I notice God's presence? Where? The more interesting question might be, where do I/we as humanity not take notice of God's presence, because those are the areas and places that need more work.

God permeates all existence, he is continously streaming and flowing through every aspect of daily life, and once someone's eyes are opened to the brilliance of this work, it makes every day so amazing and miraculous. I say this as a Buddhist, not just as a Christian.* It's like the Bible verse: Pray continually. Be in a prayerful/meditative/mindful attitude at all times, because that is where you can gladly lose track of yourself, your petty worries and your tiny life with all its miniscule problems, and touch eternity.

The awakened life is precious, indeed! It requires a lot of work, and mindfulness, to be in that awakened state. It is an ongoing practice. There are numerous distractions, and the excitable mind (any mind, actually) will latch onto all of them. I say "excitable" because that describes my mind so well.

*Note: Sorry if it is beyond human understanding that I could be both Buddhist and Christian, because it truly blows my mind too. If I had more time to observe the world's religions, I would probably be an "everything." I embrace the many ways that people find to worship and pray. I find them deeply meaningful and important. If a religious practice includes compassion, devotion, and reverence, count me in.

I finally remembered how to download pictures from our "new" camera I got for Mother's Day, and downloaded the 438 pictures just now! (I had forgotten I had a cable tucked away and forgotten in a drawer.) I would say about half the pictures are of two churches in Washington, D.C., that my husband was extremely impressed by. Like this one from the National Cathedral, where a wedding was under way and we got to hear the organ:  

And this one from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hijacking grace

I am wondering why mainstream Christian churches have hijacked the notion of grace and disallowed its accessibility to human beings who are following a faith path but do not identify themselves as Christian. The church has restricted access to grace to those asserting that they are Christians. Is this an instinct for self-preservation? Is this what Jesus intended?

I believe that part of the decline of church attendance is that it has become unappealing for those of differing views, and difficult for people with broad world views. Too many churches are an exclusive club, emphasizing who is excluded from "salvation" and "grace," and I don't think that is what Jesus intended or envisioned. He reached out to people who had been left behind and stigmatized by mainstream society. The problem is that there were no Christians at the time of Christ -- zero, zilch, nada. So which people of those that Jesus encountered would be most like modern-day Christians? Would it be the apostles, or the Pharisees? There aren't a lot of choices.

Maybe a better question is, what group do modern-day Christians emulate, Jesus's apostles, or the Pharisees?

Please re-read the parable of the sheep and the goats if you are a practicing Christian. "When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink, Lord? Or when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" The King will reply, "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me." (Matthew 25:excerpted from 37-40, NIV Adventure Bible) You mean, these saved people didn't even recognize their savior? Had they not called on him by name? Apparently not.

These people who have served the Lord with these good works are in the kingdom of heaven. I was going to say they were "granted access" but that implies a pearly-gate style security system, and the kingdom of heaven is way beyond that limitation!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Grace -- got it? Gotta have it!

I realized that this word may be misused by "Christians" who want to identify those who are so-called saved vs. those who aren't. My friend Michele sounded suspicious today when she asked me to clarify what I meant by the word grace. She is a homeschooler who is not doing so for religious reasons. When she goes to homeschooling co-ops, the assumption around here is that everyone is a devout, church-going Christian. She wanted to wear a T-shirt saying something like "Pagan Homeschooler" to put everyone on notice not to make that assumption!

Interestingly, she comes from a deep rootedness and background in Christianity. She attended seminary, along with her husband. But she cannot embrace any church right now.

Even without wearing a pagan T-shirt, she was recently found out by a preacher's wife, who casually asked where she was going to church. The wife then spent a couple of hours "evangelizing" to her. To the effect: I'm saved, and you're not! Don't you feel terrible about that? You need to profess your faith in Jesus to save your eternal soul! (These aren't the specific words used, but the sentiment.) Gee whiz, makes me want to go sign up to join the loons so I can go into the world and judge others too!

It's amazing how Good News gets perverted into "Good News for me, Bad News for you!" by so many so-called Christians out there.

So, my concept of grace ... It's the connection that people have to something higher than themselves, the awareness of their deep interdependence on other life here on earth, and their responsibility to that life. It's the knowledge that we are not alone; that our lives have purpose; and that we are here to accomplish good and improve the world. This connection to a higher power enables people to overcome great adversity, not through each one's own strength but by connecting to that larger source of energy that runs through each person, but belongs to none.

I'm trying to use the broadest language here to include people of many religious backgrounds and faiths, or people who do not share the language of a particular religion.

Many people have not accepted grace, a gift freely given, but one that must be earnestly desired and sought out, and recognized as even being possible. Not all people will let themselves off the hook enough to accept grace. It takes effort to accept grace and all its radical implications. It requires letting go of some part of egocentrism and past mistakes, and a willingness to become a new creation. Sorta continuous self-improvement. Making oneself a new wineskin, to accept the new wine of Christ's teachings. Or Buddha's, or some other higher power's!!

Many people are suffering, and many people are causing suffering for themselves and others. I do believe that accepting grace is a way to transform that suffering -- to end what is unproductive, and to use what is productive to achieve positive changes. Somehow, it doesn't seem like suffering when there is a purpose. It becomes something like childbirth. There is still labor, and it can hurt (a whole lot). But there is a goal in mind, and it is glorious and more than worth the temporary discomfort.

I, personally, have been transformed through grace. I have been able to release many burdens to God and really let go of things that would otherwise cause me long-lasting anger, resentment, frustration, etc. God, I thank you so much that you show me a better path, a higher way to live that allows me to leave behind concerns that are not important.

I see grace most in my relationships with others. How I can personally dislike someone, but yet realize that I am called to love them, and act on that knowledge!

How I can let go of my clinging to my children, for the most part, and understand that this teenage time will pass. Every day will hold endless new revelations, but our bond is strong and, I believe, everlasting. Nothing -- not angels, not demons, not principalities, .... -- will separate my children from my love! This echoes the Bible verse that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus. There they are, my darlings! (Back in the spring. I asked them to pose for a lovely picture with the bluebonnets, and they did.)

How I can love my husband anew, every single day, even if he does not always act in a way that I would like or prefer! I'm trying to recall where we took this picture. Rack Room, a shoe store! We were trying out the new camera.

How opportunities arise, and situations present themselves, so that my prayers for discernment and to do God's will are indeed answered. Not in the way I expected. Not always in the way I wanted, either! I am sometimes quite a reluctant servant.

Maybe most importantly ... Grace allows me to shine my light before the world with less fear, and more understanding of who I am, and whose I am. Hopefully, I encourage others to do the same.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

New life! And an ode to Hair

My life is blossoming in many directions right now. I am starting a new full-time job in San Antonio soon that will really challenge my mind and give me opportunities to grow in my profession! The "agape letters" I referred to a number of posts back were letters of recommendation from supervisors who were all also friends.

I am posting excerpts here from an e-mail communication I had with a new friend, someone who reached out to me about my postings here. Thank you, God, for friends! I would post her replies, but I don't know if she would want that.

A Conversation with a Friend

"I enjoyed our meeting and I can never have too many thoughtful and thought-provoking friends to share experiences with. I feel I have only a precious few people who accept me as I am, and can offer feedback without being judgmental!

I think it’s quite common these days to grow up outside the church. Perhaps living in South Texas, it seems different, but I would say my kids, who are faithful church-goers, are an exception, particularly in the public school setting. I guess many of the other deeply religious people are home-schooling!

I don’t remember feeling left out of religion, growing up. We live in a pretty secular society, and the separation of church and state does help protect children of different backgrounds from being judged in that way. I always was drawn to God and curious about him/her, and mad at him/her quite often. So I never was really an atheist because I always had a running commentary with God from a young age, and was always wondering why this divine, all-powerful creator had allowed so much violence and evil to happen. And sadness and despair.

I’m not sure why some people have such a strong – instinctive – sense of God, and others do not. And why me, of all people, with relatively unbelieving parents? I don’t know.

On the sin issue, I see my own sin ever more clearly as I grow spiritually. I don’t think we are complete in ourselves, and capable of becoming outward-focused, without an awareness of something much larger than our own little existence. I still believe in sin, and evil is undeniably real. I also believe in an evil power that opposes God, not just random evil but an organizer behind the scenes, in some sense. Evil is quite powerful, though not as powerful as being bathed in the light of creation and love. It’s a mistake to underestimate it. It can be quite draining, when encountered in the personality of other people. I’m sure you have met those people who cause chaos, drama, and conflict to swirl around them. It’s rather exhausting to figure out how to resist it. We have some people like that at our church right now, and it has caused a lot of strife and division.

I do enjoy talking about and exploring many aspects of spirituality, and I would welcome that. I also wonder about the idea of grace. To me, this sort of means that some people get it – have grace – and some people are stuck in suffering and struggle. For example, some alcoholics can overcome their disability, and others cannot. Some people use adversity to grow stronger and wiser, and others are destroyed by it. I always long to pass along what grace I feel I have received in my life, but yet it seems almost impossible to give it to another person; just as I can’t give them the faith that I am blessed with."

That was all a combination from two separate e-mails. We are meeting again soon at The Foundry, a environmentally conscious coffeehouse near downtown San Antonio, recommended by my friend.

Hair -- the Musical; the Movie; and My Life

Yes, it's ironic that I, a person blessed with multitudes of hair myself, should adore this movie! (I never saw the musical that preceded it.) I believe that I went to see this movie in the theater when it was first released. I know I saw it with my mom. More and more, I see her influence in such a positive way throughout my entire way of being -- my thirst for knowledge, my openness to many ideas, my constant desire to pass along life lessons to my children.

So, the fact that my mom took me to see this movie when I was about 13 years old is very telling in itself.

This movie was a pivot point for me, an absolutely life-changing experience. There was life before Hair -- not too exciting -- and life after Hair, with a brand-new sense of freedom and possibility, the radical message of peace, the pervasive sexuality, the anti-establishment humor, the wonderful music and choreography. I have carried all those gifts in my deepest being ever since.

When I sat down to watch Hair again, this time to encourage my kids to watch it, it was as though I had just seen it quite recently. (Sidebar: Usually, my specific memory of experiences and people is embarrassingly poor. My past is quite a fog in many ways. It could be an excess of mental chatter; it could be that I was protecting myself from certain emotional blows in my childhood, and the forgetfulness became such an ingrained habit that I had trouble retraining myself. It could be that it's just my ingrained personality. One of my sons is just the same. Anyhow, I am the perfect candidate in need of mindfulness of the present moment, because it's something that is quite lacking in my usual nature.)

I remembered every character from Hair in vivid detail. Most of all, the one I adored for his raw sexual power, his gentle humor, and also his strong message of peace in a violent world, "Berger" (Treat Williams). This movie was a game-changer for me.

I must, must, MUST get the Hair soundtrack. How on earth have I survived so long without it? It is right up there with Jesus Christ, Superstar -- that's the music I listened to while in labor!

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